I’m not a fighter and that’s okay.
I repeated that assurance to myself the other night, wrapped up in blankets and trying to get to sleep. I needed to slow down my whirring mind and dislodge the embarrassment stuck right in the pit of my stomach. It felt unsettling and foreign, like I had eaten something bad. Which is fitting, because it started earlier that night at dinner. The long and short of it is I got into an argument I didn’t mean to start. That’s the thing — I never start arguments. And lying there, hours later, trying to forgive myself for something I didn’t even do wrong (the other person apologized! To me!), I realized that I’ve forgotten how to get mad.
My parents sent me to anger management therapy as a kid. I only remember one detail: the pillow with a happy face on one side for me to hug and an angry face on the other for me to hit. It feels impossible now, but I can believe that I once contained that kind of boiling frustration — all part of living in a body you don’t yet understand. The adults probably weren’t far off in blaming cerebral palsy for my outrage. I had things to do and legs that didn’t particularly care about doing them. But since then, I’ve fallen into another treacherous habit: letting ableism talk me out of anger altogether.
Don’t get me wrong — everyone expects disabled people to be pissed off all the time, but only about one thing: being disabled. We’re supposed to mourn the body we “lost” or never knew at all, envy able-bodied ways of life, and quietly hate ourselves forever. Direct anger inward if we want to do it right. Turn it around, though, and suddenly there are a lot fewer people lining up to have that conversation. Point out how heavily we’ve stacked the deck against disabled folks — in healthcare, housing, jobs, relationships, and yes, social justice — and you’ll get lots of incredulous looks with very little engagement. We have bigger problems and pity is easier.
Just last week, two able-bodied people from different corners of my life thanked me for helping them get smarter about disability — which legitimately feels like a win. I’ve been called a “bridge” before for the same reason. But I often wonder if the structural integrity of that bridge depends on the fact that I never really get mad. I’ve sanded down my sharp edges in favor of, appropriately enough, accessibility. Making sure I bring people along when I talk, not calling them out too early, and getting them on my team before pushing them to work and think a bit harder. I’m not sure where that kid with the anger problem went, but she’s not here now. These days I insist that it’s next to impossible to offend me (as if offended is the worst thing I could be). I think that’s a holdover from my early days of coming out in high school and the Prop 8 era two years later. The survival skill of appealing to the other side. Build trust and rapport, don’t criticize outright, answer every question, and meet them (over) halfway.
I won’t lie: able-bodied acceptance feels pretty warm and cozy. It’s a valuable currency, but its price often turns out to be fear of your own body and your community. No one will stop you from putting space between yourself and other disabled people. I’m still unlearning a lifetime of those nasty ableist reflexes — being the “good kind” and disavowing the “bitter cripples” nobody likes. But especially now, with Donald Fucking Trump nearly coronated, I need to start experimenting with anger again. Let’s not forget that my freedom to do that comes in no small part from whiteness. At worst, people will trivialize my anger instead of demonizing it. I can handle that.
So here’s what I’m angry about.
I am so fucking mad that the most qualified presidential candidate in U.S. history — and the only one to give a half-hour takedown of structural ableism, by the way — will never get to show us what she could have done. It makes me sick to know that eleven days from now, Donald Trump will be able to turn his flame wars into real ones if he feels like it. I can barely think about the fact that people in my own family put their relatives in danger and called it a “difference of opinion.” I want to scream whenever anyone says “but you’ll be fine.” Sorry, but I don’t want to meet over halfway anymore.
Even writing that down, I can feel myself retreating — self-editing even more than usual, questioning how much to say, maybe changing the topic of this piece altogether. Internalized ableism is welcoming itself home, reminding me to play the middle ground and keep smiling. I have to bear in mind that appealing to people, both in the sense of being palatable and of seeking approval, doesn’t have to be my default maneuver.
This year I’m going to let myself be publicly angry. I’m a Nice Person — I have one of those irrepressibly pleasant faces that makes people want to sit next to me on public transportation — but I can be nice and angry, I can be smart and angry, and I can be worth listening to and angry. Anger can be fuel without becoming poison. It will probably feel clumsy and ugly at first, like picking up a childhood hobby you used to love but haven’t attempted since. It may not look like I think anger is supposed to. But eventually I want enough confidence in my own knowledge to not retreat when someone questions it. I’ll take more risks and get a little tougher and see how that goes. I’ll exchange being perfect for speaking out. And I’ll stay open to being wrong — which pains the perfectionist in me to say, but here we are.
I may not be a fighter, but I can become a debater, and our movement needs those too.