Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘disability’

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

bobslide2 bobslide3 bobslide4 bobslide5 bobslide6


However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.



Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

Book Review: Scapegoat – Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby

(Trigger warning: disability hate crime)

Whilst not explicitly about gender, I consider reviewing this book (and others that deal with issues of discrimination of various types) important due to the importance of intersectionality. How could I, as a writer who engages with a broad cross section of material claim (implicitly, by writing) to be in any way enlightened about, for instance, the experiences of a disabled queer person? Gendered analysis cannot exist in a vaccum, otherwise it rapidly and depressingly can lose its relevance for a great deal of people, and potentially erase their experiences in the process. I consider books addressing disability, class, race, and culture to be important parts of the educational diet of those developing their understanding of gender.

I was excited to read this book, and purchased it based simply on its importance highlighted by the title. It’s undeniable that ableism (discrimination and prejudice against disabled people) is rife, as highlighted by some of the facts on the back cover of the book. Only two out of ten disabled people have non-disabled friends, and nearly 50% of disabled people have recently experienced or witnessed physical abuse? Seems like something the privileged, able bodied population should be asking themselves ‘why?’ about, and also offers some juicy insights into how prejudice can infiltrate society.

Overall, my feelings on this book were mixed. It is clear from the narrative that the author, Katharine Quarmby, has invested a great deal of time and effort in researching the topic of the book. Some very important and disturbing examples of disability hate crime are recounted in great detail, and used to illustrate problems with housing policy, police responses, and considerations (or lack thereof) of disability in court cases. The structure was clear, and points poignant. I felt however that each time a particularly heinous crime was described to prepare for these salient and enlightening points, it was done so in a frustrating way. Often the environment was painted like poor dramatic fiction – ideas like ‘you’d never have thought such a terrible thing could happen in such a peaceful neighbourhood’. It made me imagine a spun-out Daily Mail article, but without the offensive bits. Irrelevant details about the origins of a town where a particular hate crime happened didn’t serve to enrich; only to make me ask ‘is this filler’? I was also left with my eyebrows raised that the author included very questionable paragraphs concerning the murder of one man, Brent Martin:

Brenda knew that something was wrong. ‘When they came for me, at half past three in the morning, with me daughter Tracey7, I’d had me coat on, I was out of me mind.’ She had had two premonitions, she said, that something was going to happen to Brent. In bed, a few days earlier, her body had been twisted and pulled by invisible forces. […] Brenda feels Brent’s presence still, as well of that of her dead husband Alec. She talks to them downstairs, she told me, and tells them: ‘I know you’re waiting up for me, but it’ll be a few years yet!’

This bizarre nod of legitimization toward’s this poor woman’s supernatural beliefs only served to undermine the legitimacy of the useful discussion in the book. I believe the quality of the writing would have been vastly improved had the author distanced herself from the tabloid-esque style which I suspect she may employ quite successfully in her work, even as a Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Guardian writer. I also felt that elements of the book were under-referenced, with sentences such as:

Research shows that children and young people are overwhelmingly involved in antisocial behaviour around disabled peoples’ homes, on the buses and on the streets.

…then with no reference whatsoever. A very large number of the book’s references are URLs to BBC news stories. I have some sympathy regarding the fact that this author may be regarded as a pioneer in disability hate crime research (as an activist rather than an academic, at least) but some discussion of these limitations would have been well warranted.

Despite these problems, I am still glad to have read this book. The few chapters that provide some basic history on the treatment of disabled people through witch hunts and freak shows offers some intriguing historical context, and the progression from asylums to ‘care in the community’ is definitely an interesting journey that is examined in a manner that remains entirely accessible.

Quarmby also recognises the importance of intersectionality in her writing, which is certainly not to be undervalued. As well as giving some helpful discourse on the early origins of ‘hate crime’ within UK legal systems and social consciousness, gender, race, and religious intolerance also all feature in her discussions. Here is a powerful example concerning gender, also highlighting potential system flaws:

The council has confirmed that a team social worker who visited Steven Gale , after he jumped from a third-floor window to escape what was said to be a domestic row, found him ‘to be very capable, apparently happy, and he was adamant he didn’t want any help or services from us’. Further information I have obtained denies, however, that the council had decided not to intervene, saying instead, in double-speak: ‘No decision had therefore been made not to give Mr Gale any extra support.’ Steven Gale starved to death a few months after he threw himself from the window. He was described by a social worker as ‘reluctant to engage’. I suspect that if a woman had thrown herself out of a window after a domestic row, police and social workers would not describe her as ‘reluctant to engage’ but would conclude, instead, that she was living in fear of her life and was a ‘vulnerable and intimidated witness’.

Adequate space is given to allow the read to easily explore the ideas and social commentary that are presented. Whilst a powerful resource for those who may have little to no contact with the prejudices that disabled people face, it may be obvious or upsetting in many ways to the individuals who deal with physical or mental disability.

Despite its imperfections, this book has a great deal to give. It was somewhat surprising how little disability hate crime has been recognised, and the extent of social failure that still occurs by gatekeepers, caregivers, and the public. Maybe this book will be eventually overshadowed when this field of inquiry receives the attention it certainly deserves, but I don’t recommend you wait. This book deserves your time.

Tag Cloud