Queer and Crip Instagram Practice: Rejecting Compulsory Cis-het-ability 

“Social media can facilitate queer and crip counterpublic-making, identity formation and community building…”

University of Melbourne



Mon Ince (they/them) is a Gender Studies Honours graduate from the University of Melbourne and a disability, mental health, and LGBTQ+ rights advocate. Their qualitative research focuses on queer and crip activism, community, and the power of storytelling. Their work is influenced by their lived experience as a queer, genderqueer, and disabled researcher. 



This paper further contributes to research demonstrating that social media can facilitate queer and crip counterpublic-making, identity formation and community building. This paper stems from a larger Honours research project and analyses how an LGBTQ+ and disabled individual, Rowan, uses her public Instagram account. It argues that the platform allows her to reimagine (that is, to queer and crip) the possibilities for being and living in a hegemonically ableist, queerphobic and transphobic world. Rowan enacts queer and crip work as part of a broader counterpublic by contributing to counterdiscourses. These counterdiscourses challenge the dominant public’s ideology which I term compulsory cis-het-ability – the cultural assumption and expectation that people are and should be straight, cisgender and able-bodied/minded. Rowan also engages in queer and crip world-making, which occurs when she rejects the ideology of compulsory cis-het-ability by embracing pride in her non-normativity. Lastly, she speculates about queer and crip futurity when imagining a utopian future and embracing her non-normative present. Ultimately the paper demonstrates that LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals highlight the potential to reclaim queer and crip power on Instagram where such organising has previously remained inaccessible and offline. 



Queer theory; crip theory; counterpublics; world-making and compulsory cis-het-ability


A person sits topless with their back towards the camera and their arms raised above their head, holding the tops of their head. There is a scar down the person's spine, and the only clothing they wear is black flowing material around their seated waist. The photo is in Black and White

Figure 1. This body of Mine (Rowan, 2021) [1] 

Like a river that’s winding
With curves and lines
This scar keeps reminding
Of resilience in this body of mine 

– Poem by Rowan 



Figure 1 and the poem above are from an Instagram post by Rowan, a queer woman and wheelchair user living with chronic pain, tethered cord syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. Rowan’s is one of the first queer and crip Instagram accounts I came across at the beginning of my own journey to queer and crip social media practice. Accounts like Rowan’s offered me a sense of community, representation, validation, companionship, advocacy, and the confidence to be my queer, genderqueer and disabled self openly online. This personal experience is inseparable from my research and ultimately inspired my Honours thesis, which examined how the LGBTQ+ and disabled community discuss their lived experiences on Instagram. I argue that this community use Instagram to reconceptualise (that is, to queer and crip) modes of existence in a world influenced by ableism, queerphobia and transphobia. 

The beautifully personal poem frames Rowan’s queer-crip body as seen from her perspective. She presents her body as strong and persistent, like a river “winding.” This language mirrors the pronounced curving scar that adorns her back. This river is the site of multiple surgeries, pain, and memory. The metaphor of flowing water, a natural occurrence with a powerful and relentless current, ties her body to a sight of memory. The body’s resilience is not simply superimposed onto the skin as one looks at the scar; rather, the scar consistently reinscribes that resilience as it lightens and ripples, slightly altering each second. The skin cells constantly revise as old memories are added and infused with new ones. Memory, body, and identity are continually flowing and never fixed. Further, Rowan emphasises her pride in this consistent shifting, the embodiment of non-normativity that breaks dualisms of disabled and not, weak and strong, then and now.

Rowan’s political power lies in her irreducibility, non-normativity, and ability to shock and demand attention from the hegemonic able-bodied/minded and cis-heterosexual society through her physicality and language use. On her public account, with over 37,000 followers, she emphasises her love, pleasure, challenges, scarred form, and mobility aids and claims her body as “mine.” We can interpret her approach to advocacy through queer and crip theory. Queer theory as a methodology is “anti-normative and seeks to subvert, challenge and critique a host of taken for granted ‘stabilities’ in our social lives” (Browne and Nash 2010, 7). There is no one way to look, love, move, think or be. As I see them, the boundaries of queerness and disability resist categorisation. Who is and is not considered disabled can be fluid, changing and context-specific, and as such, disability is queer, or rather, crip (Grönvik 2008, 68-9; Kafer 2013, 11). To be queer and crip is to cause further questioning: but what does that mean? How can I make sense of you? The allure of employing queer and crip, the reclaimed homophobic and ableist slurs that indicate oddness, damage, or uselessness, is their ability to provoke able-bodied/minded and cis-heterosexual people with their “harshness” (Kafer 2013, 17). Rowan uses social media to demand systemic change (Korn and Kneese 2015, 708) alongside a broader and destigmatised understanding of gender, sexuality, and ability.

Rowan’s account bio self-identifies her name, pronouns, sexuality, and disabilities. Her open identification as not straight, cisgender, and able-bodied/minded signifies her incongruence within the dominant public culture. Queerness, transness, gender diversity and disability link in many ways, including a shared medicalisation, activist history, scholarship, and definition, which centres around “what they are not”: normal (Grönvik 2008, 67; Rich 1980, I). By directly stating at the top of her account profile, the words “Queer,” “POTS,” and “tethered cord syndrome” she indicates her identification with non-normativity. In curating her bio, she links herself to a community that shares such labels and marks herself apart from those who do not. I understand the able-bodied/minded and cis-heterosexual community as the dominant public, a group that views itself as “the public” (Warner 2002, 50). That is, the public makes homogenising assumptions about social subjects and subordinates those unable to satisfy the norms which construct the dominant public; the queer-crips like Rowan. 

Rowan’s choice to overtly identify as different to the dominant public positions her ideology as counter to theirs. A counterpublic gathers in opposition to the dominant public and offers counterdiscourses, which Rowan contributes to (Fraser 1990, 67). Existing scholarship defines LGBTQ+ and disabled communities (on and offline) as counterpublics who discuss their relationality and challenge hegemonic views of disability, gender, and sexuality (Chin 2018, 1; Schudson and Anders 2019, 354; Soriano 2014, 20; Mendoza 2020, 39). Counterpublics are aware of their subordination and the risk of encountering violence and harassment when embracing their counter position (Warner 2002, 86). By interpreting Rowan’s Instagram practice as a signification of her counterpublic status, we recognise that despite the risk, she is committed to queer-crip work and resisting normative and restrictive conceptions of sexuality, gender, and ability.

‘You should talk about more than a chair. It’s not your whole life.’ ‘I would not see the disability of you did not talk about it so much.’ 

All of these real comments I have received on my page. I am a disability advocate who grew up not seeing disabilities represented in media. I grew up without role models who were disabled. I grew up thinking I was the only one …
This is why I am outspoken. This is why I discuss my disability so often. I have had some amazing tethered cord warriors and other disabled people reach out to me to thank me for my visibility, to validate that my page is doing what I set out for it to do.
I am so grateful for every single single one of you who is following my journey [sic].
– Instagram Post by Rowan 

Rowan’s Instagram practice exhibits the queer and crip call for political recognition and deviation from normative expectations of queer and crip people. The post above directly addresses the hegemonic able-bodied/minded society that casts her as abnormal. The comments she received that opened her post express the able-bodied/minded society’s belief that disability should be hidden and remain undiscussed. As Rowan exemplifies, social media is a site for people to engage in public and private discourse, including the discourse that challenges dominant cultural ideology through its communicative focus and global reaching potential (Korn and Kneese 2015, 708). Rowan resiliently responds to the ableist suggestions that she will appear less disabled if she stops discussing her disability. Of course, members of the community, such as myself and Rowan, know silence does not prevent ableist discrimination or unsolicited advice. Rowan rejects this request, instead choosing to act politically by calling out such behaviour and explaining her reason for being “outspoken.” Rowan’s identification with disability and visibility shows her desire to support herself and her community. Moreover, her queer and crip followers “reach out” and gratefully receive this support.

This post demonstrates Rowan’s refusal to stay silent and be inauthentic for the comfort of able-bodied/minded and cis-heterosexual individuals. Her queer and crip activism challenge dominant perceptions of queer and crip people as tragedy, loss, sterility, void, and isolation (Halberstam 2011, 23; Martin 2012, 16). Disabled people are seen as passive, unpolitical (Kafer 2013, 3), incapable of non-normative sexuality and lacking sexual desire altogether (Lund and Johnson 2015, 126-8). Rowan combats these understandings when choosing visibility and advocacy over shame. By controlling her content, social media allows Rowan the agency to shape her presentation and push back against pressure to conform to the dominant public’s ideology. I call this ideology compulsory cis-het-ability – the cultural assumption and expectation that people are and should be straight, cisgender and able-bodied/minded. This term develops as an extension of Adrienne Rich’s phrase, ‘compulsory heterosexuality,’ Robert McRuer’s ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ and Alison Kafer’s ‘compulsory able-mindedness’ to recognise the complex and intersectional conditions which influence queer and crip experiences. My development of compulsory cis-het-ability draws attention to the interconnections between the concepts of and social pressures related to gender, sexuality, and ability. 

Pride allows people like Rowan to present their understanding of gender, sexuality, and ability and to combat compulsory cis-het-ability, which demands that queer-crip people hide and appear palatable. Conversations about the future for queer-crip people often remain within the curative narrative. When will she be better? What is the cure? How can he live like that? They need therapy! This framing of the future as invested in cure reaffirms that a disabled life is incomprehensible and unworthy to the dominant society. Both of Rowan’s posts presented in this paper contest compulsory cis-het-ability and demonstrate pride in her difference. She wants to be visible and proud of her existence. By being the representation that she lacked as a child, Rowan demonstrates how her attitude to disability has changed as her emotional, social, and physical scars heal. She models this self-acceptance for others and shows that queer and crip pride can fight internalised self-loathing, disgust, and shame learned through compulsory cis-het-ability (Rosenwasser 2000; Brewer 2021, 128). Additionally, she celebrates a body that leaves traces of debris on her skin, emphasising that alternative relationships to sexuality, gender and disability are real, powerful, and important, like an unstoppable current.

Is There a Queer-crip Future? 

Despite compulsory cis-het-ability urging her to do otherwise, Rowan rejects her past and present ostracisation and favours her non-normative present and future. Compulsory cis-het-ability tries to convince queer-crips such as Rowan to accept their subordinated status (McRuer 2006, 1; Rich 1980, I), thus encouraging her to give up on the vision of a more just queer and crip world. It tells her to dismiss the future as a tomorrow marked by disability, non-heterosexuality, or non-cisgender identity is seemingly undesirable (Kafer 2013, 5). So, while compulsory cis-het-ability encourages a passive acceptance of a subordinated future, it does not want queer-crip people to celebrate their present non-normativity either; as Rowan does. José Muñoz believes that world-making projects involve rejecting the past and present dominant society by actively choosing to live in queer ways that disrupt the structures and norms of cis-heteronormative culture (Muñoz 2009, 40 and 50). This world-making project is not nihilistic; instead, it employs today’s negative affect as a sounding board for collective utopian imagining, propelling its actors towards getting “elsewhere” (Kafer 2013, 3). Rowan’s Instagram practice illustrates that queer and crip people can live for both the present moment and a “horizon imbued with potentiality” by challenging compulsory cis-het-ability and the dominant view that queerness and disability are pathological and nonvaluable (Muñoz 2009, 1).

This paper expands and challenges dominant understandings of LGBTQ+ disabled people and shows that queer-crip Instagrammers have a political desire to advocate and make possible alternative ways to live, as seen by Rowan’s challenge of compulsory cis-het-ability on Instagram. It demonstrates the potential for queer and crip activism and community formation to occur online. LGBTQ+ spaces traditionally have physical meeting grounds (Siebler 2016, 2, 3 and 8). Thus, social media enables political discourse to circulate and emanate from the queer and the crip bed when the street cannot accommodate the LGBTQ+ and disabled activists socially or physically (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, 38). This paper recognises the community, activist and identity work conducted by queer and crip people such as Rowan. This counterpublic’s commitment to social justice and queer and crip modes of existence has and continues to instil me (as researcher and peer) with pride today and hope for the future. Moreover, Rowan has taught me that the queer and crip counterpublic need not succumb to compulsory cis-het-ability as our non-normativity drives our strength and reclaims our power. Like Rowan’s resilient and beautifully marked body, our community is the winding river that refuses to cease its flow.


[1.] Consent was obtained to use Figure 1 and direct quotations from Rowan’s Instagram for publication

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