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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003) 79-105

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As Good As It Gets
Queer Theory and Critical Disability

Robert McRuer


In queer studies it is at this point a well-established critical practice to remark on heterosexuality's supposed invisibility. 1 As the heterosexual norm congealed during the twentieth century, it was the "homosexual menace" that was specified and embodied; the subsequent policing and containment of that menace allowed the new heterosexual normalcy to remain unspecified and disembodied. 2 Although as early as 1915 Sigmund Freud, in his revised "Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex," declared that "the exclusive sexual interest of the man for the woman is also a problem requiring an explanation, and is not something that is self-evident and explainable on the basis of chemical attraction," such observations remained—indeed, as Freud's comments literally were—mere footnotes in the project of excavating deviance. 3 Heterosexuality, never speaking—as Michel Foucault famously said of homosexuality—"in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or 'naturality' be acknowledged," thereby passed as universal love and intimacy, coextensive not with a specific form of opposite-sex eros but with humanity itself. 4

Heterosexuality's partners in this masquerade have been largely identified; an important body of feminist and antiracist work considers how heteronormativity reinforces dominant ideologies of gender and race. 5 However, despite the fact that homosexuality and disability clearly share a pathologized past, and despite a growing awareness of the intersections between queer theory and disability studies, little notice has been taken of the connection between heterosexuality and able-bodied identity, perhaps because able-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things.

In what follows I lay the groundwork for understanding how able-bodiedness and heterosexuality are intertwined. Bringing together queer theory and what I will call "critical disability," this essay challenges how our culture continues to accommodate, despite and indeed through the shifting crises surrounding them, [End Page 79] heterosexual and able-bodied norms. 6 I begin with a preliminary identification of some of the features that seem to distinguish the current moment in the history of heterosexuality. Undeniably, heterosexuality's will to invisibility remains strong, but that characteristic has been supplemented by others; the recent history of heterosexuality includes periods when it is visible, however momentarily. I then examine how this new visibility has allowed for the emergence of a more "flexible" heterosexual and able-bodied subject than either queer theory or disability studies has yet acknowledged. I consider how this subject is represented in James L. Brooks's 1997 film As Good As It Gets, which in many ways crystallizes current ideas about, and uses of, disability and queerness. Finally, I conclude with an overview of some of the critically disabled and queer perspectives and practices that have been deployed to resist able-bodied heteronormativity.

Reinventing the Heterosexual

In his essay "Tearooms and Sympathy; or, The Epistemology of the Water Closet," Lee Edelman analyzes the popular representation of a sexual crisis involving a prominent member of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration and provides thereby a snapshot of dominant attitudes in the mid-twentieth century. On 7 October 1964 Walter Jenkins, Johnson's chief of staff, was arrested for performing "indecent gestures" with another man in a Washington, D.C., men's room. The arrest was made after Jenkins entered the same restroom where five years earlier he had been arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct (pervert)." That the earlier arrest had not been detected as Jenkins rose to prominence in the White House only compounded the scandal in October 1964, given the widespread acceptance at the time of beliefs such as that expressed in a New York Times editorial: "There can be no place on the White House staff or in the upper echelons of government . . . for a person of markedly deviant behavior." 7 Edelman's essay thoroughly considers how the events surrounding the Jenkins scandal codified contemporary anxieties about masculinity, homosexuality...


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