Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Invisibility Isn't A Privilege

This is for Bisexual Health Awareness Month.

I've heard a lot of people claim that bisexuals are able to access "straight passing privilege".
But being invisible isn't a privilege.

As a teenager, first discovering my autism and getting involved in disability rights, I came across the idea of 'visible' and 'invisible' disabilities. Several years later, I made friends with a wheelchair user and saw the difference in action.

My friend was seen as disabled by everyone, whether she wanted to be or not. She got a lot of what I'd now describe as microaggressions - such as people handing me her change even though she was the one who paid.

But when she came up to someone and asked them for help with something disability-related, they tended to give it. Very often she didn't even have to ask - people anticipated that she would need help because of being a wheelchair user. She also got people coming up to her to talk about disability-related concepts, something that I'd love to have happen to me. And most people who were ableist but not assholes tried not to knowingly make comments that they thought might bother a disabled person in her presence. Invisibly disabled people were also more likely to tell her about their disabilities, because they could tell at a glance that she'd probably get it. She was even represented by the disabled symbol.

In contrast, I have to tell people over and over that I need a certain accommodation, and very often people will just flat-out refuse to believe me. Very often, I'll just struggle on my own because it's less trouble than trying to get help. And the only time someone anticipated a disability-related need of mine without me telling them, it was another disabled person who did so. No one ever pegs me as disabled unless I tell them, and even then, it often doesn't sink in. And I get to listen to the disabled jokes and the random ableism out of nowhere, because no one expected it to feel personal to me. People assume that I'll have a non-disabled perspective on disability.

The idea of visible and invisible disabilities doesn't perfectly map onto LGBT+ people, but the general concept does kind of apply. If you visibly violate gender norms, or are clearly in a same-sex relationship, you're visibly LGBT+. Which gets you hate, sure, but it also gets you community and recognition.

If you're straight-passing (which can mean single, closeted, stealth, or in a relationship that looks heterosexual), you tend to be isolated. People assume you're straight. LGBT+ people are less likely to tell you that they're LGBT+, and non-asshole homophobes are more likely to show their homophobia in your presence, and expect you to agree with them.

Being invisible isn't a privilege. It's just another flavour of oppression.


  1. First, I must thank you for saying your friend uses a wheelchair, clearly depicting the friend as separate from the chair that they use. Second is an ongoing issue for me and I'd like others to consider it's value. It's the same concept as the person separate than the chair. We need to separate ourselves from whatever it is that disables us. In other words, you are not the disability. Do not refer to yourself as disabled. You are a whole person and you have disabilities, i.e., the things we cannot do. Everybody has things they cannot do. Yes, they probably pale in comparison to the things that limit you and not as severe. Don't be afraid to ask to help. Majority of people are kind. They would help you but they don't know if they should ask, if it would embarrass you or if you want help. A kid would ask you to hand them something when they can't reach. An older person would ask you to read something because they can't see it. They don't think anything about it because they are not concentrating on the inability but instead getting the task done. You don't have to give a person your life history, just ask for help doing the task you immediately need. Keep it simple, just say will you help me with ________ because I can't. I'm not telling you this as if it's going to solve the bigger problems but it helps me when I use it and am always glad I did. I enjoyed your article and glad you wrote.

    1. I don't consider my identity to be separate from my disability, any more than it's separate from my gender. I am disabled. I am autistic. I do not identify as a "person with autism", or a "person with a disability", for the same reason that I don't identify as a"person with a female gender". And I find it condescending that you would tell me how I should identify, without even knowing that the majority of autistic people strongly object to person first language.
      As for the rest of your advice, it really isn't useful or relevant for me. And it also sounds pretty condescending. I don't think you really have much concept of what it's really like to have an invisible disability, especially one where my strengths and weaknesses don't make any intuitive sense to most people even when they know my diagnosis. Plus the fact that my disability makes social interaction more difficult and stressful - telling an autistic person to just ask for help is like telling a person with low vision to just read the directions.