What’s Up WID: Eli Clare Transcripts

Eli Clare, a white man with eyeglasses and a knit sweater on smiles.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to What’s Up WID, the World Institute on Disability podcast, where we discuss what’s up in the global disability community. If you’re new here, I’m your host, Ashley Inkumsah. I’m excited to share with you my conversation with the acclaimed writer, poet, and activist, Eli Clare. He has written two books of essays, the award-winning Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, and Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, as well as a collection of poetry: The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion. He has also been published in dozens of journals and anthologies.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Eli and I had a great conversation discussing the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability, and why embracing a disability justice framework is so crucial as the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 32, in our current legal climate where rights don’t seem to be guaranteed to last.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you so much, Eli, for joining me for today’s episode of our podcast. Before we get started with our questions, I do want to ask you, how are you doing today?

Eli Clare:

I am okay. I’m calling in from occupied Abenaki territory, also known as Vermont. It’s been a little thunderstorming here and so it’s kind of humid, but the sun is out again. And that’s only the good thing.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yes, absolutely. We love the sun. Vitamin D just keeps us all better. So, the more of it we can get, the better we all are.

Eli Clare:

Yes.

Ashley Inkumsah:

If you could please tell us about your work, your writing, your activism. We were talking offline. I’ve been such a big fan of you for so long. It’s such a pleasure to finally get the chance to talk to you. But for those of our listeners who are unaware of you and your work, if you could briefly just share your writing and your activism work with us, that would be great.

Eli Clare:

Well, thank you for those kind words, Ashley, that the most important thing I do is be in connection and communication with community. So, I’m a community-based writer and a activist. I’m a poet and essayist. I’ve read two books of creative non-fiction. The first, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, published in 1999. Most recently, is my book called Beautiful Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, which is part memoir, part political thinking, part manifesto about what cure means in the world, not only as a medical process, but also a cultural ideology. In between those two books, I’ve published a collection of poetry called The Marrow’s Telling.

Eli Clare:

In all my writing, I’m interested in telling stories, both personal and public, private and political, about queerness, disability, how ableism, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, how all of those systems of oppression and more fit together and work together. As an activist, I believe that we’re not going to find liberation until all of those systems of oppression are dismantled. So I’ve spent the last 30 plus years working in disability communities and in queer and trans communities.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yes. You’ve done such amazing work over the past three decades. It’s been amazing just to be a spectator to all of the amazing work that you’ve been doing. You talked about how much of your work focuses on politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability. You kind of touched on it a little bit, but if you can further expand, how do all of these identities kind of intersect with one another?

Eli Clare:

Right, right. So I always think in terms of intersections and in terms of the framework of intersectionality in the framework of disability justice. I think about two pieces. I think about the identity piece. I also think about the systems of oppression piece. So let’s start with the identity piece, that all of us carry all these identities with us all the time, that all of us have identities centered on race and class and gender and sexual orientation and sexuality and disability.

Eli Clare:

Oh, that’s regardless of what those identities are, and we have identities around those categories. Those identities inevitably inform each other, that whether we’re a white, nondisabled, cis rich man, or whether we’re a disabled, queer, and trans BIPOC, all of our identities are informing each other all the time. For me, it’s hard to separate out my whiteness from my gender, the trans-masculine genderqueer from my lifelong that’s blended. It’s hard to pull those pieces out, that my gender is so informed by my disability, and my disability is so informed by my whiteness, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, that on an identity level, all of who we are is always informing all of who we are. So on an identity level, that’s how it works. As Audre Lorde, the Black, lesbian, mother, poet warrior said, and I’m paraphrasing her, “None of us live single-issue lives.” So that’s on an identity level.

Eli Clare:

On a systems of oppression level, we’ve got all the systems of oppression, ableism, racism and white supremacy, misogyny and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, and on and on and on. I’ve only named some of the systems of oppression, right? Those systems of oppression target some of us and privilege others of us. Most of us are dealing with a complicated tangle of marginalization and privilege at the same time. Again, that tangle is inseparable. Like, how I live in relationship to transphobia as a trans-masculine gender is completely informed by my whiteness, is completely informed by ableism. So, the systems of oppression, again, inextricably linked. They’re linked in another way, in that ableism is this incredibly powerful tool for racism, that one of the ways white supremacy works is to declare all people of color, particularly Black people and Indigenous people, regardless of body-mind impairment, to declare all people of color defective at some level, and defective has power because of ableism. So ableism becomes this really powerful tool of white supremacy. That’s just one example.

Eli Clare:

We could spend the next, I don’t know, what? Week? 24/7 talking about these interconnections, but because of the interconnections, the interconnections don’t mean that all oppressions are equivalent all the time. Sometimes transphobia comes roaring up in my life and is the most important, or sometimes the ways I’m privileged by whiteness is the most overarching thing in my life. Other times ableism, is just like present all the time. So I don’t want to imply that all systems of oppression are equivalent all the time, but because of these interconnections, I really believe as an activist that we cannot dismantle white supremacy without dismantling ableism also, so that the work of ending these systems of oppression is as interconnected as the systems of oppression are themselves.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. We often have a tendency to see marginalized group as belonging to different social causes. Although as you highlighted, they are all different. These systems of oppression do have these overlapping threads. So my question to you is how can different people from different groups come together to fight against these systems of ableism, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera?

Eli Clare:

Right. Well, one of the things we want to do in movement work is never ask people to choose between communities. To choose am I going to be disabled today? Or am I going to be queer today? That’s an impossible choice. So we want to set our movement work up so that all of us can bring our whole selves to the work because we’re going to be more powerful and more effective if we bring our whole selves. Bringing our whole selves in part also means bringing the parts of ourselves that are privileged and learning how to deal with that privilege in useful ways rather than destructive ways in our movement work.

Eli Clare:

I see so many white disabled people that take on the disability rights movement rejecting and shutting out the leadership of disabled people of color. I see in the disability rights movement activists saying, “We’re going to only deal with ableism. We won’t think about racism. We won’t work in solidarity around anti-racist struggles, unless those anti-racist struggles are directly tied to ableism and disabled people.” That has to stop. That has to stop. That by bringing our whole selves, that’s not just by bringing the ways we’re marginalized, but also the ways we bring privilege into a space. We need to learn how to use that privilege in ways that don’t strengthen the status quo, but work to dismantle the status quo. So that’s the first thing is we need to build movements where we can bring our whole self.

Eli Clare:

Another piece of the question is about building coalition. What are the places in this world that is so full of injustice? One of the places where we share a common cause, I think of climate change. I think how climate changes by racism and ableism and capitalism and immigration and environment who just try all at the same time. I think of eugenics that targets people of color and immigrants and disabled people and poor women and girls, all at the same time. To struggle against eugenics is to pay attention to all of those pieces. By building coalition across communities, by taking leadership from the people most impacted, like one of the ways to do this is if we take leadership from the people most impacted, if we work on the issues that are impacting the most vulnerable people. We do that work, but the people who are least impacted, there will be benefited for all of us that work.

Eli Clare:

But if we start with people who are more privileged, some of that work will never, never impact the most vulnerable, the most marginalized of us. So it’s really in those coalitions, it’s about paying attention to leadership and leadership development, and that what I’m working on should have impact on the most marginalized of us. All of that is much easier to say than to do. I want to suggest that as we do that work, we are going to make dozens and dozens and dozens of mistakes. This is not about getting it perfect. This is not about being the good, quote unquote, activist who never makes a mistake in coalition [inaudible 00:17:35] We’re going to make mistakes.

Eli Clare:

Another piece of the work is learning how to take accountability from the mistakes, moving back and letting more marginalized people take leadership, learning how to do the behind the scenes work and learning from our mistakes, learning how not to make the same mistake over and over again. It’s one thing to acknowledge we’re going to make mistakes. It’s another thing to make the same mistake over and over and over again, to learn from our mistakes, to learn not how not to take immediately over, to learn how not to interrupt. Those are two small examples.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And yeah, leadership of the most marginalized and most impacted, that’s one of the principles of the disability justice framework. I want to unpack that a little bit more and circle back to disability rights. So 32 years ago this month, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into legislation. But as we all are living in this current legal climate where we are seeing that it’s so evident that rights are not guaranteed to last, why is it so important that we embrace this disability justice framework versus relying just on disability rights?

Eli Clare:

So I want to acknowledge the ADA, and acknowledge the importance of the ADA. The ADA being incredibly important in many of our lives for lot of different reasons. I also want to acknowledge that this conversation is happening mere weeks after Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court. It’s such a reminder about the legal system. So rights are one piece. The rights depends on the legal system and rights depend on the justice system, and those systems are systems that need a lot of changing. I’m not sure we can talk about a justice system in this country. I think we can talk about a system that then thinks it’s about justice, but often practices incredible injustice, and lots of people who are multiply-marginalized have no access to that system. I think of the ADA and as important as that is to the ADA, you have to have access to the legal system. You have to be able to bring suit. And lots of us don’t have access to that system or don’t trust that system, or are cynical about that system.

Eli Clare:

So the part of the problem with the rights model is who has access to the system to enforce our rights. And because of how the legalist system is structured here in the US, those rights have to be created, strengthened, maintained, and enforced on single vectors. The ADA is about disability and ableism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is about race and racism. So for many of us who get into complicated situations, repression, and want to take it to the level of legal rights, it’s like, can I say something happened because of ableism or because of transphobia or because of homophobia or because of… Can I separate it out? How do I choose which law? Did those laws protect multiply-marginalized people?

Eli Clare:

Part of it that by the nature of civil rights law and how it’s created in the US, it’s single-issue politics. The ADA is a good example of this kind of single-issue politics, and how to do this critique of rights while also acknowledging how important those rights are. Both are true at the same time. So an example from the ADA and how the single issue the ADA is, that 33 and 34 years ago, and the path to ADA was happening, one of the concessions that was made was that transsexuals… At that point, that was the word. So trans people who were using diagnoses to access medical treatment were taken out, explicitly taken out the ADA as a concession to Jesse Helms, the infamous homophobe and obviously transphobe.

Eli Clare:

So trans people were taken out specifically of the ADA. This isn’t an argument about whether transness is a disability and trans people are disabled people are not… I do not want to go there. That’s a really profound and deep conversation in trans community. The point of this is to pass the ADA, a particular community of people who are dealing with diagnosis, medicalization, and medical treatment were specifically written out of that piece of civil rights legislation because the malleable issues were too much, because in the face of this infamous homophobe and transphobe, activists resorted yet again to single-issue politics. That one little piece of the ADA made a huge impact on trans people over the ensuing two-and-a-half to three decades. So a decision was made in the last five years that broadens the ADA in that little way, which is a good thing. But for 25 to 30 years, there was no way that trans people could leverage that piece of civil rights legislation and that had a big impact, influence.

Eli Clare:

So that’s a very specific example of limitation of a civil rights strategy while also honoring the ADA for all it’s done. Then put into the disability justice framework, there’s lots. Again, Ashley, you and I could talk for a long time about the importance of a disability justice framework. Part of it is that that framework is always acknowledging the multiplicity of who we are at every single moment. It’s acknowledging that social justice work happens in a lot of different places at the same time. Certainly, it’s about civil rights and rights work, but it’s also about community building. It’s also about support networks. It’s also about a radical dismantling of the systems themselves. Disability justice by its nature said that patriarchy and capitalism and white supremacy and ableism have to go. They just have to go. So sometimes I think of disability justice as this bigger framework, this framework that’s paying attention to all of these connections and let’s pay attention beyond access. That access is just the beginning. It’s not the end.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Because legal rights are never guaranteed, why do you feel that it’s important, community organizing activism? Why is that an essential component of achieving collective liberation for those who are marginalized on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability?

Eli Clare:

I think that’s so much for liberation about community building, like finding each other, about creating worlds that work for us and work for all of us, and that community building work, that service provision work, that what’s come to be known as mutual aid during this pandemic time. Getting people out of the institutions, into community and out of isolation. When I think of institutions, I think of prisons. Getting people out of prisons. That work, that’s the work of community organizing. That’s the work of lots of art making, writing and dance and art and music and theater and storytelling and on and on is partly the work of community building and another piece of keeping us alive.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. We talked about, obviously, we’re not going to solve all of these problems in this podcast episode, but I would hope that our audience can take away the importance of organizing in order to achieve collective liberation for all multiply-marginalized groups. So thank you so much, Eli, for this wonderful conversation. Is there any other things that you’d like to speak to that I haven’t asked you regarding the general concept of the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability?

Eli Clare:

I think I want to just end with this piece that I just said about keeping each other alive, because that’s always been really vivid in disability communities and has become more vivid and more desperate during the pandemic, of how are we going to stay alive and how are we going to keep each other alive? I believe that we’re staying alive because of each other. And so much of our organizing is about doing that. We have to do that in a way that acknowledges all of us. Like, if we are only paying attention to white, disabled men in that work of keeping each other alive, then a bunch of people are not going to survive. We can only do that work in keeping each other alive if we pay attention to BIPOC and race and racism and poor and working class people and capitalism and classism.

Eli Clare:

If we pay attention to trans non-binary people, as well as cisgender people, if we pay attention to disabled people, to neurodivergent people, to mad people, to deaf people, to chronically ill people, as well as non-disabled people, on and on and on, the only way we’re going to keep each other alive is paying attention to all the ways we’re marginalized. So I guess I’m really underlining the seriousness of this, and that seriousness has been made abundantly clear during this pandemic.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Mm-hmm. Absolutely. A lot of the same systems, I would say, white supremacy is responsible for a lot of these mechanisms that oppress all of us. So it’s really important for us to all come together to eradicate that, so…

Eli Clare:

Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Ableism is never going to end while white supremacy is still here.

Ashley Inkumsah:

No. Mm-hmm.

Eli Clare:

It’s never going to happen, and if we’re serious about dismantling the systems of oppression, we have to be serious about those connections. I just want to thank you, Ashley, for this conversation and for kind of a ferocity of this has to happen. This isn’t optional, and just thank you for that.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you for having this conversation with me. I’ve learned a lot in the short time that we’ve just been chatting. It’s been a pleasure. Pleasure’s all mine. So thank you.

Eli Clare:

Yeah.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you once again, Eli, for this incredible conversation. It was such an honor and a pleasure to chat with someone with such incredible depth and understanding of the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Thank you to you all at home as well for tuning into today’s episode. And as usual, this episode and all of our past episodes of our podcast are available with transcripts and American sign language interpretations on our website at www.wid.org/whats-up-wid. Looking so forward to chatting with you all again on our next episode of What’s Up WID.

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