Celebration, and Justice:
A Keynote for QD 2002
by Eli Clare
coverage of the
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 &3, 2002
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. -E.C.
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
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
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
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.
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 devoteesthose 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 bodilyand
I mean to include the mind as part of the bodydifferences
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?
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 ableismnot
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 stereotypesas 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
My white body. The only person
of color in my childhood homea backwoods logging town in Oregonwas
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 loggingmissing 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
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
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 heelswhat
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
in 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,
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. Normalthat 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.
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 wereand still today are beingharassed
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 turn the world
to a place where, to quote the poet Mary Oliver:
. . . each life [is] a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in
the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage and
something precious to the earth.
2002 Eli Clare
Eli Clare is a poet, essayist,
rabble-rouser, and the author of "Exile and Pride: Queerness, Disability,
and Liberation" (South End Press).
BENT: A Journal of CripGay