By Heather Love

About Heather Love

Heather Love is the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2009); the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”); and the coeditor, with Bill Albertini, Ben Lee, Mike Millner, Ken Parille, Alice Rutkowski, and Bryan Wagner, of a special issue of New Literary History (“Is There Life after Identity Politics?”).


Stigma is part of the complex of factors that transform impairment into disability. The term refers to the disapproval and disadvantage that attach to people who are seen as different; its repercussions can be far-reaching. Stigma affects employment, social recognition, educational opportunities, friendship and sex, housing, and freedom from violence. Stigma in Greek means to prick or to puncture, and the word originally referred to a sharp instrument used to brand or cut slaves or criminals. The fact that stigma is still closely associated with visible forms of difference—leprosy, needle tracks, missing limbs, and obesity, for instance—recalls this history, as does the fact that it retains associations of moral disgrace. Today, the term is more abstract and more general and refers to social forms of stigma—to the discredit or dishonor that attaches to a wide range of human variation.

Stigma’s associations with enslavement lasted through the nineteenth century, when the …

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