Not Smoking

Whenever I take the train, I bring a painting respirator with me. It’s the only place I wait around outside under “no smoking” signs, so I know I’m almost guaranteed to have people blowing cigarette smoke in my face. Tobacco smoke makes me sick, and dust masks don’t keep it out. When I wear a breathing mask, some people blow smoke in my face intentionally. When that happens, a dust mask will actually trap the cigarette smoke in and make things much worse. I love how my painting respirator protects me from tobacco smoke, even if people are blowing it right in my face.

A few weeks ago, I got off a train where a group of people was hanging out on the platform next to an overturned shopping cart that was really in the way. One guy in the group was intentionally obstructing the flow of people getting off the train while blowing smoke into as many people’s faces as he could while we squeezed past him. I walked by with my painting respirator on, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Fuck you, white bitch.” He was obviously looking for a conflict, and kind of a turd. I wasn’t surprised, but I have some major problems with what he said.

I am comfortable with people resenting me for being white, but there was a lot more than that going on. He singled me out from the other white people because my body’s needs are different from the average human body’s needs. That’s ableist. Also, he used a misogynist insult, which triggers my gender dysphoria. But what upsets me the most is the context in which he called me a bitch. I prevented him from putting something into my body that I didn’t want there, and he responded by calling me a bitch. He was obviously an asshole, so it makes sense that his words had rape culture in them. But plenty of less objectionable people have said the same thing in similar circumstances, which is a bad pattern.

I think a lot about how white I am when I wear a painting respirator to take the train. Lots of people stare, but the worst thing I seriously worry about is having an angry smoker burn me on purpose. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t very scary. Cigarette cherries burn at a low enough temperature that it takes at least a couple seconds of sustained contact to cause any significant injury.

If I were a POC, though, I would be seriously worried about getting murdered by police for having a health problem and taking public transportation. People might think I was a terrorist, so I probably wouldn’t wear the painting respirator at all and would simply tolerate my illness and be discreet when I have to puke. POCs who have health problems like mine don’t have the same freedom to protect their bodies as I do.

Wearing a painting respirator to ride the train is a really white thing to do. Not because I’ve seen other white people do it, but because if I wasn’t white, I’d get harassed by white people for doing it. And that would almost certainly lead to police involvement which is inherently dangerous. I wish more smokers would consider who they might be hurting that can’t safely do anything about it.

Waste Not

I am frequently given the message that I waste resources by being disabled. Healthcare is treated as a luxury in this country (USA). Welfare recipients are vilified by politicians and the media. When social security gets cut, some older folks rant about how all the money they paid in got wasted. My social security disability benefits have kept me alive, so I feel bummed when I hear people complaining about what a waste that has been.

In my efforts to earn a bachelor’s degree, the majority of my professors have refused to accommodate me in the ways disability services staff have recommended. One professor even forbade me from advocating for myself in class when other students’ behavior was interfering with my ability to learn and participate. (Interestingly enough, that was the professor that taught me the basics about social justice.)

I definitely internalize and perpetuate these attitudes toward myself. I consistently treat others’ needs as more important than mine. When I do jobs for money, I pay myself less than minimum wage because I know I don’t work as quickly as other people do. I have a hard time feeling like I have any value when I’m not doing lots of volunteer work.

I love the Earth and I am passionate about reducing litter and waste. I’ve been picking up litter in various places for about seven years. I buy bulk and bring my own containers and bags. I bring my own dishes to events with disposable dishes. I always try to have a water bottle with me.

In the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that my passion for waste reduction has become entangled with my internalized ableism. When I don’t feel worthy of having my basic needs met, I frame it as a waste issue. If I am hungry but I can’t prepare food from scratch today, is it OK to produce plastic waste by eating prepackaged food? If I forgot my water bottle at home, is it OK to buy a bottle of water to stay hydrated during a meeting? If I forgot my coffee cup at home because I was so drowsy from my meds, is it OK to get coffee in a disposable cup to help me wake up?

People who love me would probably answer any of these questions with, “Yes! And remember, you still produce way less trash than most people.” I’ve been working on being more gentle with myself about these things.

A month or two ago, I saw an article about how banning plastic straws disadvantages disabled people. It turns out that compostable straws disintegrate in hot liquids. Before reading the article, I hadn’t considered this issue because most of us don’t use straws with hot drinks. But people who need to use a straw to drink want to enjoy a hot beverage sometimes, and common alternatives to polystyrene don’t work well for this. Compostable straws melt, and stainless steel or glass straws conduct heat, thus increasing the risk of burns.

When I ask myself if I should be allowed to get a coffee even if I forgot my cup at home, I really want to be able to say yes. But when I think about this, I can’t help but also consider the people who need a straw to drink their coffee. If they forget their titanium or silicone straw at home, should they still be allowed to drink coffee at a restaurant? I’m worried that plastic straw bans are legislatively answering, “No!”

I am very concerned about plastic waste, and straw overuse is a significant part of the problem. However, I am not comfortable with a proposed solution that has the greatest negative impact on a marginalized group of people.

Queer Disabled Activism

I am genderqueer and disabled. I don’t consider these to be my main traits or even my most interesting ones. But when I interact with groups of people, they often feel like my only traits. I’m so busy trying to make space for my gender and my disability that I have a hard time finding room for my values, interests, and ideas.

My conspicuous gender nonconformity is one of the first things most people notice about me. Many people stare, point and laugh, throw things at me, or ask me misguided and intrusive questions. Sometimes random strangers come up to me and tell me they are totally fine with me being the way I am. Sometimes people make a big show of calling me a woman to demonstrate that they are OK with my beard.

There are some groups of people that are totally unfazed by my nonbinary gender. This is always nice, but it only helps so much. Transportation is a huge challenge for me. I’ve been treated badly because of my gender presentation while walking, biking, driving, taking the bus, and taking the train.

Bathrooms are also frustrating for me. When there are gendered bathrooms, I don’t look like I belong in either one. And I still feel awkward in lots of places that have a gender inclusive bathroom. Some gender inclusive bathrooms are labeled “family bathroom.” I’ve gotten dirty looks from people with children when I’ve used those. I used to frequent a building that had gender inclusive toilets at the end of a dark hallway in the basement. A few years ago, I attended a climate change preparedness training in a building that had gender inclusive bathrooms, but going the training didn’t give me access to the part of the building where these bathrooms were.

When I manage to safely get to an event that is attended by people who are respectful about my gender and that is held in a place with a toilet I can access safely, my next concern is disability access. I am invisibly disabled so I have to be very vocal if I want to be accommodated. I am hard of hearing and neurodivergent, and I have an assortment of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder problems.

My hearing impairment is typically the hardest thing to get accommodated. I get nervous when I have to give my phone number to register for an event because I hate trying to talk on the phone. In most environments, I have a difficult time following what people are saying. Background noise is very hard for me to tune out. I rely heavily on visual cues, so I do best when I can clearly see whoever is talking. I can’t usually follow anything when multiple conversations are happening near me, so breaking into small groups to discuss things doesn’t work well for me. I am not fluent in ASL, so an interpreter would not fix things.

I have a really hard time asking for disability accommodations, because it makes me feel disruptive which makes me feel panicky. I have an easier time advocating for others’ access than my own. I usually miss a lot of what is said and keep my frustrations about it to myself, but I want to get better at asking for what I need. Whether or not I work to be accommodated, my disability plays a big role in my attempts to get involved in my local community.

Much of my activism is driven by my desire to reduce my community’s negative environmental impact. But I’m learning, after addressing my queerness and disability, I don’t have much energy left to express my values. Any activism I do is queer disabled activism before it’s anything else.