Friday, 4 April 2014

Ramblings on sexuality and disability, part 1: the Ian Birrell article.

There's been a little Independent column floating around the intertubes, published on the 31st. A fair few of the people I follow on Twitter have been sharing it uncritically, or even heaping praise upon it and imploring everyone else to share it.

The article, however, makes me feel quite uncomfortable for reasons I'm not quite able to articulate. I'm going to use my incoherent thoughts about it to launch off into a rant I've been meaning to put 'on paper' for some time. I do apologise. Get out while you can.

First, we need some context. Birrell is married to a woman, and has two children, one of whom "has profound and multiple learning difficulties." He was also a speech-writer for David Cameron during the 2010 election. From his marriage to a woman and his writing in the article that triggered this.. incident, I'm inferring that he's straight and this does have an impact on how I interpret his writing. If this assumption is inaccurate, I apologise to Mr Birrell. Too much of this rant is going to take the form of "I'm not comfortable with a str8 saying this..".

Anyway! First paragraph. Straight out of the gate with a proclamation that homophobia is no longer a 'thing'; homosexuality (ignoring other queer sexualities) has been "embraced into everyday normality". This is similar to the things I see ostensibly middle-class, sheltered and otherwise 'privileged' gays saying, homophobia is less of an issue and we have things like the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act as proof. I have the.. pleasure of not living in a hip, metropolitan city like London or Manchester. Public displays of non-hetero sexualities are allowed from 1800-2400 on Tuesdays (when the pubs were running at a loss and needed more customers, natch), and then only in certain areas. Outside of this time and these places, not appearing totally cishet carries significant physical risk. This is not what being "embraced into everyday normality" is. This is being ghettoised. Homophobia is not 'over' because one middle class, straight man thinks his social circle has become more accepting, nor are problems with homophobia isolated to school bullying and other countries (read about 'homonationalism' here.)

Then suddenly, a wild change of topic appears! Birrell moves onto talking about various disability issues. I fail to grasp what purpose his introduction serves, and the implications are somewhat unpleasant. For starters, there's an implicit assumption throughout this piece that LGBT and "disabled" are mutually exclusive groups. Considering that I'm quite convinced that I exist, this is a bit absurd. My sexuality has had an impact on my experiences of my disability, and vice versa, but more on this later. Other people have suggested that this.. structure gives a feeling that any progress made in one area (i.e. LGBT rights) comes at the expense of progress in another (i.e. disability rights) and creates a hierarchy: fixing the injustices inflicted upon disabled people is more important than continued work on LGBT rights. Were I feeling generous, I would suggest this was just a misguided bit of 'marketing' to get people to pay attention to what you're trying to sell, like that image of a rainbow-coloured Oreo. I'm not feeling generous - he's using LGBTQ people as his own little tool to help his unrelated point. He's using us as a "political football", something he decried mere sentences ago.

Credit where credit is due: highlighting the issues faced by disabled people is obviously important, but consider the next paragraphs. He begins with saying that, now, 50% of disabled people experience discrimination in the provision of goods and services. This is followed by some brief discussion of work-related issues, such as higher unemployment amongst disabled people.

The first thing that troubles me here is how he transitions from one issue to the next. He literally says that the employment issues are "worse" than the goods & services discrimination. To be charitable, I quite disagree that this is "worse". Due to the very nature of disability, some of us will be incapable of working and, for even more of us, regular employment is inadvisable. Suggesting that employment issues are more important than discrimination in goods and services is built on the idea that every disabled person (except a select few disabilities) is capable of work and should work. This has the same logical underpinning that leads to the media regularly conflating the Work-related Activity Group of Employment & Support Allowance with "oh, they're just workshy", and the assumption by the Government that employment is inherent value with regards to health, regardless of circumstance. He rightly acknowledges the role society plays (e.g. making buildings accessible and direct discrimination), but it's a shame this receives a cursory sentence; a paltry offering when compared to his 3 paragraph non-sequitur about the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.

I am also troubled by how he supports his argument that disabled people; we are less likely to be employed "despite being the most loyal employees". Leaving aside my own bias that loyalty to an employer is often a bit ridiculous, Birrell seems to be trying to make a case for the acceptance of disabled people by employers by referring to (to him, anyway) a positive attribute we apparently all share. Our value is not inherent or self-evident by our status as being Actual Humans With Inherent Worth, but rather it is contingent on us behaving in a way that society desires and displaying attributes it finds pleasing.

It's no coincidence that he almost immediately mentions the Paralympics. The coverage of the Paralympics in the UK was a veritable orgy of 'inspiration porn', usually those puerile memes featuring a (visibly) disabled person doing a simple activity such as "walking" or "drawing". These memes, like Birrell's statement, assign disabled people worth based on how 'useful' we are; either as employees or a petulant 'inspiration'. However, there's also a subtext of what is 'acceptable' behaviour from a disabled person. Doing sports, smiling, being loyal employees are noteworthy activies from a disabled person, and are praised. Being unemployed, being in pain, demanding better treatment or access from society are the behaviours of the 'bad' disabled. After all, if Stephen Hawking can do being employed, we can't we? The Paralympics were never going to to 'help' attitudes towards disability in the UK; they were about the disabled people who "could", and was destined to be used as a stick to beat the disabled people who "can't".

I've gone on about this article for long enough, I think. I just have two more quick points to make. Firstly, the value of disabled people is the same as a non-disabled people, not that we're an untapped market or exploitable ("loyal") workforce. Our value is not economic.

Second, a white middle-class cishet abled man telling us that there's only one group of people seen as "second class citiziens"? Nah mate.

Anyway. DONE! Due to the somewhat baffling implicit assumption that disabled queers do not exist, I've been thinking about how my sexuality and disability and social class interact. That's for next time.