I went to do a Masters in Information Studies in Austin, Texas in 2000. It was a big change for me. I was very proud when Bob Guter invited me to write an article for Bentvoices. He created and edited it from 1999 until 2007 as the only comprehensive webzine devoted to the lives of gay men with disabilities. I believe I was the only disabled non gay woman to have contributed an article. He asked me to write a second follow up article before I left the country.
Original article at Bentvoices – I include Bob’s introduction – many thanks! If anybody has any news of him please let me know, I ve lost contact.
In the LAND of BEGINNING AGAIN*
Eleanor Thoe Lisney
From time to time BENT attracts the interest of readers I like to think of as “friends and family,” people who find intellectual or emotional resonance here despite the fact that they are not part of BENT’s core constituency.
A few months ago a bunch of e-mails arrived from women readers, straight and lesbian. Some were positive, while a couple were memorable for their huffy “you’re excluding us” tone. I took pains to explain why I felt BENT’s specificity was essential to its purpose. I also explained that although we are a men’s webzine we had and would continue to publish pieces by and about women. I invited the unhappy women readers to become occasional contributors. None responded.
Out of the fray emerged a few women who remain interested in what’s going on at BENT, one of whom we are pleased to present here. I hope the following piece reminds readers of all kinds that BENT welcomes a multitude of viewpoints. -BOB GUTER
SO—I have arrived in the United States.
Most of my American friends would nod their heads wisely when I told them I was off to the States. They told me that accessibility would be so much better. They gave me their little spiels about the ADA and how everything had to be accessible by law. And it is true that accessibility is the main reason why I chose to come to the U.S. to study. I thought that I would be reasonably independent and be able to cope on my own, something I would not be able to do in Rome or even in Paris.
I should explain that I lived in Strasbourg, France for the good part of the past eleven years. I was the typical expatriate wife of an intergovernmental European bureaucrat/civil servant and the good mother of two wonderful children. But that kind of lotus-eating existence was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Being non-white and disabled in a semi-diplomatic environment made me feel like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. The fact that all my friends had jobs and were busy became another alienating factor. It is difficult enough to get a job when you’re disabled, but being non-white in Alsace (whose citizens voted over 25% National Front in the last election) and not being fluent in French were additional job-market handicaps.
I had grown unhappy in my marriage, too, and as if bestowing a final bad omen Strasbourg began work on a new tramway, making me feel trapped by all the roads that were being dug up. So for my own sanity I thought I ought to leave—leave a relationship that had lost its intimacy, leave a city that had begun to feel like a prison.
Once I had decided on a field of study (library and information science), the University of Texas, Austin seemed ideal, since I wanted somewhere warm and my sister lives not so far away in Dallas. But immediately I ran into uncertainty. Somehow I had assumed that the university would provide me suitable housing or at least help me find accommodations, but I was told that I would have to take my place with everybody else on a waiting list even if there were barrier-free apartments available. I had not asked for priority but I did expect a little help and concern, not a defensive and almost hostile response.
In addition to the university’s unexpected reaction to my needs, I find myself sustaining a general kind of culture shock. Yes, things are much more accessible here, but attitudes are different enough to be very confusing. I can get on buses, for example but I miss the easy rapport that I found with public servants in Europe, where I had learned to refuse help gently when I did not need it. Here I’ve had to learn to ask for help. There is a steep incline going up to my school, for example. Without my electric wheelchair, wheeling myself up the grade is strenuous, but I’m told than an offer of help might be seen as an affront to my independence and an infringement on my privacy. It’s a difference that’s taking some getting used to.
I do appreciate the fact that I can manage to get by in daily life on my own. I can get on the bus to do my grocery shopping or go downtown if I should want to, but like anywhere else in the world, being able to get there is one thing while doing it is another. Here, I have no support system. It takes time to build friendships and for a while my resettlement took up most of my energy. The whole emotional wrench of being away from all that is dear and familiar is tough. Being disabled in a foreign country compounds the whole process of getting settled in. It was disorientating to figure out all the nuts and bolts of daily life that I had taken for granted-simple things such as the telephone number of directory enquiries, or finding where to buy a hammer.
The implications of being disabled in the USA still bemuse me at times. Folks are surprised to learn that I do not drive, that I do not intend to drive, even though I hold a British driving license. They fail to understand my enthusiasm for accessible public transport. Yes, that kind of accessibility is fine, they say, but wouldn’t it be better if I drove? Wouldn’t driving a car make me more independent? I feel as if I would be met with blank stares if I explained my ecological concerns about automobiles. Should my disability needs negate those concerns? Are political and ethical positions values I cannot afford to have as a disabled woman in the United States?
I worry about other things I can or cannot afford in this country, like healthcare. This a real concern, since the likelihood of post-polio syndrome hangs over me like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Moving from country to country makes these things unnerving: I am covered by my husband’s insurance in France, but I cannot expect it to go on indefinitely, while I have an American friend in France who says she is a medical insurance exile from the States!
In France, I felt like I had best healthcare in the world. When I came down with chronic fatigue just over a year ago, the doctors could find nothing wrong with me, even after running what seemed like a thousand tests. Finally they send mefor a “cure” in the south of France, with mineral baths, hydrotherapy, and massage. It did me a lot of good. I can’t imagine that kind of care here.
Can it be that Europe is looking better because of distance? Perhaps it is a question of timing. Strasbourg is, as I found when I went home for Christmas, very pleasantly accessible now. The new tramway is convenient and the sidewalks have been ramped. I was struck by the funny contrast here in Austin, where the sidewalks seem to have Alzheimer’s—a perfect ramp to get up onto the sidewalk but no ramp to get down at the far end!
I know better than ever before that no place is perfect. Adaptation is necessary wherever you go. I grew up in Malaysia, where getting around in a wheelchair can be a nightmare. I would not even begin to tell you the accessibility barriers I found when visiting China. Here in America the pace of life is so fast that sometimes I feel like an old Citroen on the German autobahn, but despite everything I am enjoying my new life here. I like the liberty of being able to pop into the cinema on my own and being able to plan travel without worrying about bathroom facilities. Being on your own can be lonesome, but, for me, the independence is worth the price.
*A leaflet in the San Antonio Public Library informs me that Texas is called “The Land of Beginning Again.”
© 2001 Eleanor Thoe Lisney
Eleanor Thoe Lisney is learning about America by living in Texas.
BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2001