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Disability and Queerness

Monday, June 6th, 2011 by

Today I had the pleasure of being part of a panel discussion at the Western Regional LGBTQIA Conference, the topic: Disabled Sexuality as Queer Sexuality. I’m often a panelist for “Are Cripples Screwed?” a panel about disability and sexuality. The subject differed a little bit from our usual theme, which is a bit more generalized. But today’s panel was refreshing. We had a lively and interested audience. We also briefly touched on kink, which was received positively. I was the only queer panelist, which meant that I had a lot to say. But I often have a lot to say, and this is a subject that interests me greatly. There is a lot of common ground shared between people with disabilities and queer folks.

When you have a disability, when you live in a world that does not accept disabled bodies as anything but broken, you invariably get marginalized or questioned. You find that the average stranger feels that they have an entitlement to know your details of your health–a very private topic for most people. We feel like we have to defend our identities as people with disabilities, or apologize for them. I have known many trans or genderqueer people who have had similar experiences–they are often questioned, sometimes aggressively, about their gender by strangers (as if it was any of their business!) Having a disability, like being queer, you find yourself having to educate people in your personal life. You find yourself having to become a spokesperson for a whole group–there is no way around it. You find yourself having to justify your identity and having to advocate for yourself, over something that is an innate and unchangeable part of who you are.

(I should add, in case it’s not clear, I am most certainly not saying that because I have a disability, that I know what it’s like to be genderqueer or trans or that I can speak with any authority on such things, merely that there are certain parallels between these situations.)

Those of us who have invisible disabilities face another challenge, which is “coming out” as disabled. Most of the time, I pass for able-bodied, just as I pass for straight. And much of the time, I reap the privileges of being able to do so. But there are times when it is problematic. For me, it happens when I’m exhausted. Say I’m having a flare-up or just a rough day, health-wise. I get on the bus and there are no seats. I could ask someone to relinquish their seat to me. Sometimes I do. But then I have to out myself. I have to tell a perfect stranger about my health and I have to deal with their questions, their stereotypes, their bullshit. It wears on you after awhile. And I always have to make the decision about when to come-out to people as disabled. How much should I tell them? Will they judge me? Will they pity me? Will they reject me as a possible romantic or sexual partner, or what is so much worse, reject my friendship, because they see me as damaged or inviable? Fortunately, this rejection does not happen often. (And if it does, I tend not much to care. I have no use for such people in my life.) I’ve gotten to the point where I speak fairly casually about my disability. I’m pretty matter-of-fact. I’ll often make jokes about it. But even after I’ve come out to people and they accept me, I still sometimes find myself having to justify why I am unable to do things.

As an aside: after the panel, a sweet young man approached me and asked me for advice on coming out as disabled. He said “How do you do it? It always feels so awkward.” He said he had had a fairly easy time coming out as trans, and enjoyed having a trans community, but still felt like an outsider in terms of his disability. He felt that in the trans community, having a mental illness was almost taboo, because there was the unspoken fear that being trans would be conflated with mental illness. (I regret that I could not give him better advice than the following: “Practice. It gets easier.”) But I thought that was interesting.

When it comes to sexuality, there is also the fact that we (meaning both queer people and people with disabilities) have sex in non-normative ways. Queer sexuality rejects the idea of heteronormative sex. While many people with disabilities do have heterosexual sex, it is often far from normative. When your body cannot function in this way, you find other ways of having sex. There is often more communication involved, and more creativity. And there is also the idea of oppression–disabled sexuality is erased in mainstream culture, as is queer sexuality, although to a lesser extent. Society assumes people with disabilities to be asexual, to not have sexual desires or needs. And so, embracing one’s sexuality and enacting it, when that sexuality is the very thing you are oppressed over, can be an extremely empowering thing. I think Margaret Cho put it very well when she said “If you are hated for who you like to fuck, you’re gonna kick up your heels and fuck.” And if you are told that you cannot fuck, or that nobody will want to fuck you, then when you do fuck, it an incredibly affirming thing.

I believe it all boils down to the idea that heteronormative society has a very specific and rigid idea of what it means to be a “normal”, sexual being. But if you somehow do not fit into that particular mold, whether it be your body functionality or gender presentation or sexual attraction, then society has no place for you. Society rejects you and brands you as hideous or wrong or just plain non-existent. And that is what makes us different.

As I have said previously, I have absolutely no use for someone who does not respect my disability as a valid part of my identity. It has caused me a lot of pain, but has nonetheless shaped who I am. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

On my way out, I noticed one of the other panels that was happening. The name of it was “Fuck the media, I love my queer body.” This idea has resonated with me for a long time. So I’ll repeat this wonderful affirmation, with a slight twist.

My body is not perfect. But it is beautiful. It is mine. And most importantly, it is the only one I’ve got. So fuck the mainstream–I love my crippled body!


2 Responses to “Disability and Queerness”

  1. […] naked eye.  But once I sit in my wheelchair, my disability becomes visible and I can no longer  “pass” for able-bodied.  When I sit in my wheelchair, the status of my disability does not change, but […]

  2. […] perspective of what we’re doing not aligning with my own is somewhat terrifying. As I always emphasize when discussing disability and sexuality, sex is mostly mental. Sex isn’t about the body- the biggest and most important sexual organ is the brain. […]

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