crips the world over live lives unique to themselves while, at the
same time, they share experiences that add up to a global network
of related lives. In the past BENT has published articles by readers
from around the world, but never before have we had the opportunity
to devote one entire issue to the work of contributors as diverse
in their experiences as those you will find in our November issue.
In reviewing these
contributions, can we draw any conclusions about their origins and
their impact? Let me take a stab at it by examining three of the
five pieces we are proud to present here.
In reading Charles
Coventry's memoir, rich in detail, I was struck by how vividly
specific it is in its reliance on time and place. As an American,
whose institutions are derived directly from those of the British
Empire in so many ways, and as a fellow speaker of English as a
native language, I was struck nevertheless by the differences evinced
by Coventry's experiences, even in a time frame similar to my own.
His account of growing up disabled
in Scotland but coming to a realization of being gay only late in
life is a tale colored by differences in cultural attitudes (especially
those surrounding class) and in institutions (especially those governing
education). At one point he poses a particularly trenchant question
about the isolation of his disabled childhood and how he was treated
in school: "The contrast between Alloa Academy in rural Scotland
in the late 1950s and early 1960s and Eli Clare's school in Ohio
in the 1970s makes me wonder whether it reflects a change of attitude
over time, or whether this kind of difference between Britain and
America always existed."
The answer is probably "yes" to
both, and if we subscribe to the doctrine of social progress it
is easy to see how Coventry's life story illustrates the staggered
and irregular course of such change when measured not only in a
single country but between countries with similar legal and cultural
conditions, and thus how profoundly socio-cultural conditions mold
our individual lives. In 1967, for example, ten years after the
recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, English law was amended
to permit sexual relations between adults over the age of 21, "in
private." In Scotland, where Charles Coventry grew up, sex between
two men was not decriminalized until 1980. A law equalizing the
age of consent for gay men in line with that for heterosexual adults
was, over much opposition, passed by Parliament in 2000.
Though patchy, this record of
progress appears to be relatively enlightened when one remembers
the 1976 "emancipation" date in contrast to the situation in the
United States during the 1960sand even today. In such a context
it is easier to understand Coventry's observation that "perhaps
the knowledge that sex with other boys, and later with men at university,
was a crime might have suppressed my natural inclinations."
Do you picture Scotland as dour
and gray and repressed and Brazil, by contrast as a place of super-saturated
colors and super-saturated sex? Both are clichés, of course, with
germs of truth that emerge in the writing of Coventry and fellow
contributor Glauco Mattoso.
No two life experiences, however, could be more different, at least
as expressed through their writing, as those of Coventry and Mattoso.
The latter, published widely in
a variety of forms, is primarily a poet. Often composed in traditional
sonnet form, many of his poems, like those of Constantine Cavafy,
explore remembered sexual connection or erotic longing. In their
original Portugese they are as dependent on colloquialisms and culture-specific
references just as Coventry's life story is dependent on indigenous
institutions. The difference is huge of course, since Mattoso's
poems bring together his blindness and his fetishism in explicit
and transgressive images. The lines below, about licking a man's
boots, challenge the reader's assumptions about desire as well as
the political status quo:
I know too well
my job is degrading.
I'm blind, and that humiliates me even more.
But that's the way things are to satisfy
someone like you, so arrogant.
If Charles Coventry and Glauco
Mattoso illuminate how diverse cultures have constructed the lives
of gay men with disabilities during the last half century, then
Bhakti Ananda Goswami's
message, in contrast, transcends culture-specific boundaries. In
addressing the largely misunderstood subject of intersexuality,
the author makes a convincing case for how a more enlightened and
humane understanding of gender identity will define the last great
frontier in the struggle for universal human rights.
Goswami takes care to build his
argument on scientific data ("the mysteries of neuro-endocrinology
and physiology"), many of which are still emerging, but puts hard
facts at the service of the more amorphous and ultimately even more
important mysteries of human happiness and freedom.
Himself an intersex person as
well as someone who continues to confront the damaging effects of
post-Polio Syndrome, Goswami writes: "As readers of BENT will understand,
the chronically ill and disabled suffer greatly under all forms
of fundamentalism. During my time amongst fundamentalist Muslims
and Hindus, I was continuously reminded of my great 'hidden sinfulness,'
which (according to my self-righteous healthy judges), was being
'revealed by God through infirmity' to publicly humiliate and humble
Goswami's experience with disability
and gender ambiguity, together with his identity as a vowed monk
and Sannyasi, or Hindu mendicant ascetic, give him the insight and
courage to speak in terms of "pastoral care" while simultaneously
subscribing, in his investigations, to the highest scientific standards.
He frames his human rights activism
in a worldview that encompasses the confusion and pain wrought by
disability and gender ambiguity but one that emerges into the sunlight
of optimism that comes only from an understanding that the struggle
he engages transcends even the deepest human differences. His credo
is summarized in the following words:
"As we learn to look at one
another more deeply we may be inspired to take a regular spiritual
inventory of ourselves, so that we can humbly assess how other-centered
or truly loving we still need to become. Through sharing our experiences
we can break down the barriers of impersonalism and help to empower
each other. How can we be satisfied with being members of a 'class'
when we could be members of a loving, empowering community?"
Better than any others, those
words describe the thread that runs through this issue of international
diversity. Perhaps Goswami's question bears special relevance for
cripgay lives. As disabled gay men, might we be able to enlarge
our own lives and those of our peers, might we be better able to
move the goal of universal human rights forward more effectively,
if we could see ourselves as members of a larger community instead
of merely members of a class? It's a question worth thinking about.
© 2004 BENT
Photo by Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER
Guter has been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result
of congenital anomalies..
R. Killacky he edited "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and
their Stories" (Haworth
Press), winner of a 2004 Lambda Literary Award.
His short story, "The Enemy
at Bay," is included in
Fresh Men: New Voices in Gay Fiction, published
this month by Carroll & Graf. He lives in San Francisco, where
he publishes and edits BENT.