Notes on Pride

The Perils of a Lack of Regard: Susan Schweik's Ugly Laws

June 16th, 2021

Many versions of these statutes made clear in their titles that city leaders aimed the laws at a very particular target, the person who “exposed” dis- ease, maiming, deformity, or mutilation for the purpose of begging. This book is about American ways of identifying, representing, knowing, correcting, and disciplining the “unsightly beggar. (Schweik, 2009, p.2)
In what follows I frequently refer to the “ugly law” in the singular. Doing so allows me to underscore a certain strong and unified project shared by and across various city cultures, involving both a judgment about bodily aesthetics and the use of law to repress the visibility of human diversity in social contexts associated with disability and poverty—what we might call the sighting/citing of the ugly. (Schweik, 2009, p.3)
What the ordinance embodied was disability oppression deployed and embedded, ideologically and structurally, in classed, capi- talist (and also gendered and racialized) social relations. Here “disability history” and “poor people’s history” profoundly intertwine. Ugly law was begging law, although contemporary American disability activism did not know this. Unsightliness was a status offense, illegal only for people with- out means. (Schweik, 2009, p.16)
This book is a history of the harm done by—let us allow the phrase some force—lack of regard. It is also a history of counterforms of self- regard. (Schweik, 2009, p. 20)
Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 [about $20 today] for each offense. (Chicago City Code 1881)

As Susan Schweik’s Ugly Laws: Disability in Public details, there is a long history of policing disability under the auspices of policing “unsightly beggars” in public spaces. However, as Schweik powerfully demonstrates, these laws were not just about policing disability or the poor in public. They also fused with evolving ideas about race, gender, sex, class, and nationality to dictate what bodies should be allowed for public view and which shouldn’t. Though many of these laws have disappeared, Schweik’s text is a reminder that what was once de jure (by force of law) has now become de facto (by force of norms), particularly in queer spaces. From the Stonewall Inn’s recent refusal of a blind patron with a service dog to the pride parades and events happening at inaccessible spaces, Schweik’s text is a names the perils of a “lack of regard” for difference. Her work should provoke us to center disability justice and not just accommodation in queer spaces; to imagine and center an ethics of care in all things and not just one month a year. ✨