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Author Kenny Fries on being queer, disabled, and Jewish

How the three identities formed his rather irreverent take on life

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Kenny Fries is the author of several books, including ‘The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.’

(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled:  Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf/Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise — Marvin in the “Queer as Folk” reboot — and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the numerous queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its monthly, year-long series, “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these long un-heard stories.)

In 1991, when he was living in Provincetown, he agreed to be a model for a guide to “gay sex,” gay, disabled and Jewish author and poet Kenny Fries writes in his memoir “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.”

Fries, 62, who’s just been awarded a Disability Futures Fellowship by the Ford Foundation, has been disabled since birth.

His medical records say that he has “congenital deformities of the lower extremities,” Fries said in an email interview with the Blade, “Basically, I was missing bones in my legs when born.”

Sometime later, Fries learned that the medical term for his disability is “fibular hemimelia.” “There is no known cause,” he added, “and it is nothing a pregnant mother does or doesn’t do that causes this.”

Back in 1991 in Provincetown, the local artist who was working on the gay sex guide wanted to make sure that it would correctly portray a disabled man having sex.

Fries was pleased when the artist showed him the pictures he’d taken of him and his partner in the modeling session. “I recognize the images of myself in both the photos and the drawing as very beautiful,” Fries writes.

But a week later, Fries’s feelings of pride were dissed. The guide’s art director didn’t like how the drawing turned out, Fries recalled the artist telling him. “‘He said that in the drawing the disability didn’t read. He wants me to cut off one of your legs,’” Fries writes.

Coming out wasn’t that difficult for Fries. Though, “I’m sure at times it felt difficult,” he said. “I think it was the combination of being both gay and disabled that posed the most challenges.”

If you’re disabled, you’re likely to run into ableism in the form of inaccessibility, pity, employment discrimination, discomfort, and fear. Perhaps, most hurtful, especially if you’re queer and disabled, is what Fries calls the myth of “the ideal body.” (This reporter is queer and disabled.)

Anyone with a body that is perceived as different is up against this myth, Fries said. “Everyone is affected by this myth, even straight white men. They just don’t know it as much as we do.”

Though he’s been disabled since he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his disability is quite noticeable, Fries didn’t “come out” as disabled until he was in college.

Fries saw a psychologist after he began having panic attacks. “He did something not quite kosher,” Fries said, “making a deal with me that he’d come see the musical I was directing if I went to talk with Irv Zola, a disabled professor who taught at Brandeis, where I was an undergraduate.”

In those days, Zola was one of the very few disabled faculty at any college. “It was sheer luck that he was at mine,” Fries said.

At Zola’s suggestion, Fries got in touch with the Boston Self-Help Center, and, for a time, joined their peer support group. After grad school, Fries moved to San Francisco. There, he met Marilyn Golden, a disability rights movement leader. Meeting Golden, his first mentor, launched Fries’s disability rights journey.

Another important step for Fries in his “coming out” as disabled was when he took part in the Contemporary Chautauqua on Performance and Disability that was organized by Vicki Lewis at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1994. There, Fries met creative nonfiction and fiction writer Anne Finger, playwright Susan R. Nussbaum and other disabled writers. These writers became his “comrades in arms,” he said.

Golden and Nussbaum died earlier this year. It was “a great personal and community loss,” Fries said.

The apartment building where he grew up was like a “vertical high rise shtetl,” Fries said, when asked how being Jewish fit into his queer and disabled identity.

“An ex called me ‘the Nazi Trifecta,’” Fries said, “as Jews, the disabled and queers were persecuted and killed during the Nazi regime.”

Being queer, disabled, and Jewish – being triply “othered” has emphasized his “questioning,” Fries said, “especially of societal structures and institutions.”

Somehow, he believes, these three identities combined to form his rather irreverent take on things.

The writing bug bit Fries early on. “As a child, I was always thinking of plays,” Fries said, “and wrote some silly ones.”

Fries is one of our time’s most distinguished and important queer and disabled writers. He is the author of “Province of the Gods,” “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory” and “Body, Remember: A Memoir.” His books of poetry include “In the Gardens of Japan,” “Desert Walking” and “Anesthesia.”

If you’re visibly disabled, you’re stared at often by nondisabled people. 

Fries has helped disabled people, queer and non-queer, to reclaim the stare. He edited the groundbreaking anthology “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out,” in which writers, including queer icon Adrienne Rich, reflect on their lived experience of being disabled.

“I didn’t realize Rich was disabled (she had rheumatoid arthritis) until I saw her using a cane at a reading in the Bay Area,” Fries said.

Fries lives with his husband, who is Canadian, in Berlin. They met when Fries was in Japan in 2005 and married in 2007.

“Living in cultures other than my own, as well as travel, has always been a foundation of my work,” Fries said.

Occasionally, Fries has encountered “direct” ableism in the queer community. Such as the time decades ago when he wasn’t allowed into a gay bar in Florence, Italy. Or the “very rare” sexual rejection by a nondisabled person. “This harkens back to the ideal body myth,” Fries said.

More insidious to Fries is the ableism of inaccessible queer spaces and events and the lack of inclusion of disabled people on queer-related panels at readings and events.

Then, there are the apps, Fries said. “How many disabled guys does one encounter on Grindr?” he said. “Even the profile questions asked show the default is not to think of physical difference.”

Fries came to Berlin to do research for the book he’s working on “Stumbling Over History: Disability and the Holocaust” and his video series “What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?”

“The disabled were the first group to be mass murdered in gas chambers in Aktion T4, the Nazi program that killed 70,000 disabled persons,” Fries said.

“After T4 officially ended, 230,000 more disabled people were killed by gas,” Fries added, “as well as by other means, such as starvation, medication overdose and neglect.”

This is still a relatively unknown history to most people, even in Germany, Fries said.

Fries’s supply of energy is boundless. He has curated “Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer,” the first international exhibit on queer/disability history, activism, and culture. It opened at the Schwules Museum Berlin on Sept. 1 and runs through the end of January 2023.

The exhibit includes the work of more than 20 contemporary queer/disabled artists.

A major theme of the exhibit is “‘the ideal body’,” Fries said, “how this fantasy has pervaded both queer and disability history and lives, and how queer/disabled artists have counteracted this.”

Many people know Audre Lorde as a queer, Black icon. But most don’t think of her as having a disability. Yet, Lorde, who had cancer, was disabled. She is included in the exhibit.

“Lorde was a very important figure for the Afro-German women’s movement,” Fries said. 

Lorde wrote about having cancer in “The Cancer Journals.” She had an ahead-of-her- times view of disability, Fries said. “In an interview featured in the exhibit, she talks about a feminist book fair in London in 1984, which was held in an inaccessible space.”

It is important for all of us that such events be made available to disabled women, Lorde said in the interview, “and we should make sure they are announced in black women’s magazines.”

Lorde understood intersectionality before it became popular, Fries said.

For more information go to: kennyfries.com

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PHOTOS: New Year Still Queer

The Washington Blade holds appreciation happy hour at Pitchers

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The Washington Blade held the 'New Year Still Queer' party at Pitchers DC on Friday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade held a New Year Still Queer appreciation happy hour at Pitchers DC on Friday, January 27.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

A balanced look at whether to have children

New book, ‘So When are You Having Kids?’ makes no judgments

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(Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan)

So When are You Having Kids?
By Jordan Davidson
c.2022, Sounds True, Macmillan
$28.99/356 pages

Your mother lingers way too long in the children’s department.

She sighs over tiny suits and little sneakers, running her fingers along soft blankets, hugging plush animals. You know what she wants but you’re not ready; she might be sure but you’re not. Maybe baby for you or, with the new book “So When are You Having Kids?” by Jordan Davidson, maybe not.

It’s the thorniest of decisions, “one of the biggest you’ll ever make.” It’s personal, but even strangers want to know; the questions start in your 20s and end when you’ve acquiesced or aged, although having kids is not a given or a thing-by-committee. So how do you quiet the busybodies and make the right decision for yourself?

First, says Davidson, ask yourself if you even want children, and after you’ve looked inward, “it’s worth looking outward” at expectations, culture, and things that “shape our understanding of parenthood.” Ask around, to see why others had children but don’t be surprised if you get cliches. Throw out the idea that children fulfill you or that they’ll take care of you when you’re old. Know that genetics, religion, and your parents’ parenting styles will affect you; and that if you’re queer or Black, there’ll be other factors involved in having and raising a child.

Should you decide to the positive, you may still have reservations.

Don’t give in to the romance of having kids; it’s hard work, and expensive in both money and time. Remember that perceptions of good parenting have “shifted over time” and that having a childhood exactly like yours probably won’t be an option for your kids. If you have a partner, communicate your thoughts, hopes, and divisions of household labor and childcare.

Finally, decide how you’re going to become a parent. Will you give birth, choose IVF, adopt, foster, or kick the decision down the road?

Says Davidson, the mere ability to ask these questions and decide “is in many ways a privilege.”

Chances are that if you hear a screaming baby, you have one of two reactions: you cringe and look for an exit, or you notice and shrug. Either way, “So When are You Having Kids?” is a book for you.

There are many, many parenting books on miles of shelves, and a number of books on being childless, but author Jordan Davidson pulls the two subjects together here with thoughtfulness, candor, inclusiveness, and a refreshing lack of judgment. This is a book that doesn’t promise answers, though: it’s meant to give readers – whether they want kids, don’t, or are ambivalent – an in-one-place, balanced look at myths, truths, pros, cons, and rarely-considered points for an informed decision. It also, perhaps most importantly, offers comforting reminders that there is no right or wrong, no matter what Mom says.

“So When are You Having Kids?” is like having a big sister to bounce ideas with, or a break-out session in your living room. It’s like asking Baby Maybe questions you didn’t know you had. It’s help when you need it in that department.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Photos

PHOTOS: SMYAL for the New Year

LGBTQ youth services organization holds fundraiser at Red Bear Brewing

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Host Justin Peligri welcomes patrons to the SMYAL for the New Year fundraiser on Thursday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The SMYAL Young Donors Committee held a fundraiser for the LGBTQ youth services organization Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL) at Red Bear Brewing Company on Thursday, Jan. 26.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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