Proceedings: Closing Plenary: Eli Clare
I was scheduled, along with Diana Courvant, to speak at the closing plenary of the Queerness and Disability conference. That session turned into a townhall meeting about racism and the specific oppression of people with psych disabilities. People of color and people with psych disabilities challenged the gathering in fundamental and necessary ways. Diana and I facilitated the meeting but didn’t keynote. A number of people asked us if we would put our keynotes on the web. So what follows is the text of a speech I might have given but didn’t. I wrote it in the weeks following the conference, using the extensive outline I had brought with me to the event. I intentionally tried to re-create the immediacy of those two days as they wound down.
Sex, Celebration, and Justice: A Keynote for QD2002
Hello. What a wild, intense ride it has been. For months now I’ve been pondering what I would say here this afternoon. What there would be left to say after the last two days of talk about sex and relationships, physician assisted suicide and Not Dead Yet, the pathologizing of bodies and the connections between intersex and disability organizing, getting the care we need and coming out, street activism and legal strategy, theory and performance, stories and painting. We’ve laughed and cried and danced and raged. We’ve asked questions, listened hard, faced necessary challenges.
And yet I sit here also knowing how much has gone missing. We could start again right here, right now, and do another two days and never repeat a single idea, question, or connection and still be going strong. There is that much among us. This plenty excites me. At the same time, what has been left out of the past two days is important, telling, profound, and needs acknowledgement.
This gathering has been very white and for the most part has neglected issues of race and racism. All of us here in this room today need to listen to queer disabled people of color and their experiences. We need to fit race and racism into the matrix of queerness and disability. I need to ask myself, not only “What does it mean to be a pansexual tranny with a long butch dyke history, a walkie with a disability that I acquired at birth,” but also, “What does it mean to be a white queer crip?”
We haven’t asked enough questions about class, about the experiences of being poor and disabled, of struggling with hunger, homelessness, and a lack of the most basic healthcare. I want to hear from working class folks who learned about disability from bone-breaking work in the factory or mine or sweatshop.
We need more exploration of gender identity and disability. How do the two inform each other? I can feel the sparks fly as disabled trans people are just beginning to find each other. We need to listen more to Deaf culture, to people with psych disabilities, cognitive disability, to young people and old people. We need not to re-create here in this space, in this budding community, the hierarchies that exist in other disability communities, other queer communities.
Naming these absences isn’t meant to accuse or undercut the strength and power of the past two days, but rather to suggest the complexity and breadth of work we have to do as we begin to come together as queer crips, friends, lovers, partners, and allies.
So, with all that has been said and all that hasn’t, all the connection and all the challenge, what am I going to leave you with? It’s an awesome thing to sit up here in front of this room and look out at all your shining faces and know that soon we’ll each be going home. To get some much needed sleep. To think about and feel what’s happened here. To tell friends and family. Taking this experience with us into our worlds. Being up here on stage right now gives me the magnificent and overwhelming opportunity to tell you what I’d like you to take home.
First, a challenge about sex. And when I say sex, I don’t mean a code for queerness. You know. When those straight, well-meaning disability studies profs ask me ever so politely to come to their school and talk about disability and sexuality, they aren’t requesting a presentation about heterosexuality, much less the whole universe of sexual possibility. Rather they mean that other sexuality, that exotic sexuality, that queer sexuality. Or I get asked by nondisabled queer activists to be part of panels about sexuality and disability. I never know if they’re really serious about doing anti-ableism education or if truly they just want another believe-it-or-not freak show, a tell-all about what crips do in bed. And guess what: this butch top, used-to-be-stone, still-dealing-with-the-aftershocks-of-incest crip isn’t interested in being part of a freak show. I have no desire to tell them how I can fuck long and slow with my shaky right hand if only I can keep my muscles from locking with tension. No desire to tell them what my lover asks for and what I will do.
But here in this room when I say sex, I’m not talking code. Rather, I mean the steamy, complex, erotic, sometimes pleasure filled, sometimes mundane, sometimes mystical, sometimes painful, sometimes confusing behaviors, activities, and fantasies we call sex. It’s a radical act, a daring act, a brand new act for queer crips to talk about sex.
On one hand, as queers, we are perverse, immoral, depraved, shaped as oversexed child molesters or as invisible creatures, legislated out of existence. And on the other, as crips, we are entirely desexualized or fetishized or viewed as incapable of sexual responsibility. What a confounding maze of lies and stereotypes! We are the wheelchair using fag quad who can’t find a date; the bi woman amputee sought after, pursued, even sometimes stalked, by devotees—those mostly straight men who fetishize amputations; the cognitively disabled dyke who is told in so many ways that she’s simply a sexual risk to herself and the world. Never are we seen, heard, believed to be the creators of our own desires, our own passions, our own sexual selves. Inside this maze, the lives of queer crips truly disappear. And I say it’s time for us to reappear. Time for us to talk sex, be sex, wear sex, relish our sex, both the sex we do have and the sex we want to be having.
I say it’s time for some queer disability erotica, time for an anthology of crip smut, queer style. Time for us to write, film, perform, read, talk porn. I’m serious. It’s time. I want to get hot and bothered: I want to read about wheelchairs and limps, hands that bend at odd angles and bodies that negotiate unchosen pain, about orgasms that aren’t necessarily about our genitals, about sex and pleasure stolen in nursing homes and back rooms where we’ve been abandoned, about bodily—and I mean to include the mind as part of the body—differences so plentiful they can’t be counted, about fucking that embraces all those differences. It’s time. I want to watch smut made by and for queer disabled people and our lovers, friends, allies, our experiences told from the inside out. I want plain old rutting, delicious one night affairs, but please don’t leave out the chivalrous romance. Let’s face it: I want it all. It’s time. I want us to turn the freak show on its head, to turn away from the folks who gawk and pity us, who study and patronize us, who ignore us or fetishize us. I want us to forget the rubes and remember each other as we declare and create our sexualities. It’s time. In the past several years, there’s been an outpouring of identity-based erotica anthologies. On my bookshelves, you can find Best Transgender Erotica, Bearotica, and Zaftig: Well Rounded Erotica, all fiercely asserting the sexuality of people whose sexualities have been marginalized. And now it’s time for queer crips to join this line up, time for tantalizing tales about queer crip sex. And if we don’t write them, then who?
But that’s not all. Here’s a second thing I want us to take home, a thing bigger than queer crip sex, a thing about celebrating our queerness, our differences in all their complexity. I want us to tell stories, to talk about our bodies, to be real about our shame and our pride. We’re good at talking about oppression and how disability is truly about the material and social conditions of ableism—not about our paralysis but rather about the stairs without an accompanying ramp, not about our blindness but rather about the lack of Braille, not about our depression or anxiety but rather about a whole host of stereotypes—as if our bodily experiences of bone and muscle, tendon and ligament, are somehow irrelevant. We’re good at carving out our space as queer by naming ourselves as dyke, fag, bi, tranny, and then defining and defending those identities, as if a single word could name the entirety of our queer bodily desires. We’re good at saying the word pride, as if shame has nothing to do with it. And I’m glad we’ve become good at those things, but let us not stop talking about our bodies, about the messiness and contradictions.
It’s risky work, particularly in a world that gawks and taunts, moralizes and pities, medicalizes and condemns, in a world that demands an explanation at every turn, in a world where complete strangers feel free to ask, “What’s your defect?” But I want us to take that risk, not to feed the pity machine, the super-crip machine, the you’re-so-perverted machine, but to celebrate our bodies and create them as ordinary and familiar.
So let me start by telling you three stories to bring my right arm, my skin, my buzzed hair and broad stance into this room.
My crip body. I spent years hating my right arm, hating the tremors that start behind my shoulder blade, race down that track of muscles from shoulder to bicep, forearm to fingertip, hating the tension that follows behind to clamp the shaking, hating that I couldn’t will either away. I never talked about the red hot pain that wraps around the tension. Never talked about how being touched can make the tremors worse. Never talked about my yearning to play the piano or fiddle, hammer a nail, fling my body into the powerful grace of a gymnast, rock climber, dancer. I wanted to cut my right arm off, ream the tremors out of me, my shame that vivid.
And still today I have to work not to hide my right hand, tuck it beneath my body, pull the tremors into me, let no one else feel them. Work to remember that my lover means it when he says, “I can’t get enough of your shaky touch.” Work to love my right arm, my trembling. My body, not pitiful but ordinary.
My white body. The only person of color in my childhood home—a backwoods logging town in Oregon—was an African-American kid, adopted into a white family. I grew up to persistent rumors of a lynching tree way back in the hills, of the county sheriff running people of color and fags out of town. I grew up among working-class white men who made their livings by clearcutting the steep slopes, not so long ago stolen from the Tunis, the Umpquas, the Coquille peoples. Grew up among white men disabled by the body breaking work of logging—missing limbs, hearing loss, nerve damage, broken bones knitted back together crooked. Grew up surrounded by disability and whiteness never spoken.
For a long time after moving to the city, college scholarship in hand, all I could do was gawk at the multitude of humans: Black people, Chinese people, Chicanos, drag queens and punks, vets down on Burnside Avenue, white men in their wool suits, limos shined to sparkle. I watched them all, sucking in the thick weave of Spanish, Cantonese, street talk, English. This is how I became aware of being white. My body threaded with unspoken privilege.
My tranny body. Not so long ago, a woman stopped me on the street. She wanted to know, “You a boy?” I said, “Nope.” Who knows why I answered that way; it would have been simpler to say, “Yup,” and closer to the truth. She responded, “You a girl?” looking truly puzzled. I left quickly. There is no short answer.
I learned about my gendered body flying kites in the hayfields and sheep pastures, digging fence-post holes and hauling firewood with my father. He raised me, his eldest daughter, as an almost son. I had no desire to be a girl but knew I wasn’t a boy. My body never learned to walk in high heels—what a joke my few attempts were, trying to fit my broad stance and shaky-heeled gait into those shoes. Never learned to feel strong and comfortable, much less sexy, in a skirt. Never stopped feeling at home in my work boots and flannel shirts, my butchness shaped by those white loggers I grew up among, overlaid by a queer urban sensibility.
Not man, not woman: I don’t have one word answers for my gendered body, just stories. Learning to knot a tie and look in the mirror at age 32. Being cruised by bears on the Castro, feeling my skin flush warm. Finding pleasure and trouble as my boyfriend and I hold hands on the subway, harassed as fags, even though later that night I’ll be called ma’am at the restaurant. Using the men’s room often enough to know the etiquette, often choosing to brave a full bladder, rather than risk the women’s room. I can only tell my gender in stories. My body, not perverse, but familiar.
Stories about our bodies tangle sexuality, race, gender, class, and disability together. Some theorists and activists seem to like the notion of double (or triple or quadruple) identity, suggesting that our marginalized identities stack up in some quantifiable way. As if I could peel off my queerness, leaving my CP, or peel off the disability, leaving my whiteness, or peel off my white skin privilege, leaving my rural, working-class roots. Or they talk about double oppression, often creating a hierarchy among different kinds of discrimination. As if any of us can tell what the gawkers are gawking at. Are they trying to figure out whether I’m a woman or a man, dyke or fag, why I walk with a shake, talk with a slur, or are they just admiring my polished boots and denim jacket? I’ll never know.
Our bodies as ordinary and familiar: this idea flies in the face of the gawkers and bashers who try to shape us as inspirational and heroic, tragic and pitiful, perverse and unnatural. We don’t get to simply be ordinary and familiar very often. And when it does happen, it is such a relief, so rare and wonderful. Don’t mistake me: I don’t mean that we need to find normal and make it our own. Normal—that center against which everyone of us is judged and compared: in truth I want us to smash it to smitherines. And in its place, celebrate our irrevocably different bodies, our queerness, our crip lives, telling stories and creating for ourselves an abiding sense of the ordinary and familiar.
And finally there’s a third thing I want us to take home, bigger than queer crip sex, bigger than resisting normal and celebrating our bodies, a thing about living in this world as we build community. When September 11th happened, I was already immersed in the work of organizing this conference. In the days and weeks following the hijackings as I processed waves of grief, shock, fear, and outrage at U.S. imperialism, as U.S. bombs started to rain on Afghanistan, I asked myself repeatedly, “Why am I choosing to do this queer disability work rather than peace work?” Why I asked as the bombs continued to fall, as civil liberties here in the U.S. tightened, as Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims were—and still today are being—harassed and detained.
Why I asked, and friends reminded me about the phrase “peace and justice.” Why I asked and remembered how war and disability are tangled together, how veterans helped create disability rights activism. Why I asked and every day heard spiritual leaders and political leaders, war mongers and peace activists alike, refer to disability. They said, “An eye for an eye will make the world blind,” disability becoming a metaphor for the consequences of revenge. They said, “These attacks crippled Wall Street,” assuming without question that crippled equals broken. They said, “The leader of the Taliban, that one-eyed Mullah,” using disability as a marker of evil. Not once did I hear about the real lived experience of disability as the World Trade Center collapsed, as bombs fell and landmines exploded. I wanted to go to a peace rally with a placard that said, "Another cripple for peace,” or “Imperialist revenge is corrupt, not blind.” I stopped asking why, started to understand yet again how, even at a time of escalating military violence, queer disability work is in truth justice work.
Justice is a big word. It means food and houses and jobs and health care and education. It means art that tells untold stories bald-faced and art that turns an image, a metaphor, into pure revelatory magic. It means coming to fill our bodies to the very edges of our skin. It means theory that teases new thinking out of our brains and theory that helps refigure the world. It means hate won’t reign like bombs and hunger, house fires and baseball bats, Jerry Lewis’s telethon and the locked doors of nursing homes and pysch wards. It means liberation and challenge and compassion. Justice is a big word.
I want us to cruise justice, flirt with it, take it home with us, nurture and feed it, even though sometimes it will be demanding and uncomfortable and ask us to change. Clearly I’m not talking about a simple one night stand but a commitment for the long haul.
Sex, celebration of our queer crip bodies, and a commitment to justice: that’s all I’m asking for as we head back to our homes. In the end, let us to turn the world to a place where, to quote the poet Mary Oliver: