"My Body, My Closet" - The Intersection between Queer Studies and Disability Studies
In Ellen Samuels’s essay “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse”, she discusses the convergence between “queer” and “disabled”, suggesting that they both express “the uneasy, often self-destroying tension between appearance and identity; the social scrutiny that refuses to accept statements of identity without ‘proof’; and, finally, the discursive and practical connections between coming out” (233). She wonders, what happens if one's bodily appearance does not give way to “one’s own sense of identity” (233)?
I don’t identify as being queer in the sense of sexual identity, but because of my disability, I do, in fact, consider myself to be "queer" in terms of the definition that the OED provides for the term – “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric.” Last year, I was searching for something that would let me explore outsiderness and difference in the context of literature and when I took my first queer studies course, I really feel in love; I was sure that it had been what I was looking for. It wasn’t until later that Anne started telling me more and more about disability studies, which is when I realized that this particular field was a closer version of what I wanted—but I think that both, as Samuels suggests, are very similar—and each can help to inform the other.
Samuels makes a connection between the “lesbian-femme” and “non-visible disability”, each which fail to have bodily surface signs that signify their “non-normative” identity. People are presumed to be “able-bodied” or “straight” “‘unless otherwise stated’” (235). Focusing our concentration away from simply the visual is a new arena that disability studies has begun to explore. Much previous and foundational work in the field has focused on the gaze, but what about internal and hidden manifestations of disability? How might invisible disabilities reveal the interrelations between the “disabled” and “non-disabled”?
Samuels quotes Swain and Cameron’s “Unless Otherwise Stated”, who believe that coming out about disabilities has—from what I can tell—a specific, advocacy agenda. They say, “Having come out, the disabled person no longer regards disability as a reason for self-disgust, or as something to be denied or hidden, but rather as an imposed oppressive social category to be challenged and broken down….Coming out, in our analysis, involves a political commitment” (237). In other words, coming out involves rejecting the “normal” and asks that the disabled identity be considered valid. Hiding, or keeping invisible the invisible disability, only serves to reinforce the binary between “normal” and “non-normal” and “visible disability” and “healthy.”
I tend to agree with Swain and Cameron. I get frustrated when people I know don’t come out about their struggles with mental illness. I think if you’re lucky to receive a proper diagnosis and receive treatment for your condition, you have a right to share that education surrounding your illness with others. Samuels cites Lisa Walter, who says, “Traditionally, passing…has been read as a conservative form of self-representation that the subject chooses in order to assume the privileges of the dominant identity. Passing is the sign of the sell out’” (240). I know that stigma is real and that it hurts and that flying under the radar can sometimes feel like the safest thing to do, but there’s so many misconceptions about disability—particularly mental disability--that I believe that those who suffer from these particular disabilities should not simply pass as “normal”, but speak out about their illnesses in an attempt to help others who are lonely and suffering.
At one point in her life, Eli Clare wishes his disability were invisible. He writes, “I wanted to be ‘normal,’ to pass as nondisabled, even though my shaky hands and slurred speech were impossible to ignore” (108). People who have invisible disabilities are more apt to pass, to hide their disabled identity, but I argue that the stigma associated with their invisible illnesses can often be more painful. People accept them as “normal”, expect that they can do “normal” things, participate in “normal” activities and their disabilities simply remain largerly understood. They painfully straddle the disjunction between internal and external, how they view themselves and how others view them. Perhaps if you look too similar to someone, they assume you're like them, but this assumption leads to misunderstanding? Samuels writes, “...I must make myself completely alien to these people in order for them to feel that they understand me” (247). In terms of disability and queerness, difference is interestingly figured more as recognition than similarity.
Perhaps “coming out” can mean different things for different people and maybe I'm wrong to assume that "coming out" is right for everyone. Is "coming out" merely accepting your own disability, is it telling your parents, your partner? Samuels cites Eli Clare, who writes, “My coming out wasn’t as much about discovering sexual desire and knowledge as it was about dealing with gender identity. Simply put, the disabled, mixed-class tomboy who asked her mother, ‘am I feminine?’ didn’t discover a sexuality among dykes but rather a definition of woman large enough to be comfortable for many years” (Samuels 238). For Clare, it was simply finding a definition of the term “feminine” that allowed him to cope with his own “disability”, to find a home within the label of "woman" where he could--atleast for awhile--identify peacefully.
Samuels concludes her essay by saying “…I begin to believe that the skin, the boundary between us, can be our homeland, our shared definition” (251). Eli Clare in his book Exile and Pride (which I just finished reading) talks a lot about the body as the interface between self and other. Throughout the book he suggests the multiple ways in which the body extends beyond flesh and that we never truly possess our own bodies, but that betrayal from others “can instead creep up behind us, make home under our skins” (40). He writes, “I lived by splitting body from mind, body from consciousness, body from physical sensation, body from emotion...” (15). At what point do we merge the body and mind and open the flesh (or closet) for public view?