for this month's
tasteless crip humor, don't miss the very bottom of the page . .
Remember, not so long ago, when
American political parties still seemed germane to our lives, however
tangentially? There was a lot of talk in those days about "pitching
a big tent." It was a way of saying Let's make space for disparate
interests within a set of principles that unites us. I visualize
cripgay politics in the same way, and the "big tent" metaphor is
certainly my guiding image whenever I review potential contributions
One of my (self-defined) tasks
as editor is to read submissions through a kind of "universal experience
filter." I do not expect to identify with every detail of every
author's experience, nor do I expect to agree with every philosophical
or political position a writer takes. I do, however, want to feel
that something in every piece resonates deeply with my own experience
as a disabled gay man.
The contents of this issuetalk
about disparatehave been a particular challenge in that regard.
One contributor started off by asserting he was sure I would not
want to publish his piece because he expressed opinions many readers
would disagree with. I assured him he was wrong. Ultimately, all
of the pieces here passed my filter test. I hope you find something
in each of them that touches your own experience.
Sometimes the big tent metaphor
is put to the test in a way that takes me by surprise. Recently
an enthusiastic new subscriber, disabled and transgendered, wrote
to say that he was put off by the gender category on the BENT subscription
form. I thanked him for raising the issue and promised to delete
that irrelevant category from the generic list-manager form we had
adopted. Definitely a no-brainer. Sometimes it's easy to correct
Other challenges to the idea
of who is welcome here at BENT are more complex. In his
September "Bear in Mind" column, Max Verga answered letters
from two men with spinal-cord injuries. Their questions were not
"technical," nor were Max's answers. One of the two wrote again
later to say how helpful he had found Max's reply.
Not long afterwards I received
an email from another SCI subscriber, let's call him Mike, who saw
things differently. I was pleased, because readers seldom take time
to respond to features that provoke strong opinions. Here was a
fine Letter to the Editor, I thought. And then I thought again.
Because Mike's email incorporates a lot of assumptions about who
we are and how we are capable of understanding and relating to one
anotherwhether we can, in fact, gather together in the big
tentI decided I would quote it in full here, as the basis
of a detailed reply. Here's what Mike had to say:
"While I applaud
anyone's attempt to validate and uplift anyone's spirits no matter
what the situation, I can't help but feel, in this situation, that
Max Verga isn't an appropriate individual to respond to such questions
nor is anyone else who can't experience (or at least thoroughly
comprehend) the depth that a given disability can encompass.
recently had a lively debate with a friend who claimed that 'depression
is depression is depression.' While he is a former social worker
and is able-bodied, he believes it is possible to liken a relationship
breakup to the same level of depression as, say, issues endured
by a person with a long-term disability. I couldn't help but laugh
at his argument, yet I understand his naiveté given his experience
as an able-bodied person.
I do not personally suffer from depression, I'd like to see how
quickly he changes his tune if he had to perform digital stimulations
for the rest of his life in order to defecate. And yes, I'm trying
not to get graphic.
"What this leads
up to is a similar train of thought that I believe Verga has fallen
victim to: 'A disability is a disability is a disability.' Again,
I praise anyone who strives to affirm others; however, one's case
is made stronger once he is truly knowledgeable about his audience.
Many people assume that spinal cord injuries, from a paraplegia
standpoint, imply that 'you just can't walk.' Oh, brother. If only
if it were that simple.
"Men with spinal
cord injuries carry the psychological baggage of asking, 'What able-bodied
person would want me?' This is what the general public can see and
most readily responds to in a counseling capacity. Yet the same
spinal-cord-injured individual's less visible questions pertain
to his physical and sexual functioning. For example, maintaining
an erection, if it's even possible, whether he is capable of an
orgasm, does he have enough sensation to experience pleasure below
the waist, etc. In essence, his whole understanding of his sexual
identity as well as his intimacy with a partner must change. Are
these hurdles impossible to clear? Absolutely not! Yet, they do
take more interpersonal and introspective analysis than 'You'll
be okay if you stop focusing so much on being in a wheelchair as
"I would not even
attempt to give such sweeping advice to an amputee or someone with
multiple sclerosis or spina bifida for that matter, without truly
knowing (by experience or asking in-depth) the challenges he or
she faces. While I am neither scolding Verga or BENT at this Q &
A attempt, I would like to see that such future discussions are
crafted more thoughtfully."
My initial reaction to Mike's
objections was pretty simple. If I were to take his position at
face value, I would need to reject the very idea of a BENT advice
column. But if we keep in mind that the two men who asked Max for
advice were not posing medical/technical questions, I think the
issue runs far deeper. I do not
believe, any more than Mike does, that "a disability is a disability
is a disability." I do believe that
my experiences and emotions as a man with impaired mobility and
a congenitally malformed body connect me to my queer disabled peers
in ways that are potentially helpful and, on a deeper plane, potentially
Because of that belief, I reject
the writer's notion that "Verga isn't an appropriate individual
to respond to such questions nor is anyone else who can't experience
(or at least thoroughly comprehend) the depth that a given disability
can encompass." Which of us, after all, can thoroughly
comprehend anything about someone
Every one of us queer gimps needs
the best technical expertise and support he can find. We also need
to find a society of friends that the larger culture denies us.
That's why BENT exists. Of course we are not all temperamentally
suited to be one another's friends, but it saddens me to think that
any of us might reject a potential source of friendship or merely
sound friendly advice simply because it originates from someone
whose disability does not match ours.
Whenever I generalize about any
cripgay issue, I grow uneasy and look for a second opinion, so I
showed Mike's email to a friend whose disability is different from
mine, who is a lot younger, and who works as a benefits counselor
at a Center for Independent Living. Here's what he had to say:
"Mike reminds me
of clients I get here at CIL (usually folks who use wheelchairs)
who question my ability to do my job, since as far at they are concerned,
I'm not disabled. Since Max isn't a 'plegic, Mike says he can't
comment on anything having to do with that. I call it bullshit,
and here's why. The guys who wrote to 'Bear in Mind' didn't solicit
any SCI-specific "medical" advice about sexual functioning. If that
were the case, there's a possibility that Max would be 'unqualified'
to offer such advice. There is also the possibility that Max would
know this kind of information, and in that case, I'd encourage him
to share it. I know a hell of a lot about the specifics of SCI and
sexual function, and I'm not a para.
"Neither of the
letters brought up specific questions of functioning, both dealt
with feelings. Mike is the one who brought up the 'sexual functioning'
topic and he's the one who makes a whole bunch of assumptions
about what the 'real' questions were that Max is allegedly incapable
of answering. It's a classic example of the hierarchy of disabilitiespeople
with disabilities that they see as more severe sometimes try to
knock down someone they perceive as less disabled. Though your experience
of disability may be totally different than mine, our similarities
as cripgay men may turn out to be a lot bigger than either
of us ever thought.
"I also take issue
with the assumption that another SCI gimp would necessarily have
the 'depth' to understand Mike's situation. Individual capacities
for understanding and empathy aside, a difference of a millimeter
or two in the site of the injury can have entirely different effects
on the body."
Where does all this leave us?
I want to believe that our identity as disabled gay men confers
on us a little more potential for fraternity and support than that
enjoyed by other men, that our often peculiar bodies and common
oppression grant us more mutual understanding than evinced by the
body politic at large. But maybe that's all a pipe dream. Maybe
we are no more likely to convene peaceably in that big tent than
are the rest of the "American People," who, led astray by the politics
of race, gender, and class, swear allegiance to their differences
while denying their deep human connections.
I'd like to know what you think.
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.
© 2001 BENT
It's CALLAHAN time . . .