J. Logan Smilges
By the time this essay goes live, the United States will have emerged from LGBTQ Pride Month into Disability Pride Month. Most years I find the transition between these months to be defined by an emotional chaos, one filled with feelings that I can never name because I’m just so tired. June is exhausting. As a queer and trans person, I try to be optimistic about LGBTQ Pride Month and hope with all my fingers and toes crossed that I’ll feel affirmed as a person worth loving with a life worth living. But as a disabled person, I am almost always disappointed. Many of the events scheduled to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month are entirely inaccessible to me and my disabled friends—they’re too loud, too crowded, and too filled with unwanted or accidental touch, as well as planned without basic accommodations, like ramps, sign language interpreters, and food/drink alternatives for people with specific dietary needs. LGBTQ Pride Month often reminds me that “pride” is a privileged emotion because only some people are allowed access to the events, gatherings, and communities that celebrate it. By the time we reach the beginning of July, I rarely have the energy for Disability Pride Month. I exhaust so much time, so much care, and so much anger in June fighting for disability inclusion that, come the end of the month, I am absolutely spent. Disability Pride Month typically devolves into a sad few weeks of recuperation, a reminder of how hard it is as a disabled person to feel proud when our other communities dispossess us of the capacity to show our pride.
Of course, the dispossession of pride is not unique to disabled people. Queer and trans people of color, poor and unhoused people, immigrants, incarcerated people, and people living in many countries outside the United States are all jettisoned from the mainstream LGBTQ Pride discourse, which centers the needs and lives of nondisabled, economically stable, and gender conforming white settlers. In fact, some have argued that “pride” has become both a commodity and a rhetorical weapon that draws on the apparent equality experienced by some LGBTQ people in the United States to illuminate the alleged cruelty or inhumanity of non-Western cultures and minoritized communities. LGBTQ Pride, in this sense, acts as a tool of white supremacist imperialism laced with cissexism and ableism, and LGBTQ Pride Month functions like the emotion police: if you’re not feeling the right way, then there must be something wrong with you. That “something,” it turns out, is that you aren’t white enough, abled enough, rich enough, or gender conforming enough. Funny, isn’t it, that a few people’s pride can project so much shame onto the rest of us?
But this year, I tried hard to conserve my energy. Instead of expending all my emotions during LGBTQ Pride Month by requesting retrofitted accommodations for events that were designed without me in mind, I opted to give up on the performance of pride and to spend my emotions on a book I’ve been writing about trans experience and mental disability. To clarify, I prefer to approach writing as an emotional investment, in addition to an investment of time and physical energy. As it is for many multiply marginalized people, writing about the entanglement of my own identities involves a lot of big feelings with not nearly big enough words to capture them. Writing without adequate words forces me to invent or otherwise resignify existing words to do new kinds of work, which in turn requires me to spend exorbitant energy sensing my way through my feelings, turning them over and over in my head to learn their every curve and texture with the hope of describing them just right. While it remains unclear how successful this emotional investment has been for my book project, it has nevertheless had the unexpected effect of helping me to reimagine my relationship to pride, as an emotion, a politics, and a form of situating myself within my communities.
I’ve begun to realize how important a role pride plays in how we identify ourselves and those around us. Pride is not just about how a person feels toward themself but also about how they feel toward others and how they imagine others feel toward themselves. Pride can only exist, it might be argued, if we believe someone else is feeling ashamed. This is certainly the colonial logic underpinning both LGBTQ Pride and, to an extent, Disability Pride: that our communities must show pride as a form of emotional resistance to the rest of the world’s shame. But what I’ve come to wonder is whether the compulsion to express pride, especially in light of its tethering to white ablenationalism, makes it more difficult for us to respect the complex emotional entanglements of gender, sexuality, and disability.
Let me explain. If kissing someone of their own gender makes a person feel happy, they might identify themself in a particular way, such as gay, bi, or pansexual, to honor their emotion. In other words, their emotion comes to shape their personhood. But if taking on a queer identity in a heterosexist climate causes that person to become disabled through homophobic violence, depression, anxiety, or other debilitating conditions occasioned by their queer identity, they might not be particularly excited to celebrate Disability Pride. Why would they when their disabilities are inextricably linked to heterosexism? Likewise, if a person—such as me—has disabilities that render most queer and trans spaces inaccessible, they might be less inclined to affiliate themselves with LGBTQ Pride. Again: why would they when their sexuality or gender is consistently overshadowed by the ableism that makes community involvement impossible? These questions lead me to ask why marginalized people feel they have to choose pride or be torn apart by it.
Feeling at the Limits of Pride
What I’m beginning to sketch out are the limits of pride. People come to name themselves by so many routes, not all of which emerge from the positive feelings we associate with pride. I’m left wondering whether our efforts to make pride more accessible miss out on a more liberatory model of access that would open up a broader, more nuanced range of emotions for people to associate with how they understand their gender, sexuality, and disabilities, as well as the ways they’ve arrived at those understandings. There is, in fact, a whole branch of Queer Studies and activism devoted to reclaiming shame. Might there be some value for queer and trans disabled people to mine the generativity of emotions beyond the limits of pride? Might there be room for the discomfort and pain that not only exist in opposition to pride but also emerge from within and travel alongside it?
Admittedly, this proposition is followed quickly by a concern: if we open our communities to more emotions, what stops a conversion therapist or a spokesperson for Autism Speaks (considered a hate group by many autistic people) from using our openness as grounds to justify our elimination? I don’t want my call for greater inclusivity to be appropriated by those who wish us harm. Perhaps, then, it’s best to situate emotional diversity within the context of accountability and collective liberation. I understand these terms through the lens of disability justice, which holds space for pain, sadness, and anger while also insisting that these feelings be directed outward and upward toward the institutions and systems of power that oppress us rather than directed inward at ourselves or laterally at those who are similarly oppressed. Disability justice embraces the messiness and contradictions that come along with celebrating disability while simultaneously resisting the forms of violence and harm that can produce disability. In much the same way, disability justice makes it possible to imagine a variation of LGBTQ Pride that affirms marginalized sexualities and genders without rescripting pride as a metric for “progress” or liberal democracy. Disability justice engenders a future where pride is just one of many ways for us to love on ourselves and the people around us.
Feeling Beyond Pride
In the remainder of this essay, I’d like to meditate on what, specifically, disability justice might open up at the emotional intersections of gender, sexuality, and disability. What might it mean to feel with disability justice? Or, put differently, what new emotions or orientations to our emotions might disability justice give us permission to explore?
One way I can approach these questions is to reflect on my own exhaustion at the end of a typical LGBTQ Pride Month. Exhaustion, though not always reducible to a specific or single emotion, is in my case characterized by depressive feelings, such as sadness and guilt. When I say June usually wears me out, what I’m really saying is that it makes me depressed. Despite knowing that my access needs are real and that it is not my fault when those needs go unmet, I often still end up feeling bad about myself, as if my failure to participate in LGBTQ Pride makes me a defective queer. I would wager that this experience is a neuro/queer/crip trope, one in which our disabilities double up on themselves. My disabilities make me fail at being queer, which in turn produces a queer defect, ultimately leading to a rhetorically disabled queer with disabilities. In the past, this queer disability gave me pause because my depressive feelings toward it rubbed up against my disability politics. How could I celebrate my disabilities if I couldn’t also embrace the effects these disabilities had on my other identities?
This is where disability justice offers some guidance. Previously, I had been accustomed to thinking about gender, sexuality, and disability primarily in terms of identity and coalition. That is, I understood them as separate categories that occasionally intersected for people who held more than one marginalized identity (like me) or for targeted activism that benefited multiple populations (e.g., fighting for gender-inclusive, accessible bathrooms). Disability justice, however, encourages us to hold these categories together as more deeply and fundamentally entangled. In this view, cisheterosexuality and abledness are mutually reinforcing and cannot be separated—ever. Queer and Disability Studies scholar Robert McRuer wrote about a version of this in Crip Theory: “the system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness: that, in fact, compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodiedness, and vice versa” (2). The same logic used to uphold abledness as a characteristic of the ideal bodymind also idealizes cisheterosexuality. The healthy person is also straight, cis, and gender conforming; the straight, cis, and gender-conforming person is also healthy. By contrast, the disabled person is a failed cisheterosexual and thus a gender deviant queer. Taking the contingence of gender, sexuality, and disability seriously allows me to redirect my depressive feelings mentioned above.
Rather than mourning my own defective queerness, which pits forms of disability against one another, I am led instead to interpret my depression as evidence of both internalized ableism and the legacies of cisheteroableism that haunt LGBTQ Pride Month. On one hand, my depressive feelings indicate some work I need to do on myself about valuing my capacities and access needs without comparing them to others’. On the other hand, knowing that ableism and cisheterosexism are entwined tells me that the inaccessibility of LGBTQ pride indexes a failure of some abled queers’ imaginations, that they too have yet to unpack the vestiges of cisheterosexism that slip into queer and trans movements when disabled people are sidelined.
The notion that I have a queer disability—as distinct from the queerness of my actual disabilities—does not make me a bad queer; rather, it brings into relief how LGBTQ Pride has come to operate within the violent emotional apparatus of its own oppressor. The same shame that fuels cisheterosexism is repurposed by LGBTQ Pride as ableism. Disability justice makes room for my depression as a valid response to the conditions of a cisheteroableist world while also offering tools to dismantle and remake those conditions. My emotions are honored, even as they are recontextualized in a way that affirms others living through and against the complexity of power and its many vectors of subjection. This is a vision of disability flourishing as queer worldbuilding: feeling pride when we can, feeling sad when we can’t, fighting how we’re able, resting when we’re not, and pouring ourselves into one another whenever we get the chance.
J. Logan Smilges is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Woman’s University. They identify as (neuro)queer, trans, and disabled, and their scholarship, teaching, and activism are led by commitments to transfeminism and disability justice. Their writing lies at the nexus of Disability Studies, Trans Studies, Queer Studies, and Rhetorical Studies, and it can be found or is forthcoming in Transgender Studies Quarterly, College Composition and Communication, Peitho, Disability Studies Quarterly, the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, Rhetoric Review, and several edited collections. Currently, Smilges serves as the co-chair for the Disability Studies Standing Group at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.
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