Lately, my many differences (or others fascination with them, rather) have been getting in the way of my life and interests moreso than usual. I’ve never really been one to turn to thoughts of “I wish I was able-bodied” or indulge myself in thoughts of internalized ableism*, but for the first time (basically) ever, the questions of how my life may have been different or easier if I was abled have been taking up a lot of space in my head.
Disability is not the only thing that makes me “different”. I also have two moms, a gender-nonconforming identical twin, was raised Jewish, and identify as queer myself, just to top it all off. This said, in a time and place where “intersectionality” has become quite the buzz word, the complexities of overlapping identity is not simply a “weird concept” as one professor so eloquently stated, but a reality I live with every day. A reality that is sometimes the cause of alienation, and other times put on a pedestal and oggled at. Regardless of how anyone reacts to the many things that make me, me at any given time, I, Sonya, am at the center of those reactions doing my best to navigate the rest of the world’s questions, assumptions, and impositions. And in this constant, exhausting navigation, I want to say: I didn’t choose to be complicated! I didn’t choose to be stared at, or probed, or barred opportunity, again and again and again. This is not to say that if I could change my identity today, I would opt to be of majority status. I am not self-hating. But I was not any more prepared or understanding of what it means to live as a Jewish, queer, disabled female in a world run by Christian, straight, abled men when I popped out the womb nearly 20 years ago than anyone else of privilege is watching from the outside.
More specifically, I am at odds with my identity as an actor and an artist. I am a part of a very rigorous undergraduate theatre program, and I am finding myself on the outside of art-making and continually barred from creative opportunities despite doing good work, exhibiting professionalism, and being an integrated part of the community. It is difficult to discern specifically when my identity plays a role in equality of opportunity (see: discrimination), and I try not to pull out various “cards” because I do not believe in disability as an excuse. However, it has become clearer that identity does impact my educational opportunity, whether or not I can put my finger on exactly how or when.
Recently, when discussing with a professor my trajectory through theatre, she said that for me to be strictly an actor would be too narrow, because I am “too interesting” to solely take on the experiences of others when I have so many of my own. But here’s the thing: I didn’t elect to be “interesting”; a person does not burst from taking on multiple experiences- that’s what life is. There’s no quota: I can take on a character’s wholeness while still holding onto my own. The ability to hang onto that duality is what I would argue qualifies good acting, as opposed to being an inhibitor. This professor went on to suggest I poor my energies into writing and pulling from my experiences. While I (obviously) don’t have anything against writing, being “interesting” does not obligate me to share my experiences any more than your Jane Doe, straight, abled girl, nor does my identity make my writing more worthy of being read than aforementioned Jane Doe. Choosing to learn how to act is my prerogative, and to imply that my identity, in all of it’s complicated glory, should influence that because I just have Soooo0oOOoo much to say, turns my stomach.
Furthermore, a peer recently brought up my body’s fragility while doing scene work, and though only brief, it took me out of the work and reminded me that even when I am doing “good work” I am still the disabled actor. This identifier follows me even when I feel I am completely “in my art”, which seems to discredit what I am doing. On top of that, an influx of students doing various projects on disability have asked to speak with me about my experiences. And for the first time, I am trying to learn to say no. In my past, no one seemed to care about learning about disability. Here at Emerson, able-bodied kids don’t just want to learn about disability, but they want to further the discussion. That’s amazing to me! So the idea of turning down an opportunity to help that effort seems counterintuitive. But the other side of this is that Emerson is majority able. So much so that when I say I am the only one, I am literally one of maybe 10 students with visible, physical disabilities out of a whopping 4000 Emerson students. That means that if any of the aforementioned 3,990 students want to speak to someone in their community about “the disabled experience”, or if there’s an incoming student with a disability vaguely similar to mine, guess who they come to? As cringeworthy as this may sound to some, I don’t blame anyone because the thought is sound- I’d rather they come to me than make up their own “alternative facts” about disability. However, it is incredibly alienating, and thus my dilemma. If I don’t contribute, I guilt myself. But if I do contribute, I am reminded of my incredible loneliness as a physically disabled student here, and take on the impossible task of represent a sprawling community of peeps with disabilities.
About a year ago, when dealing with an instance of straight up ableism in a class (which has since been beautifully resolved, thanks Emerson), the discussion of the incident was draaaaaawn out and a frustrated abled-bodied student said “I just want to act”. Famed comedian Mindy Kaling once said on navigating privilege/oppression within the arts something along the lines of “In the time I spend speaking about being an artist who isn’t a white man, white male artists make art”. It is in this spirit of focus, not self embitterment, that I say I didn’t choose to be complicated.
Today, this is where she stands.
*This post was originally published on Spastically Yours some time ago- see it here