I stumbled upon disability rights activist Mia Mingus’s speech about moving beyond desirability through a string of Google searches. What she writes below, originally given as a speech at the 2011 Femmes of Color Symposium in Oakland, takes an intersectional approach to combining one’s personal sexual identity and appearance with one’s politics, which are so often not in synch. The excerpt is rather long below as the context she gives at the beginning is quite important, but it’s worth reading all the way through on her own site here.
I always think it is important to say that I’m here today as a queer, disabled, korean woman, transracial/transnational adoptee, raised in a US territory in the Caribbean. None of which are more or less important. For me, these are not just descriptive terms; they are political identities, based out of my own and other people’s lived experiences, and I understand them—all of them—to be powerful ways of moving through and understanding the world…
What I have learned from living in the south has helped me to survive as a queer person; and what I have learned from being adopted has helped me to survive as a disabled person.
To me, femme must include ending ableism, white supremacy, heterosexism, the gender binary, economic exploitation, sexual violence, population control, male supremacy, war and militarization, and ownership of children and land.
Ableism must be included in our analysis of oppression and in our conversations about violence, responses to violence and ending violence. Ableism cuts across all of our movements because ableism dictates how bodies should function against a mythical norm—an able-bodied standard of white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism, economic exploitation, moral/religious beliefs, age and ability. Ableism set the stage for queer and trans people to be institutionalized as mentally disabled; for communities of color to be understood as less capable, smart and intelligent, therefore “naturally” fit for slave labor; for women’s bodies to be used to produce children, when, where and how men needed them; for people with disabilities to be seen as “disposable” in a capitalist and exploitative culture because we are not seen as “productive;” for immigrants to be thought of as a “disease” that we must “cure” because it is “weakening” our country; for violence, cycles of poverty, lack of resources and war to be used as systematic tools to construct disability in communities and entire countries.
I would like to share two quotes with you that resonated with me for today:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.” — Audre Lorde
“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.” —June Jordan
I want to say upfront that I don’t identify as femme. I have struggled with identifying as Femme. I don’t politically identify as “Femme,” even though I get the lived experience of being a femme of color in so many ways. And frankly, much of this is because I have had horrible interactions with self-identified femmes of color, much of which has been because of their ableism and ignorance around how ableism, white supremacy and gender oppression get leveraged everyday in service of each other. Much of it has been because of the palpable culture of ableism within queer people of color community. And some of it has been because I have spent most of my life as a physically disabled child, youth and adult adoptee of color trying to find my way into “human,” let alone “woman.”
As a disabled child shuffled through the medical industrial complex and as a baby of color shipped across the world to “new parents,” I have felt more like a different species, a freak, an object to be fixed/saved, a commodity. Like someone who has been owned and whose body has never felt like it was mine. Like someone who they were trying to make human (read: able bodied, white), if only the surgeries had worked and the braces had stuck. Like something that never could even get close to “desirable” or “feminine” or “woman” or “queer.” Like ugly. Not human.
Many people assume that I identify as femme and even call me femme, but the truth is that “femme” has not felt like a term where I belonged nor was it a place I wanted to be. I rarely see femme being done in a way that actually challenges and transforms gender, rather than colluding in an alternative enforcing of gender. Many of the people in this room are more invested in being beautiful and sexy than being magnificent. Even something as small as the time I nervously asked a comrade femme of color friend of mine to wear sneakers in solidarity with me, instead of her high heels, because I didn’t want to be the only one and didn’t want to get chided from other femmes of color about my shoes (as so often has happened). She said “no,” but she (of course) “totally didn’t think there was anything wrong with wearing sneakers.”
It seems so basic in our communities, but I think we need to stop making assumptions about each other’s identities and make distinctions between how someone identifies verses what someone’s lived experience is. We need to make the distinction between descriptively femme and politically femme.
In my disability justice work this comes up a lot. Especially for disabled women of color. Over and over I meet disabled women of color who do not identify as disabled, even though they have the lived reality of being disabled. And this is for many complicated reasons around race, ability, gender, access, etc. it can be very dangerous to identify as disabled when your survival depends on you denying it.
When I say “descriptively disabled”, I mean someone who has the lived experience of being disabled. They may not talk about ableism, discrimination or even call them selves “disabled,” but they know what it feels like to use a wheelchair, experience chronic pain, have people stare at you, be institutionalized, walk with a brace, be isolated, etc. There are many people who are descriptively disabled who never become or identify as “politically disabled.” When I say “politically disabled,” I mean someone who is descriptively disabled and has a political understanding about that lived experience. I mean someone who has an analysis about ableism, power, privilege, who feels connected to and is in solidarity with other disabled people (regardless of whatever language you use). I mean someone who thinks of disability as a political identity/experience, grounded in their descriptive lived experience. (The same is true for descriptively queer, descriptively woman of color, descriptively adoptee and so on.)
And just to be clear, I believe that in order to politically identify as queer, disabled, femme, woman of color, one needs to have a descriptive lived experience to ground it in. my political identities come directly out of my lived experience. I never used to identify as disabled (period), even though my life was extremely disabled. It was not until 1998 that I even started to describe myself as disabled—and even then, it was only descriptively. It wasn’t until 2002 that I started identifying politically as disabled.
Doing disability justice work, we struggle with creating spaces that are based on how one identifies, because often times, the disabled people who identify as “(politically) disabled” are often white disabled people. As people with multiple oppressed identities doing work with (our) folks on the margins of the margins of the margins, we need to think carefully about how we are inviting people into spaces and how we meet people where they’re at.
I am descriptively femme of color. I know this. This has always been my lived experience. I was femme before I was queer. I was grappling with how to navigate gender as a tiny Korean transracial and transnational adoptee disabled girl queered by my physically disabled body. I grew up in a feminist community, around other powerful femmes of color, but none of whom identified that way. There was no word for it, it was… just their life. It was how they had to learn to be, to survive. It was what they had crafted out of the fires of their desires and loving. It was part of how they had learned to be magnificent.
Their gender was about being a grounded force to end violence. Their gender was about forging dignity out of invisibility that could slice through femininity that would rather be pretty than useful. Their gender was about answering the question, what is the work you are doing to end violence and poverty, not what shoes are you wearing. Their gender was about feeding family and raising children collectively; organizing for themselves when no one else would. Their gender was a challenge to the world they lived in that was trying to erase them.
As femmes of color—however we identify—we have to push ourselves to go deeper than consumerism, ableism, transphobia and building a politic of desirability. Especially as femmes of color. We cannot leave our folks behind, just to join the femmes of color contingent in the giant white femme parade.
As the (generational) effects of global capitalism, genocide, violence, oppression and trauma settle into our bodies, we must build new understandings of bodies and gender that can reflect our histories and our resiliency, not our oppressor or our self-shame and loathing. We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence. That moves us closer to bodies and movements that disrupt, dismantle, disturb. Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.
The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use. A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed. The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.
Because we all do it. We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?” What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it? What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?
Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?
And I am not saying it is easy to be ugly without apology. It is hard as fuck. It threatens our survival. I recognize the brilliance in our instinct to move toward beauty and desirability. And it takes time and for some of us it may be impossible. I know it is complicated. …And I also know that though it may be a way to survive, it will not be a way to thrive, to grow the kind of genders and world we need. And it is not attainable to everyone, even those who want it to be.
What do we do with bodies that can’t change no matter how much we dress them up or down; no matter how much we want them to?
*Image via The Conversation