Getting Emotionally Naked: Notes on an Activist Voice

I just submitted a paper to Atlantis with my good friend and colleague from SF State’s Sexuality Studies graduate program Sonny on coalitional politics and embodied scholar-activist efforts to further a theory we call bodiosexual justice.

Bodiosexual justice is a neologism (= nerd sex) that is meant to convey how our trans and disabled bodies are similarly stigmatized, how this stigma impacts our sexual health, and how our oppressions stem from similar sources thus encouraging us to work together to further embodied justice. We discussed how queer bodies – those deemed “Others” through the social construction of the imagined normate, including aging, poor, fat, raced, trans bodies, and disabled bodies etc. – are often denigrated through interlocking systems of structural and conceptual oppressions.

We shared our very personal narratives and experiences working together.  We did not speak for other identity groups who have queer bodies because we recognize that is often a part of the oppression we seek to redress.  A substantive component of the piece dealt with the practicalities of coalition building – with a lot of the focus on the role of emotional work  and honest communication in effective coalition building.  It was one of the most beautiful writing experiences of my life, largely because I reclaimed a sense of rabid activism in my writing.

Somewhere along the way in procuring degrees and mentally jerking off with more and more nerds, I lost my edge and started to feel I had to rely on other people’s voices entirely too much.  While I used citations in this piece to respect the work I build on, Sonny and I both engaged with our embodied identity knowledge as sources of expertise.  It was liberating and emotionally gratifying. It made me cry and shake a bit from feeling like I was being more honest with myself and others than I have been in a long time. I credit love, dealing with my most recent injury, and blogging with the specific intent of trying to capture in writing the way I give speeches for this reclamation of my activist voice.

Below are enhanced/altered pieces (for copyright purposes) of my crip narrative that was part of the paper:

In my ten years of working in disability culture/studies, I have journeyed from a self-loathing disabled person who struggled to admit my disability to a self-described uppity crip. My sexy comrade Robert McRuer (2006) explains that the word ‘crip’ works to build coalitions across different disabilities (parallel to the word ‘queer’) and signals proclamation of disability pride by reforming and embracing a historically derogatory word (i.e. ‘cripple’). My use of the word ‘crip’ provides me a method to deny compulsory able-bodiedness through verbal assault.  McRuer makes clear that able-bodiedness is an institution in which American culture “assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, able-bodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for.”

Though some disabled people strive for able-bodiedness through the search for a cure, most notoriously (and disdained among many uppity crips) Christopher Reeve and his campaign to cure his spinal cord injury, many of us embrace our queer bodies and feel better in our skin by doing so. This is true for me; as I decided at the age of fifteen to begin to use a wheelchair despite my mothers decry that I “would never live a normal life” if I did not walk. I stopped walking because I went through a cycle of several fractures stemming from having brittle bones and a femur and double tibia rodding surgery that kept me bed-ridden for about six months. It exhausted my mental health and I decided walking was not worth the psychological cost.

The shift to using a wheelchair has made me more visibly queer. This visible push farther outside the bounds of normalcy has forced me to work to reconcile the “jagged edge between [acculturated] self-hatred and pride” (as the delicious poet/activist Eli Clare wrote) because my queer body provokes daily reminders of my non-normativity, often through being the object of staring and/or intrusive questions about my body. Often I find these socially acceptable microaggressions to be more taxing and disturbing than other aspects of ableism, such as lacking physical access, because they happen so frequently. Despite the exhausting nature of being a spectacle, I find using a wheelchair to be freeing; I can now glide through life as fast as I want without the pain and struggle related to walking. And in making the decision to wheel, I have allowed myself to live my “normal” life – i.e. the way my body feels most comfortable.

Interrogating disability through my work has been revolutionary for me because it has helped shift the focus away from my body as a problem to society as the problem. This idea captures the social model of disability by moving away from the medical model through separating the personal issue (impairment) from the social issue (environmental and attitudinal oppression).

This theory often fails crips because it prevents acknowledging emotional realities of frustration noted in impairment. It creates a political impetus to be silent about our nuanced realities; this denies us the ability to confess the embodied nature of disability. This recent realization that I do not always have to pander to the requirements of the social model has been liberating because it allows me to acknowledge that it is difficult when I am in physical pain and/or frustrated with my impairment. Likewise, the daunting process of breaking apart internalized disability narratives may not end until oppression ends; therefore it is reasonable to feel sad and angry when negotiating stigma.

Much of my anger stems from internalized ableism and shame around my body.  Sonny has helped me reframe my sense of shame by stating “shame=oppression and shame=injustice… [this] helps me to feel validated in my shame because [I realize] it comes from outside, even though it is a very internal emotion.”  Even Karl Marx is in concurrence here as he wrote “shame is the fuel of revolutionary consciousness.”  Processing and talking about internalized shame is a revolutionary process.

But to be clear there is a lot to be angry about aside from internalized shame.  And being angry or sad does NOT make me a bad scholar-activist!  Anger is often the fuel of revolutionary acts.

Pervasive social assumptions about disabled people  make us justly pissed.  Some of those commonly-held disability assumptions include the belief that disabled people are childlike, dependent, and asexual or hypersexual.  These ideas compose part of disability oppression.

The effects of these misconceptions entail the legitimation and social endorsement of human rights violations exacted upon us.  A few are highlighted here.  Globally, disabled people comprise the world’s largest (650 million or 10% of the population) and poorest minority group, amounting to about 20% of the world’s poorest people. Disabled people continue to be “humanely” sterilized and killed in various places around world, including most aggressively in the Netherlands. And while eugenics is often perceived as a Nazi project, US legislation for compulsory sterilization of ‘degenerates’ – including intellectually and/or physically disabled people; especially those of color – existed nearly a decade before the Nazis started 4 Tiergartenstraße and served as its model. Disabled people are subject to countless hate crimes, often unreported and at the hands of our care-givers; yet until 2009 were not a protected class of people in United States federal legislation.

Along with denying disabled people our basic human rights, these commonly held beliefs about disability are sociopolitically disempowering. Even those of us who are not incarcerated in institutions face extreme social isolation due to lacking physical access, accessible transportation and/or adequate monetary and social support.

All of these issues have a deleterious impact on our sexual health. The World Health Organization (2006) has called for a holistic understanding of sexuality in which sexual health is defined as: a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

This definition makes clear that disparities in sexual health are often a result of the presence of oppressive social forces, such as discrimination and coercion.Therefore, disability oppression does not just wok to make disabled people poor, subject to abuse, sterilized or killed; it also harms our overall sense of health.

I encourage everyone to get emotionally naked and join Sonny and I in this incredibly enriching intellectual orgy of embodied praxis by engaging with your emotions around your corpo(realities).