Loving You Loving Me

Tranny/Crip/Queer Love and
Overcoming Shame in Relationship

By Samuel Lurie

Presented at the
First International
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002

ONE

In order for me to begin this presentation, I have to give a little background. I was at the Gender and Disability Conference at Rutgers University, March 2001, where a group of folks came together over lunch to discuss organizing a Queerness and Disability Conference—this conference. I was at the Rutgers conference because I'd started to become involved in disability politics largely due to my relationship with a crip activist and writer. I'd begun to make friends in the crip community and was excited that some west coast folks would be in New Jersey. I was also drawn to go to the conference because, way back when, I had attended Rutgers University, more specifically, Douglass College, the campus where the conference was taking place.

Douglass College was—and still is—a women's college that I had attended as a female. And here I was attending the conference not only as a guy, and an AB guy, but as the male lover of Eli Clare, who most folks there knew as a dyke. I called Eli from the conference and tried to relay the primary experience of my day and being introduced as: "This is Samuel. He's Eli's partner," "You know Eli? This is Eli's partner." I even fell back on it myself when someone asked bluntly at breakfast, "why are you here?" and I said "my partner is disabled" as if that explained why this apparently able-bodied, single, maybe even straight, young guy was there.

I have no problems with a primary part of my identity being "Eli's partner"—as funny and counter-intuitive to our politics as that sounds. And because I was always quite comfortable, willing, and able to talk about being the partner of a disabled person, or at least this particular disabled person, that piqued the interest of some folks gathered around the organizing table that afternoon. People wanted this conference to be a place where people talked about relationships-how we find them, nourish them, keep them, add to them, end them. And about sex—with specifics about how we have it with crip bodies. Where do we place the pillows, how do we accommodate body parts that don't bend, or aren't solid, or can't get hard or wet on their own. What about the body with an absence of parts, or extras in places you don't expect? To talk about the specifics of sex, we have to talk specifics about bodies. And how do we talk about bodies without collapsing into a well of shame?

Since I never felt at all intimidated about at least the thought of talking about these things—shy maybe, but not intimidated—I was thrust into the role. When one of the conference organizers started telling everyone that "Samuel is gonna talk about AB/crip/queer relationships" people seemed excited.

So, one more thing: I have also been one of the organizers of this conference, part of a fairly small team that spent months sorting through details large and small, everything from questions of alternative format materials, the scent-free policy, big-time money anxiety, down to what colors to use on name badges. Lots of work details that frankly have not been very sexy. And working relationships that have been pretty businesslike, or at least confined to the limits of cyberspace. So here I am with this task, of talking about the gifts—physical, sexual, emotional—of my relationship. To talk about overcoming shame in relationships is to talk about intimacy. And to talk about intimacy, I have to be intimate. It doesn't totally fit with all the email organizing we've been doing. But here we are in the flesh at San Francisco State—feeling the seabreeze, the chilly fog, the buzz of all these people hungry for the magic of connection. So let's go there. Let me breathe in the intimacy and the trust of this room and take a leap.

I also need to add that I will be referring to Eli using male pronouns, which might be confusing for some people. But that's the pronoun I use, that we use, in our relationship.

TWO

My lover asks for a copy of a photo of me that somehow didn't make it into the stack of doubles I sent in the mail. These are pictures I can barely stand to look at and I know that, to my partner, they capture many of the things he loves about me. But I instinctively turn away from pictures of me, learned from a lifetime of seeing only ugliness in the mirror.

I was born and raised as a girl, but not a normal one. No one close seemed to really mind my tomboy ways, a tacit acceptance that was a stroke of luck. But still, I felt destined to be forever misunderstood, unable to ever name the reason for my sense of shame and wrongness. I developed a hefty armor to shield myself from tormentors, and I became pretty good at standing up for myself. But the shame of absolute difference ran into my bones, my pores, my essence. I couldn't name what it was, but I didn't need to. It was doing its damage without benefit of a common language. I got the message, lived the message, that my queer body, butch body, freak body, was barely entitled to take up any space at all.

Thankfully, I did do a lot of work to break out of that space, but it hasn't been along a straight, continuous line. Three years ago, I traveled here to San Francisco for chest reconstruction surgery, and that was a big step in making my body right. But when I came home from surgery, I confessed to the friends who took me home from the airport, "now who's gonna want me?" I finally had the body I wanted, or part of it anyway, but couldn't quite imagine anyone else wanting it. As I settled into my body, a lot of things shifted and I could actually believe, if only for a second at a time, that I could be attractive. But I still wasn't sure to whom. I mean, what category could I possibly use to place my personals ad? How could I describe who I was, who I was looking for?

I want to add though that this wasn't really done in total isolation. There are many of us challenging the gender binary, creating a new language, new words for who we are and what we want.

Perhaps it is no surprise that I found a poet.

I met Eli at a reading and, for me, it was love at first paragraph. We kissed at lunch and spent that first night together. All faster than either of us had ever experienced and at the same time shockingly safe. I don't want to gush too romantic, though you can probably tell I could. To put it simply, we began to find a home in each other's bodies, in our intertwined bodies, in our own bodies being touched like this for the very first time.

Eli too had to move through layers of shame, embarrassment, complete unfamiliarity. He had never let his tremoring hand loose on someone else's body before, had always tried to hold it back. I guess I gave him more than permission. Immediately, my body started begging for that exact tremoring touch. When I discovered that his right hand tremored more than the left, that's the one I pulled to me, to rub my chest, cheek, thigh. I didn't want a single bounce to go to waste. I don't want to sound objectifying, or fetishistic, as if I was only attracted to this person because of the shake. But I think that there was an utter magic in the combination of my wanting that very specific thing that for Eli was the root of so much of his own struggles with his body. I wanted it, loved it. More than acceptance—it was an active desire.

Of course we can't easily explain desire—why it's there or where it comes from. But being desired, and trusting that, reciprocating that, cracks us open. Sensually, to me, Eli's CP is literally a gift. And I recognize the absurdity of trying to imagine: would I have fallen in love with Eli if he didn't have CP? That's an unanswerable koan. Would a boulder be a boulder if it wasn't a boulder? I fell in love with someone with CP, and I like the CP. Can it be that simple?

Eli once wrote: "me, looking at me in the mirror and liking what I see, is a minor miracle." We have helped each other achieve this miracle, and it feels more than minor. In part that has come from the affirmation of the observing eye. But it has also crept up from within. Pride and self-love a mighty powerful byproduct of being admired and loved. Someone has to do a lot of convincing for us to be able to peek at the mirror. And we still have to do a lot of work ourselves.

For instance, what work did Eli have to do to accept help from me? On one of our first hikes in Vermont, on a steep, slippery trail, the kind where Eli moves especially slowly—he was shrugging off my outstretched hand, not wanting any help. But I was only offering it in part to provide balance. "We're lovers out on a hike," I reasoned, "you're supposed to want to hold my hand." He laughed, relaxing, the tension breaking. Eli has spoken of the filters that work to keep it all out. Here was one mighty big filter doing its job.

We hike more easily now, Eli referring to my hand serving as that "third point of contact"—stabilizing and comforting. But he still gets self-conscious of his preference for crawling on all fours across narrow bridges, or dropping to his butt to slide down even short descents over rocks. A key to learning how to be okay with who we are is to have others not judge us. I have no investment in how he crosses a bridge or uses a foothold. Each hike, maybe, takes him a little further towards believing that. He's got nothing to prove to me.

That capacity to not judge frees him. And his capacity to not judge frees me. So, let me tell you how my crip/queer/tranny lover helps me overcome my shame. I spoke earlier of my queer, tranny, freak self. A lifetime with psychic armor as sure as skin. Rooted with shame, with a notion that this butch, tranny, freak body could never be desirable or hot. A shame that is embedded in the collective unconscious of gender non-conforming queers, where thousands of daily encounters are layered with danger, disgust or distress.

Having transitioned, I am hardly done. Yes, I am more at home in my body. Yes, I am safer on the street, more solid in everyday relationships. Less visibly challenging the gender binary, and less likely to have to pay a price for that publicly. But the shame I speak of cannot possibly go away in real time. It feels like it precedes my very being, going back into a psychic prehistory. A lifetime where I could never settle in to anything normal, couldn't pursue a "normal" job, have "normal" relationships. Any attempts I made fell so far short they seemed like mockery. What my body looked like, what my body wanted, could not be easily explained. I had to stay small. Somehow, a big part of unlearning that has come from my relationship with someone who not only loves every single part of me, but who is also committed to moving in an intentionally slow pace, perhaps immeasurable in human time. I have always survived by moving with a kind of mania, a rushing around that, ironically, (maybe), has kept me from freaking out. But it's the slowing down that I really needed.

On that same early hike where Eli first took my hand, he gazed around at the Vermont ruggedness, cliffsides of granite, quartz and shale. Giant rocks dotting the hills, dropped long ago by glaciers moving through. "If I believed in reincarnation" he said "and I had a choice?... I'd want to come back as a boulder." And there we had it. To me, Eli is a boulder, a bedrock, a stabilizing force that took a long time to get there and isn't going anywhere fast. What does his CP have to do with this utter stillness? How does his perpetually tremoring body also define an essence of solidness, of non-movement? Perhaps this is just one more example of how contradictions actually create completeness.

Here are a few of my contradictions: I am a man who was born female. As a gay transman, I am a faggot without a dick. And no matter what they say about normal, about possible, here I am. I know *I* exist. How do we create a language to normalize who we are? Just how do we take hold of our unique bodies, reframe a lifetime of shame into one of comfort and pride? How do we actively love and celebrate, not just accept, our unique selves?

I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions.

Yeah, it helps when we have a lover who says we're fucking hot. Or have a good exchange at a bar or on the street. But it's a tenuous little bead of confidence that can disappear in the moment it takes someone to wince away from a wink.

But I know that when I look at pictures of my boyfriend, the ones he winces at out of lifelong habit, I stare transfixed and hungry. And now he knows that too when he smiles toward the camera lens. And for myself, I want to be as beautiful as my lover thinks I am and I grow taller by being loved by him. As old and as thick as a glacier, this pain is rooted deep. Every kiss and shaky caress are like years of sun beating down to begin to melt away layers. I know we do this for each other. A desire that has no qualifiers, no "in-spite-of," or "although." We are discerning, critical people and we want each other for all the things that we are. Crip, tranny, queer. No judgments. Just love. Freaky, wonderful, real love.

In so many ways, I am truly grateful.

.

 

SAMUEL LURIE (right) was a member of the organizing committee for the Queer Disability conference and is the boyfriend of a queer crip hottie (left). "Partners and Allies," the conference session where this article was presented, was a highlight of the weekend for Samuel, not only because he got to talk about his relationship, but because it was the only hour and a half when he wasn't interrupted to deal with some crisis. You can reach him at slurie@gmavt.net.

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2002