I have a question I’d like all of you to consider. When you first saw me and realized I was disabled, were you scratching your heads trying to figure out what I could possibly have to say about being LBGTQ? If that was the case, you are definitely not the first and will certainly not be the last.
Let’s consider why this is the case. Rarely are disabled people seen as sexual beings and often we are perceived as genderless. It’s not so much that people consciously consider the issue and decide I, and people like me, aren’t sexual and do not have a gender. It is more that the thought never occurs to them.
There are many reasons offered as explanation. Some think it has to do with the fact that disabled people are forever perceived as children. Others believe it is because we are never viewed as potential dates or mates. Still others hypothesize that our physical forms that can often show signs of our difference with scars, twisted limbs, disfigured eyes, or even simply leg braces, are just not a turn on.
Whatever the reason, disabled people are often desexualized. Since an LBGTQ identity is perceived as largely sexual, it cannot have anything to do with desexualized beings and thus disabled people.
Today I want to talk about how a disability and LBGTQ identity interact when they meet inside one person. While I will present concepts and theories, at it’s core this is a highly personal discourse because I am disabled and I am bisexual.
Let me offer you some context, especially because some of my disabilities are not obvious when looking at me. I was born with midline facial birth defects: no nose, nasal airway, and the eye structure abnormalities that resulted in my blindness. The doctors said and my parents believed that I was broken and needed to be fixed, so I had lots of reconstructive surgery, some successful and some failing. When I was 19, even though the doctors wanted to keep going, I put a stop to it. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
It’s thought that all the physical trauma of the surgeries damaged my immune system and I’ve been living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for about twenty years, which is sort of like pulling an all nighter when you have the flu.
When people think about disability, it is usually in relation to impairment. This body cannot perform that act leading to disablement. I cannot perceive with my eyes, so I cannot interpret visual information and that makes me disabled. In Disability Studies, we call this the medical model of disability.
I far prefer what’s known as the social model of disability. It holds that the way society works creates the disablement rather than the actual physical difference. In other words, my eyes cannot perceive visual information and because we live in a world where vital information is communicated in this way, I am disabled.
History provides an excellent example of the social model in action. In the 19th century, Martha’s Vineyard – a small island off the upper eastern coastline of the U.S. — had a substantial Deaf population with something like 1 in every 155 people being Deaf. For perspective, in the general U.S. population at that time, 1 in every 6,000 people was Deaf. The Martha’s Vineyard community developed in such a way that Deafness was not a disability because everyone signed. In other words, though people had a physical difference typically considered a disability, it was not in fact disabling because of the way the society was structured.
disability is the only marginalized group you can join at any time, whether you like it or not, whether you choose it or not. For this reason, non-disabled people are often referred to as temporarily able bodied — TAB. Each one of you could join the ranks of people like me, so pay attention because the way disability and an LBGTQ identity interact may one day become extremely relevant in your life.
There are a multitude of societal beliefs about disability that are problematic. Today I will limit myself to those aspects that directly impact having an LBGTQ and disability identity. The first is the tendency to see disabled adults as child-like – unable to make decisions, not able to control one’s destiny, and in need of others to Sheppard us through life. The language of disability reflects this. Those who help us are “caregivers,” we sometimes live in “long term care facilities,” and the places we go during the day are referred to as “daycare.” And, as with children, we are not considered capable of making decisions about sex or enter into consenting sexual relationships. People worry about us being “taken advantage of” because we are seen as vulnerable. If we are unable to sort out sexual feelings and enter into sexual relationships, then we definitely aren’t capable of knowing that we are LBGTQ. In other words, my blindness etc makes me a perpetual child so I’m not capable of knowing I’m bisexual. My attraction to women must be a figment of my child-like imagination.
One aspect of the reality of disability is that we need help which makes us reliant upon others. Consider this example. A quadriplegic man needs help getting dressed. What if he in fact feels like a she? It is hard to find helpers willing to dress a man as a woman. If the people who provide us with support to live don’t agree with our sexual orientation or gender identity, then we have few options other than not exploring or expressing it.
A large proportion of the disabled population receives their needed help directly from family. What if the quadriplegic man lives with and primarily receives help from his parents? Imagine asking your Mom to help you into bra falsies, and panties. Parents often struggle to accept their LBGTQ children and it is not uncommon for families to disown them. That trans quadriplegic kicked out of his parent’s house would have to find wheelchair-accessible housing, helpers who not only bath and feed him but support his trans lifestyle, and money to pay for it all when most disabled people are unemployed and government subsidies do not even provide enough to keep someone above the poverty level.
The societal perception of the “caregiver” as a person doing a good deed and the individual needing the help as a burden further complicates having dual identities of disabled and LBGTQ. Recipients of help are expected to be appreciative and not demanding. Should a “caregiver” be prudish or reluctant about their “burden’s” LBGTQ identity, it is hard for the individual needing help to speak up. How do you express the required gratitude while insisting someone do what makes them uncomfortable? Pushing too hard could result in help being withdrawn while not trying means denying one’s needs as an LBGTQ person.
Then there are more overt acts of prejudice or hate crimes. Typically, prevention efforts are focused on schools, the work place, and our streets. Such labors do not reach the places where disabled people often live, such as long term care facilities or private homes.
The LBGTQ community has not help the situation. We have fought long and hard against the idea that being LBGTQ is a mental illness or defect. WE want to be seen as like everyone else except we happen to love in our own way. In divorcing ourselves from the idea of defect, we have re-enforced the concept that being defective is bad. Guess who society views as defective? Disabled people. So, not only are disabled people defective, which is a bad thing, but defective things can also not be LBGTQ.
A while back there were a rash of LBGTQ teen suicides in the U.S. and the “It Gets Better” Project came into being. LBGTQ adults recorded messages telling LBGTQ youth to hang on until adulthood when they could move out on their own, be autonomous and thus masters of their own destiny. Then, it would get better. This is simply not the case for LBGTQ disabled teens or adults. The perception that they will always be dependent children, the reality that they need help to live with families often the source of that support, and the fact that public awareness campaigns aren’t designed to combat homophobia in the places where disabled people live add up to it sometimes never getting better. Far too often, people who are both disabled and LBGTQ are inexorably stuck.
In my own life, I have seen the complexities my disability identity adds to my bisexual identity. From connecting with my community to simply getting people to understand it is possible to be both, I deal with it every day. Fortunately, I have also found common ground.
Bisexuality carries the stigma of a person being indecisive, promiscuous, disloyal, and philandering. Not compliments. Being disabled also comes with negative stereotypes such as child-like, dependent, helpless, asexual, and my personal “favorite, incompetent. While the specific labels differ, the result is the same. I must cope with negative attitudes and find ways to get people to see past their assumptions.
These two identities also share the phenomenon of others not believing they are true. “You can’t have a chronic illness because you don’t look sick.” “You can’t be blind because you can match your own clothes.” “You can’t be bisexual because you’re monogamous. “Bisexuals are philanderers and you aren’t, so you’re not bisexual.” It’s all the same – I don’t live down to the low expectations so I can’t possibly be a part of the group. It never enters people’s minds to reconsider their assumptions and expand their understanding of what it means to be bisexual or disabled.
And If I dare actually live down to one of the negative stereotypes, it only acts to re-enforce people’s belief that blind people are helpless or bisexual people are disloyal. In other words, neither disabled people nor bisexuals can win. If we exceed expectations, we are not a part of that group and if we meet them, then the negative belief grows stronger.
This begs the question: if disability as viewed through the social model is not a matter of impairment or defect but one of how society functions, then can bisexual oppression be separated from the specific sexual behaviors of a bisexual and blamed on society? In fact, that is exactly what Queer Theory argues. Our society is designed for heterosexuals and bisexuals do not fit, so rather than broadening social beliefs and expectations to encompass other behavioral patterns, it oppresses us.
Bisexuality, and indeed sexual orientation in general, is not typically obvious when looking at a person. There are some disabilities, such as my chronic illness, dyslexia, epilepsy, and depression, that are equally not visually obvious. We call them invisible disabilities and as with sexual orientation, the individual faces the constant dilemma of when to tell someone about it. . Should you mention it too soon to a potential friend, they will just walk away and seek companionship elsewhere. If you keep it to yourself until the friendship is establish, then the person might get angry. Telling a potential employer during the job interview risk not getting hired. Waiting until you have the job risks working at a place that doesn’t accept you. Notice I never actually specified bisexuality or disability.
It’s no wonder that some LBGTQ people choose to “be in the closet,” meaning they don’t tell anyone about their LBGTQ identity, sometimes not even themselves. The emotional trauma of not being honest about one’s sexual identity is well documented. From personal experience, I can tell you that closets exist for disabled people as well. We experience the same mental distress and emotional trauma when we systematically keep our disability identity to ourselves. Furthermore, we don’t get what we need to function in the world if we keep silent.
Unlike staying in the closet, passing involves actively trying to hide one’s identity. While you might admit your identity to some people, at other times you conceal it by masking physical signs and altering behavioral patterns. These days, if I want to pass as sighted, I often just need to hide my cane. To be perceived as heterosexual, it’s even easier because I’m already seen as asexual. I’ll only blow my cover if I happen to mention I find a woman attractive. Passing seems like a good idea because it avoids all that nasty stereotyping, people don’t treat you oddly, and you can just slide through the world with ease. Unfortunately, you must constantly monitor your behavior so as not to reveal yourself as well as settling for a life that’s not honest or true to yourself. For me, sometimes for short periods, it’s worth the effort, but then I start forgetting what I am trying to pass as and mess it up. am I trying to be sighted? Heterosexual? Both?
It is also true that both bisexuality and disability are facts the world would like to erase. Many people literally believe bisexuality doesn’t exist claiming we are all just making it up or refusing to choose. With disability, people would rather we didn’t exist because we need things in order to function in the world like ramps, Braille, closed captions, and accessible housing which cost money and are inconvenient. Really, if disabled people and bisexuals vanished from the planet, it would make a lot of people more comfortable.
When I began to go through the process of coming out as bisexual, I discovered an interesting fact. The TABs around me were going through a great deal of emotional angst trying to reconcile themselves to a lifetime of negative stereotypes and bigotry. I, on the other hand, wasn’t phased in the slightest because I was already used to discrimination and stigmatization. I also noticed that most of my disabled friends had an equally easy time “coming to terms” with their sexual identity. Heck, the mistaken notion that bisexuals are promiscuous is a stigma I’d love to have because at least I’d be perceived as sexual.
I have spent a great deal of time giving you a laundry list of all the negative ways the world views disability and bisexuality. I have even said that the LBGTQ community has done things making it harder to be both disabled and LBGTQ. Now I would like to give you a few ideas as to how the LBGTQ community can positively impact the situation.
First, stop believing the negative stereotypes about disability that society teaches. Take the time to route them out of your thinking so that when you encounter a disabled person you do it with an open mind. Believe it or not, that will probably make the biggest difference.
Second, in planning group activities, consider things like whether the venue is wheelchair accessible and when it is, note that in promotional materials. Simply adding a line to a flyer that says, “If you need an accommodation, contact” shows that you are considering the needs of disabled LBGTQ people.
If you, a TAB, is going to an event and you know there’s someone in the group who needs a ride, don’t wait to be asked, but offer. “Do you need a ride?” is not a hard question. Even if the person makes you uncomfortable and you have no idea what to do, do it anyway.
When trying to combat homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, consider targeting not just the places where LBGTQ TABs experience it but also where disabled LBGTQ folks encounter it.
Earlier I spoke about the “It Gets Better” Project and said for disabled LBGTQ youth who become adults, this is often not the case because they lack the resources to be autonomous. To turn this situation around, money is needed. If a disabled LBGTQ person can pay the higher rent often associated with accessible housing, if they can afford higher hourly rates that attract paid help that can provide the assistance they needs to live as an LBGTQ individual, and if they can pay for accessible transportation, then they do not need to rely upon aid from people who do not support their LBGTQ lifestyle.
In describing what it’s like to have the dual identities of bisexuality and disability, I might have given you the impression that it is a lousy situation full of lousy things. In fact, that is not the case. I am clear deep down into my bones that society has a problem with my identities but I do not need to share that opinion. Bisexuality and disability teach me something new each and every day. They are aspects of my life I would not change if given a choice. I cannot imagine what life would be like if I were just a heterosexual TAB woman. Actually, I think it would be rather boring.