The Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921 summed up its aspirations for humanity in a tidy logo: a sturdy tree with a straight trunk, orderly roots, and robust leaves, with the words “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution” emblazoned across the background.
Talila Lewis suggested that we see all the oppressions that impact our lives as toxic fruits of that sleekly engineered eugenics tree, with ableism as the fertilizer. As a disabled person, it was both jarring and validating to be in a mixed-ability gathering where ableism was centered. I uncovered complex and painful strands of eugenics and ableism that I had never before fully excavated in my own story. My grandfather Leo lived for years within the eugenic horror of Nazi concentration camps; he was kept alive by his captors after his entire family and most of his bunkmates had been murdered, because he was tireless and could fix machinery. He survived because of his ability to work. His productivity was valued by Nazis, and it saved him.
Leo stayed remarkably energetic as he aged. I remember him in his nineties, digging deep holes to plant fruit trees in his garden with nimble hands that were missing his pinky fingers from undisclosed injuries. He retired early but was unable (or unwilling) to rest: “You can sleep when you’re dead,” he used to tell me, rising at dawn. Although Leo depended on my care, he had trouble understanding or valuing me, his disabled, chronically fatigued, non-binary grandchild.
My grandfather received reparations from Germany, which paid for my father’s education and, decades later, paved the way for me to go to rabbinical school. In a talk from Rev. Jennifer Bailey on the legacy of Christianities in upholding and resisting eugenic violence, I learned that Reform Judaism (the movement that ordained me) took part in bringing eugenics to the US from London in the 19th century. Jewish eugenics took me by surprise, but it shouldn’t, the Reform movement was a leader in assimilating white Jews into WASP culture in America in that era. My life is deeply entangled within a web of white supremacy and ableism.
What would survival in this country be like if there were reparations, like the ones my grandfather received, made to Black and Indigenous people harmed by American eugenic policies? The fact that there has never been a serious attempt at repair is just one piece of evidence that American eugenics never ended. In fact, many of the presenters agreed, we are in the midst of a flowering of a second eugenics era. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on our shores, US hospitals were quick to formulate triage policies that rationed care to disabled and elderly people, even before there were shortages.
A January 20, 2021 article published by the media watch group FAIR found that eugenic perspectives on disability in the pandemic have been elevated by the media, while disabled voices have largely been sidelined. It seems like many people simply aren’t that bothered to see disabled people die, especially BIPOC, queer, and trans disabled people. It has always been dangerous to be disabled, or even to be falsely classified as infirm. As Lydia X.Y. Brown named, ableist tropes are the scaffolding for so many other oppressions. Queer and trans people are considered fundamentally unwell, and poor people are labelled as diseased; ableist beliefs about defective races undergirded land theft from Indigenous people and justified the enslavement of Black people. “They want us dead,” Jim LeBrecht said, quoting disabled activist Corbett O’Toole in the opening address, “The world doesn’t want us around.”
Talila Lewis identified the historic ableist connections between asylums, prisons, poor houses (now known as shelters), hospitals, and zoos. All these places warehouse living beings deemed less than people, or contain us for exhibition. As someone who has spent the last fifteen years caring for elders as they die, I would add nursing homes to that list of dehumanizing institutions. Eugenics not only applies to certain people, but to certain (less productive) phases of the life cycle. Not incidentally, these sealed, stagnant places are where the COVID-19 pandemic has spread most viciously.
What if everyone had fresh air to breathe and the support to thrive? The opposite image to the engineered eugenics tree is a wild, breezy, bramble-filled forest, interconnected by messy webs of underground mycelium and sprouting diverse multi-hued mushroom caps of crip creativity. We tasted this dream of untamed fruitfulness throughout the convening. Alice Wong spoke to us as a disabled oracle from the future. Wheelchairs spun through the air, and a wide variety of Black and Brown crip bodies took center stage. In a conversation about beauty, Alok Vaid-Menon, Safia Wall, and Patty Berne, reveled in the grace of atypical genitals, the glamor of abundant whirls of body hair, and the sexiness of the crooked spine.
On the final day, Adrienne Maree Brown offered the idea that we will get to the future through love. Eugenics is about eradicating difference; love is recognizing that you are different from me, and loving you precisely for your otherness. In an anti-eugenic future, poisonous orchards of enforced conformity are replaced with thriving, fruit-heavy, biodiverse forests of love.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla (he/they) is a rabbi, author, artist, and activist. Elliot has been tending to grief, dying, and becoming (more) ill or disabled since 2007, and has been engaged in justice work since 1996. His practice of radical spiritual care brings together these two streams of expertise with his lived experience of being trans, non-binary, and disabled. Learn more at elliotkukla.com