I was born with cerebral palsy, a lifelong but not progressive disability that has very visible markers in how I’m able to move and use my body. There has been no shortage in the number of people who have offered to “pray for me,” since long before I had any conception of why someone might possibly think there’s something in my “marked” crip body in need of prayer. As I’ve grown into my identity as an agender survivor of polyvictimization, I’ve also grown into new relationships with disablement while coming to terms with a diagnosis that is progressive and possibly fatal, and with people reactively wanting to pray for the redemption of a queercrip body that isn’t in need of redeeming. Old trauma-based solutions to the insult no longer feel good or sustainable to me: I’m at a different place in my healing than the quick-fisted, dirty fighting, short fuse I used to be. I need different ideas and tools to carry with me for a problem that will persist as long as there are prayerful people who believe disabled and trans bodies are in need of cure and redemption.
For much of my adult life, my response to prayer that feels toxic is to fawn. Many survivors of violence will recognize this response in their own bodies and relational patterns: We are in a situation that feels threatening to our survival or the survival of something meaningful to us, and we do whatever we can to appease the threatening stimulus so that harm isn’t done. Like many survivors who grew up around unpredictable and violent parents, I became a professional at reading the room and giving everyone exactly what they wanted before it had to be taken out on/away from me. In the present adult situation, it looks like smiling demurely and accepting hands-on prayers from people (some of whom have authority, others who don’t) who make me feel unsafe and unworthy in my bodymind’s core because I don’t feel prepared to fight or get away. Like many disabled survivors, my ability to feel safe getting away may be structural, physical, relational, or emotional and is likely some combination of each. While the scope of building safety in each domain is beyond the scope of this blog, it’s important to name that just because there may have been times where a disabled survivor has seemed physically and structurally able to get out of a situation that was toxic or violent doesn’t mean they are: It is natural to need some level of all of our domains to be met for an escape or evasion to be attempted; in any other case, the body and brain are smart enough to assess that escape (which feels like life or death to a sounding internal alarm system) is unlikely to be successful and will fawn or freeze (or both) instead. This deserves our deepest compassion and gratitude, not shame and blame.
So, here I am fawning for years in front of people who aggressively want to pray for my beautiful queer disabled body, always while misgendering me in the process: I say “thank you” when I want nothing more than to scream and spit. I make myself small so I don’t get hurt more than being sick and dealing with flashbacks already hurts. Slowly, it occurs to me there are other options, that I don’t have to exist between the polarities of fighting and fawning and lose myself in the process. Fast forward to today.
I’m still nursing the wound of another person who assumed they could put hands on me and pray for something I don’t want yesterday. My prognosis is taking another downturn, I’ve got too many surgeries to juggle with “real life” next month, and my biggest far flung wish is to take a real shower instead of another sponge bath- In other words, I’m easy breeding ground for shame over having swallowed my “No” and acquiesced with saccharin appreciation to the person I was just trying to get help getting a ride home from the clinic from. We all have these wounds we have to nurse as trans disabled survivors, no matter our situations. Thankfully, I had a call with my Rabbi, who knows how sick I am and probably wasn’t surprised I’m looking for alternatives to fawning to or fighting people who want to pray aggressively against my queercrip embodiment. I considered not asking because of how easily shame convinces me that I “should” be able to handle this, but I’m grateful I did and that I was reminded that it feels threatening not because I’m too sensitive but because I’m being approached by people (some of whom have authority over my care, whether I get home safely, etc) who are fundamentally opposed to the idea that my identities as a disabled genderqueer person can be and already are innately good and inherently whole. No wonder my body, perhaps like yours, responds like I’m under threat!
My Rabbi offered the radical idea that what is important is not the response I give them, but whether that response is the kindest choice I can offer my own painful, feisty body in that moment. Instead of advising me to “just say no” to attention I don’t want (how loudly that’s drilled into our heads, to the point of shaming people who fawn or whose voices freeze in our throats!), he suggested that any response that most honors and preserves my dignity in that embodied situation is right for that moment. To my surprise, there weren’t any moves to talk me away from fawning; instead, the conversation hummed with great compassion for how acquiescence can be an incredibly brave and valuable skill to preserve dignity in disabled trans survivors’ kits. When we just want to get home from a long day at the clinic safely, it can be absolutely self-loving and honorable to accept prayers that feel dehumanizing so we can get on the road towards rest and people or pets who value us as we are. Other times, it might be most loving and dignified to “fight” by asserting our “no,” “flee” with healthy distraction or by physically leaving the situation, or “freeze”- or any combination. What matters is valuing our own dignity as disabled trans and nonbinary survivors, because we aren’t something to be prayed away even when the experiences we carry may feel too painful or visible.
Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist
Tristen Taggart is an agender antiviolence activist pursuing their Bachelor’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tristen joined FORGE as a Policy and Programming Intern in 2018 and now works as the Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist. Tristen is a queer survivor, community activist, scholar, and direct-support volunteer with an evolving focus on the intersections and divergences of queer survivorship, disability justice, and abolition in the lives of young people. They are thrilled to bring their passion and curiosity to FORGE from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.