November 2005

 

WE ARE 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 cocksucker—and 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 myself.

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 is—sound. 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 of BENT.

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 event.

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" syndrome—though 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.

NOTE: 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

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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 (Harrington 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.