Trans Communities & Lessons from Disability Activism

(from a keynote first delivered at the FORGE Forward Conference, 2007 )

Tonight I want to span the distance between disability politics and trans experience. Of course I could start with the substantial presence of disabled folks in trans communities, and by disability I mean cognitive, learning, sensory, and psych disability, as well as physical ones. Or start with the truisms about bringing experiences of multiple oppressions and identities to our work. Or start with the overdue need for accessible spaces, the importance of integrating ableism into our understanding of oppression.

But really I want to delve beyond the rhetoric we often don’t pay attention to and think hard about three lessons I’ve learned from disability activism. The first is about naming; the second, about coming out and disclosure; the third, about living in our familiar, ordinary bodies.

First, naming. I often hear trans people—most frequently folks who are using, or want to use, medical technology to reshape their bodies—name their transness a disability, a birth defect. They say, “I should have easy access to good respectful health care, just as other disabled people do. I simply need a cure.” The word defect always takes my breath away; it’s a punch in the stomach. While I want to respect the people who frame their transness this way and acknowledge their truth, the logic of this equation frustrates me. I could only wish disability assured decent health care. Instead disabled people deal with doctors who trivialize and patronize us, who believe some of the worst ableist stereotypes, and sometimes even think we’d be better off dead.

But my frustration doesn’t stop there. The second part of the equation—disability equaling the need for cure—is drenched in some of the very stereotypes that disabled people struggle against every day. It takes for granted that disability is an individual medical problem curable, or at least treatable, by doctors. It runs counter to the work of disability rights activists who frame disability as an issue of social justice, not of medical condition: disability lodged not in paralysis but rather in stairs without an accompanying ramp, not in depression or anxiety but rather in a whole host of stereotypes, not in dyslexia but in teaching methods unwilling to flex. It ignores the reality that many of us aren’t looking for cures but for civil rights.

I’ve been asked more than once whether I’d take the hypothetical cure pill. I usually explain that having CP is like having blue eyes and red hair. I simply don’t know my body any other way. Thank you very much but no: no to the New Age folks who have offered crystals and vitamins, no to the preachers who have prayed over me, no to the doctors who have suggested an array of drugs and possible surgery, all with uncertain outcomes. It gets complicated because as trans people, many of us actively do seek body change, but in that search to pair disability and cure together as inevitable is to buy into ableism. In short this equation that claims transness as disability is just not connected to what’s real for me and many other disabled people.

And then I get to the word defect. It’s an intense word, loaded in this culture with pity and hatred. It’s a word I’ve heard all my life and has all too often fanned the flames of shame….

copyright 2007, Eli Clare