Tag Archives: childhood

Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

Photo of my wheelchair in a dark room, silhouetted against a doorway, with a large shirt outlined in lights hanging against a dark wall.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access, but it also includes forced physical intimacy, especially for those of us who need physical help that often requires touching of our bodies. Forced intimacy can also include the ways that disabled people have to build and sustain emotional intimacy and relationships with someone in order to get access—to get safe, appropriate and good access.

 

I have experienced forced intimacy my entire life as a disabled child, youth and adult. I am always expected to do the work of opening myself up for others’ benefit, education, curiosity or benevolent oppression.

 

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable—whether we want to or not—about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

 

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

 

Another example of forced intimacy is when I am somewhere and need an arm to lean on while walking, as I often do, and I have to be physically close to and touch someone I do not want to. This happened much more when I was growing up as a disabled child and youth, before I had more say over my life and the people in it. Forced intimacy is also my entire experience in the medical industrial complex with doctors, nurses, brace makers, physical therapists and practitioners, none of which I ever consented to. It is also the many moments in my daily adult life when I have to share more information than needed to get access for events I would like to attend from folks, including “comrades,” who do not post any accessibility information on their event pages or flyers, but have an “accessibility needs” section on their Google forms. Tip: if you don’t provide any accessibility information about your event, then I cannot assess what my access needs will be. Am I supposed to list out every single access need I might ever possibly have, simply because of your ignorance?

 

Even in writing this essay, I am pushing back against the ableist notion that disabled people should just be grateful for whatever we get—whatever crumbs are thrown our way. Well, at least they even had an “accessibility needs” section on their form. And most importantly, I am pushing back against the forced intimacy and emotional labor I am supposed to constantly be engaged in so people won’t be “mad” at me, because as disabled people know all too well, able bodied people will not help you with your access unless they “like” you. This is a very real and dangerous caged reality that I and many other disabled people live in and it is one of the main reasons why forced intimacy exists.

 

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. People I don’t know or who have never even had a conversation with me about disability casually expect to be my “access person,” without realizing that there is significant trust and competency that must be built. People assume that I will accept any access—again, any crumbs—thrown my way and of course that I should be ever-grateful for it. They don’t realize that consent exists on both ends. Sure, I know how to survive and get by with ableist access, that is a skill I will never lose as long as I am living in an ableist world; but I am also working for a world where disabled people get to be human and have consent over our bodies, minds and intimacy.

 

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

 

One of the reasons that forced intimacy has been so prominent in my life is because there is an inherent intimacy to access—or at least, in my experience, to my access. When someone is helping me with access, I am vulnerable; I am interdependent with them, even if they don’t realize it. There is a magnificent vulnerability to access and to disability that is powerful and potentially transformative, if we would only tap into it. Sadly, in an ableist world, access and disability get stripped of their transformative powers and instead get distorted into “dependent,” “burden” and “tragic.” Forced intimacy is a byproduct of this and functions as a constant oppressive reminder of domination and control.

 

Though I have written here about forced intimacy as it relates to disability and access, it is in no way relegated only to ableism. I have experienced forced intimacy as it relates to other forms of oppression as well, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. It has been a constant part of my life and my experience as a queer disabled korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor. The forced intimacy of transracial and transnational adoption, for example, is a never-ending black hole for so many of us.

 

I cannot account here all of the many ways that forced intimacy has so fundamentally impacted and shaped me, that is for another piece of writing. I ache for the day when that will no longer be the case, especially for future generations of disabled children.

 

 

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November 6th

tree in fog

[Photo of a tree in the forrest surrounded by fog. Photo by Mia Mingus]

 

Today is November 6th, the day I was brought to the adoption agency to be adopted, the day the adoption agency recorded as my birthday, and the day I celebrated as my birthday for 25 years. It is the day I left my birth family, never knowing if I would return. It is the day I left my first home, my first land. It is the day that a strain of longing was born inside of me for something that I do not even know how to name or explain. It has eaten away at my insides, at times turning me into an empty shell of myself. It has taught me how loneliness can be a comforting friend.

 

My birthday, as is the case for many adoptees, is a complicated web of sticky feelings, some of which I decide to feel or not feel and some that overtake me without consent, pulling me in, down, back and under. November 6th got recorded as my birthday by an industry that profits off of the erasure of my birth family, the convenient construction of someone with no past. My life did not begin when I was placed for adoption; I was already here. Today is not my birthday.

 

I hate the confusion that surrounds my birthday. People still getting confused, “so which birthday do you celebrate?” “When is your real birthday?” Since finding out the truth, sometimes I would rather deny my birthday all together, no celebrations, no worries about what or how birthdays are supposed to feel like to someone who does not even know how to think about her own birth.

 

It only marks another diasporic year that I have spent separated from pieces of myself that may or may not even exist; pieces of my self that made me, created me, but don’t know me. It only marks a deep sadness at having celebrated something that was so wrong for so long, something that wasn’t real, the way sometimes entire decades of my life have felt.

 

It is a part of me, but it is not a birth. It is more like a death, a loss or a closing. And it means talking about things that sit so close to my heart, things that I don’t even completely know how to hold, let alone say. I have been missing korea before I even knew what “missing” was.

 

Having been ripped from one piece of earth and shoved into another, sometimes I think the only land I know, the only land on which I belong, is the shifting tides of the ocean. The place that has always brought me solace and has been able to hold my shifting adoptee disabled korean queer girl self. Sometimes I think that what so many of us are doing, the bravery of finding home and attempting to create it, is something I know nothing about. Something I have no business being a part of. I have no home, but myself, and even that isn’t always true. Belonging is something I know nothing about. Living on the other side of dreaming is nothing I know about, having only ever had dreams, distant blurry memories, to keep me alive.

 

I know I existed before November 6th, even if there is no trace, even if I can’t remember how my mother smelled or my sisters’ six inquisitive eyes gazing at me. I know I knew something about home at sometime, even if it, like everything else got re-written and stamped and filed away.

 

Maybe all adoptees find home in their own ways, maybe some of us never do; maybe our homes are in the leaving, in the moving; in the shifting of the wind that carried so many of us past the horizon. Maybe I belong nowhere; maybe that is how they like it—a living, breathing, constant experiment.

 

36 years ago I left my very first home for another temporary home, a foster home, before being adopted. Six years ago I left Atlanta, the first place that ever really felt like home, to build home in Oakland. Maybe this is a re-birth of some sort, into a second chance at belonging and creating home, a kind of returning all on to itself.

 

I know I knew something about home at sometime, maybe I will find it again.

 

It was not erased, just like me.

 

 

 

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everywhere and nowhere

I was talking with my father last night, my adopted father, and telling him that I always felt pretty disconnected from my family that I was raised in, both immediate and extended.  I never felt like I belonged.  I don’t even know what that means, ‘belonging.”  As a transracial and transnational adoptee, queer, disabled, woman of color; all of it.  I  never felt deeply connected to them.  Always felt odd; outsider.

So often it feels like a splitting.  Like a fracturing inside of me.  In a million different pieces; pulling one way and another at the same time.

We belong everywhere and nowhere at once, those of us living with multiple oppressed identities.  We make our homes out of debris, migrating when the storms come—learning how to survive through the rain and snow.  We make our home on the outskirts; on “this thin edge of barbed wire” (Gloria Anzaldua) and learn how to live without comfort.

Sometimes we have traded in parts of ourselves, just to know what it’s like to sit by a warm fire and sleep through the night.  Just to have a break, take a breath and loosen our shoulders.  But, I have found, comfort is never worth splicing myself open or erasing parts of myself.

We try and explain our lives through broken words and “well, it’s kind of like this” or, “no, no, it’s both and.”  But how can you explain the complexities of a life?  How can you explain the silent tearing of ableism?  The way the ocean feels?  The smell of garlic?  Or the color crimson?

I try and explain to my white parents what life was like as an adoptee disabled queer girl of color and we wade through together trying to make sense of a life witnessed from the shore and experienced below the surface.

I say, “I just don’t know where I belong.”  And they are silent because they know.

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On Claiming My Movement: Disability and Reproductive Justice

(*From PEP’s Winter 2008 Newsletter)

black and white picture of the veins of a leaf.It is not a coincidence that I ended up working in a movement that is fundamentally rooted in the idea that certain bodies are valuable and others are not; in a movement that is so connected with the world of healthcare and medicine–the reproductive justice movement.  Reproductive justice and disability are connected on a deeply fundamental level.  Disabled people, issues, history, politics and analysis allow us to see parts of reproductive justice that we would otherwise never know.  After all, how can you talk about bodies without talking about disability?  How can you ignore the fact that disabled women are forcibly sterilized or given dangerous contraceptives to control their menstrual cycles for the convenience of their caretakers and institutions?  How can we learn to fight for not only the right to receive care, but also the right to refuse it?  How can we forget that female bodies were historically coded as “disabled” because they were “different” and had “different abilities” than male bodies?  Or that ableism is so easily and successfully used as a mechanism of reproductive oppression?

As women of color, people with disabilities, LGBTI and queer people, and survivors of violence and trauma, the struggle to claim our bodies for ourselves–in all of our bodies’ curious, strange, beautiful and glorious ways–cannot be separated from reproductive justice.  As communities whose bodies have been owned, experimented on, institutionalized, hospitalized, medicalized, colonized, imprisoned, enslaved and controlled, we have been told that our bodies are wrong, perverse, shameful, bad, and most importantly; that our bodies are not ours; that they belong to the state, our parents, husbands, partners, doctors, children, families, communities, god(s), and so on.

I grew out of a very strong feminist, activist, close-knit community working to end violence against women and children.  Early on, I learned about sexism, racism, economic injustice and homophobia; that there was no hierarchy of oppression; that systems of oppression were connected to each other, intersected and overlapped.  Despite such a strong framework, no one ever taught me to think of disability in the same way and connect it to being Asian American, a woman, young or queer.  No one ever taught me that being disabled was a powerful way to move through the world or that disabled communities had rich and vibrant cultures of their own.

I was taught to claim my body as a girl, female, and woman, but not as a disabled person.  When it came to my disability, my parents looked to doctors, healthcare providers, medical experts and brace makers.  I was not the expert on my body; they were.  It never occurred to anyone that the ability to claim my body as a girl was dependent on my ability to claim my disabled body as a disabled girl.  No one ever realized that my experiences with the medical industrial complex as a disabled child would ultimately discourage me from seeking medical services (reproductive or not) in the future – or that standing in my underwear in front of male doctors as they studied me was any different than standing in my underwear in front of any old men as they studied me.

Growing up disabled, my body profoundly affected how I viewed the world and in turn, how the world viewed me.  School became a site where the politics of beauty, disability, race, sexuality and gender collided.  I never saw disabled women (let alone disabled women of color) in powerful roles, being desired or desiring, raising families or claiming their disability as a political identity, rather than an individual flaw or tragedy.

One of my earliest memories of consciously claiming my body for myself was deciding not to wear my brace any more.  For years I wore a brace on my right leg; I had to get them re-made or re-fitted almost every year as I grew out of them.  I had some that went from my foot to my knee and some that went all the way up to my hip.

For a long time I did not question my brace.  It was just the way things were, like stairs, people staring at me when I walked, or feeling ashamed of my disability.  Among many things, my braces were hot (often made of plastic and or fiberglass), and  in the Virgin Islands Caribbean weather, they itched, pinched my skin, and gave me painful blisters which I would try to prevent by wearing more socks or padding.  Like my parents, I had come to believe that I “needed” to wear my brace.  But something began to change as I entered middle school. I began to ask questions: why should I have to wear something so painful everyday that is supposed to “help” me?  If they can send a man to the moon, then surely they can make a comfortable and useful brace for my leg?  In the beginning I had small acts of resistance: the daily morning fight about putting my brace on or bringing a change of shoes and changing out of it once I was at school–this went on for years.  Finally I was “allowed” to not wear my brace some days, and it was not until I was in college that I was able to choose not to wear my brace everyday.

For me, my brace represented the medical establishment’s grubby little hands on my body, forcing me to adhere to a standardized, able bodied norm of how bodies are supposed to be, look, act and move.  When I wore it, I could hear horrible brace maker’s voices in my head, “that’s an ugly walk,” “walk down the hallway again and this time, try and make it prettier,” “this brace will make you have a normal walk,” or “don’t worry, you’ll be able to hide the brace under your clothes–boys won’t even know it’s there.”  It represented years of someone else deciding what was best for my body and the invasion (physical and mental) of my body at a young age by people who never asked me what I thought about having multiple surgeries done at the same time; how I felt being told that my body was “wrong” and “something to fix” over and over again. All that time, I never knew that there was a whole movement out there of disabled people demanding justice and a right to our existence.

The ownership and entitlement of the medical industrial complex of my disabled body is, in my mind, no worse than the ownership and entitlement of the system of white supremacy of my body of color; or the system of male supremacy of my female body.  In fact, they are so connected and mutually interdependent that they are impossible to separate.  Claiming my body has been and continues to be a pivotal process in my own life.  Knowing and learning to understand my disabled body as powerful, beautiful, valuable and desirable has been central to my activism in the reproductive justice movement.  For me, reproductive justice will always include a radical analysis of disability and ableist supremacy because they are part of each other and they are a part of me.

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