The Politics of Passing
I am a disabled writer.
I am also a writer who’s queer.
I am a disabled writer.
I am a queer writer.
Most days, I find it so hard to say this.
I want to say that I don’t know why I find it hard, but I do.
I find it hard because I’ve been lucky enough for most of my life to be able to pass, more or less, as someone who is able-bodied and straight. I limp, and I was in a wheelchair for a period of time when I was young, but for the most part, my life has not been affected in the way that people often think of when they think disabled. I can go anywhere and do anything I want without having to worry about whether I will find parking, about whether I will be able to make my way up a flight of stairs, about whether or not I’ll have enough energy to get through a meeting. None of these things are a problem for me.
And yet, physical disability is a prominent reality in my life in a way that it is also not for a lot of other people. I have cerebral palsy, which can mean a wide variety of muscle-related things and in my case means that my right side doesn’t work as well as my left, that I limp, that I will never be able to wear lovely high heels. It means that I get tired more often than I wish I did, though the fatigue has not yet been debilitating. As I get older, I’m also discovering that my CP means I’m in pain every day, though that pain can also come in varying degrees.
But here is another, more difficult truth: I find it hard to call myself a disabled writer — even though I am — because I don’t want disabled to be the first thing that people see when they look at my bio. And the reason that I don’t want that to be the first thing that people see when they look at my bio is because I’m afraid that they will think that my writing is somehow not good enough as a result, that I can’t stand on the writing alone. That I have to label and niche myself in order to find an audience.
It makes me so uncomfortable, the fact that I’m afraid of this, the fact that this is where my mind goes. After all, don’t I believe strongly in the idea — the fact — that we must do whatever we can to level Life’s playing field? This world that we live in isn’t equal, and to suggest that everyone sits on the same level and rises to the top purely based on skill–and by extension that affirmative action policies give special treatment to those who, dang it, just aren’t working as hard–is ridiculous.
More importantly: is this what I think when I view the writing of my peers and friends who are also disabled? Absolutely not. I’ve never read a piece of literature by a disabled or a queer writer and thought that the writing was somehow “niche”, or that the author was trading on their status in order to get a wider audience. I read disabled literature, as I read anything, with an eye and ear to another facet of experience that the writer is opening up to the world. Which is not to say that I read disabled writers and seek to “normalize”, or incidentalize, if you will, their experiences. I think it’s great when disabled characters are mentioned in a story and their disability isn’t necessarily the focus of the narrative–but I also think it’s equally important to have disabled characters and their personal disability narratives front and centre. If you’re disabled, that part of your life is always front and centre, to some extent. If you’re like me, and your disability isn’t as severe, sometimes the disability takes less of a focus. Sometimes it occupies the whole space.
And yet here I am, worrying about whether identifying as a disabled writer will somehow mark me out as trying to get special treatment, especially given the fact that most days I can pass as able-bodied.
Most that worry, if I’m honest, has to do again with the privilege of passing. I am disabled. I also happen to be queer. I also deal with mental health issues on a daily basis. But I don’t tend to visibly embody these identities, and as a result I pass through the world fairly easily. Being born into the world as a white Canadian woman has afforded me all manner of privileges, privileges that I didn’t even really think about or consider in depth until a few years ago. Given this–given that I can pass as able-bodied and straight–I worry constantly that the space I occupy for my own advocacy could be better put to use by someone else. Am I talking too much, I wonder. Should I be saying these things when someone else–someone whose experience of these issues has been so much more immersive than mine–could say it better?
Consider, for example, the recent action around Room Magazine’s inaugural festival, Growing Room. Last week, the magazine moved their festival space from a non-accessible venue to an accessible one, due in large part to the advocacy of disabled writers Jane Eaton Hamilton, Bronwyn Berg, and Dorothy Ellen Palmer. The festival was originally set to take place in a venue that sat up a flight of 35 stairs, and it was only after a sustained push to rectify the mistake that change came about. Had that push not come at all, the festival would have gone along in the original venue as planned.
I retweeted some of the discussion points while the conversation about things was getting heated, gathering steam. When Room announced that they’d managed to secure another venue, I thanked them. I also thanked the writers who had worked so hard and been so vocal–and rightfully so–about the need to make this change. But I didn’t speak out in my own voice when everything was going down. Part of this was purely logistics–I was busy at work and then at the accountant’s office (tax time, what fun) while everything was happening and only came to the outcome of things sometime after it had played itself out–but part of it was also a real desire to give space to those who were already speaking.
And so I wonder, and so I worry. At what point does passer’s guilt lead into silence, lead into complicity? Last year I wrote about my inaugural FOLD experience for 49th Shelf, and in that piece I found myself exploring these issues for what felt like the very first time. A year later, though, and the guilt hasn’t gone away. So how does one navigate this? How do you find your way between all of these markers and chart the path for who you are? Can I call myself bisexual if I’ve only been seeing men for the past couple of years? Can I call myself a disabled writer if the wider CanLit community–a community that some of my disabled peers find so closed to them–has always been open to me in ways that it hasn’t to others? Does privilege automatically negate other aspects of one’s experience?
On the face of it, of course it doesn’t, and of course I can. Of course we can be all of these things, and more, and chart the course. We contain multitudes, do we not? And if we are truly to understand and come to a point of recognizing that words like disabled and queer and terms like mental health span an infinite range of experiences, it is necessary that the “invisible” narratives take their place as well. The less-than-visible embodiments of all of these things. My narrative, my stories, my privilege in some areas and lack of privilege in others.
Or, in the words of Brandon Taylor:
Like, being bisexual does not mean you are a 50/50 split, like what even, that is not what that means at all.
— Brandon (@brandonlgtaylor) March 13, 2017
Like, being disabled does not mean you are totally incapacitated, like what even, that is not what that means at all.
But still the guilt persists, and I don’t know how to exorcise it. I feel guilty even writing this post. Oh how sad your struggle is, really, you privileged disabled/queer person–being able to blend into the background must be so very hard.
I am not, by nature, a particularly loud person. I don’t like conflict and I’m used to blending into the background in a wide variety of situations. But this isn’t really an option anymore, is it, not when I know that I can go easily into spaces where others might not.
All of which is preamble, I suppose, to the following. As a disabled writer myself, and in recognition of my colleagues who also deal with these issues, I want to say publicly that I will no longer be able to participate in readings or events that are not accessible to all who might want to attend. I want to say to my fellow literary organizers: try harder. Yes, it can be more difficult to find venues that are completely accessible to everyone (no steps, elevators where steps are unavoidable, no bathrooms hidden in the basement, accessibility info posted prominently on the website, among other things), and yes, thinking about these things in addition to thinking about logistics and timing and money and one’s own exposure etc etc etc–all of this is hard. But these are necessary changes. This is a necessary difficult. You don’t turn away–you turn toward, and find your way through.
Even the politics of passing–the privilege, the responsibilities therein–you turn toward these, Leduc, and find your way through. The path will doubtless be thorny and you’ll mess up and apologize and mess up and apologize over and over again, but you can do it. You have to do it.
What is privilege, after all, if you can’t make it mean something?