Honoring All of Ourselves: On Disability and Transness
“The lines of united ableism and trans hatred are crystal clear. We must inform ourselves and our communities. We must come together to resist. And we will.”
–Cyree Jarelle Johnson & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
“Oh, you’re one of those,” a colleague in an inter-institutional zoom chat said, making a sour face while commenting on my name, pronouns, and physical appearance. When, later in the call, another colleague mentioned that I’m autistic, the same sour-faced colleague rolled his eyes and insisted campus security officers “better keep their eyes on me,” insinuating in a poor attempt at humor that I was more likely to carry out a mass shooting, and insisting it was “only a joke” and that I was “acting crazy” when I calmly and politely told him I found his joke inappropriate.
I’m tired. The consistent vilification of disabled people and trans people* is dehumanizing and dangerous and ignores the increased rates of violence disabled and trans people already face. Consider the numbers for trans and disabled violence, that trans people are four times more likely than cisgender peers to be victims of violent crimes (with even higher rates of violence for Trans people of color) and disabled people (and especially cognitively disabled people) are more likely to be targeted at about the same rate. But despite evidence that we are much more likely to be targets of violent crime than perpetrators of violent crime, dehumanizing claims that trans disabled people are dangerous seem more and more common.
Yet the insistence that trans disabled people are dangerous persists: After mass shootings in the United States, there seem to be waves of speculation from social media posts, podcasts, reddit users, and other corners of the internet that claims that the perpetrator of such violence is queer/trans and/or “mentally ill.” These claims are often made before there is any publicly available information. For example, after the shooting at Parkland, Florida in 2018, Alex Jones posted a photograph of Marcel Fontaine, a 25 year old gay, Autistic man, wrongly claiming he was the shooter. Jones falsely repeated and circulated wrong information found on social media to his millions of subscribers. Following a mass shooting at Uvalde, Texas, Jones spread a conspiracy theory that the shooter was a trans woman, who Jones further speculated was mentally ill. Images of the accused trans woman, taken from a reddit post, were circulated around social media. Those reposting this misinformation included Arizona republican representative Paul Gosar, who insisted the shooter was trans.
Transness and disability are frequently linked and presented as a danger by state legislatures as they dehumanize trans people and deny rights. The ongoing project of dehumanizing trans people and linking trans and mad people to dehumanize both is increasingly popular in US state legislatures, where an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills have been proposed in 2023, many of them relying on “mental illness” stigmatization of disability. In Texas alone, where I reside, there have been 53 proposed anti-LGBTQ bills this legislative session, with most of these proposed bills explicitly targeting trans people. In Missouri, a sweeping anti-trans bill would prohibit several multiply-marginalized trans groups from receiving treatment: including blocking access to gender affirming care for minors, incarcerated people, and barring gender affirming care from being funded by Medicaid. Though this “emergency rule” enacted by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey was eventually challenged and revoked, the law specifically targeted disabled people, naming autism and “mental health issues” explicitly, both requiring “any mental health issues to be resolved” before one could receive gender affirming care. The strategy is clear: to use “mental health” and disability as a reason to deny trans people agency over our own bodies, dehumanizing us all.
As Cyree Jarelle Johnson and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarsinha have insisted, it is important and necessary to better understand and articulate how anti-trans and ableist strategies are intertwined. These attacks on trans/disabled people are not an accident, but an organizing strategy by well-funded anti-trans activists to dehumanize trans people and present us as dangerous. My friend and scholarly colleague V Jo Hsu thoughtfully describes how anti-trans activists rely on peoples bigotry across categories of transness, disability, sexuality, and race to stigmatize people across marginalizations simultaneously. They refer to this process as “affective drift” (a term borrowed from disability scholar Jay Dolmage). To summarize Hsu’s argument, affective drift means multiple categories are pathologized at once, that–as one specific example Hsu draws attention to–autism diagnosis is used to undermine trans identity, and ultimately is leveraged by anti-trans activists to deny trans people bodily autonomy and self-determination. And the ways anti-trans rhetorics are used harms other marginalized people, as Hsu argues “anti-trans rhetorics necessarily reinforce discriminatory norms that endanger people of color,disabled people, LGBQ folks, and cisgender women.”
It’s necessary to understand how these dehumanizing strategies work. As scholars like Jasbir K. Puar and Cameron Awkward-Rich have written about, the connections between transness and disability are sometimes tense, in no small part because of the long history of maligning both groups. For those of us that already live in the overlap of transness and disability, separating them already seems impossible. But for those who identify as trans or disabled (or those that would be our allies), it’s important we don’t throw one another under the bus that is the ableist, anti-trans agenda targeting us all.
Because, while the transphobia and ableism of these legislative efforts and social media harassment are well-documented, the day-to-day, lived experiences of trans, disabled folks is less apparent. As the ableism and transphobia ramp up, they spill into every aspect of our lives. At the grocery store, at my doctor’s office, and on the campus where I teach, strangers have been increasingly parroting back these transphobic, ableist talking points. People who don’t know a thing about me have followed me into a gas station to scream profanities at me and call me I’m a “pedo,” a “r*tard,” and a “groomer,” all because I’m a visibly disabled bearded person wearing eyeliner and jewelry living in Texas, where the transphobia is increasingly palpable.
But we cannot address the wave of anti-trans legislation and attitudes without engaging ableism, racism, and other ways people are being oppressed. To write alongside V Jo Hsu, “trans liberation is inseparable from futures where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), queer folks, and disabled people can live more freely.”What has made these attacks so painful, so difficult: seeing the ways in which trans and queer kin have been quick to disavow disabled people, to declare “I’m not crazy!” or “I’m not mentally ill!” as we reinforce ableist tropes. I work to build community with my disabled and trans kin, where we can see each other in our full humanness, leaving no parts of ourselves behind.
* Throughout this article, I think of trans experiences expansively, using “trans” to include a range of gender experiences, including transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, and two-spirit people. As my friend and colleague GPat Patterson has asserted, trans is “a somewhat imperfect umbrella term to describe those who disidentify with the sex and/or gender designated to them at birth”
ada hubrig (they/them; Twitter @AdaHubrig) is an autistic, nonbinary, multiply-disabled caretaker of cats. They live in Huntsville, Texas, where they work as an assistant professor and English Education coordinator for the English Department at Sam Houston State University. Their research and teaching explore disability, especially at the intersection of pedagogy, queer rhetorics, community literacy, and teacher preparation. Their research is featured in College, Composition, and Communication, and their words have also found homes in Brevity, the Disability Visibility Project, and Taco Bell Quarterly. Ada is currently co-editor of the AntiAbleist Composition blog space and an advisory board member of the Coalition for Community Writing.
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