humanity

 

A round stick-person, in darkness, riding on a power wheelchair up a slight grade. In front of him is an arrow that reads “Humanity three days hence.”

When we checked into our hotel in Orlando, where we went for a 6 day vacation, I had a decision to make. It’s a decision that I have to make any time I’m going to be in a place for more than a day or two. It took me only one trip to the pool to decide that I would go about making the place safe for me to be in. I recognize, every time that I make this decision that it’s impossible for anywhere to be completely safe, but I use the word anyway because it simply makes me feel better than the more accurate ‘safer’. Once I made the decision I set about the task.

First let’s just recognize the fact that being fat and in a power wheelchair simply just isn’t a safe way to be in the world. People make assumptions that are both wrong and which lead to toxic attitudes and behaviour. People, unfettered by any social demands to the otherwise, feel free to taunt, ridicule, namecall and even physically harrass. Remember, one way or another, people would rather be dead than be me. I need, if the strategy is to work, to make my humanity evident. I need to crawl up from loathsome and ugly and disgusting and grasp on to my human status, holding on tight until it’s established in other minds beyond my own.

I do this by being conventional. I always wear black jeans, no matter what, but I also wear my black shirt. It is a convention set by others, mostly the thin I think, that fat people should wear black. They say it’s because it’s slimming, I believe, however, they wish us to be seen as in mourning for the person we could have been if only we’d willed ourselves thus. More than that I take every opportunity I can, where appropriate and without being pushy, to greet or to engage in brief conversation with others at the same place. It’s surprising what a moments conversation wherein wit, unexpected because they never expect a sharp sense of humour coming from someone they assume dull, leads to a shared laugh. I’m good at this. Very good.

That’s day one.

Day two, I wear a shirt of a dull but brighter colour and continue on being a chipper neighbour, a friendly face at the pool, a helpful guy with directions. I find this tiresome because I’m naturally shy, but in order for me to be safe, I have to be seen as fully human by as many people as possible. Anywhere I go there will be people who come in and leave, with no idea of how to react to me besides horror and horribleness, so I need the social disapproval of those I’ve won over to keep me safe.

That’s done.

Then, after two days of that, I have one more day to go. I ensure that people see me in relationship to other people, people they naturally assume to be normal and therefore of value. This is easy when travelling with the kids and their parents, and a little more difficult when it’s just Joe. I say ‘just Joe’ not to diminish Joe, but remember you know that Joe is my husband, they most often see him as my support worker. But I twin myself with them and my value rises even as I pull theirs down. The kids notice this, don’t kid yourself, they notice this … they see their social value fall simply because they are with me. Kids are finely tuned to their status, really very aware.

Then, I’m home free. I can wear what I want, Behave in a natural way, be shy when I feel shy, quiet when I feel quiet and draw attention to myself when I’m fully engaged in something. I’ve worked to demonstrate my humanity, I gain allies if not friends, and I’m protected by their realization of my humanity and their social disapproval of people who are unflinchingly cruel.

It’s a lot of work to be different and to be safe.

In Toronto, where I’ve lived for a number of years. I have safe places, stores, coffee shops, bars, movie theatres where I’m mostly safe. My familiarity has lead to a sense of me being a regular even though I’m irregular in many obvious ways.

So days four through six were pretty good. I met mostly with welcome, even if grudging from some, and I was able to relax and be exactly who I am. Publicly, I can’t do that often, so I enjoyed it.

It’s a lot of work to be different and to be safe.

Note: I wrote this Sunday morning, before I’d heard the news about the shooting in Orlando, I shelved it and decided that I couldn’t write about my safety from taunts and teasing when a shooter had mowed down over 100 lgbt-a (ally) people in a bar only a few miles from where we were staying. I decided to publish it, even though it’s only a few days later because I think the idea of claiming humanity and staking ground is an important one. I wrote this here in a disability context, I was thinking of it in a disability context, but it’s also how Joe and I have survived as gay people and a gay couple. By claiming humanity and staking ground, we made our way forward, we made our way proudly and we made our way through dark, dark times. It is my hope that this will not seem trite or as if I’m trivializing the horror of ‘the Pulse’ massacre’ … please remember it was written before, without knowing.