05 June 2009

Navel-Gazing on Disability and Gender, Part One

I'd like to cut a mysterious figure, I think, sitting out on the porch with Irish coffee and cigarettes and Waugh. I do invite questions -- who is that horribly thin young man? is that cane necessary? who wears gloves in this weather? -- whether or not I like it. I think I might. I want some compensation for what illness has wrought on my carefully planned self-in-the-world. There are no more waistcoats because the buttons are too much, no more trousers because I've slid right off the bottom of the sizing scale for them. Can't tie a tie with these hands, can't wear blazers with these withered shoulders. Too damn tired to look as I'd like, I take solace in the fact that I might look like something. Aubrey Beardsley, maybe, a version with oversized sweaters and Buddy Holly glasses. I do have very long hands, which is evident even when I've hidden them in gloves. If I can't dress the part I used to -- some kind of twenties Oxfordian, maybe -- I hope the visible signs of bodily betrayal are enough to create some sort of image. I have spent so much time learning what and how to project.

When I first began to use my cane (and later the occasional wheelchair), I was boggled by the increased frequency with which I passed. (To pass is to be read as a member of the gender one wishes to convey, for those of you following at home. For me, this means being seen and referred to as male.) Is being a cripple, I wondered, somehow excessively masculine? Does my cane project some sort of phallic Freudian subtext? I was cheered by the thought; my particular affliction strikes women about nine times more often than it does men, and passing more frequently was a lovely compensation for that fact. (The body knows, my diagnosis seems to say. You may identify as a man as much as you like, but your immune system knows the truth. I am shocked that I should play host to such an essentialist disease.) It took a while -- and my wicked friends' commentary -- for me to realize that being visibly disabled isn't at all masculine: it's unsexing. I'm hardly a person to many observers, merely an androgynous ailment. With that as my starting point, it takes less effort than I have ever put forth to tip perceptions to male. There are, I am quite sure, other factors -- the visibly invalid man doesn't have to look as masculine as his able-bodied counterpart, as in the eyes of the dominant culture he's already been unmanned by the loss of his physical power; I've lost so much weight that whatever curves I have aren't worth mentioning; thousands of other trivial tributaries end at the masculine pronoun coming out of a stranger's mouth. As with all matters of gender, there is no one answer, no one trait that makes or breaks my passing privilege. However, unsexed as I am by my limp et al, the cues I have always used are more effective. There is nothing for them to combat. I'm tickled and disgusted at once, as I am by handicapped one-stall restrooms. Hallelujah, I can piss in peace, but look at that -- I've got an unasked-for new gender. It's marked neither by skirts nor pants but by wheels.