Note: I use the word “crip” about myself as a way of reclaiming the language that has been used to oppress disabled people.
As a queer person, I learned about the process of coming out at age 16. The first person I came out to was my mother. It was an incredibly challenging and emotional experience, filled with the possibility of rejection. I was lucky that my mom was accepting. It took her a few years to really understand this, but she eventually learned to get involved in my life and support my relationships.
In films featuring queer people, the coming out process is a once-off. The person comes out in a spectacular display and then their life is complete. This makes sense because cinematically, it works well. Generally in cinema there is a conflict (the conflict of self discovery), a rise in action (the potential for loss of friends and family and the encounter of bullying), and a resolution (the coming out experience itself). After coming out, the queer character is then perceived as being somehow transformed—now forever out.
What the films don’t portray is the constant need to come out. The fact that this happens whenever a queer person encounters a new person, a new environment, or a new social space is always left out. Yet, we do have to constantly come out. Coming out is a continual process, a continual re-affirming of queer identity. We often have to do this with people who already know that we are queer too, reminding them of our queer identity.
This is the incredible power of heteronormativity. Our society is so strongly assumed to always be straight that we queer people are viewed as a disruption from social norms, a threat to the ‘normal’ way of doing things, which is presumed to be heterosexuality. Straightness becomes a default position for most people.
The same sort of thing happens with disability. It is most prevalent in people who can “pass” as able-bodied—people with “invisible disabilities or whose disablement is only noticeable in certain spaces. Despite the fact that I walk with a cane, I am still often read as able-bodied. People see a youngish male and then presume that I am only using a cane as an affectation, as a prop that adds to my aesthetic look. I have to constantly remind people that I am disabled and that I need accommodations in place. Just like heteronormativity, there is an able normativity, an assumption that everyone is able bodied, even if there are a number of indicators otherwise. I have to constantly come out “crip” to people, letting them know that I am disabled and that I need accommodations.
Interestingly, when I have to come out crip again to people who know me, they will frequently say, “Oh ya, I forget because you always look so healthy,” or, “I forget because you don’t make it a big deal.” I don’t forget that I am disabled and it is an important part of my identity, so being told that it isn’t noticeable feels like someone has forgotten a key aspect of who I am.
Yet, all disabilities are in some way invisible. I know you may be asking: “Whaaaat? How? I notice people in wheelchairs all the time. I notice cane users all the time. I notice blind people all of the time.” Even though you may see evidence and markers of people’s disabilities, I suggest that disabilities are invisible to some degree because our social spaces (our buildings, sidewalks, roads) aren’t made accessible. They presume that there will never be a disabled person who wants to access these spaces, that they don’t need to accommodate disability because they believe that they won’t encounter it. In these situations, there is a sort of coming out experience too.
Like coming out queer, coming out crip is a continual process—something that has to be constantly re-iterated in a society that likes to pretend that everyone is able-bodied, cis-gendered and straight. The difference is that often coming out crip involves having to explain aspects of our medical diagnosis. There is an expectation on the part of able-bodied people that we should explain our disability, that somehow our medical lives are their business.
Disability is also highly changeable, so, frequently our access needs will change from moment to moment and we may need certain things in one situation that we don’t need in another. This process means that we also have to come out differently to people in different social experiences. Our needs shift and change, and so our coming out as disabled changes and shifts from one experience to the next.
Coming out crip involves bringing attention to the way that social spaces are inaccessible. Our bodies ask people who spaces are still not accessible to all body types. Our bodies ask people why they ignore disability and why they erase us.
There is a dialogue to be had from queer and crip experiences, a way of understanding more about coming out experiences from the comparison between these two forms of outing.
Derek Newman-Stille is a queer, disabled academic researching and teaching at Trent University. Derek is the seven-time Aurora Award winning creator and editor of the digital humanities project Speculating Canada. He is also currently co-editing the anthologies Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (with Kelsi Morris) and We Shall Be Monsters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Two Centuries On (with Kate Story, and which you can check out at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1357195744/we-shall-be-monsters-frankenstein-two-centuries-on).