Throughout my entire life I’ve watched you navigate the very difficult task of informing strangers and peers about your unique way of perceiving and engaging with the world. The anxiety that came with meeting my friends’ parents, going to shows I’ve performed in, talking on the phone, being in crowds or the grocery store was all a routine part of your/our life. So much of that anxiety was wrapped up in revealing this quality about you; not necessarily what the actual physical difference produced.
Though, of course, that physical difference abetted the anxiety, therefore a product of your unique body. Part of what generated this anxiety was the fact that you carry no physical signs of your difference. It is only noticed upon the movement of your hair, the ringing that sometimes occurs, the adjustments that would have to be made on your small electronic apparatus.
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Moreover, your ability to communicate in a normative way- not having to use your hands as your primary mode of expression- generated a more complicated relationship with the way in which you are unique. In short, you do not fit into the “able-bodied” community, but you also do not fit into the differently-abled, either. This liminal space has generated a serious angst for you.
At what point, with perfect speech and articulation, having been raised in regular schools, being able to read lips, did you become comfortable revealing your hearing impairment to the hearing community? So much anxiety becomes wrapped up in the moment you gesticulate the fact that your body is different. In this sense, this difference becomes the unfamiliar. And, I would suggest, queer, for you reside outside the majority through your differently-abled body. And, yet, after the reveal, I have witnessed a kind of calm that settles into your conversation. Neither party becomes offended. And, although a qualitative difference occurs between you and the other person, it is usually met with an open, understanding connection.
This is where I come in.
While I cannot claim an identical experience to yours, I sympathize with this anxiety. I sympathize with living within the space between dichotomous definitions.
Mom, I am bisexual,
And often, that brings with it a lot of assumptions.
You cannot “read” it on my body, but there is a moment within social circumstances that the reality of my sexual preference and who I am need to be revealed. Sometimes, there are consequences for this reveal: friendships have ended, respect has been corrupted, and a distinct difference occurs within the conversation. I get anxiety when in certain social spaces; I often feel irregular and perverted.
I realize that you and I have a commonality that I’ve never understood before- the anxiety that we build in ourselves due to what we think the other person may think of us when we reveal ourselves.
So, I started looking into this concept on stigma. Mom, there is this really great book I am reading that has been super helpful in terms of understanding how and why we both become anxious when introducing our difference to others. It’s called “Extraordinary Bodies” written by Rosemary Garland Thomson, which highlights that anxiety-driven connection I feel both of us share in social situations:
“An invisible disability, much like a homosexual identity always presents the dilemma of whether or when to come out or pass. One must always anticipate the risk of tainting a new relationship by announcing an invisible impairment or the equal hazard of surprising someone by revealing a previously undisclosed disability.”
Later, she tracks how these kinds of anxieties develop in the informer through the lens of this concept called stigmatization theory:
“Stigmatization is an interactive social process in which particular human traits are deemed not only different, but deviant. Stigmatization creates a shared, socially maintained and determined conception of a normal individual, sculpted by a social group attempting to define its own character and boundaries…Stigmatization reinforces that group’s idealized self-description as neutral, normal, legitimate, and identifiable by denigrating the characteristics of less powerful groups or those considered alien, the process of stigmatization thus legitimates the status quo, naturalizes attributions of inherent inferiority and superiority, and obscures the socially constructed quality of both categories.”
So, Mom, the reason why we may feel this anxiety, this pressure prior to revealing ourselves, is due to the fact that we were born into a social culture that does not approve of the ways in which we are different. What makes this even more difficult is the fact that we do not quite fall into the “minority” camp either- which can feel limiting in terms of where we can find allegiances. It is as if there isn’t a language for our position; we cannot articulate or materialize that space we sit in.
Our existence is a constant challenge for those who understand themselves in tidy lines and spaces. We represent limits that people do not like to consider. We are messy bodies that are fluid and porous.
But Mom, the cool thing is we can adjust our attitudes to our own uniqueness. If, instead of placing an internal pressure on ourselves while engaging with another person, we treat our difference as the complex and beautiful truth that it is, we may be able to adjust the attitudes of those we converse with. Ultimately, this shift may carry on into their conversations with other people as well. The less we treat ourselves as carrying secret markings of stigma, the more we help to alleviate stigma of the silently queer body and mind.
I know you might think that your hearing impairment and my bisexuality are not on the same stage, but there is something common we share in this anxiety that greater society makes us feel. More importantly, there is something we share in our ability to change that conception, beginning with our own relationship to it.
Mom, I totally know that it is a difficult thing to do. It requires a re-writing and carving out of space we don’t quite have a vocabulary for. But, I think it is completely doable. What do ya say, Mom? Can we try this out, together?
Jessica Borusky is a Floridian Feminist currently residing in Boston, MA and working toward her MFA in Studio Art at Tufts/School of the Museum of Fine Art.