Bridges and Islands: Crossing into the complexity of intersectional identification
by Zach Richter
In this short synthesis piece, I will briefly review the arguments of Gill (1997) and Takala (2007), culminating in an argument for neither disability essentialism nor a flight from all single-issue identity politics in general, but instead an argument in favor of multi-positionality political categories and a coalitional tactics for activism.
In Carol J. Gill’s (1997) “Four types of integration in disability identity development”, a path is set out for a fabled journey of self-acceptance that many disabled people follow. Furthermore, Gill (1997) argues directly that many psychological and trauma based issues in disabled people can be remedied through moving further down this schematic of self-development. The steps take place as follows: first identification (and desire for inclusion) within larger society and the able-bodied ideal, second identifying with the generalized disability community, third identifying and empathizing with those in the disability community who have had differing experiences than you, fourth identifying publically with the disabled community even in non-disabled spaces. While some may characterize this journey as one toward separatism, it is my argument that Gill’s (1997) analysis is useful because it provides backing for a specific optimism based in embracing those cripped spaces where we can talk about our needs, our realities and our experiences without stigma. As Takala (2007) would probably argue, however, Gill’s framework cannot be allowed to claim universality. Black disabled people, those of differing sexualities and those of different genders might still find a white, straight, masculine disability community to be less than accepting. Without voices of critique, disability rights spaces are bizarrely focused on some aspects of the wider project of liberation but not others. I will offer a solution that embraces some of the more useful aspects of Gill’s disability cultural model while engaging with its inadequacies. Prior, however, one must attend to Takala’s (2007) article on disability and gender.
Takala (2007) takes on disability and gender from what appears to be an intersectional position, but states quite early on that she is not disabled or at least does not identify as disabled. Furthermore, her article begins arguing that the aversion that non-gendered and non-disabled subjects experience in regard to disability and gender is largely equal and assumes that both exist purely through stigma attached to bodily features. As Takala’s (2007) analysis proceeds, the mask of intersectionality in her argumentation begins to slowly decompose. “The needs of disabled people are increasingly met”, she says and “women are compensated by maternity leave” (127). Her argumentation approaches a powerful point that should be echoing Crenshaw, but instead complains about how men are excluded from (likely, radical) discussion groups that focus on Feminist authors (Takala, 2007,p.129). Finally, Takala’s (2007) mishandled analysis focuses on how success is supposedly stigmatized among oppressed in-groups (p.130). What is Takala’s conclusion? That disability and women’s rights should focus on policy and not culture, because all communities are obviously impossible to form without a series of exclusions. To speak of Takala’s analysis gently, one must find it unusual for someone who admits to participate in neither feminist nor disability radical communities to know so much about the inner-workings of such groups. In the next paragraph, I will use my experience as a queer-crip (who has participated both in radical queer and radical disability rights communities) to correct her mistakes and Gill’s essentialisms.
Of the threads present in Takala’s article, the one most useful is her invocation of an intersectional criticism of single-issue politics. Carol J. Gill would be guilty as charged if such a claim were to be brought against her article on integration. Like the Intersectional theorists of the 1980s, neither my disabled identity nor my queer identity takes precedence; rather, in all of my activism and participation in both queer and crip cultures, I reveal my presence in both sub-groups. Professor Elizabeth Grace of National Louis University and activist Adam Gluntz as well as myself and several others recently coined the term “neuro-queer” as a border between our identities as “queer” and as “neurodivergent”. Of course, both categories are built to be open, but many neurodivergent activists are hesitant to act and speak on issues of importance to radical queer activists, similarly the queer movement has not been nearly inclusive enough for its mad, developmentally disabled, learning disabled and cognitively disabled participants. Just as black feminists forged black feminism and womanism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the queer-crip movement is experiencing a grand exodus, out of the underworld of silent repression into public view. The nature of multi-positionality categories such as black-feminist, neuro-queer, queer-crip and so many others is that such terms function as bridges. We can keep our cultural identification with multiple groups and activisms, but also cultivate third identities that exist in their mixed and realistic form; as people who are much more complex than any singular label. Thus to add a final step to Gill’s schematic journey of identification: 5. identification with a bridge-group such as The Autistic Women’s Network, The Combahee River Collective and Neuro-Queers allows individuals acceptance of themselves as complex human beings that transcend any singular category but are present in many sub-groups and whose lives contain efforts for liberation in both groups separately and simultaneously.
Zach Richter is a poet, a graduate student and an activist who is currently pursuing his MS in Disability Studies and Human Development at UIC. Previously, Zach Richter received his BA in English from Western Connecticut State University while spending 4 of his 5 years actively involved in WCSU’s Roger Sherman Debate Society. Zach has been an activist for progressive causes since his participation in the anti-war movement as a younger person to his current work as an activist-blogger on issues of disability and sexuality. Zach is also part of the We Are Like Your Children autistic blogging collective.
Copyright © 2013 by Zach Richter. Reprinted with the permission of the author.