OPINION: Queering disability - On the power of celebrating intersectionality
"Identity, of course, can live in many places all at once_… But so much of who I am is carried in my irrevocably different body." - _ Eli Clare, Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness.
Clare's words resonate with me so that they put truth to what I've had to learn, acknowledge and embrace throughout my own life experiences. Despite having arguably the most positive and encouraging upbringing I could have wished for, as someone with a physical and very visible disability, the social stigma and prejudice of ableism was not something to which one could be immune or impervious.
Years of playing down my physical limitations, of being scared to appear self-pitying to others and myself, and using humour to defuse awkward social situations did sadly sometimes deny me the ability to truly address and process many issues of secret self-loathing and frustration at my limitations. These all came to the surface when I acknowledged my same-sex attraction.
It was through coming out as queer and processing and finally celebrating my sexuality that I was able to unpack and process residual internalised ableist stigma. I had no choice in the matter but to confront the 'multitudes' I contain, of which Whitman wrote so powerfully. This is because even my first experience of coming out was so entangled with ableism, with the fight against not only the shame and stigma of confiding my sexual identity, but also the layered stigma of being considered 'unworthy' at the same time for expressing any sexual feelings whatsoever as someone with a disability. To many, bodies like mine are sites of disgrace, destruction, humour and a fetishisation of the bizarre.
One often learns about intersectionality - the interconnectedness and overlapping of identity struggles - from the politically conscious, the academically inclined, and the radical rogues occupying multiple spaces and identities all at once. We fervently debate the extent of existence and necessary perspective on social justice and how it succeeds in - and sometimes falls short of - truly challenging and dismantling the conservative mainstream status quo. This is particularly true within the South African context.
When unpacking identities, both those marginalised and those reinforced as the status quo, we often get trapped in the exclusionary and alienating language of theorists. What is sometimes forgotten, and arguably what has the real power, is the strength of visibility of those society deems 'other' and self-advocacy. I'm talking about those occupying multiple and complex identities deviant to white cisgendered (those identifying as either male or female) middle-class heteronormity.
Despite the relatively recent rise of disability-related critical theory and attempts at redefining the struggle against discrimination, society's long history of stigma and othering of 'queer bodies' has remained engrained in us; even in those who possess the deviant bodies.
The word queer I have used purposefully, meaning both different and 'not belonging' and a word referring to people with non-heteronormative sexual identities. My experience as a disabled queer - my body - is one that fully represents both meanings and uses of this word, as such is crucial, not only to continue my journey of celebrating my own 'otherness' (a daily choice) instead of trying to transcend it, but also to sincerely understand and show solidarity for others with similar and different types of overlapping and interconnected struggles.
I'm reminded often that academic theory and even language itself can fall short by separating and categorising lived experiences into neat, digestible packages in order understand people. Unfortunately, life and human experiences are both far more complex and complicated, usually meaning that we fall into the trap of separating struggles like race, gender, ableism, and class into their own 'issues' to be managed individually.
Mainstream media and even minority rights sectors are guilty of this to the detriment of achieving sustainable social transformation and justice. It's far easier to host workshops, create task teams or write think pieces that concentrate on one issue at a time, that pick and choose what facets of people we like or choose to engage with. This often results in there being an unspoken 'hierarchy' of rights issues, where certain struggles are pushed to the forefront and some barely mentioned.
While it's imperative to note the specific times and contexts when concentration on single issues is key, in general and as the go-to approach, not only is this arguably weak strategically in organising for social justice, but it serves only to further mirror and uphold the oppressive systems that ensure inequality.
This is especially true for the gay, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and (LGBTI) rights movements. So much focus is geared towards proving one's worth to the oppressive heteronormative status quo; attempts to prove why killing us, raping us, discriminating against us is wrong, attempts to be acknowledged by the very systems that teach those not like ourselves to hate us.
Striking similarities can be found in the approach to disability rights advocacy. There have been many attempts to move away from the way in which we look at disabled bodies. Often as people with disabilities we, like LGBTI identifying individuals, attempt to react to these oppressive narratives by proving our 'personhood', our humanity to mainstream society that ostracise us. Further examination shows a similar pandering to mainstream 'ideals' and 'norms' in order to prove worthiness, to prove one's right to be treated equally and one's dignity respected. Any and all attempts to approach disability from 'outside the body' and define disability according to how society treats us, and that has been a powerful tool for people with disabilities advocating social justice.
The only problem is that no true and extensive transformation has taken place within ourselves first, no unlearning. We should be unashamedly confronting and celebrating the inextricable link of body and identity through experiences as a powerful tool to transform narratives and spaces, both mainstream and from within other marginalised communities. What I mean, and Eli Clare describes this so well, is that the "external forces of oppression are the incredibly internal, body-centred experiences of who we are and how we live with oppression."
Unfortunately, the fact is that oppression works in ways to turn us against ourselves, our bodies, first, to "mire us in body hatred". Clearly we can see this most prominently in how homophobia actively defines queer bodies as perverse and immoral and how transphobia sees trans bodies as unnatural; how ableism defines disabled bodies as 'broken and tragic'. Workers are defined by class inequality enforced by capitalism as dispensable; racism brands the bodies of people of colour 'primitive, exotic, or worthless'; and sexism sets about defining female bodies as objects.
These oppressions define our bodies in an attempt to control and dominate. True transformation begins with defining our bodies ourselves, for ourselves, and in doing so, harnessing the power that comes with that on a personal level and within the struggle for social justice. A perfect example of this can be seen in the struggles against racial inequality, in the Black Consciousness Movement, and especially in Steve Biko's claim that the "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed".
Gaby Sanchez is a social justice strategy consultant specialising in the intersectional issues of disability and other forms of structural oppression as they manifest in the South African context. With a background in LGBTI and gender rights organising, and a passion for youth empowerment, she thrives in creating and supporting spaces that challenge the existing prejudicial mainstream media narratives of disability. Follow her on Twitter: @Sanchlet