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  • Disability as Masquerade
  • Tobin Siebers (bio)


My subject will be recognized as passing although I plan to give it a few unexpected twists and turns. For I have been keeping secrets and telling lies. In December 1999, I had an altercation at the San Francisco airport with a gatekeeper for Northwest Airlines, who demanded that I use a wheelchair if I wanted to claim the early-boarding option. He did not want to accept that I was disabled unless my status was validated by a highly visible prop like a wheelchair. In the years since I have begun to feel the effects of postpolio, my practice has been to board airplanes immediately after the first-class passengers so that I do not have to navigate crowded aisles on wobbly legs. I answered the gatekeeper that I would be in a wheelchair soon enough, but that it was my decision, not his, when I began to use one. He eventually let me board and then chased after me on an afterthought to apologize. The incident was trivial in many ways, but I have now adopted the habit of exaggerating my limp whenever I board planes. My exaggeration is not always sufficient to render my disability visible—gatekeepers still question me on occasion—but I continue to use the strategy, despite the fact that it fills me with a sense of anxiety and bad faith, emotions that resonate with previous experiences in which doctors and nurses have accused me of false complaints, oversensitivity, and malingering.

In January 2001, I slipped on a small patch of ice and broke my knee. It was my right knee, the leg affected by polio when I was two years old. For the next few months, I used wooden crutches, a prosthetic device, unlike forearm crutches, that usually signifies temporary injury rather than long-term disability. Throughout my life I have spent long periods on crutches, and my return to them summoned a series of powerful emotions. For one thing, it was the first time I found myself on crutches since I had come out as disabled.1 The crutches projected to the public world what I felt to be a profound symbol of my inner life as well as my present status as a person with a disability. They also [End Page 1] gave me great hope for the future because I had begun to worry that I would not be able to get around as I grew older, and I soon realized to my relief that I could do very well on my crutches. I had been tutored in their use from such an early age that I felt as if a part of my body once lost to me had somehow been restored as soon as I slipped them under my arms. Nevertheless, I found myself giving an entirely new answer to the question posed to me by people on the street. "What's wrong with you?" they always ask. My new answer: "I slipped on the ice and broke my knee."

To pass or not to pass—that is often the question. But do these two narratives about disability illustrate the conventional understanding of keeping secrets about identity? Erving Goffman defines passing as a strategy for managing the stigma of "spoiled identities"—those discredited by law, opinion, or social convention.2 When in the minority and powerless, Jews pass as Christians, blacks pass as whites, and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people pass as heterosexuals. Similarly, people with disabilities find ingenious ways to conceal their impairments and pass as able-bodied. In Epistemology of the Closet, however, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests that secrets concerning identity are a more complicated affair than Goffman's definition allows, arguing persuasively that the historical specificity of the closet has marked indelibly the meaning of "secrecy" in twentieth-century Western culture.3 Closeting involves things not merely concealed but difficult to disclose—the inability to disclose is, in fact, one of the constitutive markers of oppression. The epistemology of the closet complicates the usual understanding of passing because it disrupts the structural binary that represents passing as an action taking place between knowing and unknowing subjects. The closet...