I'm at the Green Market in Union Square with my nondisabled friend Melanie, a longtime feminist. We're checking out the produce: she's fondling the green peppers, while I give the eggplants a squeeze. It's August, midday. I should have remembered to put on the sunblock. I'm wearing a tank top and I feel the sun burning my shoulders.
Suddenly I feel something else. From behind me somebody has grabbed my left arm. Strong fingers are wrapped around my bicep, squeezing rhythmically. I know it's not my friend Melanie touching me, because I can see her a few feet in front of me holding up a shiny pepper.
I turn my head and I'm face to face with a man. He lets go of my arm and, bending down and smiling broadly, holds up his thumb. "Great muscles," he says.
"I don't know you," is my immediate response. But it's sort of half a question. It often happens that I am confronted by someone who seems to know me, who may even know my name, but whom I, for the life of me, cannot recall ever meeting. I've had this problem since my teens. So it's not middle age forgetfulness. It's just that disability is an easy marker that makes us noticeable and memorable. Oh, some nondisabled people will make great efforts not to notice us, of course. But those who have conquered their worst fears are likely to remember us, even after a fleeting chance meeting. Of course, there may be some confusion. Quite a few times, in the past, I've been confused with other wheelchair users, who may have been half or twice my age, and half or twice my size, and Asian or African American. But in spite of the confusion, I realize that most nondisabled people find me easy to remember. I, on the other hand, tend to forget many of the nondisabled people I meet, unless of course there is a reason for me to remember them, or unless they have some memorable characteristic. This man, now smiling broadly at me, has no memorable characteristics, at least not physical ones. Fortyish, average height, average build, average good looks. If, at least, he was bald, or had a big nose.
So to be safe, I now ask the question clearly: "Have we ever met?"
"No, we've never met," he answers. He's still smiling broadly.
"So, what makes you think you have the right to come behind me and squeeze my arm?" I ask.
"Oh, I was just admiring your muscles," he says. "You've developed some muscles pushing that chair!"
"You don't go and touch a woman you don't know just because you admire some of her body parts," I say.
His smile is now a bit strained. "Oh, don't be so touchy, I didn't mean anything by it."
I notice my friend Melanie has put down the green pepper and is looking at us. I'm angry. "Whatever you did or didn't mean, your behavior was inappropriate and offensive," I say brusquely, turning away and picking up an eggplant to put an end to the exchange.
The man is retreating. "Well, you don't have to get mad, I didn't mean anything by it," he repeats as he walks away.
Melanie rushes over to me and, bending down, she puts her hand on my shoulder and whispers: "Calm down."
"I'm calm," I say, and then add: "but I'm angry."
"What happened?" she asks, still whispering. I tell her what happened, though I'm sure she must have heard the entire exchange, since she was only a few feet away.
"Oh," she murmurs, shrugging her shoulders. "Forget about it, it's not worth your getting upset over it."
Her dismissive attitude makes me feel angrier. "Wouldn't you get upset if a strange man grabbed you?" I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders again. "Well, sure, but..."
I give her a puzzled look, "But what?"
"Oh, I believe that he didn't mean anything by it," she says.
I'm flabbergasted. Is this Melanie, the longtime feminist, refusing to give validity to a sister's righteous indignation and totally condoning a strange man's objectionable behavior?
"I can't believe I'm hearing this from you!" I mutter.
She gives my shoulder a little squeeze. "Well, it's not like he pinched your butt," she says with a little laugh.
"He couldn't. I'm sitting on it," I say. I'm really pissed. At Melanie now more than at the strange man. But she takes my remark to be an example of my usual crip humor and laughs heartily.
"Well, I have to agree with the guy, you do have great muscles, and you're really showing them off in that top."
"And you do have a great ass, and you're sure showing it off in those pants," I rebut. "So would it be okay for some strange man to give it a squeeze?"
She stops laughing. "I just think you're overreacting," she says. "He looked like a nice man. He wasn't making sexual advances. I'm sure he really did admire your strength."
He admired my strength, yes, nothing sexual. A nice man, yes, average height, average build, average good looks. The kind that would never go sneaking up on unsuspecting women. He would never have pinched Melanie's round buttock, no matter how much he might have admired it. But he felt free to come up behind me and squeeze my arm. Because he admired my biceps. Because I'm not just a woman, I'm a disabled woman.
"Melanie," I say, "what made me angry is that the man felt it was perfectly alright to touch me. And what's making me even angrier is that you think that it was alright for him to touch me, while it would not have been alright for him to touch you."
I know I have at other times talked to Melanie about the way nondisabled people take unbridled liberties with disabled people, especially disabled women. They'll grab us and force their help on us, ask the most personal questions, make the most offensive remarks. They feel they can, because our disabilities put us at the bottom of the social ladder.
"Oh, no," Melanie objects, "I never said it was alright for that man to touch you. I just didn't think his intentions were sexual. But, all the same, he should not have touched you."
Why is it so important to her to establish that the man's intentions weren't sexual? If I didn't know her, I'd think that she was seeing me in the stereotypical way disabled women are seen: as asexual and devoid of sex appeal. But Melanie has known me for years and I have talked with her about these things. Maybe she's insisting on the absence of a sexual motive to make it clear that, if I have been wronged, it's not in the same way other women are wronged. To make it clear that the issue here is not gender, it's disability. Best not confuse the issues. The guy was unenlightened, he obviously had never attended a disability awareness workshop, but he was no sexist pig. So my outrage is uncalled for. Let more deserving women, who suffer real sexual harassment, feel outrage. I realize that, with her insistence on the absence of sexual motives, she's denying me membership in the sisterhood of nondisabled women. I should be used to it. Always being relegated to the "special category." Our issues always being considered less important.
"Melanie," I say, "that man obviously thought my being a disabled woman made me so powerless that it was okay for him to grab me. He would not have grabbed you. He grabbed me because my wheelchair signaled to him that rules of conduct could be ignored. His intentions may or may not have been sexual. It doesn't even matter. The real issue is power. Who has it, who doesn't. Who will claim it over whom and for what reasons."
She's staring at me, while holding in her hands two green peppers. Finally she says: "Sure, you're right, of course. I'm sorry if I didn't seem sympathetic." But before I can think I've gotten across to her, she adds: "I just didn't want you to get so upset over it, that's all."
Her tone is so condescending that I want to throw the eggplant I have in my hands right at her. "Well, you're sure succeeding in getting me more and more upset," I almost say. But I realize I'm not going to get any solidarity from this nondisabled sister, no matter what I say or do. She has obviously decided that, at least for the moment, her alliance with nondisabled people is stronger than any kinship she may feel towards me as a woman. I suddenly feel very tired. Of being in the hot sun. And of always having to argue with strangers and friends, of always having to explain myself.
I pay for my eggplant while she pays for her green peppers.
I pay for my eggplant while she pays for her green peppers.