In this article, Samuels investigates analogies between the experience of non-visibly disabled people and queer people. While she explores experiences that these two groups share (such as their shared relationship to discourses of “passing” and “coming out”), Samuel’s main objective in this piece is to put pressure on the ways analogies of identity and oppression can oversimplify the complex differences between analagized groups. Rather than accepting easy analogies that tend to make all experiences seem equivalent (epitomized in sex-race analogies, for instance when white feminists have analogized their own oppression to the oppression of black civil rights activists), Samuels believes investigating analogies can provide a more nuanced understanding about of marginal identities like femme lesbian and nonvisible disabled person.
While it is commonplace to use language of “coming out” to discuss both queer and invisibly disabled experience, Samuels argues that the two kinds of coming out differ in significant ways. Within disability contexts as in queer contexts, “coming out” is often used with two different meanings. On the one hand, “coming out” as disabled can sometimes mean claiming a positive self-identity as disabled, rejecting internalized ablest beliefs about the inferiority of disabled people. For those who have invisible disabilities, especially chronic illnesses, coming out takes on a second meaning, most often in the sense of “coming out to” as in revealing oneself to be disabled to others. Here the analogy with queer identities is most concrete, as it is those who can “pass” as able bodied who are in a position to do this second sort of outing.
Within both discourses, queer and disabled, passing as normative is often seen as evidence of internalized oppression. To pass is to reject public recognition as disabled or queer. But for those whose disability isn’t written on the body, there exist limited options for publically performing their disability. And when disability is claimed in the absence of physical signifiers, it is often disbelieved by both disabled and nondisabled people alike.
Some have claimed that femme lesbian identity may serve a disruptive force to cultural gender norms by recasting traditionally heterosexual femininity within the context of lesbian erotic desire. However, there tends to be no disabled equivalent to the eroticism of femme identity. The one expeception to this limitation, Samuels argues, can be found in the border identity of the disabled femme. Samuels closes by examining the ways femme lesbians reframe their own self image to include their own disabled bodies.
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I’ve thought about analogies between queerness and invisible disabilities before, especially in considering LD experience and gay male notions of coming out. In particular, I’ve thought about these issues in relation to Sieber’s idea of disability as masquerade, and I’ll likely think about them again when I dig into Sieber’s work in Disability Theory.
I take away from this reading a deeper anxiety about using analogies between different identity experiences. I am already wary about analogizing LD experience with other disabled experiences, particularly because I am so easily able to pass as able bodied in most social contexts. I am used to having to come out as LD, and to people being surprised. Because I am well acclimated to academic life, I usually know how to appear comfortable and at home in environments where other, more severely LD people would be conspicuous. Even if I accept that LD and other disabilities share analogous qualities in relations to the ideas of “normalcy,” as Davis-style disability theory would hold, I feel great unease approaching any analogies between my experience of LD and other disabilities that I (problematically) imagine as more real (because more visible), for instance disabled people who use wheelchairs or have sensory impairments.
One avenue where problematic analogies are most likely to emerge in my thinking about LD and literacy-related disabilities relate to issues of race and ethnicity. ESL students and people who speak with nonstandard (usually racially marked) dialects are often functionally disabled within mainstream literacy education. The stigma of illiteracy affects these populations in similar ways to how they effect LD people, and indeed, medicalized language often works its way into discussions about the deficiency of basic writers or the remediation of ESL students. However, as I ‘m sure I will discover when I investigate the histories of ESL and BW teaching over the last few decades, there are likely important distinctions between these populations as well. I will have to think about this further as I read Patricia Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled and George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s history of basic writing–both of which are next on my lists for Jason and Mark, respectively.