Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

June 26, 2013 in inQueery

We both share a quiet laugh as Rachel Longan, one of our intern therapists here at the Pacific Center, opens up about her experiences as a member of both the blind and queer communities. When we speak about invisibility with regard to queer blind folks, we refer to invisibility in every sense of the word. We initially fumble in our efforts to understand one another, and I begin to realize that it is nearly impossible to explain the experiences of the blind without relying on notions of sight.

As Rachel begins our discussion, she says,

I think that one of the first things that comes to my mind about looking—see, there’s another word—when looking at invisibility is just isolation. So that’s one of the biggest issues concerning the community of blind folk.

At this point, I realize that we lack the words to talk about some of these things. Many of the phrases in our world equate seeing with understanding. Even the way language functions creates layers of invisibility around the blind community. It is good to be sensitive to this, but Rachel assures me that it is not the main issue.

The larger and more pressing issue contributing to this isolation arises from a tradition of misinformation surrounding blindness and queerness. To be both queer and blind is to have your invisibility amplified. The abilities to recognize visual signs, such as a rainbow flag, and to interpret nonverbal communication are two of the most integral ways of connecting oneself to communities. This especially holds true for the queer community because communication among LGBTQ folks is often not verbalized out of concerns for safety or privacy. This results in many missed opportunities for meeting others.

Rachel is relatively new to the blind community. While she hesitates to speak for the community as a whole, she offers a few interesting insights into the way this kind of invisibility affects queer blind people.
Firstly, reading others as queer can be very difficult. Queer blind people often meet at groups formed explicitly for that purpose. It is very hard to meet people otherwise for two main reasons: firstly, it is not always easy to know who is LGBTQ; secondly, queer blind people are such a small niche group that running into one another by chance would be a rare event. Members of this niche group are more dependent on meetings for people of specifically stated subgroups which make their orientation explicit.

At the micro level, however, it really boils down to language. Rachel explains that blind folks often rely on the use of language and cultural references to read queerness. Making and recognizing allusions to things that only queer people would stereotypically know about is an important part of meeting other people. In addition to this, going to places where LGBTQ people are traditionally known to gather can be a challenge. Finding these venues is not always an easy task without the aid of sight, especially if it is not close to a public transportation hub. It also doesn’t help that the cacophony surrounding many of these spots (such as bars and clubs) makes it hard for blind people to navigate.

This, of course, is assuming that the blind person has been afforded the freedom to explore their sexuality. This unique kind of invisibility is not just a function of isolation, but also of upbringing. People with disabilities are often asexualized. This is understandable, Rachel says, as parents and care providers are primarily concerned with the individual’s potential to be independent and financially secure. Issues like sexual desire are often pushed aside, if they are even confronted at all. Infantilizing blind folks robs them of the agency needed to express their own desires. In this sense, the invisibility and neglect can be internalized, leaving the blind without the tools to understand and cope with a queer orientation.

Although this may sound bleak, exciting new steps are being taken towards increasing awareness and community around those who are queer and blind. In October 2012, an organization called LightHouse began working with our very own Rachel Longan to form a support group. The group is beginning to grow and has already attracted attention from others. People from as far away as New Orleans have inquired about the group hoping to find something similar in their area. We are thrilled about this and anticipate that many others will follow the example set by Rachel and LightHouse.

As Rachel is quick to point out, acknowledgement is just the first step in the struggle for social justice. One can hope that this group is just the beginning of something much bigger. As we start to understand the ways that blind and queer identities intersect, we can gather knowledge, solidify community, and ultimately work toward inclusion.

Joshua Peterson is a Staff Writer at InQueery.
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