An Intersectional Experience
“I recognised the similarities between sexism and ableism. We are weak and need a strong man to help us even if we think we don’t. The man will know better.”
From Pieter van Diepen
I was born and raised a white male in a stable middle class family as the second of two boys. It was society that made me into a straight cis-male, It did not fully fit but neither did the alternatives, after getting a bachelors degree in civil engineering I was at the pinnacle of privilege. At that time I was not aware of it. Now 10 years later I am. It took a stroke rendering me incapable to work and nerve pain to recognize my privilege when I am walking. I no longer identify as a cis hetero male but society still views me as such. That is not an issue for me because I identify as indifferent to all those concepts.
Non binary a-romatic asexual
Being pragmatic fits my male sex according to society. I’d like to share some experiences I got since I lost most of my privilege. Because of the pain, I have to use a wheelchair. To me, using a wheelchair is like using a bike for an able-bodied person; I can go further and carry more stuff. Sadly, society doesn’t treat me like a more active person like they do with cyclists. Instead, they treat me as if I’m a 10 year old child that needs to be taken care of. Last summer, I had the strongest example:
I was at a free music festival where I have been going since it started. I always enjoyed the atmosphere, until last year when “adults” were drinking more and getting obnoxious. So I was a bit anxious when I went last summer. Sadly my suspicions were confirmed. I went early so people would still be sober enough to have a normal conversation. I take medication so I stopped drinking alcohol after my stroke, and coping with an ableist society is hard enough when people don’t have the emphatic capability of a toddler. It was a nice day, I talked with some nice sober people and tried to avoid people that try to use me as a token to show the world how nice they are for being nice to a person with a disability. I was more focused on avoiding annoying non interesting people that find me exotic. I tried to connect to people that look interesting to me, or who I already know to be interesting or nice. I found some interesting people that I apparently already knew and saw some nice shows. I can still walk for 5 minutes and walked behind my wheelchair on the uneven grassy field and would sit down at the show. When I want to see I can stand up but I prefer to sit in a spot with good sound quality.
Around midnight I had used up most of my energy and went to sit at the empty dance floor next to the drum-n-bass artist. I had my hoody over my eyes because the lights drain my energy, which was already at a low, and even with my eyes closed the flashes were too strong. I was sitting there experiencing the sound when a woman tapped me on the shoulder, I looked up, she shouted too loud in my ear asking if everything was okay. I confirmed, she stepped away but kept glancing in my direction. I ignored her and covered my eyes again.
A bit later someone tapped on my shoulder again, this time it was a woman I had spoken to a couple of times in the last decade. She had had too much to drink, first she shouted too loud in my ear about how much fun she was having. I nodded and hoped she would move back to her friends. She instead turned to me again. I was sitting in my wheelchair with my back to some boards, she was standing in front of me and bent over close to my face, I tried to move away but I could not move the chair. I leaned back as far as possible but she kept coming closer. I panicked and screamed at her that she had to move away or I would head-but her. She startled, which gave me the opening to stand up. I can’t use my left side and in crowded uneven areas I have to hold on to my wheelchair for balance, she moved closer again and tried to come close to my face with her face. Because I am 1.95 meters tall, she could not reach, but she put an arm around my neck and pulled me down. That’s when I saw no other way out than to to tap her on the forehead with my forehead. That startled her enough to move away from me and towards some friends. I immediately moved behind my wheelchair to walk away. The guy that was standing between me and the way out asked if everything was okay. I screamed at him: keep her away from me. He moved a bit so I could leave and I walked out of the tent. When passing a security person I told him: if anybody is going to bother me I will start a fight. He nodded and looked away.
So, I moved out of the tent and sat down outside where I could still hear the music. This was going to be the last show, since the main show had already ended. People were all heading to the exit and ignored me, so I could gather my thoughts. A friend walked by but I didn’t feel like interacting with people, so I was glad that he kept going when we both nodded as a sign of recognition. That is how I wanted my interactions to be like for the last hour. I got up and moved to a different part of the terrain.. When I was almost there I heard my name. It was someone from the organization that asked me to make make a memorial stone earlier that day, this time there were 2 security people with him, he told me that they had seen me use violence and because of that they asked me to leave. I agreed that all violence is wrong and that part of the policy is to respond like this, so I walked with them to the exit. While doing so I explained what happened, they said they knew her personally and were surprised that she would behave like this. It did not sound so strange to me because she has a history of erratic behavior and substance abuse. But they ensured me that they would talk with her. It all went very civilized and they even went to exchange some of the festival coins for a mug.
On my way home I almost drove into a pole because I was not focused. And had to stop a couple of times to cry. Luckily I was in the comfort of my own tiny disability car driving on the cycling lanes that are abundant in the Netherlands. When I got home I had to cry some more because I realized this exactly was the thing that had been corroding my self-esteem for 5 years. Ever since I started using a wheelchair in public people have been taking away my agency.
When I told my experience to a friend she said this is an example of intersectionality; in the wheelchair I am the vulnerable person and I’m susceptible to harassment, but when I’m standing, the woman is the vulnerable person. So my trauma was not acknowledged by security because I was standing when I told them. I told some other people and most responded in a supporting manner, but one did a bit of a victim blaming trick. That’s something people say when I complain about random people forcing their help on me just because I’m in a wheelchair, maybe I should put up a sign. In this case, the person asked if I was clear enough about not wanting to be interacted with (ignoring the fact that it was not OK to ignore someone’s request to keep distance).
People take away my agency all the time and cross my personal boundaries by grabbing the wheelchair. Even when I am not sitting in it it feels like they are touching me when they grab my wheelchair without consent.
I thought this was my first experience with sexual harassment, but I have been kissed on the mouth by random women whilst sitting in the wheelchair before. To me it is harassment to touch my face without consent. This did not happen once in the 30 years I had been walking and 3 times in the 5 since I have been riding my chair.
A more clear example of overlapping oppression was the time I asked a female student to put my wheelchair in the train. I had chosen her to do it because I know that the person that helps me will have a good feeling about themselves for doing so. So I don’t offer the macho people this opportunity. It’s not hard to do if you know how it is done, so I explained and we waited for the train. I had asked her not because I can’t do it myself, but because when I do it myself there are almost always people that grab my chair when my back is turned while I step into the train. And when I turn around there is someone clumsily holding my chair and I have to tell them to put it down because I can’t pull it into the train while they are holding it. Also that they should ask permission before grabbing other peoples belongings. I avoided this frustration by partly accepting the victim position. After the train stopped, I got in she, walked behind me while pulling the chair inside, but while she was doing it the conductor grabbed the chair and pulled it from her hands to put it in the train. We had to wait for him because he was at an odd angle.
Then I recognised the similarities between sexism and ableism- we are weak and need a strong man to help us even if we think we don’t. The man will know better. And because of that, afterward we will be thankful.
So I’ve made this sticker that clearly states my feeling:
 Intersectionality is the best fitting theory for the stacking of problems people can experience. Intersecting identities can cause overlapping symptoms. My case is confusing because there are mostly positive (intended) prejudices around my identities (male= strong / person in wheelchair= innocent). It would still have gone different if I had only one identity. Because of my different positions of privilege, I do not fit in the visualization of intersectionality and I started thinking of alternatives, which is not starting from the identity, but from the prejudice intersecting shapes instead of lines.
Pieter van Diepen
Pieter started to get involved in activism after joining many protest marches as if they were guided tours. After befriending activists, joining in protests became more of a social than a political activity.
Now he has started to raise awareness for the unrecognised oppressed; the people with physical disabilities, and the invisible oppressed; people with invisinle disabilities including mental illnesses. This could be the start of a new movement: anarcho-capabalism.