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19 January 2011, 4:00 pm No Comments

DisOrienting Encounters: Between Queer and Disability

This post was submitted by Cyrus

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy archives

Discussing disability is a difficult issue. Many recognize a person with a visible disability and — because were raised not to stare or remark on those who are different — we have learned to ignore disabilities by ignoring the individual’s presence. In instances where we do recognize someone’s disability, we begin to overly accommodate their space and surroundings, perhaps as a compensatory mechanism for all differently-bodied people to share our space and effort with those who are perceived disabled. Then there are people who recognize the disability and probe into the individual’s personal life,  highlighting his different-ness even more.

Some time ago I was hanging out at a club when a man in a wheelchair rolled up and began dancing right next to me and my friends. He was handsome, shook his body around and waved his hands like no tomorrow. He looked as though he was having a great time and I gave a kind smirk before I turned my head  and continued dancing with my friends. His striking, wavy hair and pleasant smile still linger vividly.

As I remember, there were people who noticed his wheelchair’s presence and looked, though did not notice the individual: a sort of kind gesture of noting his disability while simultaneously ignoring his presence. Others gawked and covered their mouths to remark. The flashing lights, fog machine, and refracting disco ball could not mask the ever-growing circle of people who spread away from him until he was dancing in his own little space.

Arguably there was an interplay of tolerance within the club that night, which created a sense of normativity within the gay club. However,  this tolerance came with a heavy dose of public scrutiny, explanation and condemnation. In contrast, Jenny Morris quotes  JoAnne Rome, a woman born without a left hand, in her book Pride Against Prejudice. Rome speaks about the experience of enduring the stares of able-bodied individuals, stating, “I owed an explanation to everyone who demanded one ….‘What happened to your arm?’ was a luxury I could not chose to answer… the world made it clear I owed them an explanation”.

Certain assumptions are made about appearance and identity. For example, imagine the ideal “man” in society. One may envision a white, thin, Christian with a powerful wage earning capacity. Does his idealized podium remain if he had a prosthetic arm? The correlation between visual appearance and a claimed identity problematizes the connection between the basis of community and membership in communities.  Simply because one person looks a certain way does not mean they claim a certain identity.

Does exclusion from one group create the formation of another? Are there connections between disability and queerness  within our society?

Appearance and perceived disability can be read as a queer issue: heterosexuality is perceived as the norm, while homosexuality is a perceived as abnormal.  While queers may appear to be included within the framework of society, queerness cannot divorce itself from  public scrutiny, explanation, condemnation and tolerance within dominant society. By this basis of exclusion from heterosexuality, homosexuality is placed as the outlier. Just because we see gay images or what people think of as “gay” around us does not mean every gay person should claim this identity. Or does it?

So I ask you, TNG readers, how does the queer community accommodate differentness?

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