©2017 Q* Anthology of Queer Culture

An independent student publication in the Charlottesville and U.Va. community

Sexual Abilities: The Intersection of Disabled and LGBTQ Identities

July 13, 2018

“SEXUALITY IS OFTEN THE SOURCE of our deepest oppression,” stated Anne Finger, a disability activist.[1] Finger, like many other people with disabilities, faces conflicting expectations and stereotypes surrounding her queer and disabled identity.  While the LGBTQ and disability rights movements have succeeded in many social changes, researchers have failed to adequately explore the intersection of these identities. Some scholars use metaphors and a shared “coming out” syntax to describe the similarities between the movements; yet, other scholars stay away from using one identity as a metaphor for another. Regardless of scholarship, people with disabilities are often asexualized and agendered, to the frustration of both people with disabilities and LGBTQ people.  Scholars contemplate possible solutions such as the political, medical, and sexual empowerment of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. The LGBTQ and disabled communities confront not only occasionally parallel but also intersecting oppression.

 

A Queer and Disabled Coming Out

 

The Disability Rights Movement and the LGBTQ Movement in the United States were both most successful starting in the 1960s. The Disability Rights Movement (DRM) has drastically shifted daily life for American with disabilities by establishing civil rights legislation, yet the DRM receives little academic study and media attention. By the 1960s, the DRM as we know it today became an established movement by building on centuries of struggle. The DRM has advocated for three main aims: deinstitutionalization, independent living, and civil rights.[2] The LGBTQ movement, as it is known today, began in small communities during WWII, but gained national attention in the late 1960s.  The 1970s gave rise to protests for legislation and social change in both movements. The LGBTQ movement continues to fight for various legislative victories.

 

Both movements gave rise to an academic field of study that analyzes the systems of oppression surrounding the groups.[3] Scholarship remains limited in both groups as most research remains relatively new and struggles to find funding.  Robert McRuer, a queer and disabilities studies scholar, claimed that the 2000s served as a space for “hegemonic (hetero)sexuality.”[4] In this time period, which continues today, many Americans called for a healing of deviant sexualities, including the sexuality of people with disabilities.[5] Both the LGBTQ and disability rights movements demand recognition and rights, while developing their own scholarship and research.

 

Intersectionality theory provides a basis for discussions about the sexual stereotypes around people with disabilities and the theoretical parallels between the LGBTQ and disability movements.  Intersectionality theory––a term coined in 1991––explores the overlap between systems of oppression and privilege, such as sexuality and ability. Intersectionality theory presses the importance of analyzing social justice movements from a wide perceptive.  Intersectional theorists not only compare the movements, but also explore the lives of individuals that identity as both LGBTQ and disabled. The mainstream LGBTQ movement often excludes disabled voices. The mainstream disability rights movement can also overlook its queer members. Intersectionality theorists analyze multiple social justice movements simultaneously, but must pay attention to individuals even as they compare and contrast social groups.

 

Many intersectionality theorists attempt to avoid ranking power structures and avoid using one identity as a metaphor for another.  Hierarchical understandings of oppression highlight some experiences other others and overlook the nuance of experience. Most scholars avoid such language and take a more inclusive approach to the various power structures.  However, as McRuer states, “Able-bodiness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things.”[6] McRuer places abilities above LGBTQ identities in a competition of oppression. However, McRuer also notes that the two movements rely on one another, stating, “Compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory ablebodiedness are contingent.”[7] He understands the intersection of the two movements and points out that the experience of LGBTQ people with disabilities cannot be understood without an understanding of both systems of oppression.  

 

While avoiding metaphors, many theorists do draw on parallels between experiences.  Ellen Samuels notes, “The nonvisible disability experience parallels the experience of femme-lesbians.”[8] She draws a parallel between the two identities to further understand them both without disregarding the nuances and differences between the experiences. Intersectionality theory serves as a tool for understanding the intersection between multiple identities that face oppression.

 

The parallel often drawn between disabled and queer identities rests on the “coming out” process that many queer and disabled people experience. Dominant culture often renders both queer and disabled identities invisible. Many queer and disabled people can “pass” for one or both of their identities by hiding their identity in everyday interactions and seeming to be non-queer or non-disabled. These identities are often rendered invisible due to the cultural ambiguity of LGBTQ and disabled identities. Because these identities are often ignored, their communities and cultures may struggle to gain popularity and recognition.[9]  Many social and political structures rely on the concept that other people can recognize sexuality and disability.[10] The invisibility of these identities leaves space for the LGBTQ and disability pride movements.

 

“Coming out” as either queer, disabled, or both serves as a means of unifying the community and taking pride in one’s own identity. The coming out process plays a key role in both movements, allowing one to realize his/her/their own identity and connect to a group.[11] McRuer focuses on the macro effects of coming out. Coming out as queer allows one to reshape heterosexist norms while claiming disability allows one to reclaim the meaning of “different.”[12] Both movements rely heavily on strong identity and pride within the community. Individuals experience a process of liberation and self-actualization by coming out in which her/she/they can stop the repression or exclusion of his/her/their sexuality or disabled identity.  In recent years, queer and disabled people have also begun coming out, starting a new movement termed Crip Theory.[13] By sharing both LGBTQ and disabled identities, these individuals have sparked a discussion about the stereotypes surrounding disabled sexualities.

 

Asexualization and Agendering of Disabled Individuals

 

Mainstream society often treats people with disabilities as “sexual others;” their sexualities and sometimes genders become pathologized, criminalized, or ignored altogether.[14] Society often excludes people with disabilities’ sexualities from the perception of sexualities.  A “normate” idea of sex percolates throughout our society, creating both heteronormative and ableist ideas.[15] In the late 1960s, scholars began studying how society often treats people with disabilities as though they have no sexuality.[16] Asexuality can be defined as “the relative absence or insufficiency of sexual interest, biologically or socially described function, and interpersonal sexual engagement.”[17] Society associates disabled sexualities with inappropriate or kinky behavior, mirroring previous misconceptions of homosexual sexualities.[18] Scholars discovered that mainstream society views disability and sex as incompatible.[19] Barbara Fiduccia describes her personal experience attempting to “challenge the myth of disabled women’s asexuality.”[20] She claims that society uses images of people with disabilities in sexual encounters to reproduce normate concepts of human perfection.[21] The media rarely portrays people with disabilities in a beautiful way that uses their disability as a form of beauty.

 

The asexualization of people with disabilities can negatively affect the lives of people with disabilities. Michael Rembis, a disability scholar, describes, “Many disabled people who have internalized dominant, ableist, heteronormative notions of strength, beauty, sex, and sexuality continue to experience psychological insecurity and stress when confronted with their own sexuality.”[22] The media and other platforms for displaying sexuality portray heteronormative and ableist views of sexuality. People with disabilities may come to internalize the idea that disability and sexual nonconformity are negative things.  Most scholars also claim that normal ideas of sex serves as a way to oppress the disabled. The asexualization of people with disabilities sometimes stems from the view that disabled people have or should have the social status of a dependent child.[23] The asexuality of people with disabilities is “not only an assumption but also a moral imperative.”[24] Mainstream society views people with disabilities as in need of help and as incapable of reproducing.

 

Eunjung Kim, a scholar of asexuality, pushes back against the traditional analysis of the asexualization of people with disabilities due to its non-intersectional nature. Although not all people with disabilities are asexual, as is often portrayed, some are.  The actions taken by disability movements to stop this stereotype “mistakenly target asexuality and endorse a universal and persistent presence of sexual desire.”[25] Asexuality is a legitimate sexual identity and a positive factor to many people.  Kim calls for the recognition of legitimate asexual identities both within and outside of the disabled community.[26] Individuals with disabilities who also identify as asexual face a complex borderland between opposing the stereotype of people with disabilities while fitting into it. The call by disability rights groups for disabled people to be viewed as sexual beings causes undue stress on asexual people with disabilities.[27] Asexual activists like Kim maintain that the asexual and disability rights movements both argue for similar social changes.  They both hope for less medicalization of their identities and a wider recognition that difference may be beautiful. Kim clarifies that “asexuality as embodied identity and asexuality as imposed stigma” are different and should be treated as such.[28]

 

Others view people with disabilities as agender as a result of the asexualization of people with disabilities.[29] Many scholars agree that mainstream society often views disability and gender as mutually exclusive. Society views people with disabilities as neither masculine nor feminine. Fiduccia, a disabled scholar of sexual images of people with disability, has claimed that disabled bodies are often viewed as genderless in order to prevent people with disabilities from reproducing.[30] She explores the larger social structures that seek to limit the number of disabled people in society. People with disabilities face asexualization and agendering, but institutional and social structures have the opportunity to challenge these stereotypes.

 

Improving Intersectional Lives

 

Both people with disabilities and LGBTQ people demand the demedicalization and political acceptance of their identities. Both groups ask for an acceptance of human sexualities as diverse and unique, not deviant.[31] Another solution focuses on moving away from the conflation of physical bodies with sexuality. Understanding sexuality as separate from sexual acts and the physical bodies that may or may not perform them would permit both LGBTQ and disabled people to express their sexualities more freely.[32] Changing views of sex and sexuality can improve the lives of people in LGBTQ communities, those in disabled communities, and those at the intersection of both.

 

Both LGBTQ people and people with disabilities have faced the medicalization of their identities.[33] The medical model identifies variation in gender, sexuality, or ability as a consequence of disease or biological impairments that limit an individual’s life options.[34] This model emphasizes finding a ‘cure’ for and preventing these differences. The goal of this model is a population with full human capacities and limited variation.[35] Both groups have suggested that increased education about their sexualities could improve the lives of young people developing their sexualities.[36] When the medical system ignores variant sexualities and bodies, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and those who identify as both may struggle to development their sexualities in a healthy way.  For many years, LGBTQ people faced the medical denial of their sexualities. LGBTQ people were often given drugs, conversion therapy, and other dangerous “treatments.” In the 1970s and 1980s, most medical establishments de-pathologized homosexuality.[37] People with disabilities, on the other hand, are still medically and morally advised to avoid sexual encounters.  People with disabilities often come to rely on medical agencies for both medical and moral advice. The medical system serves as one facet of oppression that could improve the way it approaches both people with disabilities and LGBTQ people.

 

One major improvement in the lives of people with disabilities and LGBTQ people could stem from an increase in scholarly articles and research.  The lack of scholarly articles and research on the intersection of these identities testifies to the need for a more intersectional approach to queer and disabled lives. And though the leftist portion of the LGBTQ movement attempts to take an intersectional approach, these approaches sometimes overlook ability. They also face a lack of funding and popularity.  With the current amount of scholarship, there exists no means to estimate how many queer people identity as disabled and vise versa. Both identities rely on self-identify and can be difficult to define.[38] Intersectional scholarship helps create spaces where queer people with disabilities feel safe.

 

Sexual agency plays a key role in political efficacy and allows individuals to feel self-actualized.  While some scholars focus on medical models, Abby Wilkerson explores the role that sexual agency plays in political agency and self-actualization.[39] The development of sexuality plays an important role in the development of “interpersonal connection, efficacy, acceptance of one’s body.”[40] Those who feel sexual autonomy tend to have high self-confidence and strength in their own identity.  Sexual agency also allows people with disabilities and LGBTQ people to overcome shame. As the LGBTQ movement reveals, acceptance of one’s sexuality plays a key role in self-confidence and the development of identity.

 

People who are LGBTQ and disabled find their identities invisible to many mainstream social justice groups. Expanding beyond the intersection of these two communities, a parallel between the movements creates a deeper connection between LGBTQ and disabled communities. Many members experience similar “coming out” processes and institutional limitations. A need for more scholarship and social justice movements focused on the intersection of disabled and queer communities remains apparent. Sexual agency serves as a key step for self-actualization and political efficacy. No social justice movement will reach its goals without the recognition of the other systems of oppression that intersect with it.

 

 

 

MARY GRACE SHEERS

they, them, theirs

College of Arts & Sciences

Class of 2018, Political and Social Thought & Linguistics

 

When I wrote this piece, I was enrolled in both Disability Theory and Intro to LGBTQ+ studies. The essay developed out of my interest in how disability identity fits into broader themes of intersectionality. An interesting fact about me is that I love to garden!

 

 

Notes:

  1. Robert McRuer, “Disabling Sex: Notes of Crip Theory.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 2011 Volume 17, Number 1: 107-117. http:/glq.dukejournals.org/content/17/1/107.full. pdf+html?sid=29613a1d-545f-4494-bdb9-fdbf7522bbdd

  2. Kyra R. Greene, “Disability Rights Movement (United States),” The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, 2013, https:/doi.org/10.1002/9780470674871. wbespm271.

  3. Robert, McRuer, Crip Theory : Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York, NY, USA: New York University Press (NYU Press), 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 21 April 2015. http:/site. ebrary.com/lib/uvalib/reader.action?docID=10170579

  4. Robert McRuer, “As Good as It Gets.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2003) 9(1-2): 79-105; http:/glq.dukejournals.org/content/9/1-2/79.full.pdf+html?sid=29613a1d-545f-4494- bdb9-fdbf7522bbdd

  5. Robert McRuer, “As Good as It Gets.”

  6. Robert McRuer. Crip Theory : Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.

  7. Robert McRuer. Crip Theory : Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.

  8. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2003 Volume 9, Number 1-2: 233-255 http:/glq.dukejournals.org/content/9/1-2/233.full.pdf+html?sid=29613a1d-545f-4494-bdb9- fdbf7522bbdd

  9. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  10. Robert McRuer, “As Good as It Gets,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  11. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  12. Robert McRuer, “As Good as It Gets,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  13. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory : Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.

  14. Barbara Fiduccia, “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women.” Sexuality and Disability 17. 1999: 277-82. http:/link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1022189224533#page-1

  15. Robert McRuer, “Disabling Sex: Notes of Crip Theory.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  16. Eunjung Kim, “Asexuality in Disability Narratives.” Sexualities, August 2011 14. 497-493. http:/sexualities.sagepub.com/content/14/4/479.full.pdf+html.

  17. Eunjung Kim, “Asexuality in Disability Narratives.” Sexualities.

  18. Chelsea Whitney, Intersection of Identity: Sexuality and Disability. March 2006, Volume 24, Issue 1, 39-52. Date: 23 Mar 2006. http:/re5qy4sb7x.search. serialssolutions.com/?genre=article&issn=01461044&title=Sexuality%20%26%20 Disability&volume=24&issue=1&date=20060301&atitle=Intersections%20in%20 Identity-Identity%20Development%20among%20Queer%20Women%20with%20 Disabilities.&spage=39&sid=EBSCO:pbh&pid=%3Cauthors%3EWhitney%2C%20 Chelsea%3C/authors%3E%3Cui%3E20754463%3C/ui%3E%3Cdate%3E20060301%3C/ date%3E%3Cdb%3Epbh%3C/db%3E.

  19. Michael Rembis, “Beyond the Binary: Rethinking the Social Model of Disabled Sexuality.” Sexuality and Disability. March 2010, Volume 28, Issue 1, 51-60.

  20. Fiduccia, Barbara. “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women.” Sexuality and Disability.

  21. Fiduccia, Barbara. “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women.” Sexuality and Disability.

  22. Rembis, Michael A. “Beyond the Binary: Rethinking the Social Model of Disabled Sexuality.” Sexuality and Disability.

  23. Fiduccia, Barbara. “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women.” Sexuality and Disability.

  24. Kim, Eunjung. “Asexuality in Disability Narratives.” Sexualities.

  25. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  26. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  27. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  28. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  29. Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  30. Barbara Fiduccia, “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women.” Sexuality and Disability.

  31. Michael Rembis, “Beyond the Binary: Rethinking the Social Model of Disabled Sexuality.” Sexuality and Disability.

  32. Michael Rembis, “Beyond the Binary: Rethinking the Social Model of Disabled Sexuality.” Sexuality and Disability

  33. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory : Cultural Signs of Queewrness and Disability.

  34. Steven D. Edwards, Disability: Definitions, Value, and Identity (Oxford: Radcliffe, 2005), 32.

  35. Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 2008), 8.

  36. Chelsea Whitney, Intersection of Identity: Sexuality and Disability.

  37. Robert McRuer, “As Good as It Gets.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

  38. Chelsea Whitney, Intersection of Identity: Sexuality and Disability.

  39. Abby Wilkerson, “Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency.” NWSA Journal. Vol. 14, No. 3, Feminist Disability Studies (Autumn, 2002), 33-57. The Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316923.

  40. Abby Wilkerson, “Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency.” NWSA Journal.

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

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