During last week’s concert at Beloved, Gaelynn Lea took some time to talk about disability, artistry, and identity.
She spoke of not wanting the label of ‘disabled musician’ in that the qualifier somehow sets her apart (generally meant in a diminished way) from being a ‘musician.’ And yet at the same time, she explained how her disability is also a defining gift of her humanity and of how she engages with her music and with the world.
Her points echo with a post I shared yesterday about women pastors (worth a read if you missed it – great piece). Women pastors are simply pastors. Yet for nearly all whom I know, their gender is a part of what makes them so very good at walking in their calling.
I definitely see it my own experience. As an out lesbian, to the extent that I am skilled at being a human being and a pastor, it is because of who I am – and my embrace of who I am – not in spite of it. Ideally, there is a dual, entwined respect for me for my own particular (queer) expression of humanity and yet also for the universality of me as (among other things) simply a pastor.
It’s simultaneously an appeal to universality and to particularity. Neither alone captures the whole of the experience – and it’s a reductionist (even violent) move to try to make it do so.
The problem is with the norm – we talk about a man and a black man – or a pastor and a woman pastor – or an musician and a disabled musician – or a writer and a trans writer – or . . .
With such a move, we posit a norm around gender, race, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on. Reinforcing norms of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, biological essentialism, ableism, and so on is the daily practice of the dominant discourse, in which we all often participate.
At the same time, tropes of color-blindness, erasure of LGBTQ+ identity, glossing over disability status, and other refusals to acknowledge difference reinscribe that same norm. So – ‘ah you black people are really just like us white people’. Or ‘you queer people are really just like us cis-het people’.
Umm . . . no. It’s not true and it’s not a kindness to assert it – because it disregards the gifts born of diverse experience (and of course it does – because the dominant discourse does not see those gifts as gifts, but as threats).
Undoing this is hard. The tendency to frame a universal goes back as far in Western thought at least to Plato. And we are constantly soaked in our culture’s intentional racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, and so on – because that’s how the culture makes money and preserves power. Assimilationism is the same move in a different guise.
Let us do better.
Let us recognize the universal humanity of each person, while at the same time understanding the markers of identity that form their own particular being.
Let us interrogate the norms rather than accepting them as a given (let alone a natural or God-inspired given – because they are neither).
It will make us better people and grant us a better world. And it is work that we can do daily, both in decolonizing our own thinking and in creating a more genuinely inclusive practice in the world.