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Eli Clare – Challenging Our Differences

An Interview with Eli Clare


You say that you believe people’s ideas of disability will change over time. Do you have the same hopes for how we think about sex or gender?

Yes, of course, the paradigms around sexuality and gender can and have changed over time. I only have to think about the work that started before Stonewall to be reminded of this. My day job right now is at the LGBT services office at the University of Vermont, where I interact a lot with traditional-age undergraduates -- queer students in their late teens and early 20s. With them, I'm reminded of how much the rules around sexual orientation and gender identity have changed and how much they haven't in the 25 years since I first came out.

I think one of the lessons of identity-based social change movements -- disability rights, LGBT liberation, black civil rights, the women's movement -- is the work of shifting paradigms around power and privilege needs to be measured in decades. There certainly have been, and will continue to be, critical moments of explosive energy that catapult social justice forward, but along with those moments comes a lot of slow, steady work.

Much of your work and writing is about change and growth. What do you think we need to make real change or growth in our own sexual lives?

I think many factors are needed to promote personal growth and institutional change around the material and emotional conditions that marginalize some people and privilege others, certainly nonjudgmental spaces to learn critical thinking skills and to do emotional work are vital, as is community. I believe that personal growth isn’t really individual or solitary, at some level it is community work, nor is it work that happens in a political vacuum. A developed analysis of institutional power and privilege needs to be fostered in tandem with space for individual growth. And all of these factors are more likely to occur in vibrant cultures that resist the mainstream -- queer cultures, crip cultures, sex-positive cultures, communities of color uninterested in assimilation.

On this website I get a lot of e-mails from people who feel so “different” that they believe they simply aren’t sexual at all. What do you say to someone who isn’t just feeling a bit down about themselves but has basically given up altogether on being sexual and having a sex life?

The many ways in which marginalization around race, class, disability, sexual orientation and gender translates into sexual shame and damage are profound. The lies abound, casting disabled people as completely asexual and queer people as perverts, African-American men as sexual predators and poor women as sexually irresponsible, and on and on. And mainstream media has all of us, regardless of identity, comparing our bodies and desires to impossible, air-brushed representations of who we should be as sexual beings.

How to resist the shame, damage, pure thievery -- our bodies stolen away from us -- is such a necessary and difficult question. In response, I try to offer community: you're not alone nor is your experience only isolated and individual. I try to shape a body politic that holds complexity and contradiction, that doesn't assume a straightforward trajectory from body shame to body love. I try to create space through words, images, dialogue that embraces bodily difference. I try to model ways of thinking and being in community that don't forget our bodies. And none of these responses ever feel sufficient.

And so I also return to my work as a poet, trusting that words on a page will also bring hope and possibility:

Hands burled and knobby, I tuck them
against my body, let tremors run
from shoulder blade to fingertip. Tension
burns the same track of muscles, pencil slows
across blue-lined paper, words scratch
like sandpiper tracks at low tide.
Kids call cripple. Bank tellers stare silent.
Doctors predict arthritis. Joints crack
in the vise grip: my hands want
to learn to swear.
Late at night
as I trace the long curve of your body,
tremors touch skin, reach inside,
and I expect to be taunted, only to have you
rise beneath my hands, ask for more.

We started this conversation talking about your website. I don’t associate you with online culture all that much. What’s your experience been online? Have you spent much time in virtual spaces, where, according to some research, people are doing a lot more gender bending than they are in real life?

I haven’t had a big cyberspace presence, although I’ve kept a blog for several years now. I hope my website both brings some business my way and provides queer disability resources to folks who need them. I think cyberspace has been a boon to many different kinds of people for whom isolation is a profound daily reality. At the same time, cyberspace seems to encourage a kind of flip, mean way of interacting. I’ve seen way too many flame wars erupt over both trivial and profound difference. I’m glad that cyberspace exists for those of us who have computer access, but I also believe cyberspace is no substitute for embodied community.

I don't have any experience, first- or- second-hand, with [virtual spaces], so all I know about this is what I've read in the media. I'm often left with conflicting emotions about the phenomenon of playing with identity through avatars. On one hand, I know imagination has tremendous power to lift us out of our own personal experience; playwrights, filmmakers and fiction writers shape their work around this power. On the other hand, I'm all too aware of how imagination can rely heavily on stereotypes. I hope that the folks involved in creating identity-bending avatars are paying attention to how their work relies upon or resists stereotypes.

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