Whose Stories Get Told: Regarding Feeling Unsafe In The Glee Fandom
“I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m still a guy.”
First, an awkwardly personal moment.
Several months ago, I was outed by another teacher to several speech pathologists at work. One of the women was completing her practicum, and her supervisor and instructor were observing her session with our pupil. I was there to keep him calm, as being watched by five or six teachers as you complete a speech exercise when you are working through selective mutism can be rather stressful. I wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to myself, just sitting nearby and redirecting or reassuring him when he needed it. I was dressed appropriately; I made sure to sit just like the women around me; I kept out of their conversation but smiled and nodded and was polite and quiet. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I made my fatal mistake. I kept my hands in my lap, but it might have been when I answered a question about his AAC device a little too knowledgeably or with a little too much enthusiasm. Perhaps it was when I noticed the tightening of his movements and suggested he have a quick break. Either way, eventually one of the women wanted to know what my job was, exactly. “Oh, she’s our intern,” the teacher said, and I smiled and nodded and then she kept talking. “She’s like our translator for half these kids. She has a really unique understanding–she’s also autistic, like them.”
And I was out.
It’s not the kind of outing you were expecting, was it?
Would you believe me that it was more terrifying, more humiliating, with worse consequences than when I was outed as a lesbian in that room earlier that year?
That’s one anecdote. Here’s another.
As a simultaneously queer and developmentally disabled fan, one of my great struggles last season was watching the ship wars between Brittana and Bartie fans. There weren’t a whole lot of Bartie fans in the first place, and I quickly figured out that, as a lesbian, I was supposed to ship Brittana. It was practically compulsory. Their relationship was groundbreaking and I was supposed to be excited and moved and relate to it and no, no one wanted to hear my thoughts or see my excitement on seeing a couple with disabilities navigating high school together. Who cared?
I wanted to know why only one story, one half of myself, counted. No one could explain.
A third story, and then to the point. Perhaps you can see it already.
I went to a college, for a while, infamous for its lesbians. I’m sure there’s a more decorous way to put it; I never cared to learn. It was a completely and utterly different world from the one I grew up in, and I loved every last queer second of it. Finally, being a lesbian wasn’t an issue!
Having disabilities still was.
I mean, how was anyone supposed to navigate a relationship with someone who didn’t like to talk, who sometimes couldn’t, who wore massive noise-blocking headphones at dinner and who couldn’t manage parties or groups of people or sometimes even just one person? What were the rules for that? Did that even happen? How do you flirt with someone who won’t make eye contact?
It’s important that I am very clear here. It’s not that my classmates were horrible people. It’s not that at all. With few exceptions they were nothing but kind–and that’s a loaded phrase, but there’s not time for it here–and universally they did know how to relate to someone who could geek out about the neuroscience (and cognitive science, and philosophy) of vision, who could help with their linguistics homework or sing along to Last Friday Night or mix screwdrivers with alchemical precision. They just didn’t know what to do when that person wore glasses because she’d damaged her eyes banging her head repeatedly against walls, or who sometimes needed to pause in the middle of a conversation and diagram a sentence so she could understand it, or who learned music so quickly with the same ears that also made her scream when she wasn’t warned for a fire drill. There weren’t any stories about girls who went to college already well-verses in mixing drinks because they’d gotten so good at mixing 125 mls of Zoloft into eight ounces of pineapple-orange juice every morning.
There weren’t any stories about people like me. I was not something to be conceived of, I was not expected. There were no scripts. I didn’t exist.
(So I didn’t count.)
Now, to the point.
I am a lesbian with disabilities. I am an autistic lesbian; I am a lesbian with bad brains.
Glee fandom has taught me that exactly half of this identity is acceptable.
I am sure I should be grateful for this. It is an improvement, after all–outside my bedroom door, I’m not allowed any of it. Being a lesbian is a good way to get myself raped or killed in my, in this, town. I know this. So I apologize for my ungratefulness, for my stubborn, bratty selfishness, when I point out…
…being half a person means that I’m still not actually a person at all.
Here’s the thing. I can’t actually turn my disability off. I can pass as less disabled, sure–not as non disabled, but less, of course, in some circumstances, if I’m prepped enough. Hey, did you catch that? I can pass. Passing is a concept that applies to ability too, not just sexuality or race? Did you know that?
Probably not, actually.
The Glee fandom, at least the parts I’m in where I encounter this problem, seems fairly knowledgeable and progressive and all those other nice, soothing words about a lot of things. People generally know what I mean if I say Kurt can’t pass or Blaine passes as white. It’s not perfect, of course, but I’m far more likely to be understood than if I say Artie can normalize himself or Brittany has become increasingly unable to pass.
Pass as what? She’s bi, everyone knows that, what else could she possibly be passing for?
(Well, actually, she’s written and played as disabled, the actress has said so.)
No she’s not. You’re giving the authors way too much credit. That must have been an accident. Sloppy characterization, bad writing, lol Glee…no. They wouldn’t write that. She’s not.
(And then this is where I finally, finally, get nasty.)
Am I an accident?
Am I sloppy?
Am I not supposed to exist?
Is my story worth telling?
It’s not supposed to be personal, except for all of the years I’ve known the answers to those questions. Yes, yes, no, no.
I think the casual impersonality of it is what makes me feel unsafe, actually. It rests on the assumption that people like that aren’t reading or participating in these discussions (how could they, they’re retarded) and that our stories don’t even exist to be told. I mean, do disabled people even have sex drives?
And yes, to be clear, I absolutely do mean it when I say I feel unsafe. I’m not sure how else I’m supposed to feel when I realize that I do not exist to large swaths of people.
A great deal of the time, passing means passing as nothing at all. I don’t exist. And you know, still, I automatically typed and that’s fine, that’s whatever after that last sentence, because you’re not supposed to make an issue of it. Not supposed to draw attention. I don’t exist.
I’m not in your stories. When I see myself, I’m wrong. I’m bad writing. I’m not in your stories, and I don’t get any stories of my own. I don’t exist to the greater world, and ultimately I’m not allowed to exist to myself.
But that’s fine, that’s whatever.
There’s a violence in invisibility, you know.
There are little speech patterns that creep in when we talk about Brittany, sometimes. About who deserves her, as if she has no agency, as if she can’t know her own mind.
(Do I? Do I get agency? Or do I just need to be grateful for whatever affection and attention I do get? Should I find the boys from ninth grade again and apologize to my abusers for kneeing one of them in the balls? Should I have known it wouldn’t get better?)
There’s a violence I still can’t talk about, in the end.
Let me take the focus off me. I’ve been debating whether or not to leave that sentence in. Let me take the focus off me, because this is not how you stay invisible. But…but keep the focus on me, because isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what this show, or at least this essay, is about? Keep the focus on me, because there are so many different ways to be invisible.
Quinn. Quinn and her slow, silent breakdown all last season. Quinn and Lucy. Blaine. Blaine and looking back and realizing that some needy, broken sophomore was trying to mentor an older, stronger kid, because he can be however you want him to be. Mercedes, swallowing a crush she knows goes beyond all reason, but reason never had much to do with it. Mercedes, good old reliable Mercedes, realizing that the moment she’s not so reliable, the moment she wants more, the moment she’s visible, is the moment she’s no longer wanted.
I’ve been all of those kids. I’ve lived all of those stories. So, so many of us had.
And when we hear that these stories don’t exist? That they’re just bad writing? Just lazy plotting, poorly executed versions of better, real, worthy stories? That they’re not worth telling on their own merits, that no one wants to see that?
We don’t argue, usually. How are you supposed to argue when apparently a story you’ve lived is just some hackneyed, inferior attempt at something worth attention?
We don’t argue, because our stories are judged unacceptable and by extension so are we, and that’s a conversation we don’t actually need to have again. Glee tells a lot of stories, and they aren’t usually the ones the real people want, and of course, we already established this, we aren’t allowed our own stories. No, of course not, and should they somehow be written and acted and shot anyways, they can still be grabbed and labeled as something different entirely, graded against an entirely different narrative, and thus still easily found wanting, derided, and thrown out.
And that’s fine, that’s whatever. That’s how it works. I just want to know…
I just want to know…who decides whose stories get told?
Who decides which are worth telling?
And why aren’t mine on that list?