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Restricted AccessReview - Restricted Access
Lesbians on Disability
by Victoria A. Brownworth and Susan Raffo (editors)
Seal Press, 1999
Review by Gail A. Rekers, Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 26)

Those of us who came of age in the early years of feminism learned to think of our personal pain as the starting point for political action. Sexual pressure, demeaning gender comments and jokes translated into sexual harassment. The promotions and raises that came quickly to male workers but not to female workers defined the glass ceiling and our demands for equal pay for equal work.

In the early 60's Martin Luther King and his cohorts marched peacefully to demand equal rights for African Americans. Demeaning racial comments and slurs as well as all of the millions of ways in which skin color was used to deny rights to African Americans translated into racism. Martin Luther King named the struggle and pain and called us into the political struggle for civil rights.

The late 60's saw the Stonewall riots. The years of private pain and persecution, the years of hiding ourselves as lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities, exploded into rage. Gay men and lesbians refused to hide. In that refusal another political movement was born: equal rights for sexual minorities.

Each time a problem was named, we discovered that others shared the same problem and the same distress. With each naming we forged links between us of common pain and common interests. And we found the seeds of political action. The small individual protests we thought we made alone turned into life-changing political movements.

Now, we again come upon a private, individual struggle that holds the seeds of political action and a political movement. This time, though, we face an enemy that can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. This enemy can come regardless of skin color or gender or sexual orientation. The naming of this problem is also the naming of possibility: it could be me next year in the place of many of those whose essays fill this book. And that is the problem and the promise.

The problem is that Victoria Brownworth and Susan Raffo bring us face to face with the thing each of us fears most: being less than perfect in our bodies and minds. We are able to care for aging parents and grandparents, feeling secure in the strength and health of our bodies. We go to our jobs, do our shopping, fix our meals and clean our houses secure in the knowledge that our bodies and minds are working as they should. Read a book? No problem. Pick up a paper on the floor? No problem. Work a forty-hour week? No problem.

But what if you couldn't?

We are human and so we assume that our bodies and minds will always work as we think they should. Some of the more aware among us will admit that our bodies and minds might fail us in old age. But even these astute people often go on to think that it will not happen to them because they themselves are exercising, eating right and taking vitamins. We all want and need to believe that these measures will prevent the failure of mind and body.

And besides, those people are old, right? Those people do not know about herbs. These people are not proactive when it comes to their health. That is why they are now disabled.

What a lovely fantasy!

When we hear of someone young, someone our own age whose body or mind is failing, we feel uncomfortable and a little scared. And when we are uncomfortable and scared we do what most human beings do: we deny or ignore the scary thing. We create a fantasy in which that awful thing will not happen to us.

Each of us, while cheering for Karen Thompson, still could not imagine that we could possibly be in Sharon Kowalski's place. A devastating accident might happen to others but not to us.

Other people, less healthy people, might develop those weird environmental allergies, but not us. Some people develop fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue but those people just weren't healthy to start with. Were they? Really, no one with cerebral palsy (CP) is lesbian, are they?

Brownworth and Raffo show us that "those people" are us. People just like you, just like me, have devastating accidents, CP, environmental allergies, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. Despite our hopes and fantasies, medicine cannot cure many illnesses nor fix many kinds of accidental damage done to our bodies. Being lesbian is not a magic shield that protects us from all the illnesses of body and mind. Just because we suffer from belonging to a minority does not mean that we will not suffer in other ways as well.

These women remind us how fragile our bodies are. They also show us how strong and resilient the human spirit is. For these women disability is a challenge to be faced. And the promise is that life keeps going on.

Sharon Wachsler wonders what it is that makes her femme when environmental allergies keep her from wearing makeup. Vicky D'aoust grew up knowing she was different, never feeling at home. Then she stopped trying to be a hearing person and came home to the deaf world. Carol Anne Douglas shares her struggle to cope with the paranoid psychosis that nearly devastated her life when she entered menopause. Victoria Brownworth ponders what it means to be pro-life in a failing body. What does it mean to be pro-life when we know the child-to-come will be disabled?

In each essay we are challenged to meet the author where she is. Is she HIV+? Does she have an artificial leg? What has it been like to be battered by the personal assistant who is supposed to make your life easier? These are women of strength and courage. These women are the kind of women we would want to be if the unthinkable were to happen to us. These are strong, whole women.

This book is for everyone who has a friend or family member who is disabled. Most especially, this book is for the lesbian and gay community. We who are already minority group members need to know those among us who belong to another minority group as well: the disabled. The quality of the writing is remarkably good despite multiple authors. These are women many of us would like to know.


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