The voices speaking loudest about sexuality and disability have typically been white – very, very white.
Change is happening – slowly – and social media platforms are helping a lot; but, the history of this movement has been whitewashed in ways that make me wince.
Elevating the hidden voices, or the quiet voices, or the forgotten voices is what this “weekend reading” series is trying to do.
Chris Bell was a gay black man disabled in one of the most stigmatized ways – by HIV.
I first discovered his work in Sex and Disability, a pretty dense and theory-based collection of essays editted by disability scholars Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow.
Bell’s essay, I’M NOT THE MAN I USED TO BE SEX, HIV, AND CULTURAL “RESPONSIBILITY” grabbed me right away for it’s deep dive into the impact of HIV-related laws over the decades.
He was brutally direct about the laws and cultural rules governing sex, and unapologetic about an individual’s right to take risks:
It is also important to consider the oft-maligned and rarely discussed wishes of HIV-positive individuals because the protection of sexual desire must be a priority too.
It’s a powerful essay. Reading it made me uncomfortable and defensive, and filled me with admiration – like any good piece of writing on difficult topics should be.
I really recommend getting your hands on this book if you have any interest at all in how sexuality and disability play out, separately and together, in our world. Some of the essays are deep and wordy, but just as many (like Bell’s) are creative and interesting for the glimpse they give into one person’s experience and how that relates to broader beliefs and practices.
Chris Bell was also involved in another big piece of sexuality and disability history, the 2002 queer disability conference.
Because some awesomely fantastic person or people decided it was worth archiving (really, someone deserves cookies for that decision!), we have records of most of the conference.
Bell moderated and participated in a panel discussion – the transcript is here, where he discussed a paper he wrote on his experience of being diagnosed as HIV positive.
You can find that paper here.
I think he aptly summed up the complex intersections of his identities and experiences when he says:
There I was at the time of my HIV diagnosis: a black gay man teaching a Women’s Studies-themed class. This seems to be the sort of diversity higher education in the late 20th/early 21st century strives for. Nevertheless, my teaching duties were relieved because I added the tenet of HIV-positive not to my curriculum, but to my identity. This puzzles me, especially considering I had integrated an AIDS component in the previous class I taught. The dynamic is peculiar: I could talk about HIV from a theoretical perspective, but I could not teach as an HIV-positive person.