Picture That:
On Seeing and Not Seeing Myself

 

When I was little, I had a peculiar love/hate relationship with Halloween. As much as I enjoyed the theatrics of becoming someone else for a night, I always struggled to figure out who I wanted to be. Not only did I have to pick a unique persona, but it had to fit with my sense of myself, which was even back then deeply informed by my disability.

I never wanted to be a fireman or a soldier or a policeman. I knew I couldn't sell those to myself, and that the incongruity wouldn't work for anyone who'd see me. So I improvised. Most often I ended up as a vampire; the makeup and teeth were fun, and the cape was a good fit for the wheelchair. (Was I subconsciously channeling FDR, whose image in those days was always in my mind?)

As I grew older, my choices grew craftier. I identified deeply with Groucho Marx's blend of clearly Jewish braininess, chutzpah, and lechery, so I was him for several years. Wisecracking and leering helped deflect any sense of dissonance I either felt or was worried about. Ultimately though, I just got lazy. When I was still walking and had to go to a Halloween party on crutches, I would just dress more nicely than usual and tell people I was Itzhak Perlman. Most recently, I got even lazier, and showed up in my chair dressed as Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men.

On a certain level, this progression reflects increasing acceptance of my disability as a visual, cultural, and interpersonal experience, but I think it also shows how long I have wanted to see myself reflected somehow in popular culture. I was reminded of this yearning for identification by the release of a new documentary, "Murderball," about wheelchair rugby.

"Murderball" follows a number of men caught up in the universe of the sport: players on the American national team; the coach of the Canadian national team, who bears a grudge against Team USA; and a young guy who's in the midst of rehab for his recent spinal cord injury. The movie is amazing. Characters are vividly drawn, the action sequences give a new and different meaning to playing bumper cars, and the film as a whole really puts warts-and-all disability out on display.

I found the movie refreshing because it's so unsentimental. These guys are tough. They mock each other and themselves. They are loudmouths with little shame; they even mock the Special Olympics at one point. They talk about getting laid, and the tricks of using disability to meet hot and willing women. They ooze testosterone and adrenaline, and so does the movie.

I can't quite get on my high horse and disparage the machismo it embodies. A certain kind of crip hetero-ness is at full mast here, but that's good, because most crips are still fighting for the right to be straight, and our needs as queer folk shouldn't obscure that reality. The men on the American team are rebellious, raucous, virile, and hot, and those qualities are being used to market the movie.

Some of the more photogenic guys on the team appeared in a multipage fashion layout in the New York Times a few months ago, complete with chairs. One player, clearly the main character in the film, has been doing commercials and other appearances, promoting the film. MTV, which helped finance it, seems to be hoping that the same young people who watch extreme sports and crazy stunts on its shows will suddenly realize that wheelchair rugby is cool.

Ironically, for me, the better the film was at presenting the guys as typical jocks, the harder it was for me to relate to them as crips. Many of them were jocks before becoming disabled, and they still are now. Some of them were assholes as able-bodied men, and at least one of them still is, and proudly so. I do not feel angry or excluded or oppressed by these athletes and their antics. I don't need the filmmakers to show me a gay player for balance, and I bear no grudges against jocks as a group for any wrongs done to me.

I know these guys may have been the type in high school who did lots of name-calling, or told fag jokes or worse, but I have never lived in fear of them. I feel that my disability, my otherness, perversely insulated me as a kid from the kind of verbal and physical harassment and abuse my able-bodied queer friends may have experienced as children and adolescents. With only one exception I can recall, if kids in school didn't like me, they just left me alone. No names, no fists, just nothing. Any angst I wrestled with was amply provided not by strangers who loathed me, but by friends who, sometimes genially and sometimes not, gave me a tough time, with no free passes because I happened to be in a chair.

"Murderball" spoke to me brilliantly yet indirectly about disability, and I believe it will blow many peoples' minds wide open, but I couldn't relate to it personally. Given what I've said about not seeing myself reflected in media images, this might seem strange. But let me tell you where I have seen myself lately, or at least heard myself. Big surprise, it was in the theater, in a musical. William Finn, the man responsible for "Falsettos", one of the best portraits of gay life ever put on stage and into song, has a new show. It's about spelling bees, and the adorably eccentric young nerds who populate them.

In "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," we are at a middle school bee. All the kids' parts are played by adult actors, and there's a lot of comedy and suspense flowing from the spelling, but I was most struck by the way the songs portray the characters' inner lives. One girl is good at spelling because she read the dictionary on the toilet, reasoning that in its pages at least, she could find order, and that the words would be her friends whether she had any others or not. Another girl has been pushed to achieve and speaks six languages, Still a third, the youngest competitor, has a strong lisp, and two dads, who are grooming her to be a media star as well as a poster child for the normality and viability of gay families.

For me though, the show's richest character is William Barfee. ("It's pronounced Bar-FAY, he explains. "There's an accent egu!") Chronically and painfully congested, he has a serious mucous membrane disorder and may be borderline autistic. Yet his dominant asset is one of his feet, which like some kind of performing circus horse, sketches out words on the floor one letter at a time, which he then announces to the crowd and the judges. The joy he and his fellow students take in competition, and the way they deal with the absurd nature of both the bee's rules and its essence, really gets to me. Perhaps because I have been alongside them more than once, on a stage, before a microphone, tracing words. Maybe I have learned to have more respect for those passions, interests, and obsessions that make no sense to the outside world than I have for those that are universally embraced.

I may see "Murderball" again, to catch what I missed, to marvel, even to drool. But my cultural home isn't with loudmouth jocks and extreme sports, whether wheelchair-related or not. It's with Mr. Barfee's magic foot, and Mr. Christy Brown's even more talented one. It's with the nerds who spell even when they know most people think it's pointless. If I go out and rent "Spellbound," the recent documentary about the National Spelling Bee, I expect it will resonate with me much more than "Murderball" has, not because I am ignoring or denying the relevance of disability in my life, but simply because sometimes, disability alone is not enough of a common bond. Other identities may win out. Nerds may actually trump athletes, if not in rugby, then at least in my head.

©2005 Danny Kodmur

 

Danny Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the San Francisco Bay Area. Write to him at profxavier@comcast.net . Fear not; while spelling always counts, it won't be corrected.

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More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04
Sound Bodies
~9/04
Fear, Fat, and Fabulousness ~5/05
Hermit Emerging, Gradually ~7/05

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2005