(Editor’s note: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four people in the United States has a disability. Gay people and people with disabilities have long been an integral part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many icons of queer history who have been disabled: Michelangelo is said to have had autism. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, deaf/blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise – Marvin in the “Queer as Folk” reboot – and Kathy Martinez, a blind Latinx lesbian, who was assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy for the Obama administration, are just a few of the many queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its year-long monthly series, “Queer, Crip and Here,” The Blade will tell some of these long, untold stories.)
In 1991, while living in Provincetown, he agreed to model for a guide to “gay sex,” gay, disabled, and Jewish author and poet Kenny Fries wrote in his memoir “The Story of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.”
Fries, 62, who just received a Ford Foundation Disability Futures Fellowship, has been disabled since birth.
His medical records indicate he has “lower extremity birth defects,” Fries said in an email interview with The Blade, “basically I was missing bones in my legs when I was born.”
Some time later, Fries learned that the medical term for his disability is “fibular hemimelia.” “There is no known cause,” he added, “and it’s nothing a pregnant mother does or doesn’t do that causes it.”
In 1991, in Provincetown, the local artist working on the guide to gay sex wanted to make sure he would correctly portray a disabled man having sex.
Fries was thrilled when the artist showed him the photos he had taken of him and his partner during the modeling session. “I recognize the images of myself in the photos and drawing as very beautiful,” writes Fries.
But a week later, Fries’ feelings of pride were dissipated. The guide’s art director didn’t like the way the design turned out, Fries remembered the artist telling him. “’He said that on the drawing, the handicap didn’t read. He wants me to chop off one of your legs,” Fries wrote.
Getting out wasn’t that difficult for Fries. However, “I’m sure sometimes it was difficult,” he said. “I think it was the combination of being both gay and disabled that posed the most challenges.”
If you are disabled, you are likely to encounter ableism in the form of inaccessibility, pity, job discrimination, discomfort, and fear. Perhaps most hurtful, especially if you’re queer and disabled, is what Fries calls the “ideal body” myth. (This reporter is queer and disabled.)
Anyone whose body is perceived as different faces this myth, Fries said. “Everyone is affected by this myth, even straight white men. They just don’t know it as much as we do.
Although he has been disabled since birth in Brooklyn, NY, and his disability is quite noticeable, Fries did not “come out” disabled until he was in college.
Fries saw a psychologist after she started having panic attacks. “He did something not entirely kosher,” Fries said, “making a deal with me that he would come see the musical I was directing if I was going to speak with Irv Zola, a disabled teacher who was teaching at Brandeis, where I was an undergrad.
At that time, Zola was one of the few disabled teachers at any college. “It was pure luck that he was at my house,” Fries said.
At Zola’s suggestion, Fries contacted the Boston Self-Help Center and, for a time, joined their peer support group. After grad school, Fries moved to San Francisco. There he met Marilyn Golden, a leader of the disability rights movement. Meeting Golden, his first mentor, launched Fries’ disability rights journey.
Another milestone for Fries in his “coming out” as a disabled person was when he participated in the Contemporary Chautauqua on Performance and Disability which was organized by Vicki Lewis at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1994. , Fries met creative nonfiction and fiction writer Anne Finger, playwright Susan R. Nussbaum, and other writers with disabilities. These writers became his “comrades in arms,” he says.
Golden and Nussbaum passed away earlier this year. It was “a great personal and community loss,” Fries said.
The apartment building where he grew up looked like a “vertical shtetl,” Fries said, when asked how being Jewish fit into his queer, disabled identity.
“An ex called me ‘the Nazi trio,'” Fries said, “because Jews, disabled people and gay people were persecuted and killed under the Nazi regime.”
Being queer, disabled and Jewish — being triply “altered” underscored his “questioning,” Fries said, “particularly of societal structures and institutions.”
Somehow, he believes, these three identities have combined to form his rather irreverent view of things.
The writing bug bit Fries early on. “As a child, I always thought of plays,” Fries said, “and wrote silly ones.”
Fries is one of the most distinguished and important queer and disabled writers of our time. He is the author of “Province of the Gods”, “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory” and “Body, Remember: A Memoir”. His poetry collections include “In the Gardens of Japan”, “Desert Walking” and “Anesthesia”.
If you are visibly disabled, you are often stared at by able-bodied people.
Fries has helped people with disabilities, gay and non-gay, regain sight. He edited the groundbreaking anthology “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out,” in which writers, including queer icon Adrienne Rich, reflect on their lived experience of being disabled.
“I didn’t realize Rich was disabled (she had rheumatoid arthritis) until I saw her using a cane while reading in the Bay Area,” Fries said.
Fries lives with her husband, who is Canadian, in Berlin. They met when Fries was in Japan in 2005 and married in 2007.
“Living in cultures other than my own, as well as traveling, has always been the foundation of my work,” Fries said.
At times, Fries encountered “direct” ableism in the queer community. Like the time decades ago he was not allowed to enter a gay bar in Florence, Italy. Or “very rare” sexual rejection by an able-bodied person. “It takes us back to the myth of the ideal body,” Fries said.
More insidious for Fries is the ableism of inaccessible queer spaces and events and the lack of disability inclusion in gay-related panels at readings and events.
Then there are apps, Fries said. “How many disabled guys do you meet on Grindr? ” he said. “Even the profile questions asked show that the default is not to think about the physical difference.”
Fries came to Berlin to do research for the book he is working on “Stumbling Over History: Disability and the Holocaust” and his video series “What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?”
“The disabled were the first group to be mass murdered in gas chambers in Aktion T4, the Nazi program that killed 70,000 disabled people,” Fries said.
“After Q4 officially ended, an additional 230,000 disabled people were killed by gas,” Fries added, “as well as by other means, such as starvation, drug overdose and neglect.”
It’s still a relatively unknown story to most people, even in Germany, Fries said.
Fries’ energy supply is unlimited. He organized “Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer”, the first international exhibition on queer/disability history, activism and culture. It opened at the Schwules Museum Berlin on September 1 and will run until the end of January 2023.
The exhibition includes the work of over 20 contemporary queer/disabled artists.
A major theme of the exhibit is “‘the ideal body,'” Fries said, “how that fantasy permeated gay and disabled history and life, and how gay/disabled artists countered that.”
Many people know Audre Lorde as a queer black icon. But most don’t see her as having a disability. Yet Lorde, who had cancer, was disabled. It is included in the exhibition.
“Lorde was a very important figure for the Afro-German women’s movement,” Fries said.
Lorde wrote about cancer in “The Cancer Journals”. She had a forward-thinking view of disability, Fries said. “In an interview featured in the exhibition, she talks about a feminist book fair in London in 1984, which was held in an inaccessible space.”
It’s important to all of us that such events are made available to women with disabilities, Lorde said in the interview, “and we should make sure they’re advertised in black women’s magazines.”
Lorde understood intersectionality before it became popular, Fries said.
For more information visit: kennyfries.com