When Daisy Wislar was in Assistant Professor of Sociology Theo Greene’s Sociology of Sexuality class two years ago, the current Bowdoin senior noted a glaring gap in the literature about queer people who were also disabled. Existing research was limited and often highly theoretical, placing a low premium on lived experiences and real voices, Wislar said.
So Wislar decided to fill the void. All this year, the sociology and gender and women’s studies major has been working on an honors project, in the form of oral histories, that centralizes the voices of those who sit at the intersection of queerness and disability. The work sheds light on the ways in which they navigate identity, representation, and sex/sexuality.
Wislar’s academic work with disability goes hand in hand with an activism career. Wislar is last year’s recipient of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cup, bestowed on the first year, sophomore, or junior whose vision, humanity, and courage contribute the most to making Bowdoin a better college. Wislar’s work with both the DisAbled Student Association and the administrative group, Accessibility Task Force, has helped make the campus more aware of and accessible to people of all abilities.
Although Wislar has long promoted the visibility of disabled people (for instance, she organized a photography show about Bowdoin students with disabilities in 2016), it was not until Wislar began studying with Greene that the possibility of pursuing scholarship about personal experiences with disability and sexuality opened up. “It just clicked, both in terms of the content and in terms of working with [Greene],” said Wislar, who has cerebral palsy.
An honor’s project provided Wislar with a meaningful way to both continue this “journey of understanding my own experience through academia,” and as a way to bring the lived experiences of queer, disabled individuals to “ground the theoretical in what people are experiencing in the day-to-day.”
Wislar’s honors project is “groundbreaking,” Greene said, for bringing to light the lives of people often overlooked or misunderstood by both academics and the mainstream population. He predicted that Wislar will, well after graduating from Bowdoin, continue to shape the way our society thinks about disabled people and sexuality. “Daisy will be a vital voice in shaping the agenda not only on studying the lives of queer people living with disabilities, but also on how we advocate for the betterment of LGBTQ people in general.”
To collect stories and data, Wislar interviewed ten participants who both identified as queer and had physical disabilities. The subjects hailed from all over the country and, although some were found through friends or connections at Bowdoin, the majority were found online. “There’s a really rich online community of queer and disabled people,” said Wislar, “Twitter and Instagram are platforms for a lot of conversation and community building.”
When approaching these interviews, Wislar allowed the participant to guide the conversation. “I ask broad questions about childhood, sex, identity, gender and gender presentation,” Wislar said. “And while there are common themes that come up, I wanted the participant to be able to talk about what they wanted.” Wislar finished a series of FaceTime and in-person interviews with over 15 hours of “really complex, sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful discussions about people’s experiences.”
After transcribing and analyzing the interviews, Wislar began to tease out a thesis that could link the stories together. Each of the three chapters of Wislar’s project focuses on a theme: navigating community, navigating identity, and navigating sex. However, the ultimate goal is not to create an overarching narrative, but rather to “let these stories speak for themselves… and highlight the rich diversity and nuance in people’s identities.”
For Wislar, the honors project “reaffirmed the power of working with people of the same communities as me, and trusting us as masters of our own experiences.” For many queer and disabled individuals, having agency is a goal rather than a reality. “Our own agency is taken away by different institutions of power,” Wislar said. And, the pain and joy captured within Wislar interviews is a powerful reminder of the strength of a community, and the agency one can find by sharing a story.
“It’s about community,” Wislar said. “If I had been able to read something like this a few years ago, I would have been in a very different place in terms of self-acceptance and understanding my own queer and disabled identities. I would have realized there were other people out there like me.”