Thomas Muething

A HERD OF GLASS UNICORNS: A Review of QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, edited by Raymond Luczak

QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology (Squares and Rebels, 2015) is an excellent first foray into the complicated web of disability, love, and desire. Most powerful among its many strong contributions are the prose of Kenny Fries and Andrew Morisson-Gurza; the poetry of Donna Williams, Liv Mammone, and Kristen Ringman (whose novel Makara I also recommend). With their work, these writers show that the most difficult thing about dating as a disabled person—or as an able-bodied person interested in a disabled person—overlaps with what is difficult about writing about life as a disabled person more generally: that is, finding the right words to explain disability, ability, and desire.

One of the anthology’s strongest contributors is Lydia Brown, a genderqueer law student who is a neurodiversity and autism rights activist based in Boston. Brown primarily writes from the point of view of an autistic person and about boards and conferences focused on autism. Sarcastically, they write that conferences ought to “[r]elegate disabled speakers to the ‘inspirational personal story’ presentation. You should ignore any of their interest or ability to speak about public policy, best practices, recent research developments, advocacy strategies, theory, etc.” Brown’s work echoes editor Raymond Luczak’s mention in his introduction of inspiration porn, and the ways in which it is harmful to people with disabilities. Although I certainly agree with Luczak that this sort of pornography is harmful to disabled people, I do feel it is necessary to distinguish from the variety of ways in which disability is exploited for the able-bodied, hearing majority’s comfort. For example, hearing people’s tendency to view ASL as performance art is qualitatively different impact-wise than the cliché memes on social media featuring a physically disabled person performing some physical activity with the caption, “what’s your excuse?” Brown’s work, and QDA more generally, endeavor not just to challenge this way of thinking on disability, but aim to offer a more holistic view of disability.

Perhaps there is no better antidote to such exploitation than the way that QDA’s writers explore the effects their disabilities—and the hearing able-bodied majority’s often pitying, exploitative gaze—on their personal, dating, and sex lives. Of the question, “Can you feel that?” Andrew Morrison-Gurza writes that sexual touch with a gentleman caller “feels incredible to me because for once I am being touched out of desire and not duty.” He has escaped the label, a problem of being “typecast” as a patient even in a sexual context. This typecasting presents a daunting mental and emotional challenge to true intimacy. It was a theme captured well by Morrison-Gurza’s concise and private work, which afforded the gentleman caller respect while allowing readers to play around with a generic disabled person.

A corollary to the typecasting of disabled people as patients is the problem—in religious circles, notably—of treating non-heterosexual/non-cisgender orientations as medical problems themselves that need “cures.” Jason Ingram’s “They Called It Mercy” focuses on attempting to “rehabilitate” his sexual orientation as though it were an actual medical problem. Of whether the “patients” were allowed free movement, Ingram writes that although patients could technically leave, the real emotional and financial costs would far outweigh any theoretical physical harm. Ingram’s piece reinforces a common happening of queer people, particularly d/Deaf gay/queer people: it is often much more practical for us to form our own families than to try to do an alchemy of the soul to please our hearing, hetero-/cis-normative families.

A touching contrast to these stories of painful misunderstanding are two creative nonfiction pieces, one by Carl Wayne Denney and the other by Larry Connolly. In “Our Son is a Beautiful Girl,” Denney lovingly reflects on his daughter’s self-actualization as a transgender girl and the family’s process in accepting her actual identity as a girl. Denney recounts that a counsellor had admonished the family to stop using male pronouns, saying that it “is vital for her development,” to which the author continues with, “The mother nods; she has taken this to heart. The father doesn’t argue; he is fully vested.” This is the ideal situation, and I have several transgender friends who would love nothing more than to be accepted as the genders they feel inside. The format Denney takes is novel: the third-person style, far from removing the reader from intimacy, allows for great character development and for the reader to approach it in the heart as a kind of fairy-tale in which the happy ending is revealed at the end to be real.

In “The Worst Husband You Can Imagine,” Connolly’s flowing prose looks back on his marriage to a wheelchair user, and the struggles that arise from such a living arrangement. In particular, the image of this argue-then-laughter scene should be personally meaningful to many wheelchair users: “I am…brandishing a rolling pin and screaming, YOU LEFT YOUR GODDAMN WHEELCHAIR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LIVING ROOM. Silence covers the earth. We know a line has been crossed.” Though it was not Luczak’s purpose to collect anecdotes from able-bodied partners of disabled people, I feel this vein could potentially be a rich one. More than being seen as mere sexual novelties, as the sole glass unicorn in a menagerie of glass animal figurines, and more than always having our partners be seen as valiant caregivers, QDA’s greatest literary service is redefining “normal” and forcing the readers to grapple with what limits they feel love has.

As a collection focused on at queer, disabled life, I felt the topic of queer, disabled sex could be explored more fully. Perhaps a future anthology may focus more on kink and fetish. The complex relationship many disabled people have with the different kinds of pain could also fill an entire book, as could the topic of “devotees,” or people who are sexually attracted to disability. Even the different roles that sex workers and personal care attendants could be explored: sex workers might provide a safe outlet for sheltered disabled people to explore at a cost; personal care attendants might assist by handing disabled clients toys or placing them near an erogenous zone. QDA’s contributors are varied in disability, in sexual orientation, and in gender expression. This great inclusiveness makes this reader want to see it expanded even further.  

I do quibble with Luczak’s claim in the introduction that “The LGBT community is commendable for their efforts to be more accessible and inclusive.” I do not agree. Though the gay bar scene in Seattle is shockingly accessible compared to almost completely inaccessible scenes in Washington, DC, a Seattle non-profit that offers support groups for the LGBT community was until recently run out of a house where one group was conducted upstairs. (To be fair, the venue is now accessible). Additionally, the overwhelming majority of bathhouses are inaccessible to wheelchair users, with the notable exception of Steamworks in Berkeley, CA. Structural barriers in businesses and non-profits that serve the public and/or receive federal funding, in addition to likely being illegal, contribute to a rather abysmal sexual attitude for physically disabled gay men that d/Deaf gay men just do not, and will likely never, face. For his part, Luczak does a good job reaching out to varied disabled contributors and addressing the needs of a wide audience. As one example, the included comics are accompanied by verbose visual descriptions, so that, if the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped should record an audio version for blind readers, the reader and recording team will be freed of the task of figuring out how to make these comics accessible to blind readers.

QDA ought to be read widely, and further discussed by disabled and able-bodied readers alike, so that a fairer and loving world might exist in reality, instead of in dreams and books. QDA covers a lot of ground, and covering a lot of ground can be exhausting, but this book should be a welcome home to any person, disabled or not, straight and cisgender or not, and is a trove of literary art.

Author Biography

Thomas Muething is a proud 2010 graduate of The Ohio School for the Deaf. As a gay man, he enjoys heckling local LGBTQ+ businesses to ensure they accommodate wheelchair users and other disabled people. As a person, he harbors a not-so-secret love for mathematics, and enjoys solving linear, quadratic, and trigonometric equations, as well as learning new math skills. In a past life, he was certain to have been a chorus member in the company of Chicago and Damn Yankees, and was a paramour of Tennessee Williams. He enjoys tragedies and cooking, and is based for now near Seattle.