“The body as home, but only if it is understood that the stolen body can be reclaimed.” (Clare, 2009, p.13)
CW: sexual assault and trauma
Growing up, I remember not really recognizing myself in the mirror. Something always felt off. The person looking back at me was not just who I didn’t want to be, but someone I didn’t acknowledge as myself. This feeling, now something I recognize as dysphoria, didn’t help me understand my body as home. It was through gender euphoria, the feeling of being powerful in my skin, not trapped, that helped me find my trans-ness.
I was told to wear bras and shave
And that my body was changing
But I liked my androgyny.
This journey to end the war with my body and myself, however, was not an easy one. For a long time, I saw my body as a limitation; it was something that I couldn’t escape from. This feeling of being stuck in my body was only exacerbated after I was sexually assaulted. I wrote poem after poem about wanting to tear off my skin, to scratch off every part of me that I felt was taken from me.
This world of electric wire tangle me
Snakes hissing the breath from my lungs
I want to rip the skin from my bones
The itch of a thousand ants crawling, digging
Into my blood. This poison, this hatred, fear and anxiety
Like wasps sting me, infecting my lungs with smoke until I scream from the burns.
I wonder if I ripped off all of my skin
And tore out my veins, If I were down to my bones
Would I feel safe again?
Disability activist and scholar Eli Clare has written that it is through “entering our bodies as liberation, joy, fury, [and] hope [that we are able to find a] will to refigure the world.” (Clare, 2009, p.13) In Exile and Pride, he writes about the ‘stolen body—’ a body that undergoes trauma that makes the owner of it feel foreign in their skin. This can occur through sexual assault or gender dysphoria, but a body can also be stolen because of other harm done by racial violence, capitalism, environmental degradation and toxicity, ableism, and speciesism. As he writes, “…my body has never been singular. Disability snarls into gender. Class wraps around race. Sexuality strains against abuse.” (p. 159). For example, my body is impacted by sexual trauma, anxiety, depression, and dysphoria, but it has also been impacted by where I’ve lived and the precarity of a neoliberal economic system. For a long time, it felt like both personal and structural harm had truly taken my body from myself; I was no longer sovereign over it. However, it is possible to reclaim our bodies and to turn them into vehicles of liberation and revolution.
Clare tells us that this multiplicity of the body is warped by structures of power. In other words, this understanding of who we are—our subjectivity—is shaped and created by the systems we exist in. Therefore, we can’t truly separate the (inter)personal from socio-political-cultural structures. It is only by destabilizing structures of oppression, that we can truly reclaim our bodies and liberate ourselves. For me, it is only through the continuous struggle for liberation that I have truly found my body as home.
It is only by destabilizing structures of oppression, that we can truly reclaim our bodies and liberate ourselves.
Many activists and scholars have written on the interconnections between speciesism, the internalized concept ingraining into societal structures that humans are superior to nonhuman animals, and ableism, the concept that able-bodied people have more worth than people with disabilities. I recommend the work of Jasbir Puar (2017) and Mel Y. Chen (2012), though the main scholar on these interconnections is Sunaura Taylor (2017).
Similarly, Julia Feliz and I posit in Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Oppression that speciesism is also entangled with cisheteropatriarchy, a structural system that oppresses women and gender/sexual ‘Others’ in order to empower straight cis (white) men (Brueck Feliz & McNeill, 2020). We coin this term ‘cisheteropatriarchal speciesism,’ which I’ve talked about here. “Let’s break down cisheteropatriarchal speciesism—it’s certainly a mouthful. Heteropatriarchy is a social-political system where heterosexual men have structural power over women and gender/sexual minorities. Adding “cis-” to heteropatriarchy denotes that the authority of cisgender heterosexual men is also entangled with transphobia and the structural power disparity and marginalization that come with it. Speciesism is a concept that assumes human superiority over nonhumans. So, cisheteropatriarchal speciesism is a term that illustrates how these power structures are not just parallel but support and perpetuate one another.” It is impossible to separate speciesism from ableism and cisheteropatriarchy, not only because they sustain and empower each other structurally, but also because animality is integral to the process of dehumanization.
In Exile and Pride, Clare explores how people with disabilities – so-called ‘freaks’—were seen as exotic and abnormal. Clare offers a very complicated look at disabled people in circuses. On one hand, being exoticized provided people with disabilities financial power and independence, but on the other hand it allowed for the continued dehumanization (and accompanying political implications) of people with disabilities. This ‘Otherization’ positioned those with disabilities as lesser-than able-bodied people; in some instances those with disabilities were viewed more similar to nonhuman animals than able-bodied people. This illustrates the effect and mechanics of speciesist thinking. Similarly, speciesism is also intertwined with cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy as explored by scholars like Dr. Breeze Harper, Christopher Sebastian, and Julia Feliz.
Activist author Syl Ko has written in Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, that the construct of the ‘human’ is itself a speciesist idea that has led to the oppression of Black Brown Indigenous People of Color (in: Ko & Ko, 2017). She argues that the human/nonhuman dualism upholds out currently “racialized, gendered, and able-bodied idea” of what it means to be human (p.117). It is through the socio-political construction of the ‘animal’ that “larger, grander narrative[s]…establishes who is human and innately valuable and who is not.” (p.118). Therefore, to reclaim our body from structures of violence, it is imperative to destabilize the human/nonhuman binary and fight for non-human animals within our social justice movements.
If the personal is the political and all structures—from racism to speciesism to ableism—are intertwined, then to fight for disability justice, one must also fight for Black liberation, trans and queer liberation, animal liberation, etc.
Sometimes I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror. However, every day I fight to reclaim my body politically and personally through my battle for collective liberation. If the personal is the political and all structures—from racism to speciesism to ableism—are intertwined, then to fight for disability justice, one must also fight for Black liberation, trans and queer liberation, animal liberation, etc. My positionality as a queer person who is legally disabled, allows me to tackle multiple structures of oppression at once. As Alison Kafer explains in Feminist Queer Crip (2013), a “politics of crip futurity” is one of “sites of possibility” that “extend[s] and challenge[s] the parameters of disability theory and politics” to imagine a truly transformative politics (p.24). By fighting to dismantle the systems that perceive me as ‘Other—’ (because of my PTSD, anxiety, and depression, my bisexuality and nonbinary gender, etc.) I am able to see my body not just as mine but as a revolutionary tool to use to create a future in which I would belong.
Z. Zane McNeill is an independent activist-scholar whose co-edited collection, Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, was recently released by Sanctuary Publishers.
- Brueck, Julia Feliz, and Z. Zane McNeill (2020) Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation through Consistent Anti-Oppression. Sanctuary Publishers.
- Chen, Mel Y (2012) Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Clare, Eli (2009) Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Kafer, Alison (2013) Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Ko, Aph, and Syl Ko (2017) Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism From Two Sisters. New York , NY: Lantern Books.
- Puar, Jasbir K (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Taylor, Sunaura (2017) Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New York, NY: New Press.