Interrogating Queer, Crip & the Body [Conference]

Yesterday I attended a fab conference at Sheffield Hallam University called Interrogating queer, crip and the body: an international symposium. The aim of the symposium was to discuss the intersections of disability and queer politics.

We do this at a particularly pertinent time in the UK. A time where heightening austerity measures have and will continue to disproportionately affect already marginalised groups, including disabled and LGBT* people. Therefore we see this symposium as a chance to ask how academia, activism and the arts can work together for social justice.

The day started with a free lunch (who could turn that down) where we all got to meet one another, which set a really friendly tone for the whole day. I always think stuff like that makes a real difference when it comes to asking and answering questions after panels.

Prof. Nick Hodge introduced the symposium as being an investigation into how academia, activism and the arts can work together for social justice.

The first speaker was Freyja Haraldsdottir whose presentation was entitled: ‘The wheeling of shame: The political action of setting up disability and ripping up femininity’. Freja spoke eloquently about her disability and the way in which society interacts with her because of it. She stated that it was society that made her realise that her body was different and until then she hadn’t cared. The surgeries and physical therapy that her doctors had her undergo told her that the way her body worked was wrong – it involved relearning how to use a body that she’d already learnt to use – something she considered to be unnecessary and more so a ‘beauty treatment’ than a medical one. As such, as a teenager she chose to stop conforming to these pressures, to sit upright, force her legs into braces and her arms to work in front of her, rather than to the side as they naturally do.

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Freyja went on to discuss the common representations of disabled people, either as heroes who have overcome their disability and climbed Everest; or as someone who dies. She said neither of these visions particularly appealed to her, and therefore left her without any role models. She also spoke about issues of agency – when she was younger her home carers were assigned to her and numbered around fifty different people, a small number of whom she actually liked. She said that she was given no choice, and that her private space was constantly invaded by strangers. Those strangers would then control how she presented herself, what she wore, her makeup etc. It meant that she had no privacy and no agency. This is gladly something that has changed overtime, she now has personal assistants that she trains, they know how to do her hair and makeup and how to best assist her when she’s out and at work so that she may engage with the world in the way she wishes.

Freyja also discussed the (de)sex(ualisation) education she received at school, how only able bodies were discussed. She spoke of how people assume that she wouldn’t want to be sexy or desired and as such she often tries as hard to be as womanly as possible – which feeds into the issues of agency and having a team in place that enable to her present herself as she wishes. The desexualising and asexual assumptions placed on differently abled people was a common thread throughout the entire day and will come up when I speak about the other papers.

Freyja cited her trouble at reconciling her feminism with her desire to be traditionally feminine. she questions whether she was failing feminists if she wore lipstick, or if instead she would fail disabled women by not wearing makeup and expressing her femininity. Ultimately she said we need to “sex up disability, crip up feminism and stop being ashamed”. A issue that the disability movement tries to counteract is the constant need for disabled people to explain themselves and explain why they should be entitled to live alone and in control of their lives. Freyja stated that it was the queer movement that taught her that you don’t always have to be what society thinks you should be whilst still deserving human rights. She also spoke about how black feminism taught her that she’s “allowed to be a disabled woman, I don’t have to choose between being disabled and a woman”.

Freyja went on to say that it is the medical establishment that pressures people into becoming ‘normal’; that controlling bodies is something that doctors just do automatically, such as with the leg and arm braces she was given at a child. Rather than enabling her to use her body as it is, they worked hard and caused her a great deal of pain to try and force her body into the established norm. She finished on the point that the core of the disability moment and feminist movement is taking control of the self.

I think this final point is what most links to my thesis. The basis of trans theory is respecting lived experience and allowing people to embrace their personal sense of self no matter what wider society may pressure you into becoming. There is also a long history of the medicalisation of trans identities being highly destructive. The normalisation of bodies is something that the medical establishment enforces as ‘healthy’; whereas in fact a wide range of bodies are perfectly serviceable.

The second paper of the day was given by Embla Agustsdottir who spoke about ‘Disability: A chance to rethink sex’. Ebla works with disabled girls and women discussing sex – therefore filling the gap in education that Freyja mentioned. She stated that disabled people are often shown as either not sexual at all or as creepily hyper sexual (giving the example here of Crazy Eyes [Suzanne] in Orange is the New Black). In films and TV, if someone becomes disabled they often go from being an actively sexual person to being entirely non-sexual. Therefore, the media makes is hard for disabled people to establish their sexual sense of self because there are no good role models.

Embla noted that, often, before we have sex we have well-defined ideas about sex – what is good and bad sex, how we should feel about sex – which is gained through the media and society, therefore opportunities for self-discovery are limited. She states that articles on disabled sex are always about how to do it as ‘normal’ as possible. The internalisation of sexual norms means that we become sure that our [disabled] sex must be boring and unsatisfying, even if you’re enjoying it. Ebla spoke about the trope of lift sex – citing that many lawyer and doctor TV shows feature people having sex in lifts. We had a giggle about this, but the point is that this sort of quick, spontaneous (and ridiculous) sex is seen as highly erotic, whereas communication and planning are seen as ‘non-sexy’, therefore promoting that disabled sex can not be sexy.

Embla mentioned that in the media, disabled people engaging with sexuality is often seen as a laughing point. She highlighted that partners of disabled people may often feel too ashamed to publicly show affection because they don’t want to be seen as ‘abnormal’ for dating a disabled person – there’s also the issue that the public may think that the partner is taking advantage of the disabled person – something that links to the infantilisation of disabled people that one of the later talks dealt with. She ended by linking back to a previous point about society’s assumptions about disabled people, stating that anyone seen with a disabled person is assumed to be a carer rather than a lover which is fundamentally based on the assumption that disabled people can’t be sexy or sexually active and are therefore not seen as adults in their own right as sex is linked with adulthood.

The next talk was given by the organisers of the symposium, Jenny Slater and Kirsty Liddiard who presented the paper ‘Learning to contain through youth, adulthood, disability and sexuality’. They opened by tracking the containment of disabled people through history, from asylums through to the group-homes and day-centres of today. This ‘containment’ extends from overt eugenic practices to the ability to access sexual health services. They stated that containment was an expectation of normative adulthood which leads to the infantilisation of anyone who isn’t cis/white/able-bodied/heteronormative, etc.

They stated that becoming an adult is to become contained and that becoming an adult is seen as a natural development, however, it’s actual a socio-economic set of hoops to jump through and norms to comply with. Containment was discussed in opposition with ‘leakiness’; they noted that sharing one’s leakiness is something that is accepted through childhood, but by the time you’re a certain age it’s expected that you’ll deal with your bodily fluids alone. An interesting point was made about gendering, childred are gendered from a young age and this can be linked to potty-training. It is often recommended that a child is potty-trained by the parent of the same gender (problematically assuming a nuclear, heteronormative family unit), and children quickly learn to use the ‘correct’ public bathroom based on gender. However, for disabled children, whilst still learning to become contained, there is a lack of this particular type of gendering because disabled toilets are usually gender neutral. This raises issues of the gendering of disabled people, which leads to questions of sexualisation and sexually, and ultimately personhood. As my thesis explores, the notion of being a person, of being a human, is intimately linked with the binary gender system.

Avoiding infantilisation is achieved by proving oneself to be an adult, however, trisect of proving is not a one-off event, it is a continual process that involves hiding one’s leakiness. The labour that goes into maintaining the contained trip body is continuous, failing, even for a moment, can disrupt ‘normative neoliberal adulthood’. Breaking the boundaries of containment required from female bodies in particular means failing to meet the culturally defined norms of attractiveness. The restrictions of containment are not only relatable to the body but also the environment. Lucille, someone who was interviewed for their research, stated that her husband was required to clean them both after sex, and there was a pressure not to mess up the sheets because a PA would be be in to transfer her in the morning. Both of these things made Lucille feel that she was ‘failing in her self-conceptualisation of her feminine identity’. Another point they made was that the impaired body is always medicalised or able to be medicalised – sexuality is not a right of self when private care is performed by external forces.

They concluded that one cannot prove one’s adulthood without proving one’s containment; however, containment is not natural, it is a learned act taught through processes that say that leakiness must be private, contained and dealt with autonomously. These are very ableist requirements that mean that some people are doomed never to be able to prove themselves to be adults and are therefore denied sexual selfhood.  Containment is a form of oppression for women and disabled people. You must fight to prove yourself all the time and it’s easier to reject certain assumptions/norms of adulthood if you’re in a position of privilege.

After a tea-break Julia Daniels read her paper ‘Conditions of reciprocity: The possibilities and potentialities of a feminist perspective on theorising dis/abilty’. She opened by stating that ‘The project of ableism, as I see it, is to mark the unmarked categories of “man”, “white”, and “able-bodied”, thus lessening their ability to contain us and push us aside by marking us as “other”‘. She suggested that feminism is in fact multiple feminisms that give voice to unfinished concepts and embracing the becomingness of theories. In giving value to subjective experience, feminism acknowledges pain and the limitations caused by impairment.

Julia stated that she sometimes struggles with identifying as a disabled person due to the negative and derogatory connotations of doing so. Engaging with various theorists has allowed an understanding that ‘disability’ is socially constructed, something that echoes what Freyja mentioned previously about doctors trying to normalise disabled bodies because normative  able-bodies are the only bodies understood to be acceptable. Feminism has enabled Julia to accept her disability and to speak candidly about her impairment as feminism’s validation of personal experience and subsequently the notion that the personal is political has given her a stronger foundation from which to base her stance. It allows the construction of a personal process of understanding life that may defy external frameworks.

Julia also mentioned something that I spoke about in one of my previous posts (and consequently my conference paper), that having only one recognised voice for an entire movement or group of people leads to other voices being marginalised and silenced. This is particularly problematic in the case of disability where those voices are already being heard and may exist at an intersectional level of oppression (i.e. being female, black, gay and disabled). Julia suggested that a deeper connection between feminism and critical disability studies could have a huge impact on censuring the structures of neoliberal society and the ability to think critically about how we value autonomy. I would also argue here that trans studies could have a huge part to play in this as it is based in self expression, lived experience and embodiment.

Finally Charlotte Jones and Jenny Slater ran a workshop called ‘On the toilet: the politics of public and private spaces’. They opened by discussing how the issues of access, comfort and safety tie into social issues of equality. Public toilets can often be a place of privacy in public spaces, so who is included and excluded from specific toilet spaces is impacted by issues of equality and personhood. Their project analyses these issues alongside how issues of access doesn’t just mean for wheelchairs and the issues of toilet signage.

We were split into groups after this introduction and given toilet-based pictures to discuss. Our pictures were open urinals and a queue of women that extended out from the door to a public loo. Our group discussed issues of gender and toilet access, how it is assumed certain genders will be comfortable in different spaces; the issues of genderqueer people being scorned for being in a particular toilet even if it happens to align with their biological sex and how we might alternately label bathrooms. Each group had a different picture and after twenty minutes the room came together to discuss our various thoughts. This workshop was based on their project Around the Toilet which runs other discussions and workshops: found here.

The day was highly informative and utterly enjoyable. It was really interesting for me to see how a topic which I had previously assumed was completely unrelated to my thesis shared certain concerns. I only really popped along out of interest, but I think I might now need to look further into everything I learned and see how I can work it into my thesis.

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