April 29, 2016

The Very, Very Worst

This is Schuyler.

Schuyler is sixteen years old. She plays percussion in her high school band. Schuyler participates in Miracle League soccer and volunteers with Miracle League kids who play baseball, helping out with their practices and their games while wearing a Wonder Woman cap. She takes an art class and writes stories about dragons and monster armies and evil queens. She's a huge Star Wars fan and loves Rey the most, although she's got a soft spot in her heart for Sabine and Ahsoka, too. She vacillates between carefree atheism and curious agnosticism. Schuyler's ambition in life is to help others, particularly people with disabilities, those who have "little monsters like my own", as she puts it. The little monster of her own that she's referring to is the brain malformation called Polymicrogyria, which is the root of most of her struggles and will be for her entire life.

And at this stage of her life, the thing Schuyler wants more than anything in the world is close relationships. With friends, yes, but also more. Schuyler wants to date. She wants to find someone to share her life with, at least the life she's in right now. She can't tell you what that looks like, not even for sure if it's a boy or a girl she's searching for. She only knows that she wants to explore love, and one day soon, as much as it makes me twitchy to say it, she'll want to explore physical relationships as well. Finding that in her life, breaking her loneliness and leaving her too-long lingering childhood behind, these are of paramount importance to her, in ways that can be heartbreaking to watch.

So here's my question to you, reader. Do you think that idea is gross? Do you find it ridiculous to even imagine? Do you find the idea of Schuyler and young people like her with intellectual disabilities having physical and romantic relationships to be something that just cries out to be a punchline, not just of a joke but of a whole comedy routine?

Comedian Gary Owen does.

Apparently BET and Showtime do, too, since they've invested in giving his act, including his disability-related material, a home in their television lineup.

I'm not going to embed his routine in this post; the thought of his face anywhere near my daughter's makes me want to set things on fire. But I will link to the excerpt on YouTube. I encourage you to go watch it, because I want you to understand how much is at stake here, and exactly how bad it can be for people with intellectual disabilities in our popular culture. But if you choose not to go watch it, I'll understand that, too. I watched it halfway through once and then finally got the stomach to see the whole thing earlier today. That's enough for me; I'll never watch it again. It really is the very, very worst.

If you're not inclined to see it for yourself, I'll give you the salient points.

1) Gary Owen tells a story about his cousin, who is, as he says, "retarded". If you miss him sharing this with you, don't worry. He repeats this information, and that word, many times throughout his comedy bit.

2) The story involves what he believes is the unbelievable revelation that his cousin is sexually active. Even more shocking to Mr. Owen is the fact that her partner also has an intellectual disability. This conceit forms the core of his comedy routine. Two people with intellectual disabilities have a sexual relationship. Isn't that disgusting? Isn't it hilarious?

3) To illustrate this point, he impersonates what he imagines his cousin and her partner's behavior might have been like. Not just the courting, but the actual act of sex.

4) If you're imagining this to be the most awful thing you're likely to see someone perform in mainstream pop culture, I'm going to warn you. It's probably even worse than you're imagining.

5) All of this is okay, Mr. Owen assures us, because it's his cousin. That familial relationship gives him license to make her the butt of his comedy routine, to insist that her sex life must be an awkward joke, and to impersonate both her and her partner in the act. Also, and this is very important, he claims to have volunteered for Special Olympics for ten years on her behalf. (He notes his sacrifice in this regard, since, you know, Special Olympians run funny. He had to endure that, you see.) So, you know, he's one of us. He has license.

When he began to get some negative reaction to his material, shockingly so since he sees himself as such a beloved member of the disability family, he responded by posting a link to an interview with comedian Louis CK, in which Louis says, "Saying that something is too terrible to joke about, that's like saying a disease is too terrible to try to cure. That's what you do with awful things, you joke about them. That's how you get through it."

What Gary Owen doesn't appear to understand is this: It's not his thing to get through. He doesn't have an intellectual disability. No one is suggesting that his life and his own sexuality is a disgusting idea worthy of about five minutes of cruel, grotesque jokes and impersonations. Joking about it doesn't help him deal with the pain because there is no pain for him. Only a target. The fact that he may or may not have worked with Special Olympics doesn't make it any better. It makes it exponentially worse. When he suggests, through the Louis CK quote, that intellectual disability is an "awful thing", he should know that in this case, the "awful thing" about their disability is in fact Gary Owen.

I don't know Gary Owen's comedy; like many who are becoming familiar with his body of work because of this particular comedy bit, I knew nothing about him until now. (Nothing like a first impression.) I can't say whether he's funny or smart, except on the evidence of this one routine, which would strongly suggest that he is neither.

But Gary Owen has figured something out that is fairly insightful, and he's using it to earn some cheap but loud laughs. Gary Owen knows that our society doesn't see people with intellectual disabilities as whole human beings, and subsequently many people find the idea of these people having sexual lives to be uncomfortable. Schuyler and her friends can be cute, and they can be inspiring, even. As long as they remain forever children, forever without adult agency, they are allowed a place in our society.

Beyond that, however, people with intellectual disabilities run into trouble. Having awareness of their own adult emotions and bodies, and enjoying the agency to engage in relationships and live sexually active lives, these are the things that human beings do. It's not something that children engage in, and to so many in our society, people with intellectual disabilities are forever children.

In his heart of hearts, I think Gary Owen understands that the targets of his grotesque humor deserve better. He makes excuses and tries to cover his own culpability with his past volunteerism. He knows that what he's doing is terribly, horribly wrong. But the tragedy and the danger of the matter is simply this: Gary Owen may know better, but judging from the howls of laughter in that video clip, his audience doesn't.

In the past, I've written about the use of the word "retarded" in pop culture, but this time, I wish that's all that was going in. If Gary Owen stood up and simply said, "Retards, what are you gonna do, am I right?", I don't think I would do much more than link on Facebook and say, "Hey, look at this asshole." Watching Owen's wretched comedy routine makes me ill, and it makes me angry. It hits so much deeper than other comedians have in the past because he's not just being cruel. He's not just making fun of young adults like Schuyler, calling them less.

Gary Owen is attacking the very idea that someone with an intellectual disability deserves to be a human being at all.

I'm not sure what I should do, and I'm certainly not sure what I think you should do, either. There's a change.org petition to get Showtime to remove this particular segment from his comedy special, which is a start, I guess. I don't think they'll do it; I'm not even sure they can, legally. Remarks he's making on his Facebook page suggest that Gary Owen has zero intention of trying to make any of this better, and his fans seem to be fiercely loyal. I'm not sure there's much to be done in winning hearts and minds.

But I do know this. I need to do something. I need to know that lots of people feel that same impulse. I need to make some noise. I need to shake some trees and kick some walls. I need to howl at the sky and grab people by the shoulders and tell them about this. I need to expend energy in trying to fix this unfixable problem, because my daughter deserves a full, rich, human life experience. She does, her friends do, and the adults they will all become deserve to have their humanity recognized.

Words matter. Media acceptance of what is, in this case, undeniably hate speech, this matters. It matters that executives at BET and Showtime watched that comedy bit and said, "Yeah, that's great stuff. Let's put our brand on that and sell it to our subscribers." It matters a very great deal that many, many people are okay with that choice.

Schuyler and people like her live complicated and difficult lives. People like Gary Owen make those lives much more complicated and much more difficult. If I could say one thing to Mr. Owen and to the people in that audience laughing so hard and to his online fans defending him, it would be this:

Please stop. Please, just fucking stop.

EDITED TO ADD: When I tried to explain the comedy routine to Schuyler (without actually showing it to her, because I'm not a monster), she was obviously pretty pissed off. She asked if she could make a video in response. I said yes. Well, of course I did.

April 25, 2016

Community Standards

This morning at Support for Special Needs:
Some of the different hats I wear in my life don't always compliment each other very well. Even though I hate the R Word with the zealotry of a late convert, I'm also a writer, and I don't take the cudgel against language without real hesitation. But as a writer, I have to accept that words have actual power, and when we use them, we have responsibility for the outcome. The concept of hate speech results from the acknowledgement that powerful things sometimes need to be checked. I'd prefer that in this particular case, the checks would be self-applied, and that simply basic humanity would lead you to look at a language containing approximately 1,025,110 words and pick one that didn't cause so much pain to a particularly vulnerable population. I'm not for banned language, as a rule. But I recognize that hate speech occupies a very particular place in our culture, and our response to it is especially important.

April 18, 2016

Mission Control

Today at Support for Special Needs:
There's something special needs parents might not tell you, although if you love us, you probably already know. We're exhausted, physically and emotionally, by the hard days, by the times when things fall apart and when our kids reach for the stars and fall to earth with a crash. But the good days, the ones where the successes outnumber the failures and there are more smiles than tears? Those days are exhausting as well. Even the successful days take a toll on us and require us to dig deeper wells than we might always be able to sustain.

April 12, 2016

A world diminished by what it cannot see

Today at Support for Special Needs:
The value of human life isn't defined by the perfection of the human form or how advanced the intellect and its accompanying understanding of a complex world. That's a powerful realization. In a society that places such a high but narrow value on measuring our worth by our productivity, embracing the inherent human value of even the most impaired person is a revelatory act of social defiance, and perhaps a genuine spiritual awakening.

April 4, 2016

The Inevitable Sorrow of Passing

Today at Support for Special Needs:
On a good day, especially when she doesn't have to speak too much, Schuyler passes pretty successfully. There are a few outward signs of her polymicrogyria, but she masks them pretty skillfully. She carries an iPad with her at all times, of course, but these days, that doesn't exactly distinguish her from any other teenager. (Insert curmudgeonly, "get the hell off my lawn" statement here.) Like a lot of kids with intellectual disabilities, she worries about people noticing her difference and judging her for them. For Schuyler, passing is a very deliberate choice. I try to encourage her to embrace her uniqueness, but while I hope passing won't always be her position, for now, as long as it's what she wants, I'll help her any way I can, even as I know where all this leads. This is going to be a tough lesson for her to learn, but it's going to be one she learns herself. It has to be.