Disability and Queerness: Centering the Outsider

When James Anastos, a transgender man, turned 21 and moved into a residential living environment for the neurologically impaired in Staten Island, his male gender identity became a problem.

“Being transgender, they told me they could have me put away if I dressed like a boy. They didn’t like the way I dressed – all boys’ clothes,” he told me during an interview.

His two best friends in the facility were lesbians, and were also very out about their identity. “One of my friends there always dressed like a boy, never wore a dress, never. She told them I’m going to dress the way I want to dress and that’s too bad for you. Another friend was, according to Anastos, “a real tomboy,” who wore gay themed baseball caps and pins. “That was just who we are, we were comfortable that way,” he added.

But the facility was not comfortable, to say the least, with out queers and transgender people among its residents. “The staff hated it, they would make us wear girls’ clothes, dresses and skirts, make us shave our legs all the time, tell us the way we ‘should’ be.” The management considered this “training” part of their “hygiene” curriculum.

Anastos’ partner Brandi Campbell is a transgender woman with a physical impairment. Anastos can’t travel through the city by himself and Campbell’s mobility impairment makes it very difficult for her to walk. But to get their food stamps, they have to travel from Staten Island, where they live with Anastos’ mother, to Brooklyn, an arduous trek negotiating the bus, the ferry, two subway lines and several sets of subway stairs.

“They have programs for the disabled, but they don’t know how to deal with transgender people. And GLBT programs don’t know how to handle people with disabilities,” Campbell said. “But we’re told not to make waves, to keep our mouths shut,” Anastos added.

(I met with Anastos and Campbell in a Manhattan coffee shop last fall, wearing my transgender advocate hat, to answer their questions about getting sex reassignment surgery covered by Medicaid; in New York, as in the vast majority of states, Medicaid, like almost all private insurance plans, does not cover these procedures.)

This story is not just an account of two transgender individuals with physical and neurological impairments “falling between the cracks” of what’s left of the social welfare system. Anastos and Campbell’s predicament also brings into sharp relief the intersections of disability rights and LGTBQ rights, and the ways that disability studies and LGTBQ studies, to some measure, might share some common theoretical bases and political projects.

In the disability rights movement and in disability studies, the distinction between impairments and disability has been crucial. Disability studies scholar Lennard J. Davis points out in Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism & Other Difficult Positions that in the “social model” prevalent in the field, “disability is presented as a social and political problem that turns an impairment into an oppression either by erecting barriers or by refusing to create barrier – free environments (where barrier is used in a very general and metaphoric sense).” “Impairment” refers more to the physical “facts” of individuals’ bodies, though certainly the role of medical discourses in constructing particular types of bodies as pathological comes under heavy scrutiny. In moving away from the “medical model” of disability, in which the problem to be solved inheres in individual bodies, disability rights activists and disability studies scholars have located the problem in social practices, discourses, institutions, and landscapes.

Much of the LGBT rights movement is geared toward finding a space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and, more recently, transgender people, within the legal and social structures to which we’ve historically been denied entrance, rather than challenging the structures themselves – marriage is perhaps the most prominent example at the moment. In a “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” age saturated with images of perfect queer bodies, questioning the way the norms themselves reproduce the outsider status of those who fail to meet them seems to have dropped out of the picture.For example, the fight for same – sex marriage doesn’t end the state’s ability to be the legal arbiter of an individual’s sex; nor will same – sex marriage distribute rights and privileges to those who’ve created communities and ways of living outside of marriage – like arrangements.

Disability studies, and the disability rights movement that spawned this lively and important interdisciplinary field, reminds us that, as a movement, we need to continue to challenge not only the historical heteronormativity of the social and legal landscape we find ourselves in, but also the way those same structures are imbued with race, class, gender, and ableist privileges.

As the story of Anastos and Campell reminds us, queer rights and disability rights are not just parallel, but intersectional. And the work of disability studies doesn’t just provide a convenient analogy for those of us in queer studies – it also shows us how useful it might be to analyze how different types of queer and impaired bodies and desires are cast as “abnormal” together. As queer disability rights activist Eli Clare writes in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, “my body has never been singular. Disability snarls into gender. Class wraps around race. Sexuality strains against abuse.”

The point of all this is to give you some idea of the work that CLAGS has been doing this year in our series, “Disability and Queerness: Centering the Outsider.” At the urging of disability rights activists Jim Davis and Anthony Trocchia, and under the leadership of CLAGS’s former executive director, Alisa Solomon, CLAGS formed a committee of queer disability rights activists, disability studies scholars, and queer studies scholars and activists to develop this programming. This fall, we’ve seen some of the fruits of that work and the programming continues this spring: on March 29th, CLAGS and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU will host a pedagogy workshop on teaching at the intersections of queer and disability studies with Simi Linton and David Serlin; on April 14th, we’ll have a panel, “Composing Birth Announcements: The Production of Hetero – Normative, ‘Healthy’ Babies,” addressing the effects of new reproductive technologies; and on May 12th, Santiago Solis will present his work, “Unzipping the Monster Dick,” on ableist penile representations in homoerotic magazines. If you’re in the New York area, I urge you to come out to these events; if you think you already know about the disability rights movement and disability studies, and how they might intersect with queer lives and queer studies, think again.

We’re also delighted to announce that the Feminist Press has just published Queer Ideas: The Kessler Lectures in Lesbian and Gay Studies. The book includes the first ten lectures by Kessler honorees: Judith Butler, Samuel Delany, John D’Emilio, CherrÌe Moraga, Joan Nestle, Esther Newton, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Smith, Edmund White, and Monique Wittig. Finally, you’ll be hearing more about Gayle Rubin’s wonderful 2003 Kessler Lecture, “Geologies of Queer Studies: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again,” in our summer newsletter – stay tuned.

Paisley Currah