On Ableism within Queer Spaces, or, Queering the “Normal”
Pride Parades are organized around the notion of marching and, therefore, requires that people are able to physically move to showcase their belonging.
Our daily existence as two black queer men—one a (dis)abled queer femme man and the other an able-bodied (sometimes) masculine queer man—informs our belief that our quest for liberation from oppressions based on sexuality and gender expression must also account for the ways that ableism also often subjugates some queer people. Ableism shapes attitudes, policies and systems that ultimately dehumanize, pathologize and criminalize people whose bodies do not fit into socially constructed notions of what constitutes a ”normal” human being. Indeed, ableism shapes our understandings of gender expression.
As Eli Clare brilliantly puts it, “the mannerisms that help define gender—the way in which people walk, swing their hips, gesture with their hands, move their mouths and eyes when they talk, take up space—are all based upon how non disabled people move…The construct of gender depends not only upon the male body and female body, but also on the non disabled body.” Ableism renders invisible those bodies not privileged by dominant definitions of ability, those bodies that do not fit the conceptions of gender that we often imagine.
We “read” the movement of bodies, the ways people walk, hair styles, and the ways our bodies interact with other bodies in social spaces without ever realizing that all of the aforementioned performances are gendered expressions that center on the privilege of physical movement. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on the body, and one’s use of the body, without attending to the fact that for some the use of the body is an impossibility. Indeed, for one of us, a queer who relies on attendants for personal care and grooming, such understanding wholly ignores the ways he exists in the world.
As a result, it is time to fully acknowledge ableism as a pervasive form of oppression within our queer communities. Take, for example, Pride Parades, which are visual representations of queer and trans* communities. Pride Parades are organized around the notion of marching and, therefore, requires that people are able to physically move to showcase their belonging. This does not account for the experiences of those who are not able to walk or who have to use special equipment to move. And so when we rely on our physical abilities to express ourselves, we inadvertently reproduce disability oppression. In addition, consider the ways that ablesim functions in queer dating spaces, virtual or otherwise. Pervasive in many queer and trans* dating spaces is a type of self-expression that centers on the body and the need to make ourselves desirable to others. Queer and trans* folks of different abilities, who live with chronic illnesses, or battle with addictions are left out of so many of the spaces that purport to be designed for “us.” The “party culture” that is ubiquitous within many of our communities alienates those who are not able to feel safe, validated, and affirmed within these contexts. Our lack of access to such spaces has an impact on our ability to claim our identifications and belonging within these communities.
That one of us is (dis)abled, black and queer makes his lived experience of the world unmistakably political. His corporeality cannot be separated from a broader sociohistorical context in which (dis)abled bodies are read as tragic and irreparable; queer bodies as immoral; and black bodies as criminal and expendable. These complex layers of dehumanization make it so that his body is deemed undesirable within society.
Those of us accorded with able-bodied privilege must do the work of analyzing our privileges and ensuring that we do the work of undoing ableism. While we might all be queer—resisting heteronormativity and bodying forth new ways of being in the world—we must attend to the ways that our resistance and new ways of being might easily render invisible those queers who are differently-abled. Ensuring that we respond to the diverse needs of queers during Pride, at events, at clubs, and other social spaces is a start, but the more difficult work is naming and mitigating ableist thought. In order to do that work, we have to be willing to listen, if we can, and vision, if we are able, a future that decenters our conceptions of the “normal” and truly celebrates the queer.