Journal of Women's History 15.3 (2003) 77-89
In preparing to write this essay, I stumbled across a 1992 special issue of Feminism and Psychology devoted to the topic of "heterosexuality." The editors had collected seventeen short reflections from heterosexual feminists addressing the question "How does your heterosexuality contribute to your feminist politics (and/or your feminist psychology)?" As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, their project was inspired in part by Adrienne Rich's groundbreaking essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Indeed, the collection serves as an example of what Rich requested from feminist theorists and scholars; as she writes in the 1982 foreword to her article, her intent was "to encourage heterosexual feminists to examine heterosexuality as a political institution."
I must confess, however, that I was not thinking about the political institution of heterosexuality while reading this special issue. As a queer feminist with disabilities, engaged in the field of disability studies, I found myself thinking about the political institution of able-bodiedness. Or, more to the point, I found myself imagining a special issue of Feminism and Psychology (or Feminist Studies, or Signs, or even the Journal of Women's History) asking nondisabled feminists to discuss how their able-bodied status contributes to their feminist politics. It is hard to imagine such a publication, and not simply because of the complexities of discerning who does and does not have a disability, or the difficulties of defining "disability," points to which I return below. It is hard to imagine because even with the dynamic growth of disability studies within U.S. universities and the persistence of the American disability rights movement, a political analysis of disability remains below the radar screen of many theorists and cultural critics. To quote and adapt Rich, it is still all too easy for "feminists to read, write, or teach from a perspective of unexamined [able-bodied]-centricity." As a result, it is difficult to find feminist theorists outside of the field of disability studies who address disability in their work, let alone theorists willing or interested in identifying themselves as nondisabled and interrogating the effects of such an identification on their work. Who, therefore, could I find to write for my special issue interrogating able-bodiedness ?
Of course, I should note that the editors of the heterosexuality issue write in their introduction that they ran into similar problems in collecting submissions for their project. Their decision to send a call for papers to feminist scholars who had never identified themselves as lesbian, or written or publicly spoken as non-heterosexuals, met with several defensive and even hostile responses. Two of their recipients were, unbeknownst to the editors, out as lesbians; others were offended by the editors' presumption of heterosexuality, questioning how they could "know" them to be straight; and still others expressed discomfort with the label, explaining that the term was too narrow for their sexual identities, or was not an important enough aspect of their self-images to feel like a comfortable label. One respondent discussed the difference between choosing to call oneself something and being labeled by another as something, describing the latter as troubling and disempowering. Some of this discomfort arises in part, I think, because of the naturalization of heterosexuality. As Rich asserts in her essay, heterosexuality goes unquestioned because its alleged naturalness and normalcy place it beyond the realm of political analysis. Some of it, however, stems from the troubling aspects of identities in general, and identity politics in particular. Disability identities are no exception.
Similar to the label "woman," the term "disabled" cannot easily be accepted as a self-evident phrase referring to a discrete group of particular people with certain similar essential qualities. "We" is a particularly unstable term when speaking of disability; it is very difficult to decide definitively whom the term does and does not include. Should it encompass all kinds of impairments—cognitive, psychiatric, sensory, and physical? Do people with chronic illnesses fit under the rubric of disability? Is an asymptomatic HIV+ person disabled? What about people with some forms of multiple sclerosis (MS) who experience different temporary impairments—from vision loss to mobility...