July
2002

What's Funny
About
IDENTITY POLITICS?


If being a crip has taught me anything,
it's taught me that a sense of humor is crucial.
The Café Lady
Raymond J. Aguilera

With a handful of friends I attended the First International Queer Disability Conference at San Francisco State University on June 2 and 3. This issue of BENT is devoted to presentations from the conference as well as a few responses to it. Some in our group had been invited to perform or read from our work or participate in panels. Some were there to listen.

As we e-mailed back and forth in the week that followed, we expressed emotional and physical exhaustion. We were stimulated, we were frustrated, we were exhilarated. Above all, we expressed our confusion. Lots of confusion. Just what was it that really played itself out there at SFSU? we kept asking one another in our different ways.

Because of that welter of responses I regret, in some ways, presenting this special issue so quickly. Like my friends, I am still "processing" what went on and I know I will be for a long time to come. That, of course, is part of the good news. It honors the substantive content of the conference. Waiting to respond might have given us the comfort of more time for reflection, but I did not want to lose the immediacy of the historical moment. I wanted to honor our confusion, too.

What I'll say here, as an introduction to the contents of this issue, cannot come close to doing justice to the conference, nor can it express the gratitude I feel for the efforts of the organizers and the participants, all those who were willing to spread out their lives for us in public.

One of our handful of friends, Michael Perreault, who has written about personal responsibility and political action, e-mailed us that he had never before felt so "at home, so accepted." Danny Kodmur, whose BENT essays cover a broad range of personal and cultural topics wrote, "If the conference showed me anything, it showed me that the QD community has huge cleavages along lines of gender, generation, and attitudes toward politics and culture."

Those comments summed up for me the tangle of the personal and the political that we know exists but often lies hidden by the pressures of our daily lives. Precisely because daily life at the conference was in abeyance, emotions and political fault lines were thrown into high relief. Unlike Michael, I did not feel "at home." Not for a minute. I felt on edge the whole time. As a fag in a conference world populated largely by dykes, as a guy over thirty in a world of people whose purple hair and piercings reflected a norm that wasn't mine, I felt as if my values and politics were being questioned at every turn. And you know what? They were.

At first this made me feel threatened and resentful. It took a while for me to see that in a space where everyone was like me because queer and disabled, but unlike me in a hundred other ways, I could permit myself, safely, to feel at risk. How can one safely be at risk? Here's how: I could step right into one of those fault lines and come back out alive, altered but still essentially myself—not an easy thing to do. Few places allow it. My job now is to remain opened up to the host of realities that the conference projected in a sometimes jerky, grainy vision.

Of that vision, what did I see and what do I remember? I saw fully for the first time the reality and beauty of all the genders, of transgendered and intersexed people who are as much a part of us as we are a part of them. I saw, still dimly, the true lives of queer people whose mental illnesses, psychiatric disabilities, and cognitive differences mean that we, on both sides of those divides, must still struggle to feel that we are part of one another, members of the same tribe.

All these things confuse me. Because they leave me at a loss for words while I struggle to understand, I often do not know what words to choose to initiate a dialogue. And as the conference proved, words can push us apart as easily as they bring us together.

As we choose our words, struggling to find a place to stand and address one another, I bring back from the conference a sense of unease and wariness. I saw repeated there the doctrinaire attitudes, the formalism, and above all the humorless self-righteousness so reminiscent of the revolutionary politics of the 1960s. Maybe what I saw proves once again that each generation must learn its own lessons by repeating the mistakes that its elders have lived to regret.

If so, it's especially regrettable now, when we queer crips are poised to fashion something more genuinely radical than any previous brand of identity politics. That's because our bodies challenge norms in a way that is inherently radical and, dare I say it, inherently funny. Cosmically funny. Writ large on our bodies we find the incongruity essential to the deepest darkest humor, the kind that makes us laugh one second and cry the next as preparation for inching toward an understanding of each other's humanity.

We understand better than most how the pursuit of pleasure and identity involves not just thrusting square pegs into round holes, but re-imagining the very nature of pegs and holes. It's an endless process. There is nothing more radical. There is nothing more serious and there is nothing funnier.

In the spirit of openness that the conference shoved me toward, I'll give the last word to the single abled ally among our group of friends. Mark McBeth is BENT's creative and technical advisor, the guy who never gets a byline but whose name you would see on the masthead if we had a masthead. Mark wrote of his conference experience that it reminded him of that "thin place between the worlds" described by writers on spirituality, a place of sanctuary. "Culture," he wrote, "(the collection of ideas, memes, artifacts, protocols, etc.) 'pulls the wool over our eyes' and lulls us into thinking there are boundaries to experience. Queerness and disability challenge that model and suggest that Another Culture is possible somewhere out there."

I can't think of a better way to describe how the conference changed my view of the world.

Bob Guter
Editor


Bob Guter has been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result of multiple birth defects. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Stagebill, and other publications. He lives in San Francisco.

© 20002 BENT

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