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Faithful Fools Street Retreat, Gender Identity Disorder, and Disability As Class

May 27, 2010

I heard this radio piece on Tuesday morning because Sharon* wanted to listen to the voice of her late husband.  She was a bit of a nervous wreck (understandably) because later that day she and Carmen would be appearing before a judge who would decide whether or not Sharon qualifies for disability benefits.  With all the tumult of the past year — losing her husband, quitting a rehab program prematurely, entering a better program only to have her housing number come up in the lottery, which meant choosing between completing rehabilitation and having a place to stay when she got out (I know, right?) — this decision felt particularly momentous.  She’d been trying for over a year to secure this income in addition to government assistance, since she can’t hold a job because of her psychological disabilities.

Witnessing our welfare system firsthand through accompanying folks in the Tenderloin is a tremendous eye-opener for me, for sure.  I knew the system was fucked in a thousand ways, including bureaucracy and stigma, but it’s another thing entirely to stand beside someone as they endure the process.  In justifying her need for support by proving her incapacity to work, Sharon had to prove that she was off drugs (because people with disabilities and addictions don’t deserve support?) and recount all the traumas she has suffered in her life, from being born to a mother addicted to heroin, to being molested by her foster family, to being raped while working as a prostitute.  Rather than a celebration of her incredible resilience and survival, the testimony had to be crafted to emphasize inability, incapacity, pathology.

“Break a leg” I said as I dropped her and Carmen off at a downtown Starbucks, where they would meet with her lawyer to review before the hearing.  “Yeah,” she cracked, “maybe that would help my case.”

Reminds me of the similarly demeaning process of ‘qualifying’ for sex reassignment surgery, where candidates have to prove that they are mentally ill — officially diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID).

Parsing these issues gets very tricky.  On one hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a disability or a disorder.  On another hand, it’s understandable that trans folks seeking surgery might object to being forced to identify as ill.  Part of the problem, as I see it, is the extremely close identification between disability and stigma, or perceived inferiority.  And with this comes a duality — able vs. disabled — that flattens human experience and reduces us to certain “capacities.”

Disabilities that directly rule out paid work** involve not only medical identity questions, but material consequences, too.  Under capitalism, for example, everyone in the working class who is “able” to work — able to try to sell their labor power — is forced to do so in order to survive.  People who are unable to work may or may not be sufficiently supported by governments and families, but regardless are often seen as burdens (unlike non-working owning-class people, whose mere existence and proprietorship are supposedly essential to a functioning economy).  And so “disability” becomes its own system of distribution and class organization under capitalism.  Welfare services help keep permanently unemployed disabled people alive (at least the ones deemed “worthy”), while both stigma and artificial scarcity of benefits help ensure that everybody else keeps working.

Here at the Faithful Fools, though, we operate on a better model (on a smaller scale, of course).  We recognize that people are different, and different people have different needs, and those needs change over time.  So we meet people where they’re at, all the while aware of our own judgments, and cooperate together to do what needs to be done — materially and spiritually, economically and emotionally.  Human to human.

Tuesday morning, Sharon needed to hear Bruce’s voice, for encouragement.  And though I didn’t realize it at first, I needed another coherent reminder about the meaning of the Fools.

*Name changed to protect her privacy.  First words out of her mouth when the judge approved her SSI?  “BRUCIE!!!! WE GOT IT!!!!!!”  Hell yeah. :)

**When I say “paid work” here, I’m just trying to differentiate it from certain types of unpaid work, i.e. childrearing, family in-home care, immigrant aid, etc.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. @at permalink
    May 30, 2010 9:59 am

    thanks for this wonderful piece.. hit that sweet spot between intellectual education and emotional engagement.. compelling and thanks for sharing

  2. May 31, 2010 2:03 pm

    Thank *you* sir, glad you dug it. Congrats again on y’all’s Big Step Forward!

  3. Laura Di Piazza permalink
    May 31, 2010 6:26 pm

    You bring so many good points to the table. Yes, if someone has survived so many traumas why not then acknowledge their resilience rather then label with negative titles. Interesting observation about GID. Reminds me of an interview I recently saw on a documentary called Female Misbehavior, directed by Monika Treut, of a transgender man who said that he did not feel at the end of his rope or suicidal to change into a man. Although that was the prevailing belief, when one is stuck in the wrong body.

  4. Cat permalink
    June 2, 2010 10:36 pm

    Mhmmm. This entry really resonates with me, be it as it is, my daily waking life. Haha, but you get that, too, don’t you?

    Love you!

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