For the past few days I have been in San Francisco at a Summer Institute on Sexuality held by San Francisco State University’s Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality. I am attending this Summer Institute to jumpstart my research on sexuality and engage with the practitioners in the field. It has been both an amazing and terrifying experience. Studying sexuality–at least studying topics in sexuality in courses such as Feminist and Womanist Theology–within the boundaries of a theological community seems different from studying it within a broader context. I’ve learned about BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) as possible healing practice for people with early trauma; the differentiation between gay males and MSMs (Males Having Sex with Males which doesn’t necessarily mean they self-identify as gay) and the startling statistics about sexually transmitted infections in the MSM community; micro-aggressions against people who are transgendered; and surrogate therapy (a surrogate therapist works with a therapist and the therapist client to help the client navigate sexual issues through direct contact–you can figure this one out) as a bridge to healthy sexual experiences within and without relationships. These are just some of the topics we’ve covered in my time here, topics that I have held at a distance because I have never participated in them nor do I know anyone else who has. But yesterday something/someone cut across the distance. Tuesday’s experience was actually a continuation of a discussion on Monday about disability and sexuality and reconsidering our perceptions of the sexual nature of people with disabilities. Our time on Monday morning shed light on the fact that some people assume–consciously and subconsciously–that persons with disabilities are asexual. The assumption is that such persons are so involved in their disability that they have no sexual feeling or that their disability renders them incapable of having sexual desire or feeling. But this began to change when we watched a video entitled Sex-Abled: Disability Uncensored. In this video, people with various levels of disability discussed and joked about their sexual desires as something that exists just like it does for people with no perceived disability. This was my first time seeing something like this and I was blown.
On Tuesday we continued this discussion with Sins Invalid, a performance project that “incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Two of the members of Sins Invalid, Patty Berne and Leroy Franklin Moore Jr., spoke to our group about the mission and work of the organization in general and disability justice and the power of sex in particular. At the beginning of class they handed out a pamphlet and a postcard-size Sins Invalid flyer featuring a young black man in a wheelchair being embraced by a black woman. I thought nothing of this image. Then the lights dimmed. Patty and Leroy presented clips of past Sins Invalid performances which ranged from Matt Fraser, a young man with phocomelia/short arms doing interpretive dance to the patronizing and patently offensive words of persons without perceived disabilities to Maria Palasios, polio survivor, feminist writer, poet, and disability activist who boasts a healthy sexual appetite and wants others to know, “Disabled People Are Sexy.” I was at a distance watching all of these people while slowly having my preconceived notions shattered and then he came on the screen. First I recognized the voice, the DynaVox, an electronic communication device for people with disabilities that affect their vocal ability. Then I recognized the face, a young black man with the defined nose and eyes of his father and mother. Then there was his body, usually enshrouded by his motorized chair but recognizable by its length and its sometimes erratic movement. Finally when the camera panned out and all parts were put together like a puzzle I realized, “It’s my cousin! It’s my cousin! It’s my cousin.” I audibly shouted this to my fellow Summer Institute participants and then I settled down into the space of tension I had been occupying throughout the institute, excitement and terror. Here I was watching my cousin Lateef, a poet, writer, and soccer player who has cerebral palsy. He was sitting in front of a mirror doing a dramatic reinterpretation of his poetry to the sound of his Dynavox. He slowly struggled out of his clothing as he spoke about his sexual and romantic desires. I entered a state of shock as I listened to him explain the guilt he felt after pleasuring himself, the Protestant guilt that threatens to consume us all. The pleasure and guilt around sexual pleasure, a cycle that repeats itself in his life as it does in all of our lives–at some point. His experience as a person with a disability or–“different abilities”–mirrors that of every human being but I, along with many, ignored or were ignorant of it. Now I could no longer ignore it, my cousin Lateef is a sexual being. Not to emphasize his disability but I have to for the sake of the argument I am trying to make here and that is that people with disabilities are not asexual–at least not all of them and it is unfair to categorize them as such by default. Many people with disabilities experience desire and, from my cousin’s depiction, it seems particularly painful because there are fewer people who can fulfill those desires and fewer still that give attention to the fact that persons with disabilities have the same intrinsic value and desires that we all hold to be significant. Between Monday’s discussion and Sins Invalid’s time with us, I had to confess that I was guilty of “asexualizing” people with disabilities. I subconsciously bracketed sexual desire from their lived experience, thinking that it is nowhere on their list of concerns and, being painfully honest, not something they can feel anyways–contingent upon their particular disability. I was particularly convicted during my time watching my cousin because we are not only spatially distant but spiritually distant in the fact that I have not connected with him because of my own issues. I’ve had trouble overcoming the gap in communication I feel between me and him. I’ve struggled with talking to him on the most basic level during the few times we do get to see each other. I’m utterly guilty of letting his disability dictate how I relate/connect to him and yesterday was just another reminder of the ways I have failed not only him but others. But yesterday was also the day that created a bridge for me to cross to get to him. Yesterday felt providential and put some purpose into my time here. I came here to jumpstart my research in sexuality. I wanted to put some meat on the bones of my doctoral interest and walk away with some new questions for that work. But my time at the Summer Institute on Sexuality has created a greater space for me to work in and a broader community to consider in my work. I’m staying with Lateef’s mom and dad for the duration of this trip (my aunt and uncle). They are a side of the family I rarely get to see because I live on the East Coast but my time with them has been enriching in ways I can’t begin to explain fully here. Seeing Lateef in the Sins Invalid clip, created a surprising space for a dialogue that isn’t normally open. I didn’t know I would see Lateef in that clip yesterday, and I wasn’t prepared to see him in that light but that I saw him and was able to bear witness to his feelings and desires connected me to him and this family in ways I may have never been connected if it wasn’t for the Summer Institute.