Eli Claire, “Building Community/Resisting Shame”:
Another side of living in Marked Bodies
New York University, 4 October 2010
Activist, performer, and writer Eli Clare, a resident of Vermont, was slated to give his multimedia presentation titled, “Gawking, Gaping, Staring: Living in Marked Bodies,” about the “internal experiences of living in marked bodies and the external meanings of oppression and bodily difference.” However, in the wake of a spate of gay teen suicides in the past month, including the highly publicized death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi (18), as well as the suicides of Billy Lucas (15), Seth Walsh (13), and Asher Brown (13), Eli Clare abandoned his “body politic” presentation and opted, instead, to “spend some time, not in a political way, thinking and feeling about shame.” Clare’s talk on shame, punctuated by a poem that functioned as a refrain throughout the thirty-five minute presentation, did not simply focus on the dark side of how shame, that “chasm of loathing lodged in our bodies,” can destroy an individual, but addressed shame’s connection to suicide as a community issue. In the context of a talk about social ethics, Clare made sure to practice what he preached before he launched into his presentation, inviting us to “feel free to take care” of ourselves, to make room for each other’s needs and desires by creating a space of mutual respect.
In the midst of campaigns like the “It Gets Better” project which reaches out to LGBTQ youth with personal stories about overcoming discrimination and bullying, Clare’s approach to the issue of shame was to attend to the responsibility of the community, and not just present shame as an individual identity issue. Shame, both deeply personal and overtly political, is an affective experience shaped by — but also shaping — the way our bodies, which are often “not our home,” move through social space. Clare grounded his talk with a personal anecdote as a disabled, gender-queer individual, riding through Oregon on a bike tour with his (presumably able-bodied) partner. He spoke of their outrage as passersby treated his partner as his caretaker, asking his partner what was wrong with Clare, and never talking to Clare directly.
Broadening his examples to other moments that “fan the flame of shame,” Clare cited LGBTQ personal ads looking for someone “height and weight proportionate,” the casual use of words like “retarded,” and he asked “who disappears, literally and metaphorically, when terms like ‘redneck’ and ‘white trash’ are hurled like curse words.” Attending to shame is not just about promising that things will get better, but, as Clare argued, it is about making our resistance to moments that unhouse the body more vivid than the experience of shame itself. Quoting the late Heather MacAllister, founder and director of Big Burlesque and Fat-Bottom Review, Clare embraces the fat liberation credo to love the body you have, for “‘true healing has to include a physical element. Have sex naked, with the lights on.'”
In order to find these places of resistance, to not only love our bodies, but to find a way to make a home of our bodies, our families, and our communities, Clare implored rigid, exclusive forms of identity politics to get out of the way, pressing us to reach beyond the communities with which we already identify, to make the next dance accessible so that disabled individuals can attend, to unravel the knot of stereotypes and see where new desires may extend. Although, Clare admits, there may not be a complete passage from shame to pride, he argues for the work of making our bodies home as a productive ongoing process. While shame might still “[whisper] while we’re having sex, [and pull] at our clothes” at times, “body love can wake us up in the morning and put us to bed at night.”
Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.
Portrait of Eli Clare by Riva Lehrer from the series Circle Stories