Sexuality & Disability

Timeline Themes: sexuality, disability, and mental illness

These introductions to student entries offer different focal perspectives across wide range of events, people, and cultural works in the art therapy timeline.

sexuality, disability, and mental illness

Erica Wang, Laura Young, Susannah Ward, & Denise Majka
April 24, 2019

In order to understand the intersectionality of sexuality, disability, and mental illness, we have presented some key medical, sociocultural, and policy milestones in history that have formed and evolved that context in the United States. As future art therapists, it is vital to work through and understand intersectionality and all its facets in order to best serve our clients.

Medical: The AIDS Crisis seemed a clear choice to be included under the umbrella of our group’s collective topic – due to the numerous connections to various cultural components. In terms of who was being affected by the virus various groups were involved, especially marginalized ones. In the specific case brought to the timeline regarding Robert R. these identities included being a homosexual male, and a man of color living in the midwestern United States during the 1960’s. Moving forward in time, the addition of the entry examining eating disorders through an LGBTQ+ lens served to connect the group’s topic to modern times through a cultural context. Eating disorders have long been associated with a very specific client type, but the findings introduced in the collaborative survey conducted by NEDA and the Trevor Project challenged and altered this belief in a very public sphere.

Sociocultural: Paul B. Preciado, author of Testo-Junkie, outlines the era we live in today (that began in the 1970’s) that commodifies and capitalizes sex. Through the production of products such as Viagra, the Pill, testosterone, estrogen, etc., corporations have become “managers” of human bodies. In socializing the ideas that certain bodies fail to have sex “normally”, society capitalizes upon the formation of a “disability”. Mental illness easily fits into this conversation as products such as birth control and Viagra can, “fuel violent and aggressive behavior in men” (Milman & Arnold 2002), while different birth controls can, “affect the user’s mood and increase the risk of depression or other emotional changes” (Smith, 2018). A more current event, the foundation of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, also highlights each topic thoroughly. This foundation was organized after 18 year old Tyler Clementi died by suicide following abuse from his roommate. Clementi’s roommate recorded an intimate sexual encounter between Clementi and another man without permission which was then shared across their school’s campus. Easily encompassing sexuality and mental illness, the topic of disability is a bit harder to suss out in this example. However, disability can be defined as a “a disadvantage or handicap”. In identifying as LGBTQ+, many workplaces and religions can legally discriminate against such individuals, therefore creating a disadvantage – or disability.

Throughout history, disability has served as a marker of difference and, like any other marker of difference, a site of speculation. Starting in the 1840s, travelling exhibits called “Freak Shows” toured America showcasing exotified and sensationalized bodies for the masses, further marking their difference in their notoriety. Cognitively and physically disabled black men (“What Is It?”), Sartje Baartman (“The Hottentot Venus”), and Julia Pastrana (“The Ugliest Woman in the World”) were just some of the many marketed as “missing links” between modern humanity and its primitive ancestry. The popularity of freak shows dwindled in the 1940s with the rise of a more medical model of disability, where the public’s gaze went from carnivals and state fairs to operating rooms and doctor offices. And with the rise of a medical model came the pressure for a “cure” -a solution to the problem of disability, and of difference. With cure as the ultimate aspirational goal, a television advertisement that aired during the 2000 Super Bowl featuring the famously super and disabled Christopher Reeve walking through CGI shocked the nation. With some disabled viewers calling their doctors to request whatever treatment Reeve was getting, to others criticizing Reeve’s involvement as ableist and ultimately harmful to disabled folks, to others being moved to tears upon seeing Reeve’s triumphant first few digitally edited steps, the commercial was polarizing.

Policy: It is imperative to consider the legal structures that defined the lives of those living under such categories of identity and citizenship; or, in other words, the institutionalization of social inequality in the US. The Eugenics Movement dominated the early 20th century, from the US Public Health Service inspecting arriving immigrants for infectious and hereditary diseases to the legal segregation and/or forced sterilization of those deemed “unfit” or “feebleminded,” which the Supreme Court upheld in Buck vs Bell (1927). The legitimization of heredity and race as indicators of human superiority by state and federal laws perpetuated the White, middle-class concepts of illness and disease as well as justified social inequalities. The federal ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study established that the more ACEs reported, the more likely and more prevalent the negative health outcomes as well as fall victim to crime. Only when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was established did the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) of 1990 get amended to include violence and crimes with bias against persons with disabilities. In 2009, Rosa’s Law was passed to replace all language using “mental retardation” with the “intellectual disability in federal health, education and labor laws. Also in 2009, gender and gender orientation would be added to the HCSA.