Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.
“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”
See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens.
In September of 1906, the Bronx Zoo drew crowds as Ota Benga, a twenty-three year old Congolese man, was put on display in the Monkey House section of the zoo. Benga, who had been taken from his home by explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, had been previously “exhibited” at the “anthropology exhibit” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.
Many eugenicists drew from earlier articulations of scientific racism to argue that human racial differences were not unlike differences between species. Eugenicists like Henry Fairfield Osborn constructed evolutionary trees that placed the “primitive races” alongside gorillas and chimpanzees in a hierarchy that culminated with the Caucasian “race.” Based on these twisted, racist anthropological understandings, the violent placing of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo may not have appeared unnatural to many “educated” white Americans.
The Zoo debacle is also explained by the fact that it occurred under the auspices of Madison Grant – budding eugenicist and founder of the New York Zoological Society and the Bronx Zoo.
On September 10, 1906, the New York Times reported on the opening of the “Man and Monkey” show, which put Benga and an orangutan in the same cage to perform:
“The performance of man and monkey is not easy to describe. Certainly Dohong is a very patient beast. Many times Benga grabbed him by the forepaws, swung him as though he were a bag, and then dropped him. Then man and monkey grinned. On other occasions Benga pushed the monkey before him. In this attitude the pigmy was not much taller than the orang-outang, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased. Sometimes the man and the monkey hugged each other. That pleased the children, and they laughed uproariously.”
An ensuing controversy emerged, led by African American clergyman, as well as white religious leaders who thought the exhibit was a “promotion of Darwinism.” Eventually, Benga was removed from the zoo to be placed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage, and later relocated to live with a white family in Lynchburg, Virginia. Working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory, he began planning a return to the Congo.
Benga’s return became impossible when World War I broke out in 1914, halting passenger ship traffic. With no hope to return, Benga became depressed. On March 20, 1916, Benga built a ceremonial fire and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. His exceptional life is a testament to the violent dehumanization that came with eugenics’ racist misunderstandings of human evolution and human difference, permitted and fueled by Western society’s inability to see outside of its ethnocentric lens to recognize humanity in non-white “others.”
Bradford, Phillips Verner. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.
Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant.
Qureshi, Sadiah. Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain.
“In 1912, a mixed-race community of about forty-five people was evicted by the state of Maine from Malaga Island, just off the coast of Phippsburg. It was an act motivated by economics, racism, eugenics, and political retribution.
Eight islanders were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. The remaining islanders faired as best they could after moving to the mainland. Once the island was clear, the state moved the Malaga school to another island. Then they dug up the graves and reburied the remains in the graveyard at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded.
The Malaga community was erased.
For generations, Descendants have feared to speak about what happened to their families because of the local stigma of mixed-blood and feeble-mindedness. Others in Phippsburg would rather forget the incident – a story best left untold, some say.