November 2004

 

Global Exchange

Queer 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 1960s—and 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 me."

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

.


Bob Guter has been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result of congenital anomalies..

With John 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.