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November 2001

 

PITCHING
THE
BIG TENT

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 for BENT.

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 issue—talk about disparate—have 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 course.

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 another—whether we can, in fact, gather together in the big tent—I 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.

"I 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.

"While 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 your barrier.'

"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 healing

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 else's life.

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 disabilities—people 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.

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.

© 2001 BENT


Wait!
Don't go yet!!
It's CALLAHAN time . . .

http://www.callahanonline.com.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2001