So I meant to post this for VAlentine’s Day, but I got running behind! I wanted to go ahead and post it anyway, though, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. It began, as the title of this post suggests, as a response to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts’ – Disability After Dark’s (see my links page) – episode on Disability and dating. Because, while I agreed with what was said, I also felt that there was another, important way to think about the issue that often gets overlooked.
The podcast episode focussed around the question “would you date a person with a disability”, because that was what came up when Andrew (the podcast host) Googled “disability and dating” in order to see what was out there on the subject. It is a question which many Disabled people, Andrew included, find deeply offensive because of the ways in which it conjures up and draws on really bad stereotypes of Disabled people as “difficult” partners – as extra needy, as burdens, and therefore as requiring extra-special, saintly courage and compassion to date or be a partner to. As Andrew points out, these stereotypes assume that the giving in the relationship goes all in one direction – from the able-bodied partner to the disabled dependent, and that the able partner receives nothing in return but the satisfaction of “doing good”. And he and other activists are absolutely right to call out these ideas! They are really problematic, and frankly insulting to both Disabled people and our partners.
I want to suggest, however, that there is a way in which dating/being a partner to some one with a Disability or Deformity does, in fact, require courage that usually gets overlooked in discussion of the issue. And that is that to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person is, I would argue, an inherently political act. In choosing to date/partner a Disabled/Deformed person when you yourself are able-bodied, you are choosing to violate a social norm. You are choosing to do something society actively does not want you to do. Mainstream society prefers to see Disabled/Deformed people as asexual/aromantic – as perpetual children, or as hyper-sexual monsters. So by choosing to have a relationship with a Disabled/Deformed person as you would with anyone else, you are refusing both of these narratives (unless either one is your kink, in which case you are choosing to consciously and consensually embrace them for your own purposes). You are choosing to recognize that person as an adult, with an adult’s desires, who is fully capable of consenting to a relationship. And because you are choosing to defy deeply held beliefs and social norms, you will catch flack for it – very much in the way that interracial couples did in my Mom’s generation, or that the first generations of Queer and Trans folks to come out of the closet did! Mainstream society will use all the tools of shame and pressure in its arsenal to try to get you to fall back in line. You will watch your partner face inaccessible spaces, and you will have to choose whether to make a fuss in solidarity with them or keep silent. You will have to choose whether to put your foot down and refuse to go to inaccessible events that your friends invite you to because your partner can’t come too, risking being isolated by them for being such a “kill-joy”. You will have to see your partner be stared at, and you may find yourself stared at pityingly too. You will have people offering you their unsolicited sympathy for your partner’s plight, and for your plight in being stuck with them (though people will rarely phrase it with such overt rudeness). You will have people praising you for your saintly love/patience/forbearance – for your courage in taking on and sticking with such a burden, thus both insulting your partner and (not so subtly) implying that you “could do so much better”. In fact, you may even have some people come out and tell you that you could do so much better, and that it’s a shame to see you throw your life away like this. And they may further imply that you are doing so because you yourself have self-esteem issues.
(Note: all the examples referenced above are things that actually happen to partners of Disabled people, or that I have extrapolated from things my Mom remembers actually being said to or about interracial couples when she was younger, especially to White women dating Black men.)
As awesome Disability scholar and activist Loree Erickson points out in her essay “Revealing Femmegimp” (see my On-Going Annotated Bibliography page for citation info), shame is not merely a private emotion, but a political process. And all the instances described above that the partner of a Disabled person will face, though they occur at a personal level and come from a place of people’s deep personal beliefs, are part of this broader social/political process. They are part of defining who is desirable and who is not, and what kinds of relationships are acceptable. The purpose of these instances of shaming, then, is to get you to dump your Disabled/Deformed date/partner and re/ascent to the mainstream narratives about body-minds like theirs. And it does take great courage, love and commitment to stand up to and withstand that kind of pressure! It takes great courage, love and commitment to look society in the eye, as it were, and say “yes, I know you’ve declared this out of bounds, but I choose it anyway”, and to keep saying that. Indeed, I suspect that the reason so many people do end up dumping their Disabled partners is because they entered into the relationship initially without having thought through the political implications of the choice they were making, and were then surprised by and unprepared for the flack. They entered into the relationship without having really thought through whether they are willing to defy society and leave behind the safety of normalcy, and then found once into it that they were not.
Indeed, one of the things I’ve always found compelling as a Phantom Phan is that this, it’s always struck me, is the very choice Christine faces. This is not set out explicitly in either the original Leroux or the ALW musical. Rather, the story is portrayed, on its surface at least, as a straight-forward love-triangle. Yet to me anyway, the choice described above has always been strongly implicit. And this is one of the reasons why Phantom is at its most awesomely provocative when Christine is played as having genuine, deep feelings for and attractions to both men – feelings that could turn either way depending on the path she herself chooses. There is Raoul, who, though it would be frowned upon socially because of their class difference, is the safe option because there are, at least, cultural narrative precedents for such a choice (Cinderella, not to mention the many opera dancers to whom Leroux makes reference who married quite high aristocrats). Christine and he fit the “Prince Charming” myth. For her to choose the Phantom, however, would mean stepping into his outsider status, and foregoing all the familiar comforts of “normal”. In her time, there were no narrative precedents for the fair maiden choosing the beast that didn’t involve him being instantly and magically transformed into Prince Charming, and there are few such even today. And since he would not be so transformed, were Christine to choose the Phantom, her choice would be met, not merely with disapproval, but with revulsion and pathologization. And she knows this instinctively, because she has internalized these values herself. And in the end, when the Phantom releases her and Raoul, she does indeed go off with the “safe option”. But I’ve always felt that the story, especially as told in the original ALW stage-version, asks those who experience it to think about what choice they/we would make – what choice they/we will make? And it asks us/them to consider that making the riskier choice, the more defiant and daring choice, might, ultimately, be the path with the greater reward. But to make that choice, like any profound act of resistance, does indeed require courage! And as I’ve said elsewhere here, Phantom has always seemed to me to challenge, indeed to dare its viewer to have/find that courage.