Picturing Queerness and Disability

Over the course of
three Thursdays in
October, CLAGS
presented its first
film festival,
“Picturing Queerness
and Disability in
Contemporary
Independent Films,”
featuring short films
that examined the
intersections of
disability and
sexuality. The
program notes from
the film festival are
reprinted here.

Queer experimental and
activist film and video was at
its origins linked with the New
Queer Cinema and AIDS activism.1
Politicized works rebutted mainstream
media’s definition of AIDS and built a
community around a new HIV Positive
identity. At the same historical moment,
a new canon of experimental queer
cinema emerged to re-examine histories
and representations of homosexuals
and, in the process, subverted genres
previously considered mainstream.
The cultural production and
media activism around queer disability issues showcased in Picturing Queerness and Disability furthers the
critical trajectory of queer cinema and its formative relationship to AIDS politics and experience. Like early
AIDS activism, this program aims to distance disease and illness as the distinguishing characteristics of
queer identity, and to resituate disability as part of the political discourse from within our community.
Echoing throughout this body of work is the desire to reconnect the discourse on illness and impairment
to queer identity and, more generally, to sexuality. The individual pieces in Picturing Queerness and
Disability collectively employ the strategies of critique, humor, and intervention to revise mainstream
representations of disability–that of the disabled as medical specimen, as heroic “supercrip,”2 or “useless
eater.”3 This series calls for disability to be part of the L/G/B/T political vocabulary and focuses our
attention to work at the intersections of queer studies and disability studies. These videos contain
refreshing positive, multidimensional, and critical views on disability. Our hope is that this program will
facilitate an open-ended robust exchange inspired by the transformative dialogues on screen.
The first evening of the festival focused on intimacy and exposure. Pratibha Parmar’s Double
Trouble, Twice the Fun is a germinal project, one of the first video representations at the intersection of
disability and queerness. Just as queers have historically been characterized solely by their sexuality,
disabled people have been characterized by their presumed lack of sexuality. This video sets the mood for
romance using softly erotic humor-–”Your wheelchair or mine?” Parmar’s repeated use of mirrors reflects
the notion that people with disabilities live multi-dimensional lives. The second of the evening’s
screenings, Beauteous: Stephanie, calls attention to the practice of “normalization” through surgery.
Exposed to the knife early on, Giovanna Chesler examines her relationships to beauty standards as she
considers the childhood surgery that transformed her face. Disability becomes an infinitely malleable
space, worked from the inside out by John Killacky in many of the vignettes in his video Crip Shots: Greg
Wallock’s eloquent re-telling of getting a boner during a checkup gives new meaning to exposure, yet
through candid autobiographical disruption he creates his own triumph; Terry Galloway brings together
taboo with dark humor and meditates on mortality in the provocative Etiquette of Suicide; and the
rhythmic, acrobatic movements of the “crutchmaster,” Bill Shannon, challenge a state of crip frailty and
propose a modern athleticism only feasible through a disabled body.
The programming on October 14 centered on negotiations of relationships–romantic, familial,
landscapes, institutions. In the collective production, One Night Sit, Carmelo Gonzalez, Ted Hinojosa, and
Diana Naftal imitate the camera work of popular dating shows, and through candid interviews, pose
questions about dating in a gay male community that over-emphasizes physical beauty. In Entry, Shelley
Barry’s visual poetry pays mimetic homage to Frida Kahlo’s paintings as she meditates on her own body
paralyzed by taxi wars.4 And in her companion piece, Voice/Over, Barry combines erotic-sounding
breathing with images of her scars ornamented with crowns. Bullet holes are the precursor for her
disability, but they don’t preclude, and are actually part of, her queer sexuality. John Killacky also
ruminates on disability and sexuality in Necessary Action. Dreaming as an able-bodied man, Killacky
comes to terms with his disability even during sleep, and reminds the able-bodied viewer that they are all
just “temps,” impermanently able bodied and susceptible to disability.5 In Sea in the Blood, Richard
Fung’s video on living close to illness—his sister, Nan, has Thallasemia and his boyfriend, Tim, is HIV
positive.6 While their illnesses are blood relatives, his sister and lover never meet. The filmmaker lyrically
mediates between two chronic illnesses, love, and loss, as he fuses home movie footage, travel documentation,
and a journey that connects his sister and partner.

The final night of works featured films on resistance and activism. Implementing revisionist
strategies and outlaw tactics, these artists incorporate and evolve disability and queer theory through
action. Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s Self Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer documents both artist
Riva Lehrer’s portfolio and the process of making it. Refurbishing old techniques such as surrealist
painting, Lehrer collaborates with her muses—other people with disabilities—to construct surroundings
in which they’ll be portrayed in her Magic Realist paintings. The paintings come to life as the subjects
talk about their experiences and challenge stereotypes about disability. As a tribute and a response to
Langston Hughes’s Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest, in Good Night,
Liberation Oriana Bolden sees no liberation in sight with regard to health care and poverty. She takes
things into her own hands, literally, and shoplifts items at a local pharmacy. My contribution, Operation
Invert, analyzes the historical medical assessments of the invert (homosexual and transsexual)
“condition” to reveal seemingly outdated absurdities about outsider deviance. Nonetheless, current
institutional loopholes governing gender re-assignment surgery suggest a fresh resurgence of loony
pathology and diagnosis. Are gender outlaws the new biological terrorists seeking weapons of mass
bodily destruction? Finally, when Stephanie Grey was tired of sterile, scientific, and textual explanations
of hearing loss, she composed a visual and sonic voyage that mimics the experience of someone with
sensory neural hearing loss. Gray’s close yr hearing for the capshuns catalyzes a visceral response in her
audience, exploring how “context is created and handed down linguistically and literally by communicators.”
Programming Picturing Queerness and Disability involved the mobilization of many resources. We
took the community media tactics and the ethics of the disability community as our guide. Our
programming committee of artists, academics, and activists—intellectually and personally committed to
the issues on disability rights and disability studies—collectively selected the works. This is our contribution
to the disability rights movement, and to interrogations at the intersections of disability studies
and queer studies. We hope it incites further dialogue and debate.

Notes

1 Coined by B. Ruby Rich, “New Queer Cinema” refers to seemingly simultaneous
appearance on the independent film circuit of films dealing openly and even
aggressively with queer culture, politics, and identity in the early nineties.
2 The “supercrip” stereotype depicts a disabled person—a person with a mobility
impairment who learns to walk, a dyslexic person who becomes a writer, for
example—who, through astounding personal endeavor, manages to overcome
their disability. While the message is a metaphor for the more general human
struggle to overcome life’s obstacles, to disability rights activists and disability
studies scholars, the underlying logic of this message is that disabled people can
never be happy as they are and must rise “above” their condition to “normality” to
be accepted. This ideology smacks of the troublesome notion that there is
something inherently wrong with people with impairments. The real problem, of
course, lies in the social, legal and physical structures that turn impairments into
disabilities. (Harnett, Allison, “Escaping the ‘Evil Avenger’ and the ‘Supercrip’:
Images of Disability in Popular Television,” Irish Communications Review Vol. 8
2000.)
3 On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention
of Progeny with Hereditary Disease.” The Third Reich labeled all persons with
disease considered hereditary as “useless eaters.”
4 Battle for ownership of transport routes in South Africa.
5 “Temps” is a colloquial term for able-bodied people in the disability community.
6 Thallasemia is a rare blood disease and means “sea in the blood” in Greek.

Tara Mateik is an artist, curator, and activist living in New York. He led the committee— which included
Robert Chang, Sarah Chinn, Kim Christensen, Paisley Currah, Kate
Huh, David Serlin, and Santiago Solis—that produced this film
festival.