In the contemporary push toward mainstream acceptance, many gay men and lesbians insist that they have nothing in common with disabled people. Homosexuality, as a disorder, was purged from the DSM over thirty years ago – what’s to be gained by dwelling on a painful and pathologizing past?
One thing I like about John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus is its refusal to join this queer backlash against disability. “Do you know what a shortbus is?” Justin Bond asks Sofia, “You’ve heard of the big yellow school bus. Well this is the short one. It’s a salon for the gifted and challenged.” Invoking a shared legacy of medical othering, the film urges its sexual misfits to say ‘no’ to normalcy and ‘yes’ to sex, banding together with their disabled counterparts for an irreverent erotic joyride. Here the historical linkages between queerness and disability are not a source of shame but rather something to be claimed, celebrated and defiantly flaunted.
So far so good. But something troubles me, and that is the near absence of physically disabled bodies in Shortbus’s sexual utopia. As the camera traverses the spaces of the salon, the bodies that we see are, for the most part, young and fit, often displaying feats of impressive flexibility and athleticism. Despite its joyful claiming of disability vocabularies and icons, is there a way in which the film still privileges able bodies?
The few glimpses of physical disability we do get are brief and perplexing. A man identifying himself as an albino recognizes Jamie from the sitcom that Jamie had starred in as a child. But the repetition of Jamie’s catch phrase “I’m an albino!” feels more like comic relief than social commentary. Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman with a heart condition educates Ceth on the importance of “bend[ing] over to let in the new.” The arguably crip kiss they share, however, remains chaste, with Ceth saving most of his actual “bending over” for the young gay couple he goes home with later that night.
Finally, we might consider Sofia’s inability to have an orgasm and her eventual rehabilitation (via queer sex) into new state of psychological health and physical wholeness. From a disability studies perspective, Sophia’s cure narrative seems potentially problematic, as do the fleeting portraits of disability described above, leaving one to wonder who gets to ride the shortbus and who gets left behind.