WHO WE ARE,
But Who Are We?
With unerring skill for lampooning the fatuousness of cultural
and political semantics, Gore Vidal famously observed, "Actually,
there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there
is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives
describing sexual acts, not people." Vidal prefers "homosexualist,"
a construction chosen to irritate, one suspects, but doubtless
to open up our minds to the foolishness of categorization as well.
Less famously but with the same sure instinct for blasting the
canons of accepted wisdom a friend of mine with scant patience
for weasel words or political attempts to define him proclaims,
"I'm not gay. I'm not queer. I'm a cocksuckerand a
damn good one at that," an assertion, he adds, "that
makes the straight boys blush crimson." Which leads us yet
again to the subject of identity.
Concepts of identity
are embedded in this month's issue, which reflects the diversity
of our queer crip universe while it raises questions about the ground
a publication like BENT attempts to cover. Jitka Sinecka's Peter's
Story: Deafness, Gayness and Identity, is one of the rare pieces
about being deaf and gay anywhere in BENT's publication history.
In fact, three pieces by Raymond
Luczak are the only other contributions by a deaf author (the
anthology "Queer Crips" includes a personal essay by Robert Roth).
The reason for this lack strikes at the heart of how we choose to
define and inhabit the double minority status we call "cripgay."
Simply put, most deaf individuals
reject the designation "disabled." Instead, they insist on seeing
themselves, and being seen, as a cultural minority, a view based
on the fact that visual sign languages (American Sign Language,
or ASL, has counterparts worldwide) are genuine "languages," fully
developed, nuanced, and intricate means of communication, each with
its own grammar, not the simplistic symbolic systems that the hearing
public often mistakes them for. Before knowing deaf people and learning
to admire the subtle art of signed interpretation, I made this mistake
Nowadays I am reminded of my former
ignorance every time I pass a certain San Francisco coffeehouse
which, for some reason, is a magnet for deaf gay guys. In fair weather
(most days here) they gather at sidewalk tables where the only element
missing from their cruisy babble issound. And why is it that
every one of them is hot? Maybe I'm overcompensating for all the
time I was trapped in my own ignorance of deaf reality, or maybe
I'm nursing the sweet nostalgia of my adolescent crush on a deaf
boy played out at camp one faraway summer. I no longer remember
his name, but I recall his face, and the feel of his hand in mine
as he tried to teach me the manual alphabet.
It's no wonder that the struggle
for Deaf cultural identity is continually called into question by
outsiders, for in order to avail themselves of essential services
like interpretation and communication by text telephone (TTY), Deaf
individuals are compelled, at least implicitly, to sign on to the
"disability" roster. That's how the provision of services, however
inadequate, works here in the realm of compassionate conservatism
(and in truth, it worked that way in pre-Bush days as well).
Such compulsory self-identification
can become a distorted version of identity politics: you and your
body are what the body politic insists you are, whether you like
it or not, whether or not you agree with the criteria published
by bureaucrats who lack all comprehension of the self-within-the-self
that drives identity. This is a kind of identity straight jacket
with implications for disability culture in general. Without doubt
it has played a role in our emerging sense of crip culture and,
by extension, the coupling of queer and crip that inspired the creation
If a gulf exists between Deaf
cultural identity and how the world at large understands or fails
to understand it, this month's BENT/Disgaytalk Forum, Surviving
the Accident, illustrates a gulf just as broad, one that points
up a major source of friction with the potential to set up two disability
camps inside the larger world of disability, camps defined by a
significant temporal factor: when it was that disability arrived
in your life, early or later. An accident is often the defining
Time and again we who share so
much by being queer and disabled find ourselves participating in
this temporally induced hierarchy. If I've been disabled since birth,
for example, and you become disabled at, say, the age of
thirty-five, we are bound to entertain worldviews a whole lot different
than even we are conscious of at first. The difference between being
and becoming, in a philosophical sense, is important here. I've
never known anything else, while you must begin by overcoming your
anger and grief over what you've lost, as Shawn Smith does in "Surviving."
From comparing life experiences
with many friends whose disabilities differ in kind and onset from
mine, I have learned that one of the biggest and most troubling
differences has to do with our willingness (or ability) to stand
up for ourselves, to be visible and loud in our own defense. This
difference has implications in the private sphere but assumes even
larger proportions in the public arena. To put it simply, those
disabled later in life often find it easier to engage the political
process because their activism is fueled by anger over what they've
lost. Those of us disabled since birth are more likely to have been
raised in a way that encourages deference, even invisibility, the
"best little boy in the world" syndromethough a younger generation
accustomed to educational mainstreaming and more general visibility
appears to be changing that.
Another aspect of later-onset
disability is a phenomenon seldom mentioned. Catastrophic injuries,
especially those ending in paralysis, frequently result from accidents
that produce insurance settlements sufficient for adequate care.
A number of past BENT articles
as well as many listings in DirectDiscourse
attest to the fact that a whole subset of Jock Crips exists whose
paraplegia or quadriplegia has thrust them into this category. An
economic crip caste system is thus created, assuring that many men
disabled less dramatically (read Bob Feinstein's Home
Alone) will struggle to afford the services and support systems
that a humane society would take for granted.
In a world where being queer and
disabled promises to unite us through common difficulties and passions
it's a wonder that the differences engendered by an unjust social
system leave us anything at all in common.
A book that has expanded my own appreciation of Deaf culture, and,
by extension, the differences that separate or unite us, is Seeing
Voices by Oliver Sacks.
© 2005 BENT
Photo by Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER
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
Park Press), winner of a 2004 Lambda Literary Award. His writing
has appeared in the James White Review,
Fresh Men: New Voices in Gay Fiction, and other publications.
He lives in San Francisco, where he publishes and edits BENT.