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
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
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?
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