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"My Body, My Closet" - The Intersection between Queer Studies and Disability Studies

An Active Mind's picture

In Ellen Samuels’s essay “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse”, she discusses the convergence between “queer” and “disabled”, suggesting that they both express “the uneasy, often self-destroying tension between appearance and identity; the social scrutiny that refuses to accept statements of identity without ‘proof’; and, finally, the discursive and practical connections between coming out” (233). She wonders, what happens if one's bodily appearance does not give way to “one’s own sense of identity” (233)? 

My Body, My Closet

My Body, My Closet


I don’t identify as being queer in the sense of sexual identity, but because of my disability, I do, in fact, consider myself to be "queer" in terms of the definition that the OED provides for the term – “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric.” Last year, I was searching for something that would let me explore outsiderness and difference in the context of literature and when I took my first queer studies course, I really feel in love; I was sure that it had been what I was looking for. It wasn’t until later that Anne started telling me more and more about disability studies, which is when I realized that this particular field was a closer version of what I wanted—but I think that both, as Samuels suggests, are very similar—and each can help to inform the other. 

Samuels makes a connection between the “lesbian-femme” and “non-visible disability”, each which fail to have bodily surface signs that signify their “non-normative” identity. People are presumed to be “able-bodied” or “straight” “‘unless otherwise stated’” (235). Focusing our concentration away from simply the visual is a new arena that disability studies has begun to explore. Much previous and foundational work in the field has focused on the gaze, but what about internal and hidden manifestations of disability? How might invisible disabilities reveal the interrelations between the “disabled” and “non-disabled”?

Samuels quotes Swain and Cameron’s “Unless Otherwise Stated”, who believe that coming out about disabilities has—from what I can tell—a specific, advocacy agenda. They say, “Having come out, the disabled person no longer regards disability as a reason for self-disgust, or as something to be denied or hidden, but rather as an imposed oppressive social category to be challenged and broken down….Coming out, in our analysis, involves a political commitment” (237). In other words, coming out involves rejecting the “normal” and asks that the disabled identity be considered valid. Hiding, or keeping invisible the invisible disability, only serves to reinforce the binary between “normal” and “non-normal” and “visible disability” and “healthy.”  

I tend to agree with Swain and Cameron. I get frustrated when people I know don’t come out about their struggles with mental illness. I think if you’re lucky to receive a proper diagnosis and receive treatment for your condition, you have a right to share that education surrounding your illness with others. Samuels cites Lisa Walter, who says, “Traditionally, passing…has been read as a conservative form of self-representation that the subject chooses in order to assume the privileges of the dominant identity. Passing is the sign of the sell out’” (240). I know that stigma is real and that it hurts and that flying under the radar can sometimes feel like the safest thing to do, but there’s so many misconceptions about disability—particularly mental disability--that I believe that those who suffer from these particular disabilities should not simply pass as “normal”, but speak out about their illnesses in an attempt to help others who are lonely and suffering.  

At one point in her life, Eli Clare wishes his disability were invisible. He writes, “I wanted to be ‘normal,’ to pass as nondisabled, even though my shaky hands and slurred speech were impossible to ignore” (108). People who have invisible disabilities are more apt to pass, to hide their disabled identity, but I argue that the stigma associated with their invisible illnesses can often be more painful. People accept them as “normal”, expect that they can do “normal” things, participate in “normal” activities and their disabilities simply remain largerly understood. They painfully straddle the disjunction between internal and external, how they view themselves and how others view them.  Perhaps if you look too similar to someone, they assume you're like them, but this assumption leads to misunderstanding? Samuels writes, “...I must make myself completely alien to these people in order for them to feel that they understand me” (247). In terms of disability and queerness, difference is interestingly figured more as recognition than similarity. 

Perhaps “coming out” can mean different things for different people and maybe I'm wrong to assume that "coming out" is right for everyone.  Is "coming out" merely accepting your own disability, is it telling your parents, your partner? Samuels cites Eli Clare, who writes, “My coming out wasn’t as much about discovering sexual desire and knowledge as it was about dealing with gender identity. Simply put, the disabled, mixed-class tomboy who asked her mother, ‘am I feminine?’ didn’t discover a sexuality among dykes but rather a definition of woman large enough to be comfortable for many years” (Samuels 238). For Clare, it was simply finding a definition of the term “feminine” that allowed him to cope with his own “disability”, to find a home within the label of "woman" where he could--atleast for awhile--identify peacefully.  

Samuels concludes her essay by saying “…I begin to believe that the skin, the boundary between us, can be our homeland, our shared definition” (251). Eli Clare in his book Exile and Pride (which I just finished reading) talks a lot about the body as the interface between self and other. Throughout the book he suggests the multiple ways in which the body extends beyond flesh and that we never truly possess our own bodies, but that betrayal from others “can instead creep up behind us, make home under our skins” (40). He writes, “I lived by splitting body from mind, body from consciousness, body from physical sensation, body from emotion...” (15). At what point do we merge the body and mind and open the flesh (or closet) for public view? 


Creatrix Tiara's picture

there's a privilege in being able to come out and be heard.

The assumption made with this article is that people will listen to you.

My entire life has been a massive series of ongoing parallel processes of coming out - and being shoved back into the closet. "Where are you from?" and its adjunct "where is your accent from?" are two of my most hated questions in the world, because the people who ask them (Especially as a form of introduction) are not actually interested in my answer. They're interested in seeing if their assumptions are true. I tell them my truth, and they claim I am lying, they say I am wrong - because these strangers obviously know me a hell of a lot better than I do - they say I don't look or act or sound the part. Yet I could claim any other country, provenance, origin, and they will say "oh yes, I could tell that because of X Factor" - a factor that actually plays no part in identification.

I deal with mental health conditions, the exact diagnosis of which is still debated on. I have been told that I am a faker because it's "all in my head". I have had therapists tell me, after I talk to them of a possible condition that I relate too strongly to, "why are you trying to convince me you have XYZ? You're not enough of an asshole!". I read the struggles of my friends with similar conditions, and I feel like an absolute fraud - because at least I can get up in the morning and get stuff done, as much of a difficulty as it is.

A former pseudo-lover observed an interesting contrast about our approach to sexuality: she struggled to deal with coming out as queer, but was lucky to find a community that accepted her. I, on the other hand, kept yelling out "I'M QUEER!!" with bright flashing neon lights, and instead I get vicious rumours that I "lie to lesbians to sleep with them". Queer folk see my brown skin and declare my sexuality as non-existent, foreign. I barely even pass as a cis woman - depending on what I happen to wear today and where in the world I am, I read as male, or maybe as genderqueer (an identity I feel pressured to adopt), too normal to be "non-normative", too weird to be "normative", foreign.

'Foreign' pretty much sums up my identity - if we go by the idea that identity is not something you get to claim and form, but what you are assumed to be, what you have to defend. I dropped a lifetime of Islamic upbringing and still I have to deal with people's stupid misconceptions about Islam. In Bangladesh, where my family is from, I am the foreigner as I was not born and raised in the culture; yet in Malaysia, where I was born and raised, I am Bangladeshi first and sometimes only. I am hypersexualised; I am desexualised. I am sick to the head; I am too healthy to talk. I am obese, my weight a danger to my livelihood; I am not fat enough for fat spaces because I can still fit 'normal-sized clothing'.

Coming out is pointless, at best, if people don't want to listen. It's especially worse if people will use that - or the assumption about what you came out as - against you. I have acquaintances who lost scholarships, funding, livelihoods because they were outed as queer, trans*, some other "condition" that was unacceptable. I have been close to denied medical support because I didn't seem sick enough. I get extra screening in airports, yet sometimes in tourist lands I get asked for directions.

It's a privilege to be able to come out at all without repercussions. It's an even bigger privilege still to be able to *do anything* about that coming out, to have people listen to you, to have your words and experiences believed, to be able to take action, to have your PEERS and ALLIES actually support you rather than say you are spoiling the movement because you don't - cannot - agree 100% with their methods or ideas. Why should we have to sacrifice so much of ourselves if it leads to nothing at all - at best? Why not create support so that when people do come out, they are believed and cared for?

An Active Mind's picture

Talking with Anne

I realized after my discussion with Anne that I am really conflicted about this issue of divulgence.  Maybe it's too harsh to say that everyone has an obligation to be open about their illnesses?  (Anne also pointed out that I'm also not always open about I may be coming off as a bit hypocritical!).  Basically, if everyone were open about there own disabilities, there wouldn't have to be any more discussions about invisibility or even what it means to be "normal."  Confession would allow for a multiplicity of minds and bodies to exist.  But, again, is it right to say that people aren't allowed to hold onto their own secrets (this brings us back to some of what Anne and I talked about in relation to Frank Warren's talk)?  

We also discussed how it's not really fair to say that "the stigma associated with...invisible illnesses can often be more painful" because of having to "straddle the disjunction between internal and external."  Anne pointed out that people with visible disabilities face the same struggle because others often seem them only for their disability (the external) and nothing else.