Finding My Tribe
I still hadn’t told anyone that I thought I was a lesbian when I started college in 1985. I didn’t know any out LGBT people although I knew they existed. But mostly I felt alone, and was searching for my tribe. I began to find it at Earlham College—and the gay dive bars back home in Idaho. But even more so, I found it the following year in Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue, a book that changed my life by giving me tangible evidence that queer cultural history existed, that we had LGBT ancestors who made meaningful contributions to the world as far back as recorded history.
Another Mother Tongue was the first book that gave me a sense of belonging to a larger community. That meant everything at a time when I felt I was losing my religion, my family, and my country all because I had rejected compulsorily cisgender heterosexuality. It was in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, with constant reminders that most of my fellow Americans hated LGBT people (they didn’t really distinguish between us back then) so much that they’d happily stand by while we all died horrible deaths. Another Mother Tongue will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Last year two other books drew connections to a past that is often denied us, reminding me that being trans isn’t a modern invention, and that disabled people have been playing important roles in their communities throughout time. The first is Histories of the Transgender Child (by Julian Gill-Peterson) which proves that far from a phenomenon of the new millennium, transgender children have existed and, by the early 20th century, were already demanding access to things like medical interventions, and the right to attend school (and use restrooms) as their preferred gender.
The second is Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha @leahlakshmiwrites). Care Work isn’t specifically focused on documenting the cultural contributions and long historical presence of disabled people—especially queer, trans crips and mads (as she lovingly calls her kin) of color. But in presenting sketches of the nascent disability justice movement, Piepzna-Samarasinha still manages to illustrate that disabled people have ancestors just as much as queer people do, and those ancestors are some of the very queer women of color I’ve revered since women studies classes introduced me to them. Women like Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga who dealt with disability or chronic illness.
Care Work left me with that same feeling that Another Mother Tongue had given me, a sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger than myself. That I have a people, a clan, a tribe as a disabled queer and trans person. Considering how alone disability can feel, especially when you are isolated, working from bed, fighting a migraine in the dark, losing your resilience, and feeling very alone in the personal experience of your disability—the idea that one has a community can be essential to one’s very survival.
“Disabled people have always existed,” Piepzna-Samarasinha reiterated when I interviewed her for The Advocate (read the piece here) “It is a real mind-blowing paradigm shift to understand that we are not individual health defects, we are part of a people… that we have histories and skills and memory and lineage. There’s a million implications of realizing we have disabled ancestors.”
You are not alone, Care Work promises us, and in doing so it invigorates us to live another day. When the powers that be, the white supremist cisgender heteropatriarchal capitalistic system wants to eliminate you—as it demonstrates nearly every day by trying to make Black, brown, disabled, mentally ill, neurological divergent, queer, trans, and gender expansive lives unbearable—survival is resistance. And disabled people caring (an act Piepzna-Samarasinha equates with radical love) for disabled people is a revolutionary act.
Back in the day Another Mother Tongue didn’t call on queers to assimilate and prove LGBT people were just like everyone else, no, it encouraged a generation of queers to find our community and create our own culture and demand our right to exist in all our queer fabulousness. Care Work similarly calls on the disabled and mentally ill to come out of the shadows, demonstrate our numbers, find our community, and insist on being accepted as we are in all our queer, disabled, and crazy glory.
Care Work is one of the reasons I’ve become more outspoken about being disabled and the realities of what it takes for me to produce the work I do.