Developing connections between Trans* and Disabled Communities

Connections between marginalized communities are not always clear, especially when a  community is already struggling to have its own voice heard. Alexandre Baril is taking on the challenge of connecting trans* and disabled communities in the hope of bettering the treatment and acceptance of trans* people.

Baril uses an asterisk in conjunction with ‘trans’ (‘trans*’) to incorporate multiple gender identities into transness, including transsexual, transgender, non-binary and genderqueer persons.

Baril, an Izaak Walton Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship beneficiary at Dalhousie and activist for trans* and crip* politics, delivered a lecture last Wednesday, Sept. 28 exploring why disability excludes the experience of transness.

Baril’s lecture critiqued medical and social models of understanding disability as limiting and oppressive. Instead he suggested a subjective-social model of disability, one which acknowledges medical and social models while recognizing “trans* people’s transition-related subjective and embodied realities, affects and potential suffering in terms of disability.”

“The aim of linking trans* and disability is neither to restore the medical model of disability nor to support an understanding of trans* identities as ‘errors of nature,’” Baril said.

Despite the fact that many trans* people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria and studies have shown the impact and distress this diagnosis has on everyday life, it rarely qualifies as disabling.

Offering an example, Baril said, “Cisgender men who have lost the use of their penis following an accident or disease are considered disabled, but trans* men who do not have a penis are not considered disabled. Disabilities can emerge from transition-related treatments [as well]. [However,] trans* issues are too often reduced to genitals and many [trans*] people don’t want trans* genital surgery.”

Furthering the discussion of what disability means for a trans* person, Baril shared his own experiences.

“I have some disability issues that are related to my transition. For example, related to one of my surgeries, I have some disabilities that are permanent…[doctors] are not sure if they can fix [them], or how much it will cost to fix. I think I will continue to have disabilities for the rest of my life because of transness.”

Baril’s lecture had a positive effect on many attendees, including Sam, a Mount Allison student who identifies as a trans* male.

“I felt excited for the current growth in conversations about trans* politics. It’s nice to learn about something that I couldn’t just explain to you,” Sam said.

“[Baril] seemed to call himself disabled as part of being transgender. I don’t know if I would call myself disabled as a part of transgendered,” Sam said. However, he said that there are definitely aspects of transness that can be disabling.

“I have back problems from binding**…but I’m not going to stop binding because I need to bind. Surgery is a lot of money and not everyone has access to that. Depending on how long you bind for…you don’t know how it’s going to affect you,” he said.

Sam wants people to recognize that there are physical components to being trans* that have very little chance of being fully realized because of scientific limitations.

“Surgery is not perfect, and it’s not a great option for everyone. You have to be starving for it. The imperfections that come with bottom surgery*** for trans* men can be devastating for some people.”

Also inspired by Baril’s lecture was fourth-year student Alex Lepianka, for whom recognizing connections between disabled and trans* communities “is important for forming individual and community action against marginalization.”

“I think the virtue of interdisciplinary approaches to some of these social issues is that it allows activism to form better coalitions and networks in establishing one struggle within another,” Lepianka said.

Lepianka is also aware that privilege, including his own, “makes gender dysphoria a reality for many people.”

Caroline Kovesi, a sociology student who helped organize Baril’s lecture, was pleased with the outcome.

“We don’t often think about the shared connections between trans and disabled communities, and I think his talk reminded us about the importance of solidarity building between communities typically seen as disparate, recognizing shared vulnerabilities, and connecting different forms of discrimination to the same sorts of prejudices,” wrote Kovesi in an e-mail to the Argosy.

Baril’s lecture brought trans* and disabled issues to campus, which proved to be topics with which students were excited and ready to engage.

Crip* – Represents the transgressive and anti-assimilationist approach in disability studies. The term ‘Crip’ has been positively resignified.

Binding ** – The act of flattening breasts with the use of a wrapping.

Bottom Surgery ***- Any surgery that alters the appearance and function of a person’s genitalia.

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