March 2002

Citizen Crip,
Citizen Queer


BENT has survived the Terrible Twos and is now an awkward Three Year Old. How's the Kid doing? Very well, thank you. Feisty, outspoken, well-read. But like any proud parent, I'm beginning to ask a few nagging questions. Is this the child I expected? The child I wanted?

To a large extent the answer is Yes. I wanted to make a place where you could feel free to write about your cripgay lives without interference. And you have. Your voices are loud and strong and best of all, frequently disputatious. You have dissected your personal relations, your libidos, your hopes and fears. With few exceptions, you have chosen to write, with enviable frankness, about intimate subjects rather than about your place in the larger world. That bias is mine, as well, so how can I complain?

And yet, what you have written about has set me to thinking. Don't we who occupy odd-formed and oddly-functioning bodies occupy a place in the Body Politic, too? You would hardly think so based on a close reading of BENT.

If it's true that most of us are disengaged politically, it's undoubtedly true that we can say the same for the population at large. It's also true, though, that we have more to lose. Look no further than the efforts to neuter the ADA for proof of that.

Look at the unemployment rate for disabled Americans, and a shameful health-care system that puts us at more-than-ordinary risk. Look at a legal and social structure that denies us the right to marry and serve in the military, questionable as those rights might seem to some of us.

So It's not as if there isn't plenty to write about. Yet it often seems that we have no public lives whatsoever, negative or positive. Why should this be the case? Sociologist Erving Goffman years ago observed that the stigmatized, the different, need to spend an inordinate amount of time "managing their identities." Many of your articles for BENT confirm Goffman's observation. I recognize the truth of it in my own life.

As we pursue love and work and physical autonomy while being ignored by our nondisabled gay brothers, as we struggle to feel whole in the face of slurs, stares, and outright discrimination, is it any wonder that managing our identities leaves us neither the time nor the energy for activism? Or is that position merely an excuse for ethical sloth?

No one has done a better job of analyzing this question than Shane Phalen in her recent book, Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship. Instead of writing one more polemic, Phalen looks at the concept of citizenship historically, ranging from Classical Greece to Nazi Germany, and compares the political philosophy of citizenship in Western nations today as it bears on those of us she defines as "strangers" in our own societies. We can read almost everything Phalen has to say with reference to our own crip as well as queer lives.

In an interview with Tim Miller in the November/December 2001 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review, Phalen maintains that in the United States today, queers (and by extension, I would argue, crips) cannot be considered citizens. Her explanations are more nuanced than any one excerpt can convey, but here's a sample:

"We are excluded from citizenship not only by bans on marriage and military service, however, but also by the routine denial of police protection and concern for violence against us. This extends to anti-gay police violence. If the fundamental promise of citizenship is acknowledgment of one another and common concern for one another's physical safety, then I would say that lesbians and gays are not yet citizens of the United States. They may be lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that has outlawed hate crimes against us, but if those laws are not actually enforced they are not afforded the protection due to citizens."

If we agree with Phalen that the right to vote and hold office is far too narrow a definition of citizenship (one that history does not support), and that as queer crips we are, indeed,"not yet citizens of the United States," what does that assumption say about the nature of our political detachment? Is it at least a partial explanation for the inward-looking perspective that so many BENT writers cultivate?

Denied the rights and responsibilities of citizens, we may exhibit little interest in the political processes that shape our destiny, but as long as we remain passive observers, that destiny careens off without us. It's a self-defeating malaise, one that leaves us strangers, people who, in Phalen's words, "find themselves not simply 'outside' a community, nor 'inside' as full members, but rather as figures of ambivalence or ambiguity."

Historically, the power wielded by queers as men and women uniquely positioned to criticize and remake society has emerged largely from our outsider status; some claim that that power is vanishing as mainstream culture absorbs homosexuality, as homosexuals themselves fight hard to be "just like everybody else."

Are we the New Strangers? Have gimps and queer gimps fallen heir to the outsider status enjoyed by the once-proud legion of Dykes and Faggots and Fairies and Queens?

Do we have anything to say for ourselves?

Will we speak up, here or anywhere else?

Bob Guter

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