Wednesday, July 7, 2010

For Fuck's Sake: On Negotiating Non-normative Embodiment, Shame, and Sex

I tend to write my blog posts in essay form--something, I've come to realize, that gives me an intellectual distance--one that keeps me shielded from becoming to vulnerable.But this one is different: it comes from a place of emotional anguish that I’m just now articulating in ways that I think-feel are concise and intentional. But I must preface this: Whatever I write shouldn’t be misconstrued as me implying that people who don’t live with these things shouldn’t have lovers, including multiple ones at the same time. What I’m writing about is the ways in which people with non-normative bodies usually become hyper-aware of how our bodies take up space and how, sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be much space for our bodies. And so it begins…
I often talk and write about loving one’s body, but I’ve realized recently that I continually fail to talk about something of utmost importance: the process of loving one’s body. By this I mean the ways in which we find and/or create language that articulates love for bodies, how we find connection with and through other bodies, and how occupying erotic spaces with another person/other people is a way of unlearning shame and insecurities. I think it’s important to recognize that neither shame nor insecurities about our bodies are existential, “inherent in the human condition,” or felt with the same immediacy and pervasiveness by all persons. Rather, they're products and processes of systemic oppressions that steal our bodies, and the language to describe them in erotic ways, from us.
We have to frame all of this in terms of ableism, fatphobia, racism, oppositional sexism, transphobia and transmisogyny, cissexism racism, sexism, classism, serophobia, and somatophobia (the impulse to conceptualize things in a disembodied way), and how they inform and create discourse of bodies and sexuality.* The tendency, though, is to depoliticize the ways in which we occupy bodily and sexual spaces by reducing these complexities to simple “preferences.” I read a lot of personal ads that say, “no fats, fems, or blacks” on sites like manhunt and okcupid. They then qualify it: “I have nothing against them, it’s just a preference.” This fails to recognize the ways in which non-normative bodies are understood only in the shadow of normality, and those of who are forced to negotiate living in that shadow end up internalizing it. Our bodies because repositories of shame; they’re desexualized and/or hypersexualized and/or fetishized, and some of us are read as asexual (not that there’s anything wrong with actually being asexual).
Personally, I’ve spent most of my life “comfortable” living in the shadows. I feel safe there. But I pay a tremendous price. I look around at my friends who have both normative bodies and multiple lovers, and I feel the sting of isolation, confusion, and sometimes resentment. I’ve been feeling that sting very intensely lately; I’m beginning to realize that I’m read as the very flirtatious, fun to be around friend. But, I echo Loree Erickson’s sentiment: "I want to be both a good friend and a good fuck.” I’m also tend to be a counselor of sorts, always inhabiting very intimate emotional spaces with people I love—and although I value it and understand it as beautiful and erotic, it always tends to end there. I sometimes feel that I’m in people’s headspace so much that they forget that I have a body—one that I’m trying my hardest to reclaim, recreate, and call home.
Perhaps it’s because I’m not as direct as I need to be, but I also realize that I simply don’t have the language to be direct. As someone who’s been the “good [disabled, asexual, desexualized] friend” for as long as I can remember, I simply don’t have the words to be blunt, honest, and open. I’m working on it, but I need people to meet me half-way. I need people to realize I can’t consistently love my body in a vacuum, that I need to be naked, fucked, and told that I’m beautiful in that extremely vulnerable place. It’s the only way any of us—especially those of who have to constantly resist oppressive representations of our bodies can develop ways to resist internalized somatophobia and shame.
I want to breathe Eli Clare’s and Audre Lorde’s words into me:

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.
This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.
The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision - a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.
---Audre Lorde, The Uses of the Erotic

But it isn't only oppression that lives in my body, our bodies. The many experiences of who we are, of our identities, also live there. I know so clearly that my queerness, my disability, reside in my body--in the ways that I move, dress, cut my hair; in who I am attracted to and who's attracted to me; in my tremors, my slurred speech, my heavy-heeled gait; in the visceral sense of muscle sliding over muscle as I lie with my lover; in the familiarity of tension following tremor, traveling from shoulder to fingertip. Identity, of course, can live in many places all at once--in the communities we make home, the food we eat, the music we play and dance to, the work we do, the people we feel wild and passionate about, the languages we speak, the clothes we wear. But so much of who I am is carried in my irrevocably different body.
Irrevocable difference could be a cause for celebration, but in this world it isn't. The price we pay for variation from the norm that's defined and upheld by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism is incredibly high. And in my life, that price has been body centered. I came to believe that my body was utterly wrong. Sometimes I wanted to cut off my right arm so it wouldn't shake. My shame was that plain, that bleak. Of course, this is one of the profound ways in which oppression works--to mire us in body hatred. Homophobia is all about defining queer bodies as wrong, perverse, immoral. Transphobia, about defining trans bodies as unnatural, monstrous, or the product of delusion. Ableism, about defining disabled bodies as broken and tragic. Class warfare, about defining the bodies of workers as expendable. Racism, about defining the bodies of people of color as primitive, exotic, or worthless. Sexism, about defining female bodies as pliable objects. These messages sink beneath our skin.
he stolen bodies, the bodies taken for good, rise up around me. Rebecca Wight, a lesbian, shot and killed as she hiked the Appalachian Trail with her lover. James Byrd Jr., an African American, dragged to death behind a pickup driven by white men. Tyra Hunter, a transgendered person living as a woman, left to bleed to death on the streets of D.C. because the EMT crew discovered she had a penis and stopped their work. Tracy Latimer, a twelve-year-old girl with severe cerebral palsy, killed by her father, who said he did it only to end her unbearable suffering. Bodies stolen for good. Other bodies live on--numb, abandoned, full of self-hate, trauma, grief, aftershock. The pernicious stereotypes, lies, and false images can haunt a body, stealing it away as surely as bullets do.
But just as the body can be stolen, it can also be reclaimed. The bodies irrevocably taken from us, we can memorialize in quilts, granite walls, and candlelight vigils. We can remember and mourn them, use their deaths to strengthen our will. And as for the lies and false images: we need to name them, transform them, create something entirely new in their place. Something that comes close and finally true to the bone, entering our bodies as liberation, as joy, as fury, as a will to refigure the world.
The work of refiguring the world is often framed as the work of changing the material, external conditions of our oppression. But just as certainly, our bodies--or, more accurately, what we believe about our bodies--need to change so that they don't become storage sites, traps, for the very oppression we want to eradicate. For me, this work is about shattering the belief that my body is wrong. It began when I found communities committed to both pride and resistance. It was there that I could begin to embrace irrevocable difference--come to know the grace in my shaky hands, the rhythm of tremor and tension in my muscles, the joy in my transgendered butch body, sun on my back, a lover's hand on my belly.
I am still in the middle of this work. I think of my lover cradling my right hand, saying, "Your tremors feel so good"; saying, "I can't get enough of your shaky touch"; saying, "I love your CP." Shame and disbelief overwhelm me until I stop and really listen to the words. Another layer begins to shatter… At the end of the day, I went to sleep adoring irrevocable difference.
In the end, I am asking that we pay attention to our bodies--our stolen bodies and our reclaimed bodies. To the wisdom that tells us the causes of the injustice we face lie outside our bodies, and also to the profound relationships our bodies have to that injustice, to the ways our identities are inextricably linked to our bodies. We need to do this because there are disability activists so busy defining disability as an external social condition that they neglect the daily realities of our bodies: the reality of living with chronic pain; the reality of needing personal attendants to help us pee and shit (and of being at once grateful for those PAs and deeply regretting our lack of privacy); the reality of disliking the very adaptive equipment that makes our day-to-day lives possible. We need to do this because there are disability thinkers who can talk all day about the body as metaphor and symbol but never mention flesh and blood, bone and tendon--never even acknowledge their own bodies. We need to do this because without our bodies, without the lived bodily experience of identity and oppression, we won't truly be able to refigure the world, turning it to a place where, to quote the poet Mary Oliver:
. . . each life [is] a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

--Eli Clare, Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness

* I think it's also very important to recognize that these oppressions don't effect our bodies, or how we understand them, in the same way, or even with the same immediacy. I'm still forming this thought, so bear with me.
Words and meanings--
transphobia - hostility towards, people who are transgender or who otherwise transgress traditional gender norms
cissexism - the belief that cis (non-trans) people are more "natural" or superior to trans people.
oppositional sexism - according to Julia Serano: Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms.
serophobia - hostility towards people who are hiv positive. This can be direct violence, or something like outing.
trans misogyny - a kind of sexism that targets people on the trans feminine spectrum.
transgender - Also, trans; A general term describing people whose gender identities/expressions differ from what is expected. “What counts as transgender varies as much as gender itself, and it always depends on historical and cultural context,” (Stryker 2008: 19).
for more trans related definitions, check out Gendersaurus Rex.