Elevate Difference

Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation

The best resistance literature describes a specific moment in history and is written within the context of an organized movement. As the disability movement gains more exposure and support, Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride will join the list of classics among resistance literature. Clare’s bold yet gentle narration of his experience as a disabled American gives readers an inside look at the consciousness of the movement.

Exile and Pride seeks to discover and explore how the disabled community can create pride, what words or symbols demonstrate this pride, and which collective or personal histories should be celebrated rather than simply witnessed. As a transgender individual with cerebral palsy, the activist also explores the various ways his body has been stolen and abused, and how such abuses can be avoided in the future by a revolution in the way mainstream society views and treats disabled individuals.

My favorite part of the book is the chapter titled “Freaks and Queers,” in which Clare provides readers with a history of the American “freak shows” that toured the country through the beginning of the twentieth century. Clare explores the lives of those who were exploited and who made a living off being known as a “freak.” Clare speaks about, and sometimes to, such people with a touching, yet bold, sensitivity that he has come to be known for. He also introduces his audience to a time and place that few who do not read Exile and Pride will ever ponder.

Clare uses the exploration of the freak show as a backdrop for exploring the larger issue of language, labels, and the process of “reclaiming” that so many oppressed communities undertake. The disabled community is of course no different. While embracing the terms cripple and queer, Clare pushes back on the use of the word freak and uses his unique brand of storytelling and personal narrative to explain the reasons why. It is Clare’s contention that freak not only implies self-hatred, but also reinforces historical lies and abuse of the disabled, such as those perpetrated by the freak shows.

I think one of the defining characteristics of resistance art is that it effectively raises the awareness of those in the mainstream. From the history of the freak show to Clare’s personal experiences and lyrical narratives, the book does just that.

For instance, although I have never watched it, I also never realized the annual Jerry Lewis marathon was a source of such anger and irritation for so many disabled individuals. I am also thankful to know about the “medical model of disability,” one that paints disabled people as being sick, and waiting for a cure, one that forces many to obtain non-medical, adaptive equipment from a doctor instead of a website. It is awareness of such issues that will bring the cure to ableism that Clare and millions of other disabled individuals and allies seek.

As a severely disabled individual who also has advanced degrees and has authored two books, Clare may be seen as “transcending” his disability. However Clare adamantly rejects such notions and instead envisions a world where people such as him as seen as full participants in mainstream society. Such a vision requires inclusion, not celebration, of those with “special needs” who live full lives. Clare turns his nose up at the insistence of mainstream culture to find “supercrips” who have “overcome” their disabilities.

Of particular interest to Feminist Review readers is Clare’s analysis of the line between being “a sexual object and a sexual subject” in the chapter “Reading Across the Grain.” I have never read such a poignant analysis of the subject that so few, even in feminist academia, fail to recognize. Clare gracefully describes how the media and the pornography industry have led women to believe that being objectified is a manifestation of their own sexuality. The confusion between self as object and self as subject has created a culture where violence and degradation are accepted forms of sexual expression. Unfortunately, as Clare points out, feminist debate over the topic of pornography and sexual expression remains polarized.

As an individual with disabled family members, I read Exile and Pride in a quest typical of those in the mainstream that Clare expresses frustration over. I read the book in an attempt to come to some understanding of the world in which those different from me live in. What I was reminded of and what I now seek to make a part of my own deeply ingrained consciousness is that those different from me don’t live in a different world. We all live together in the same world, but with vastly different realities. As feminists our role is to remember and expose these realities.

Written by: Janice Formichella, January 11th 2010