Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer “wheelchair dancer,” features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, “Butch/Femme Crip,” addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence — to muscles, to movements — and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.
When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.
Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That’s something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it’s sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.
To say that it is “butch” to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface — the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?
If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews — I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers — disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.
Scenes from my life.
You see me on the street. I’m wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:
- Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
- It’s a pity that she’s in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
- She should cover herself up a bit.
- Ugh, and you look in other direction.
You see me in the cafe. I’m wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You
- Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
- Panic. Fuck. Did she just … flirt with me? Shit.
- Pretend you didn’t see, turn, and leave.
- Smile and come right over.
You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I’m wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You
- Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can’t move.
- Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don’t dress or look like THAT.
- Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
- Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.
OK. So, I am imagining the viewer’s responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don’t get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn’t really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?
My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.
My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.
Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.