The Social Construction of Disability & Trans-ness*
The decline of my health happened rather quickly, in a matter of months the tremors and spasms of my muscles could not be contained. Though I appear able-bodied, throughout the day I am in a lot of pain & discomfort. I have described the nerve pain as if it is “raining inside my body.” As a trans woman of color, I am skeptical of writing about my sick body, as ableism & transphobia attempt to rob me of my woman identity. I am thankful to those that write & speak bravely & intimately about what it is to be at an intersection that feels isolating & disregarded. It is especially important to draw attention to people that are visibly disabled and of color, whereas larger society deems these bodies as asexual, genderless, & abnormal. Anita Ghai writes about a similar sentiment in her book (Dis)embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women stating, “It is true though that disabled women, in general, do not deal with the same oppressions that non-disabled women do primarily because disabled women are not seen as women in an able-bodied society.” People of color with disabilities, and Black people in particular, with disabilities are considered subaltern, a broadly subordinate status, when our bodies don’t comply with what is imagined of us.
Trans people of all abilities are scrutinized for not exhibiting the characteristics of cisgender bodies. To abolish this notion, our perception of “normal” bodies needs to be deconstructed. The people leading (certainly not limited to) these efforts are Black people, non-Black POC (NBPOC), and those that are trans and / or disabled. The intersection of all these identities is complex and by no means are the people who form these communities monolithic.
There are many perspectives on disability. The medical model, which has been rejected by many scholars & disability activists, argues that disabled people should be “fixed” or otherwise made to pursue medical options that are limited by normalized notions of able-bodiedness. Ableism, then, is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society.
The medical model is problematically focused on making disabled people bear the onus of adapting to both social and physical structures that work primarily to their exclusion. This contributes to systemic ableism. This model also views disability as a personal experience, as something the individual with the disability has to “overcome.” This narrow view maintains an ableist approach to social productivity and value, and absolves those who perpetuate it of any real accountability to those harmed. Thought it has been rejected by many disabled individuals, there are others that acknowledge how the medical model can be useful in terms of healthcare options. The key here, is that we must remain critical and observant of its use especially regarding cultural norms, political ideologies, and legislative policies.
Until recently, in 2018, the World Health Organization considered gender dysphoria a mental illness, thereby classifying it as neurodivergent or rather, as a mental disability. This was a small victory for trans people all over the world. Trans identities were no longer pathologized by medical rhetoric that views us as the “Other.” Such prescriptions for normative behavior have historically been established and enforced by people who aren’t part of the trans or disabled community, and further demonstrates how those with privilege reproduce harmful norms.
Though everyone’s experience with disability is different it does not mean that the experience is necessarily lonely or that others are not intimately involved, i.e. caregivers, family, etc. If anything, disability frameworks suggest that survival is inherently relational, and humans are more interdependent than we like to think. After all, the individualist notion of independence is a uniquely colonialist concept bolstering certain narratives of privilege.
After finding a community of disabled/sick queer and trans people , mostly online, I have been able to understand that there are many of us who don’t receive the care we deserve. Our experience is often disposed by healthcare providers or insurance companies that refuse to pay for surgeries, medication, and other resources that are imperative to our survival. Though our identities aren’t essentially determined by society, many trans disabled POC acknowledge how forces greater than us influence our lives.
Hardships of Being a Trans Disabled POC
To be a transgender, disabled person of color is to exist in a world not yet prepared to accommodate your needs. Trans women, Black trans women in particular, are being murdered at staggering rates. In America this year, so far, there have been 22 trans women murdered, most of them being women of color . Considering how dangerous it is for trans people of color to exist, being disabled creates additional threats to our survival.
Trans POC are more likely to face incredibly high rates of poverty. This is exacerbated for trans people who are disabled. In America, legislative policy reinforces inequality and further marginalizes those who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual and without disability or illness. Many disabled trans people know that under capitalism we will not survive. An insurance system that denies resources based on pre-existing conditions, for example, poses a significant hurdle with legal implications that can mean life or death. Capitalism makes it difficult for our survival as some jobs are inaccessible, and others discriminate or pay inhumane, unlivable wages. Capitalism inherently disposes of the disabled/sick whose labor is not valued. However, that doesn’t stop us from creating our own way of living. Trans POC with disabilities are fighting to be heard and refuse the erasure of our lives and contributions.
Visibility of Disabled Trans POC
Social media has allowed us to engage with people whose experiences are vastly different from our own. For trans POC with disabilities, platforms like Instagram can be a place to find community and support that can’t always found in person. This year Aaron Philip , a young, Black trans femme model, got signed by Elite (a modeling agency) after months of working to prove her determination & skill. Philip says, “I don’t want signings like mine to be a trend or a fad. I want careers for Black, disabled, and trans models to be attainable and sustainable.” Her journey was not easy, as it rarely is for disabled/ill trans people of color. Philip’s getting signed was an important step in the right direction.
Instagram has also been educational. Poet and organizer Walela Nehanda  uses the app to actively interrogate how political and social forces have affected the way they navigate chronic illness/disability and their other identities. Nehanda is a non-binary Afro-Indigenous person battling leukemia, specifically, phase III Chronic Myeloid Leukemia.
Another key figure pushing for visibility is Kay Ulanday Barrett, a Filipinx trans disabled poet, artist, and cultural strategist. His book, When The Chant Comes, just celebrated it’s 2 year anniversary, and in it are poems that map out the experience of living within multiple marginal identities. In an interview with Jenni(f)fer Tamayo for Apogee, Ulanday says about his work, “A disabled and chronically in pain aesthetic learns to take solace in the roughest of waves. It means coming up against the challenges of medicalized racism, the eugenics practices and ideals of white supremacy, which also means being light-skinned, able-bodied, and skinny. Consider this coupled with gender binaries enforced by medical examinations that determine what normal health is.”
These key figures demonstrate that their lived experiences aren’t for consumption. They refuse to be ignored. Visibility is happening online through our own platforms, where we engage with those curious to listen to our ideas. Our labor, at our own pace, is being noticed. But like Aaron Phillips, I too hope this is not a fad & that we are cared for in the long run.
This article was written from my bedroom, where I spend a lot of my time resting & positioning my body to experience relief. This is almost always done with the use of a heating pad and lots of tiger balm. My bedroom is also the place where I take my hormones every morning. When Trump got into office, and recently with the nomination of Kavanaugh, we witnessed thousands of people protesting by going out into the streets and marching. The act of marching has been political for centuries, however, where does that leave an integral part of political movements and those affected by the issues being protested? People whose bodies can’t walk, must sit, can’t leave their bedrooms without proper assistance or planning?
Resistance is often performative and demanding of the body. Rest for Resistance, asked disabled QTPOC to share some of their feelings about Pride celebrations and one participant, Navor, says: “I have known of trans siblings, chronically ill anarchists neurodivergent queens, disabled immigrants, non-binary sex workers, asexual femmes, deaf gender-nonconforming friends, cishet accomplices and queer partners who practice their truths in person, on the web, and off screen since it is not afforded to all of us to live unapologetically anywhere and or anytime.” Showing up to rallies, political actions, and even celebratory events for and by our community isn’t always possible as they are rarely accessible to disabled people.
For a long time trans & queer people of color have documented their experiences with disability and illness. The narratives of trans people of color with disabilities are being paid more attention due to our own efforts for visibility. We will continue to form our support systems, but we also need the help of those with resources. Until we all work together to create a more accessible and equitable society, we will never experience true resistance.
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* Before diving in, I must make clear that this essay is in no way related to the literature of “trans-abled” individuals-- people who willingly become disabled. I make this distinction because when I googled “trans and disabled,” hoping to find resources for people at the intersection of these identities, these were some of the narratives came up. Further, this essay doesn’t explicitly discuss mental disabilities and emphasizes visible and invisible disabilities of the body, such as physical pain. When I discuss disability, I am aware that there are also times where illness overlaps, as some people experience disability caused by chronic illness. Lastly, I am not an expert on disability studies & understand that there are different views on disability and transgender identities that are not covered in this essay.
1. Shout out to the queer and trans people in my life whom have made my experience with pain less lonely.
2. The number is not accurate due to reporters misgendering and deadnaming trans people. This number is also a tiny portion in relation to the trans murders on a global scale.
3. To do more in-depth reading about Aaron’s story you can purchase her book “This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (NOT Disability)