Recently I used a term to refer to myself when talking to a friend. The term was gimp and I followed it with another one of my favorite monikers, cripple. When my friend was shocked at these terms, I was not all that surprised. When I’ve used these names in the past around able bodies (another crip-culture term denoting those who are not disabled), I’ve received many similar reactions.
At first I’m always amused because they explain that their shock is rooted in how derogatory the terms are. It is as if they are suggesting that I’m offending myself. Without going into the very possibility of how one could offend oneself, I’d like to offer a bit of an explanation for why I and many others use these “derogatory terms” when referring to myself and others with “disabilities”.
One of my favorite philosopher’s when I was in college was Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is an existentialist. In simple terms, existentialism is philosophy focused on the experiences of the individual. Although he thinks our understanding of the world is inherently bound to time, he also is famous for identifying the crucial role language plays in our overstanding (See Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927). Overstanding is used here to denote the perspective typically denoted once one has gained knowledge. This is also an example of the flexibility of language and its impact on our psyche.
Without delving into the incredibly esoteric world of Heidegger and philosophy, my point here is that the names with which we identify ourselves do have an impact on our overstanding. Overstanding here should be viewed as both introspective and extroverted. I accomplish overstanding when I know myself and the worlds (worlds here are not physical but web’s of meaning or communities) in which I live.
Therefore, when my friend is shocked that I called myself a gimp, she is drawn back by the idea that I think less of myself. What is interesting is that this reaction is based in the previous and accepted use of the label “gimp” to describe people with disabilities. Hence, at some point in time the term “gimp” underwent what many philosophers call a transvaluation. When a word or term undergoes a transvaluation, the settled meaning of the term is uprooted in favor of a better and more accurate signifier or word. Additionally, having been displaced from everyday terminology, labels like “gimp” are freed up to take on a new meaning.
To explain, the accepted term for people who have mobility issues now seems to be disabled. I’m not quite sure who decided that this was a more accurate descriptor. I know when I hear the prefix dis, positive things are not the first thoughts that come to my mind. Heck, if you have a disabled vehicle it sure isn’t very useful. But nevertheless, if I had used disabled instead of gimp when talking to my friend, I seriously doubt she would have been so shocked.
To be clear, I am not calling for another and more accurate term to identify myself or the demographic I belong to. Instead, I and many others have transvalued the aforementioned derogatory terms and made them our own. We have used the freedom and separation created by societies use of disabled to create a new meaning for the labels gimp and cripple.
In short, the point is that while I understand that calling myself a gimp sounds appalling, it is actually liberating. By laughing at the old senseless term that suggests I can’t do anything, I no longer experience blood boiling anger when my “disability” is negatively pointed out by a stranger, friend, and even family member.
So yes, I am a gimp. But like Dan Keplinger in the HBO documentary King Gimp, I use the term in a bit of defiance. In the movie, which documents Keplinger’s work as an artist with spastic cerebral palsy, he calls himself a gimp because, “That’s what I am.”
Yes, I know, a bit ambiguous in meaning but I think what Keplinger is trying to tell us is, “So what?” What does it mean to be a gimp? Does it mean you can’t do a lot of things?
Does it mean your life is less than others? Does it mean you face incalculable suffering? All of these questions can be answered in a positive or negative light. Or, might I suggest, that by using a transvalued term like gimp we both show it for its past absurd meaning and free ourselves to pick and choose how we identify or label ourselves.
In sum, Dan Keplinger is a gimp. But he’s also a world famous artist who has taken his disability and made it his greatest ability. He lives alone; He possesses a college degree; and he has friends and family who love him in his ability to be utterly unique. As such, he has changed his understanding of himself and the world in which he inhabits. Gimp or no gimp, Keplinger’s life is good.