If you've never met Eli Clare, read any of his writings or attended one of the lectures or performances he travels across the country giving, your first impression may be that he is different. Not just different, but different. After all, he lives with a disability, he's been identified - and frequently misidentified - with every imaginable sexual identity and orientation, and has been called every name in the name-calling book. To top it off, he's also a poet, who has walked across the United States for peace and organized conferences on queerness and disability.
But then you read something he's written, or attend one of his talks, or as I have on several occasions, get a chance to talk with him, and the word "different" is the last thing that comes to mind. It's not that you feel the same as him, it's more that his work forces you, forces us, in a sometimes gentle and always powerful way to rethink what we even mean by different.
How Clare does this isn't completely clear to me. Partly it's his ability to create a space where difference and connection coexist. His work changes the way we feel about our differences, transforming it into something that makes us more...more strong, more interesting, more sexy and also into something that connects us to the communities around us in powerful and meaningful ways. Maybe it's that feeling of connection which is so surprising, because it's so rare.
In his seminal work Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, Clare weaves together issues of gender, disability, sexual orientation and identity in a collection of essays that are as accessible as they are complicated. Following the publication of his second book, The Marrow's Telling: Words in Motion, Clare has launched a new website to focus on his work as a speaker and trainer. We virtually sat down to talk about the slow process of change and how our greatest discomforts can be our greatest teachers.
I think to a lot of people the idea of being a disability activist, let alone a sex and disability activist, doesn’t compute in part because they can’t believe there is anything positive about being disabled. How do you deal with that attitude?
We’re not good at all at imagining bodily experience that’s not our own. Partly I blame the media for this: how they inundate us with images of bodily experience that they define as “normal” but are really unattainable. Images of how bodies should look, sound, smell, and move, images that define shape and size, good and bad, health and illness. So most of us spend too much time comparing our bodies with these unattainable norms, or working double-time to resist them.
For me as an activist writer, the questions are: how do I resist the phantom of normal and how do I name and describe bodily difference without relying on that phantom? And in response, I’ve written pieces like this:
TO THE CURIOUS PEOPLE WHO ASK, “WHAT DO YOUR TREMORS FEEL LIKE?”
Tell me, have you ever watched
hands play a piano? Fingers
on the keys, ivory to skin, dance
white to black and back again, run
wild and loose, thump and caress
the universe cradled inside
a baby grand, those hands
I lost at birth. Breath squeezed
to empty gasps, I fell into the world,
brain of my fingers half dead.
Explain to me your hands resting
still as water before they dance.
That I cannot imagine.
Engaging people who don’t “get it” is always a challenge. I work to find out where their fear lies. I encourage them to keep learning. I trust that people’s paradigm around disability will change over time. I know I didn’t “get it” around my whiteness, for instance, all at once, and I’m still working on it. The work of anti-oppression, paradigm-shifting education doesn’t happen fast and on the surface; instead, it’s slow, subterranean work.
A lot of people seem to get hung up on using the “right” words to describe others to the point where they are too afraid or to annoyed to try and make a connection at all. How do you deal with this kind of thing?
I find people struggle with bodily difference, whether it’s disability or queer sexuality or gender variance/transness or skin color or being fat. In a culture that scorns, hates, pities, tries to cure and/or pretends not to notice those differences, naming, claiming and embracing them as ordinary parts of human experience is a huge challenge.
The words queer, trans, disability, among others, insist that folks acknowledge, rather than deflect or erase, the reality of bodily difference. Dominant cultural responses, ranging from murder to bullying to medical pathologizing to segregation of many different kinds, simply have to change. And so when heterosexual people squirm with the naming of queer sexuality or nondisabled people would rather not listen to the disability experience, I ask, Why are you uncomfortable and what can that discomfort teach you?
What do you think it can teach us?
I think discomforts mark places to which we all need to pay attention. It might flag fear or privilege or lack of knowledge or lack of familiarity. In my work I ask folks to follow their discomfort into the unfamiliar, which may seem like the last thing any of us want to do. But unlearning oppression, stereotypes and prejudice means exactly that, moving into the unknown. Mostly I trust that if we pay attention to our discomfort and if we're willing to do political, emotional, analytic and spiritual work around that feeling, it will transform into knowledge, strength and alliance.