Last June, I started a co-ed discussion group on bisexuality in part because the only venue of that type was male-dominated in a way that made women uncomfortable and had proven to be unfixable. Unfortunately, the new group is not attracting women, so I finally took three deep breaths and began organizing a female-only version.
Women-only spaces make me ill at ease in the same way I feel slightly weird when I realize everyone in a room is white or heterosexual or LGBT or from a middle class background or whatever. Forming a group that is explicitly homogeneous on a particular dimension has forced me to examine my discomfort and shockingly the explanation involves disability.
When women speak about the importance of gender specific spaces, they reference times in their lives when they felt limited by a patriarchal system, silenced by men, or stripped of their personhood reduced to an object. Women-only groups allow females to express themselves freely without the constraints male-dominated society imposes. It is about breathing a sigh of relief because all the "crap" is suddenly able to be set aside and the business of being oneself embarked upon without the usual fetters.
All my life, disability has been the single factor most likely to shape my experiences. It is the thing people react to, the trait by which others define me, and by necessity mentioned often. My female gender, on the other hand, is not something people discern nor is it a regular topic of conversation. Its significance is limited to the bathroom I am directed to or the gender specific moniker used.
I have experienced a myriad of limitations placed upon me by others, from expectations of achievement to opportunities offered. At every turn, the judgments of others have been barriers between me and what I want. They have almost entirely been a factor of my disability not my gender. It's been "Blind people can't do physics" not "Women can't do physics."
People do not attempt to silence me. Instead, there seems to be this assumption that I lack a voice as if I have no thoughts or words to be expressed. Rather than devaluing my perspective, I am presumed without opinion.
My very personhood has been stripped away not because I am female and therefore an object of sexual desire but because I am perceived as my disability. I am blindness with legs and feet.
The bottom line is that I don't experience the world as a woman, which means I have trouble identifying with the reasons women want spaces to themselves. It would seem reasonable that I could at least identify with the desire to have a space free of oppressive forces, but even the idea of a disabled-only space makes me twitch.
I believe this inability to even empathize comes from the fact that I have assimilated into able-bodied culture to such an extreme that I taken it on as my own. It might be flawed, oppressive, and negatively impact my life, but for better or worse, it is the world I inhabit. Instead of creating spaces where I can escape its oppressive forces, I want to transform the bigotry.
Furthermore, I have found a way to construct a life that rejects the limitations, denial of personhood, and lack of a voice able bodied culture would impose upon me. For example, while strangers may assume I do not engage in independent thought, this blog allows me to use my words to articulate my experiences in the hopes of redefining how people perceive disability.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I guess the totality of my life experiences have brought me to a place where oppressive forces can do their worst truly impacting my life in negative ways, but I refuse to give them the power to limit anything within my control such as my self-image and ability to express myself.