Auto-archaeology is an emerging form of autoethnography exploring individuals’ artifacts as supporting evidence to interpret experiences explored using autoethnographic methodologies. Using multiple voices, this essay draws upon the data of photos and poetry from my past and lived experiences to interrogate complex intersections of disability, gender, and queerness. This approach contributes to emergent literature examining intersections of queer and disabled identities while using an intersectional lens to examine how privileged identities intersect with Femme/disabled identities. Finally, it considers balancing the ongoing performance of identities with needing to feel recognized, discussing ways to create space for intersections of invisible identities.
Being There: May 2015
Artifact: Transcript from Digital Story completed in 2015
In the beginning, it was my knees. I was twelve when they first started to hurt, to pop out of place. I went from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, in search of an answer, an explanation.
I was thirteen when I got my first migraine. I didn't understand what was happening and was terrified as my head screamed out in pain. Like a clamp holding my head in place, ever constricting as the pain drilled through my skull.
Then it all came together as everything fell apart. The fatigue and life-altering exhaustion. The mornings where I literally could not get out of bed because of the pain hammering through my bones, aching in the muscles and nerves, beyond just the joint pain I was so used to. I lost all control of when I could leave my home, of when I could even stand up long enough to shower. Fibromyalgia. A name I could barely pronounce for a curse I didn't understand.
Year after year, it got worse. There was the time I couldn't remember words. The time when I lost feeling in my arm for a night. The day I almost passed out in class as the computer lab swirled around me because my body could not process the heat, and retaliated with flashes of nausea and vertigo.
I went from being dependable to continuously tentative, unsure of what my body would throw at me any given day, from being the life of the party to not even being at the party at all.
Every single day, I play whack-a-mole with my body. And every single day, I wake up. I may be tethered by the pain, desperate for answers and solutions that I may never have … and every single day I wake up is a victory. Every single time I open my eyes is a success. Every pace that I take, every word that I speak, every time I battle the pain that rages through my body … this, this is a triumph.1
This essay presents an auto-archaeological exploration of complex intersectional experiences of gender and disability. It begins with an autoethnography of the first author's intersectional experience as a queer disabled Femme with chronic pain and chronic illness. This critical self-reflection and analysis is the foundation for questions about the experiences of people with chronic pain, illness, and (in)visible disabilities. The purpose of this essay is to offer a deeper understanding of these experiences in order to build empathy, explore the troubling of binaries and boundaries, and invite readers to contextualize themselves rather than imposing assumptions on others.
Although written in the first person (from the point of view of myself: Shanna), this research includes many conversations about the nuances of identity, embodiment, fluidity, methodology, research on oneself versus one's community (or both together), and responsibility as a researcher. As such, while this is a self-reflective piece, it has two authors: myself and Ramona Beltran; together, we have co-created a research and writing experience allowing me to explore the convoluted crossroads of disability and gender.
Through an auto-archaeological process, I examine both the privileges and burdens of having invisible marginalized identities, while also recognizing the privileges I have from my oppressive identities (such as my Whiteness) that intersect with those invisible identities, providing an intersectional experience of the world. There is a growing field of research on both crip and Femme identities, as well as growing writing in intersectional identities. As a critical social work scholar, I use my own experience to explore these questions with others in my community—to draw connections from the “me” experience to the “we” experience. Accordingly, the narrative above is a script written for a digital story exploring my lifelong struggle with chronic pain. It is an artifact describing an empowering moment when I was officially diagnosed with a chronic illness that gave name to a previously invalidated experience. In the digital story, I combined images of myself at various points in that journey with the above narrative to illustrate the ways that my disabilit(ies) are manifested as both visible and invisible but always embodied in complex ways as they intersect with my gender and sexual identities. This video, as well as images presented later in this essay, are artifacts demonstrating the fluid nature of these intersecting identities and the power of naming and claiming them as I move in the world.
AUTO-ARCHAEOLOGY AND AUTOETHNOGRAPHY
Autoethnography is an increasingly visible method of qualitative inquiry that utilizes systematic analysis of self-reflection from a researcher's personal experiences to draw connections to larger social and cultural experiences, as discussed by Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner; Tony E. Adams and Stacy Holman Jones; Lace Marie Brogden; and Kenyan G. Tomaselli, Lauren Dyll, and Michael Francis.2 Ellis, Adams, and Bochner describe rigorous and systematic self-analysis related to larger sociocultural experiences as pathways to building a more socially conscious and, therefore, more just world.3 By using tenets of both autobiography and ethnography, Ellis, Adams, and Bochner state that this method is both “process” and “product,” challenging traditional approaches to positivist research and representation that is considered unbiased or value-free. Autoethnography appreciates the deeply contextualized, localized, and intimate nature of stories as ways to illustrate and make sense of our personal and collective lives. Building on the central self-reflective, interpretive, and politicized tenets of autoethnography, auto-archaeology utilizes personal and institutional “artifacts” as data for systematic self-reflective analysis.4 Brogden describes artifacts as “sites/sights of identity negotiation” that act as data points, both illustrations of complexity and multiplicity that can deepen the interpretation of meaning within the self-reflection.5 As such, artifacts can bridge the past to present understanding, production, and performance of self.
Ragan Fox's “Tales of a Fighting Bobcat” describes the use of artifacts (written words, pictures, institutional documents) to examine an individual's experiences in relation to their identity(ies). Fox uses the work of Brogden and Michel Foucault in his construction of auto-archaeology. Brogden describes artifacts as important illustrative tools in reflexive autoethnography that help to “sift through and over archaeological digs …, using artful writing for critical reflection.”6 Fox also uses Foucault's conceptualization of archaeology, wherein archaeologies and related artifacts show the discursive structures of inclusion, exclusion, and discipline, which purposely “other” individuals and groups in order to constrict and constrain identity. As such, discourse plays an important role in the performative constructs of identity.
Bodies can also be understood as archaeological sites/sights and artifacts that inform autoethnographic interpretations. Tami Spry explains, “In seeking to dis-(re)-cover my body and voice in all parts of my life, I began writing and performing autoethnography, concentrating on the body as the site from which the story is generated, thus beginning the methodological praxis of reintegrating my body and mind into my scholarship.”7 As a queer Femme with complex (in)visible disabilities, my body is an important archaeological artifact that informs my understanding of my intersectional identities of gender, queerness, and disability. Auto-archaeology helps me to find my own voice as it connects to my body and its lived experiences, and allows me to sift through multiple artifacts (embodied and other) to begin to draw nuanced inferences about the possible experiences of others.
In this auto-archaeological analysis, I use several artifacts, including a script from a digital story, images of myself from the past decade, and a spoken word piece I performed at an open mic night. I analyze how these artifacts also feed into my invisibility and at times allow me to perform my Femme-ness and crip-ness in very intentionally visible ways. The memories captured within these artifacts demonstrate complex experiences of being seen/unseen and belonging/not belonging. These artifacts also remind me of the power in defining myself for myself, pushing back against the isolation of identities defined against a mythical dominant norm. My hope is that sharing my story and analysis contributes to the legibility of communities with similar experiences.
MY INTERSECTIONAL LIFE: AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHY OF QUEER FEMME (DIS)ABILITY
Being There: February 27, 2010
Nine years ago, I spoke in front of a crowd at the Femina Potens queer/trans art gallery and community space in San Francisco for Sizzle, a queer performance night. This particular evening focused on “Sexual Ability,” which was why I had been invited to speak, as a sexuality educator who was very open about being disabled. It was the first time I was speaking publicly about both the privilege and burden of passing as a Femme crip. I decided to use spoken word to explore the intersection between my gender presentation as a queer Femme and my disability. At the time, I struggled with a constant feeling of invisibility and erasure from my own communities. I can still feel my nervousness as the paper shook in my hands, and my voice wavered when I began to speak. But as I saw heads in the crowd nodding along with my words, I fell into a comfortable cadence that stayed with me throughout the piece, pushing me forward through my tidal wave of words and previously unexpressed emotions. The moment of connection I felt as others nodded along is the visceral component of this artifact. All at once I was vulnerable, taking a risk of isolation by spilling my innermost struggles, and held in a shared moment of being seen and heard by others who possibly knew some variation of this exact experience.
Artifact: Spoken Word Excerpt: Sizzle at Femina Potens
My gender is often invisible to others. People see me as alternative, and oftentimes, as straight. The more my partner passes, the less I am seen. I experience more anti-Femme hatred and bigotry in the queer community than I have experienced anti-queer sentiment in the rest of the world.
My disability is often invisible to others. Unless it happens to be a day where I'm walking with a cane, or someone sees the epic travel pill pack that follows me everywhere in the deep depths of my purse, people don't see me as having a disability. In the community, I am told that I should consider myself “lucky” that I'm not more disabled, that my disability is not more severe, that I am not more visible.
I don't want to fight to be who I am. I don't want to wear rainbow necklaces or name-drop “my ex-girlfriend” in order to be seen as queer in the queer community, and I don't want to go flashing my handicap permit or show off my scars in order to be recognized as someone with disabilities by others in the same boat.
I fight the mainstream every day just to have accessible buildings and parking, and to get the same rights as everyone else; to share insurance, to not be fired for my orientation, and more. I do not have the time, energy, or patience to fight within my own community.
Since that night, I have spent many years exploring the definitions and meanings behind these identity labels not only to relieve my own isolations but also to articulate my self-legitimacy for those struggling with similar circumstances. The similarity between Femme invisibility and crip (in)visibility connects these two frequently separate identities and solicits a deeper interrogation of the intermingled privileges and challenges that accompany both identities, as well as how other identities, oppressive and marginalized, play out in the lived experiences of Femme crips.
The concept of Femme has many layers and is varied. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker write in Femme:
While gender should not be understood as a biological imperative, what this history of femme shows is that femme gender identity is not simply role-playing in which certain sets of clothes or behaviors are on a daily basis easily assumed or discarded. Femme queerness is a sustained gender identity, a chosen rather than assigned femininity…. Rather than being defined by the outer trappings of femininity, femme gender is linked to a particular set of desiring relationships which occurs in butch-femme as well as other sites.8
While I believe Femme exists in many sites outside of butch identities and butch–femme relationships, Harris and Crocker's definitions honor Femme-ness as more than biology or fashion choices. Disability is similarly varied and layered, including experiences of physical disability, intellectual/developmental disability, mental health/socioemotional disability, and learning disability. Alison Kafer speaks to the challenge of defining disability as a simple state of body or mind, recognizing it as a more fluid identity, a fluidity that she notes is a concept more in line with queer literature and theory than how disability has been historically discussed.9
In the ongoing journey toward understanding my gender, sexual orientation, and ability, I frequently struggle with the same questions posed in my Femina Potens monologue: What does it mean for others to erase, dismiss, or simply not see my identities, not only in dominant culture, but also within my own communities? Members of the queer and crip communities frequently see/read my body as “other” than theirs, representing oppressive and privileged forces. My Whiteness and cisgender identities certainly hold privilege, but it is my marginalized identities that are erased by the very people with whom I seek community and connection that lead to my body being misread, misunderstood, and dismissed. This ultimately leads to feelings of isolation and questions of my own authenticity within my own body. Basically, I feel as though I am being punished for not looking/reading as queer or disabled “enough.” As I reflect on the performance at Sizzle described above and the ways that I was seen and heard while I rhythmically and publicly asserted my identity, I can imagine not being seen and heard by the same people who nodded along that night if we were in another context—one in which I was not professing my identities onstage. I wonder what magic needs to occur for us to allow one another to simply contextualize ourselves? How do we truly allow for complex embodied identities to exist outside of the limited categories handed to us from dominant norms?
My work as a critical ability/disability scholar requires me not only to reflect on my own perception of my identities, but also to consider how others may perceive me. Although I identify as disabled, I recognize how intentional I need to be about sharing these identities in my research and practice with those who have similar lived experiences so that I don't unintentionally re-create conditions of voyeuristic fetishizing communities through research. It is my responsibility to understand the places where my experiences of privilege and oppression meet and also depart, especially as they relate to working with and for communities with experiences of oppression. I work to center the experiences of Femmes who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and disabled trans folks in my research, my teaching, and my personal life because I understand that my Whiteness and cis-ness allow my queer, fat, Femme, disabled body to experience the world differently and with more privilege than those holding other oppressed identities. Clearly, the processes and politics of visibility are complex in a world that regularly commodifies bodies by their utility, desirability, shape, color, race, class, gender, and ability. As such, it is imperative to consider the notion of intersectionality as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and feminists of color in the early 1990s and more recently discussed in social work literature by Gina Miranda Samuels and Fariyal Ross-Sheriff; Wendy Hulko; and Gita Mehrotra.10
Intersectional theoretical frameworks are useful in considering the experience of multiple identities within an individual as they fluidly interact depending on context. Although there has been disagreement about the term, Hulko and Mehrotra both discuss how intersectionality acknowledges that multiple identities, both privileged and marginalized, exist in any individual, and are interdependent and interactive with one another depending on salient contexts. This theoretical framework shows how experiences of gender, sexuality, and disability are constantly interacting. In “Unspeakable Offenses,” Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear show how intersections between race, class, and gender also intersect with disability, from education to eugenics, and call for including disability alongside race/class/gender in discussions of intersectionality.11
Deborah Beth Creamer suggests that the concept of disability can be used to disrupt the ideal of what it means to have a “normal” body. This is connected to Sallie McFague's suggestion that engaging in discussions of disability can help others to accept the concept that bodies of all identities have embodied differences.12 However, when one's body experiences the world in a way at odds from how the world experiences one's body, it begs the question of how this altered perception of the body/embodiment impacts a person. How can someone navigate the world as a person who embodies Femme crip identities, while others often read her (my) body as being neither? If, as Glenn Marla states, there is no wrong way to have a body, then how do I navigate having my body misread by my own communities?13 As I ponder these questions, I feel a sense of loss, exhaustion, and heaviness, weighted by the burden of needing to constantly perform and profess who I am in my body. Even in an analysis of these experiences, I feel myself drawn back to the final stanza from my poem at Sizzle: “I fight the mainstream every day. … I do not have the time, energy, or patience to fight within my own community.” Even as I sit here today, I feel this exhaustion. I feel the responsibility of the emotional labor involved in illuminating these complex identities.
INVISIBILITY FOR FEMMES AND CRIPS
Disability is an experience and community with blurred lines as it spans space, time, and conditions—people can acquire disabilities (both short term and long term) throughout their lives, and Lennard J. Davis explains that this makes the concept of membership in the disabled community difficult for other marginalized groups to understand, and even challenging for members of other disabled communities.14 There is often a hierarchy of disability and impairment perpetuated even within the community, one that values certain types of disability over others, or suggests that some people are more disabled. This creates a culture of policing the bounds of membership in the disabled community. Susan Wendell interrogates the complexity of being both young/middle-aged and having a chronic illness, explaining that this confluence of identities is not often accepted or understood. For example, being permanently ill/disabled is seen as an issue for older people. As young individuals with chronic illness do not expect recovery or a cure (unlike younger individuals with temporary disabilities), we are the “unhealthy disabled.” Therefore, we inhabit a limbo: too ill to be deemed productive in society, but too young to be “allowed” the grace given to older ill people.15
As an unhealthy disabled person, I inhabit this limbo in my own disabled body; I have good days, during which my disabled identity isn't salient, and then I have horrific days, during which pain keeps me tethered to my bed and I cannot think beyond my crip identity, feeling betrayed by my own body. Because of this disparity in my own presentation of and lived experience of disability, it is challenging for me to explain what it means to be a crip to others, as the definition may change day to day. For me, crip does not fit into the abled/disabled rhetoric as much as it creates its own space outside of the healthy/not healthy and productive/not productive false binaries created by society. Crip theory and queer theory flip the script on the idea of visibility and invisibility as fixed attributes, recognizing that neither is ever permanently attached to any identity and that, rather, a level of (in)visibility is based on context and how social constructions regarding compulsory able-bodiedness and heterosexuality are applied to bodies.16
In having a body that is considered disabled by society, disability is placed upon me and my body, even if it is frequently invisible to others. Crip, on the other hand, is an identity that I can proudly claim because it includes the fluid spatial, temporal, and physical aspects of my (dis)abilities. Tom Shakespeare notes the dichotomy between the medical model of disability, wherein disability is thought of as problematic, and the social model of disability, wherein disability is viewed as a systemic social creation. He also argues that there needs to be space for acknowledgment and validation of different needs of those with impairments while also not figuring disability as an inherently tragic experience.17 This is the place in which I situate myself; I proudly hold my crip identity, while also validating my frustration with and need to manage the pain and exhaustion that accompany my illnesses.
Femme as a gender identity also has multiple definitions and subjective experiences. According to Heidi M. Levitt, Elisabeth A. Gerrish, and Katherine R. Hiestand, many define Femme-ness solely as the act of being “not butch,” which further erases Femme as an identity, making my gender dependent on the absence of characteristics of another gender identity, rather than an identity of its own.18 Femme is a contested word. For example, Elizabeth Galewski points out that some see Femme identity as participating in heteronormative relationship binaries, whereas many “feminists” (quotation marks intentional) have felt that Femmes are less transgressive than butches and are therefore less feminist or less queer. However, Didi Khayatt writes that Femme as a word has a strong history of intersectionality. Alison Eves found that many Femmes appear to share my own feelings of being overlooked or made invisible in queer spaces, given that the socially constructed “acceptable” ways to perform queerness are frequently defined as being butch or masculine of center.19 As with crip identity, Femme transcends the socially constructed binary of feminine/masculine, creating its own space to be and experience the world.
Being There: June 2013
Here I am, one of the many times throughout my life when I have overtly and intentionally performed my disability and my Femme identities. Participating in Denver Pride “marches” (already a concept that challenged accessibility) gave me the challenge and opportunity to be myself at an event with shared community. The scooter visibly identifies my disability status, marking me as other, even within the very space in which we have purportedly come “together” as one big happy queer family. I decorated the scooter with rainbow streamers coming off the scooter handles and a sign reading “trans ally” while also decorating myself with rainbow eye shadow, a rainbow ribbon in my hair, and a ribbon holding up my T-shirt sleeves and even threaded through the V-neck of my light blue shirt. I sat on my scooter sweating in the summer heat, feeling isolated as all of my fellow marchers hung out in the shade on the (inaccessible) grass. I am there and involved, yes, but still separate—equality perhaps, but no equity or justice. Visibly disabled and visibly queer, but still unable to feel truly a part of any community. I was literally surrounded by hundreds of people but felt alone.
As I reflect on this picture, I can see that compared to pictures taken during “average” days of my life, the prevalence of rainbows and the use of a noticeable mobility device make my Femme and crip identities apparent. I am aware that as I struggle to intentionally and unapologetically contextualize myself as Femme/crip, I must also acknowledge the ways that privilege exists within my outward identity expressions and how this further complicates my intersectional body and being.
PASSING PRIVILEGE: DOES IT EXIST?
Being There: December 2010
I am at a wedding in Long Island, NY, full of straight couples and those whose bodies move through the world in the way that society dictates they are supposed to. I am holding a mini bottle of champagne, wearing a sparkly black tank-top dress, a three-strand red and black necklace, very large sparkly earrings, black/white polka dot plastic rimmed glasses, and my burgundy hair is straightened, pulled into a half-ponytail. To me, I have marked myself as Femme in a space that feels dripping with compulsory heterosexuality and able-bodiedness, posing with my sassy glasses, giant earrings, and playful look at the camera, but others frequently do not read me as queer. In this image, I am sitting while others cut a rug on the dance floor, but because the chairs are not obvious in the frame, you cannot see my cane. Others assume that I am nondisabled, and people at the table tease me about sitting out yet another dance. Little do they know that I am lost in thought on that very subject, marinating on how I am balancing my love of dancing the night away with the need to hold back some energy to get me through the night.
While I was known as a lady who could dance all night and sit at a greasy diner until the early hours of the morning, this photo represents a snapshot in time when I felt my body betraying me; when I would go from being 100 percent charged to running on empty in one song, the pounding beats of Madonna or Quiet Riot taking me from the dance floor back to where I could sit and rest. At this wedding, I also felt like a spy or secret agent; my partner and I were some of the (if not) only queer people at these incredibly traditional, very heterosexual nuptials. When my partner, dressed dapperly in a vest and tie, was near me, I felt as if I was read as a queer fat Femme, but when I was alone, my identity seemed more liminal: a sassy curvy girl, just waiting to be asked to dance. Years later, a Facebook friend commenting on the photo described the image as “pretty much any straight White girl at a wedding, holding a bottle of wine.”
I have the privilege of passing as nondisabled in many settings, like the documented wedding, and have to make many decisions about coming out: if I should, to whom, and in what ways. With this privilege also comes the burden of other crips seeing me as not “one of them,” but rather as someone actively contributing to their ongoing oppression by the benefits I receive from assumptively being nondisabled, a challenge discussed by Ellen Jean Samuels.20 I hold the same privilege of passing as a Femme; while it may feel frustrating to not be read as queer in many settings, it also creates an additional layer of safety for me. If I am in a homophobic setting, I can make the choice to not come out and avoid potential verbal or physical violence that someone read as queer might face. In often being read as straight, usually as “alternative,” punk rock, rockabilly, or Goth, I am placed in a group that is less marginalized than (or sometimes, a group that holds power over) queer individuals. It is important to recognize that while this is a privilege, it may not be specifically Femme privilege.
Kathryn Hobson writes in her dissertation that “most of the femmes in this project have faced harassment and trauma of some kind for presenting as queer Femme in all of its multiple and contingent iterations.”21 Mary Frances Platt speaks to how increased visibility in her disabled identity (by beginning to use a wheelchair) wound up challenging her Femme identity,22 while Sharon Wachsler had to re-define what it meant to be Femme when her chronic illness prevented her from engaging in external ways of showcasing her Femme-ness, such as cosmetics, hair products, and even the ability to be in/engage in queer spaces.23 In the same vein that Ellen Samuels shares that the coming-out process is not a one-time thing for either Femme/queer or disabled identities, neither is passing a dualistic, static construct of simply passing or not.24 Rather, passing is dependent on context and temporality. Passing privilege, if/when it exists, is clearly a complex narrative, and one loaded with consequences for an individual: to achieve privilege in some regards while having their/my identity erased. In other situations, the outcome might be reversed, as they/I may experience recognition of authentic self while being subjected to homophobia and/or ableism.
OUTING MYSELF AGAIN, AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN
The process of coming out as queer over and over again is like an ongoing dance of identity. At times, it has entailed using the bodies of others to label my own. An example of this is intentionally holding hands with queer folks who are more easily read as queer, obviously kissing feminine presenting partners in public, or even just “dropping” language like “my ex-girlfriend” in casual conversation as a marker of my Femme identity, in the hopes that these maneuvers will make me more likely to be read as queer. In general, I ask permission from those who I am including in these performances, but I recognize that even so, I am using their bodies and identities in order to further my own recognition in the queer community, which is problematic in and of itself. Centering my Femme-ness as a juxtaposition to a butch or trans masculine queer person uses their body as a prop to explain my own, further reinforcing the idea that Femme-ness cannot exist in the absence of other gender identities. I realize, as I reflect on this image of myself at the wedding, that I wish I hadn't spent so much energy worried about how others were perceiving me given the presence or absence of my partner. Likely, could I go back, I would not change how I presented, but would encourage myself to own my truth in my identity and my performance of my gender.
Trying to come out as a crip, or even just someone who is disabled (language that is more acceptable to the general population), usually involves being much more obvious (e.g., using a cane or teaching about Spoon Theory). Spoon Theory is a concept developed by Christine Miserandino in which she uses spoons from a diner to explain to her friend the difficulties of living with a chronic illness—in her case, lupus.25 This example has been used all over the world to describe invisible disabilities to those who “don't understand” what it means to be invisibly disabled. Often, discussing Spoon Theory involves telling the whole Spoon Theory backstory as part of the process of outing oneself as being disabled. However, once I participate in this conscious performance of outing myself, the process is not yet over. From there, I am still rarely automatically read as disabled or crip. I usually have to answer a series of questions about “what is wrong” with me or “how bad” my disabilities are in some sort of dance to “prove” that I am truly disabled enough to even identify with the term crip. While most of the time, these invasive questions arise from individuals who are nondisabled, sometimes this third degree comes from fellow crips. While it is understandable that individuals from a marginalized identity would feel concerned that someone was co-opting their identity or benefiting from their very real struggles, going through a process similar to a medical interrogation solely to feel as though I am in my own community feels as though I have been judged and I don't make the cut. Although in my mind we are all in this together, it is not often perceived that way, and the mistrust from the inside community (crips) is sometimes equally as hurtful as the disgust from the outside community (nondisabled): society's pervasive oppression poisoning ourselves against one another by creating hierarchies of identities and experiences.
Both crip bodies and queer bodies are othered and feared by society at large, according to Nancy Hirschmann.26 Unlike race and sex, queer and cripped bodies are not always visible or identifiable, and there is a fear that someone straight or able-bodied could one day become queer or disabled—a fear that is then enacted by how individuals engage with members of these communities. The overwhelming fear of potentially becoming “the other” and being queer or disabled reinforces queerphobia and ableism. Carrie Sandahl asserts that even academia struggles with the similarities of crip-ness and queerness, with queer studies claiming disability studies as a subset of itself, whereas others argue that disability studies should be its own field, given its unique history and individual nuances that separate it from queer studies.27
Being There: November 2008
I am attending lesbian poker night at a local alternative bar in Denver, CO, with a woman I am casually dating. As someone who doesn't play cards, I sit at the bar perched on a tall stool (never great for my knees or back, all of which are aching), watching her as I sip on a grasshopper cocktail. A White-appearing older man approaches and sits next to me, striking up a conversation. “Bet that all them dykes are pretty pissed off about Prop 8 passing in California, huh? Should teach them a lesson about who marriage is really for.” He then proceeds to offer to buy my stunned self a drink, before I am finally able to react and tell him that I too am one of “them dykes” and that I believe in equal access to rights for everyone, and not just limited to marriage.
In my presence in the borderland between crip and nondisabled, between queer Femme and feminine straight woman, I am frequently subjected to microaggressions, a term coined by Derald Wing Sue to describe everyday invalidations, insults, and hostility, as well as what I would consider macroaggressions, forwarded by ableism and homophobia.28 Because of my invisible Femme-ness, and therefore, invisible queerness, it was assumed not only that I was straight (even at lesbian poker night), but also that I would be interested in colluding with this man in his homophobia. Similarly, I encounter ableism frequently. I drive a car with a rainbow wheelchair bumper sticker, as well as a state-issued disability placard hanging from my rearview mirror. Despite this, I am policed when I park in reserved handicapped/disabled spaces, receiving the stink eye from others, and sometimes accompanied by comments like “Don't you know that it is illegal to use your grandmother's permit?” and “These spaces are reserved for people who actually need it!” When in communities of primarily nondisabled-appearing folks, I have been privy to conversations about “lazy people who take the elevator when it is only a flight or two of stairs,” with the speaker assuming that I would agree rather than gently check them on their ableism and remind them that I cannot go up or down stairs without severe pain.
Often, the exclusion and invisibility of my Femme-ness and crip-ness coincide; while one space may disrupt the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, it continues to enforce compulsory able-bodiedness, and vice versa. Many spaces where queer events are held are inaccessible. Sometimes, it is because there is no parking nearby, and people do not consider how difficult it may be for some individuals to walk several blocks from the nearest available parking to the event. In other instances, it is up a flight of stairs (or more) in order to get into a venue. When faced with these situations, I not only have to out myself as a queer Femme interested in engaging with my own queer community, but also have to struggle with how to get my body physically into the space.
A few years ago, I was asked by a local organizer to attend a queer spoken word night at a local venue, as she thought it would be important to have “Femme presence.” However, when I pointed out that I would not be able to attend given the inaccessibility of the space, her response was “Oh, I can totally just carry you up the stairs.” This is a frequent reaction to an individual pointing out inaccessibility; rather than owning the ableism inherent in choosing an inaccessible location, the reaction is to suggest an often ridiculous “fix,” like an approximately 120-pound person carrying my 260-pound frame up a steep flight of stairs, to say nothing of the damage to my body this could cause.
Given the frequency of my identities being invisible, what does it mean to be read as or to be a disabled Femme? Queer disabled Femme of color Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote a piece titled “Femme Shark Manifesto,” along with Zuleikha Mahmood, that vocalizes the reality of Femme identity as intersectional with all other identities. As someone who is a White queer middle-class Femme myself, it is crucial that I interrogate the privilege my Whiteness and socioeconomic status afford me, even when combined with my more marginalized identities.
RECOGNIZING AND OWNING PRIVILEGE
Although I experience frustration when I am questioned about my right to belong in queer and crip communities based on my perceived orientation, gender, and ability, I am never excluded from events or spaces based on the color of my skin or my ability to “pass” as female. Femme is a term that has been claimed by members of the queer community who are White, whereas Femmes of color are frequently questioned about their language and right to use the term Femme. In using the term Femme, when I actively use and identify with the term, I have never run into pushback about my right to use the term, even when I have been challenged by anti-Femme language and judgment. Contrast this to the portrayal of Black Femmes in the media: for example, Ursala in the 1996 action-crime-thriller movie Set It Off. Kara Keeling discusses how Ursala is used as a logistical pawn to establish Cleo's butch identity and, in fact, does not have the opportunity to speak at any point during the movie. Rather, her clothing is discussed (referred to as “cute”), she is used to model new lingerie items purchased for her by Cleo, and she is established as a sexual object, with no recognition of, discussion of, or validation of her Femme identity.29 In essence, she is the embodiment of the misogynistic statement “Femmes should be seen and not heard,” and as a Femme of color, even among other women of color, she is the most objectified body of the group.
While I stress out about the close to $100,000 of student loans I now have to pay back, I have a guaranteed roof over my head, the ability to purchase groceries that include healthy options, and the ability to cover my medical bills and prescription medications. This means that even when in cities and states that charge an admittance fee for queer events (such as Phoenix, AZ, where I was charged $20 per day to attend their Pride Festival in 2010 and 2011), I have the disposable income to decide whether or not to attend an event celebrating some of my identities. Many working-class Femmes do not have the luxury of going to queer spaces that charge covers or entrance fees, and may work multiple jobs that keep them from having the time to attend events, even if they are low-cost or free.
As a cisgender Femme, I do not spin the wheel of chance every time I use a public restroom, never sure as to whether I will have my ass kicked or be verbally assaulted. My body may be sexualized by others, and may be judged, particularly given its fatness, but I can rest assured that when I am out and about that no one will be questioning or wondering about my genitals, what hormones I may or may not be taking, and whether or not I've had “the surgery.” Much of my privilege as a Femme, as discussed previously, is not specifically “Femme privilege,” but rather the ability to pass as a cisgender woman in a society that is inherently transphobic. In recognizing and owning my identities, which are both oppressive and marginalized, I have a better picture of how the invisibility of my Femme and crip identities play into my overall experiences of society and the world at large. I have worked to create, in general, an aesthetic that allows me to present my Femme-initity in a way that feels authentic to me and does not feel like I am Rainbow Brite. My crip-ness is evident in my politics, in my scholarly and personal work on ableism and nondisabled privilege, and in how willing I am to discuss my disabled identity. These are choices I make that are influenced by my other identities. If I experienced racism, classism, and transphobia on a daily basis, I likely would not have the energy, or even the interest, to work on educating people on these topics. Because of my race, my gender, and my socioeconomic status, I am well positioned in a place that I can feel comfortable (to an extent) and confident in constantly outing myself and educating around my identities. That doesn't make it any less exhausting, but the validation I get for actually feeling recognized is worth the endless work of coming out over and over again to actually be seen by my own communities, and to not be labeled by people who don't get it.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
After struggling with what it means to represent my Femme-ness and crip-ness in a way that does not involve a bevy of rainbows and an incredibly obvious mobility aid that serves only to “prove” to others that my disabilities are real “enough” to be included, I feel that, in general, I've reached a point when I can negotiate a middle ground that feels authentic to me without being a constant capacity-draining performance. Very intentionally, I am working toward subtly performing Femme-initity, and supporting my crip-ness by creating positions that are comfortable for my body, rather than attempting to perform society's version of being nondisabled. As a disabled Femme whose disability prevents me from wearing high heels, or standing up all night dancing at a queer nightclub, I have to get creative about how I showcase my Femme identity. In having to do this, I, like Wachsler, have worked to develop a wider spectrum of what presenting as Femme means to me in harmony with my crip identity.30
Another practice that has supported the struggle of the invisibility of Femme-ness and crip-ness is working to create and participate in a queer crip community, finding other queer folks, specifically including other queer Femmes, who are also disabled and/or identify as crips. In holding space for the burden of invisibility, discussing the privileges associated with passing (as well as with race, class, gender, and more), and also creating solidarity around feeling the erasure of identity, having a queer crip family on which to rely, connect with, and bounce ideas off has become an avenue for personal and professional growth, as well as ongoing self-care.
One final way I have chosen to perform both my Femme and crip identities, as well as support myself in the ongoing process of outing myself, is to get a very Femme-y spoon tattoo: three silver spoons held together by a purple ribbon (representing the awareness ribbon of several of my disabilities/impairments), in a beautiful pewter frame. Both Femme-inine and centering the very spoons that represent the disabled part of me that is often invisiblized, this tattoo is in a very visible spot on my calf with the intention of starting conversation. Every time someone asks me about my tattoo and what it means, I am given the opportunity not only to come out about my crip-ness, but also to engage in (usually meaningful) dialogue about invisible disabilities. While I still am going through the motions of outing myself as disabled, I have made the choice to place this identity upon my body, made the choice to open myself in this way.
Disability, specifically the crip identity, and Femme-ness are both subjects that exist in liminal spaces, and are also ones that are incredibly dependent on awareness of intersectionality and the other identities possessed by the Femme and/or crip in discussion. While these two specific identities are wont to be invisible to, and even erased by, members of both the queer and disability communities, as well as temporarily nondisabled individuals and straight people, the way they are performed is also dependent on the race, class, and gender of Femme crips in question. The invisibility given to or forced on those holding identities is both a privilege and a burden; in getting to choose when/whether to come out, and in also having to come out constantly, a Femme crip such as myself can make choices about safety, solidarity, and other concerns when choosing whether and how to out themselves. I hold these pieces of myself as I aim to continue to engage my awareness of my own identities, and hope to create space for further discussion of what it means to straddle the lines of (in)visible identities within marginalized communities.
As a community member, an individual who exists within a larger society, I think about what I would like for others to get from immersing themselves in my stories through these artifacts: words, images, and experiences. The experiences of those with invisible identities are some of those most often left out from the discussion on intersectionality, yet have tremendous impact on the well-being of those who hold these identities. I want us to think about troubling the binaries we impose on others—queer or not, disabled or not, like us or not—and to work toward transcending the limitations of the ways that identities are categories. These existing binaries and boxes can be so harmful in how we place others in them, not knowing their lived experiences, further marginalizing those already on the fringes. I challenge those who read this to join me on this quest to allow individuals to contextualize themselves in lieu of having socially constructed assumptions imposed upon their bodies, minds, and experiences.