SEPTEMBER 2003

 

PICTURE THIS

Regular readers of this webzine know by now that "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories," an anthology derived largely from writing in BENT, will be published by Haworth Press in November.

My co-editor John Killacky and I knew all along that one of the most challenging aspects of this project, in the works for more than two years, would be designing an effective cover. The nature of the challenge involved not only aesthetic considerations (the cover should be beautiful) and marketing goals (what kind of design will prompt buyers to pull the book off the shelf?), but, we realized, political considerations as well.

What's so political about cripgay writing? In the broadest cultural sense—everything. The fact that "Queer Crips" will be published at all suggests that gay disability culture might be coming of age, driven by the force of our collective intelligence and our willingness to write emotionally candid accounts of our lives. The fact that the manuscript was rejected by dozens of prominent publishers with queer and gender-studies lists before being welcomed by Haworth tells us that our concerns are still thought saleable to no more than a niche market. Thus, how we present ourselves becomes important not only to all of us queer crips ourselves but to the larger audience we seek to address.

In writing about our lives in "Queer Crips" we are depicting them, of course, picturing them for each other and for that great crowd of nondisabled readers. The function of the book's cover is to picture what's inside in a more obvious sense. But how do we go about choosing an image that pictures gay disability?

Kenny Fries, in his contribution to "Queer Crips," titled "Modeling for the Cause," dismisses the clichéd guy-in-a-wheelchair image. Even before reading Kenny's piece we, too, knew that that was not the image for us. There are plenty of gay guys in chairs, you might be thinking, so what's wrong with splashing one of them across the cover? For one thing, the chair image can be reductionist, since it serves as the only image of disability many nondisabled people know. In symbolic terms it risks substituting in the viewer's mind a piece of machinery for the person using it. Its not-so-subtle message may be that the man is nothing more than his disability, by virtue of the assistive device he's using.

The wheelchair symbol points to another problem in depicting disability. John and I worked hard to find a selection of writers whose lives, outlooks, and, yes, whose disabilities represented the broadest possible range of experience. Any cover design that suggested only one particular disability could turn out to seem exclusionary. We worried about reducing an entire community to what might read as a single "impairment."

You may begin to see the challenge. Not until we had a trial design in front of us, however, did we fully understand its implications. We suggested to our cooperative Haworth Press designer that the image of a Kouros—an ancient Greek statue of a nude youth—might work, especially since most examples have come down to us with one or more limbs damaged or missing. Might the homoerticism implicit in such a statue, coupled with its damaged state, imply some of the issues our book was raising about sex and disability, and do so symbolically, without suggesting any one disability?

When the designer delivered the first try, beautiful on its own terms, we circulated it to our own small focus group. Only then did the real fun begin. The range of responses went like this:

¶ I think it's very cool. Of course, I usually go for anything that has a male butt on it.

¶ That cover says "This is a snooty academic tome about the cultural implications of traditionally accepted notions of sexuality and it's affects on people afflicted with disabilities blah blah blah blah blahbitty blah. This book is ground-breaking, and it's about sex, fer chrissakes! You've gotta do better than this!

¶ In particular I like the photo of the statue. I like the boldness of the overall look, and the photo. That alone would attract me as a buyer.

¶ I think it's cliche and predictable (classical statue = gay, broken statue =crip). I almost laughed when i saw it. But I can't think of anything better. It's a beautiful design, attractive, and has sex appeal. the naked butt will help sell the book.

¶ If you put a real crip on the cover . . . who would you choose?

Talk about conflicting messages sent and received! The comments above, and others like them, made us realize that the idealized Kouros image, despite the provocative implications of its missing parts, might fail to embody for many potential readers our book's sexy, brash, cutting edge content. And while the Kouros may read as erotic to one generation of gay men, might it lack the same iconic value for men in their 20s and 30s.? Hadn't we better make sure that "Queer Crips" is as attractive as possible to this age group if we want to make Queer Studies and Disability Studies programs take note? And on and on . . .

We're still struggling with what "Queer Crips" will look like, but the issues it raises transcend the question of a suitable book cover. Depicting disability, picturing gay disability, is a challenge that goes straight to the heart of who and what we are: how, after all, do you depict a developing collective consciousness?

© 2003 BENT

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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 where he publishes and edits BENT.