Bridging the Disability and Gay Communities
“Turns out he had cerebral palsy affecting his mobility and heavily affecting his speech,” says Lock. “He was an older gay man living in an extended care facility, and very, very lonely. His one outlet for gay social contact was calling us a couple times a week.”
Lock eventually got to know the man, taking him out to dinner or to one of the few bars in town at the time that happened, by accident and not by design, to be wheelchair accessible.
“I found him to be an engaging, funny and intelligent individual with a devilish sense of humour,” says Lock. But the man had to contend with some facility staff’s negative views of his sexual orientation, including one who continually tried to press religious literature on him. Once, he was even prevented by a driver of the accessible transit service from entering a gay club, where Lock was waiting for him. And another time, inside a gay bar, Lock heard someone mutter, “Why on earth would he even bring him here?”
Gerald Hannon, writing in The Body Politic in 1980, said of the gay community that “somehow, way back of our first closet we have built another one, and into it we have shoved our gay deaf and our gay blind, and our gay wheelchair cases.” That is one thing, say some people who are gay and have a disability, that has not changed much in the past 20 years. People with disabilities feel the gay community still has some distance to go in learning to accept them, and the same goes for the disability community’s acceptance of gay people. Being gay and having a disability, then, often means being pushed to the margins of two minority groups.
That said, Lock feels some gay people with disabilities are more “acceptable” to the gay community than others. “People seem far less uncomfortable around those in the community who are Deaf, for instance, than they do around those in a wheelchair.” This perhaps is because, or why, the gay Deaf community is quite visible in some Canadian cities.
“Of those in wheelchairs, there seems to be a higher comfort level with those with paralysis, for instance, than with those with cerebral palsy or advanced MS,” Lock adds, noting that this tendency is also reflected in the straight community.
Needless to say, gay people with disabilities struggle to find a place for themselves, to break out of social isolation, to find intimate partners and even to learn to accept their own bodies and sexual orientation.
It’s not an easy road, says Frank Hull, a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy living in Toronto. “I never liked my body because of my disability,” says Hull. “In the gay world we’re bombarded with images” of young, beautiful, able-bodied people. “When a man finds me attractive, I’m automatically suspicious of him,” Hull admits.
Facing inaccessibility and disrespect in the gay community are two of his biggest challenges, says Hull. It’s the “ultimate insult,” he says, that both Glad Day Books, a well-known gay bookstore in Toronto, and the Hassle-Free Clinic, which offers anonymous HIV testing, are not accessible.
“I feel so betrayed by my own community sometimes,” Hull says. For him, the pain of being rejected by the gay community is greater than rejection by the straight community. “After what they’ve been through,” Hull says, the gay community should have learned more about accepting difference.
Pat Israel, a bisexual wheelchair user and feminist, knows how it feels to fight for acceptance. A founder of the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) (www.dawncanada.net), Israel has been a long-time proud disability activist and presenter on the subject of sexuality and disability.
She’s spoken up about women’s events not being accessible. “When it comes down to it, do they book an accessible facility? Do they have an agenda in Braille?” she demands. Israel has found that “the access was horrific and the response was horrific” a lot of the times she’s complained about accessibility at events she wanted to attend. At lesbian dances with no wheelchair accessible washroom, women with disabilities have been told to go behind a curtain and use a bedpan, she says.
But she’s also frustrated with the disability community, where, she says, she’s encountered a fair amount of homophobia. She’s even been told by disability groups not to bring up gay sex when she talks to them about sexuality.
People like Cory Silverberg are working to change that. The able-bodied co-owner of Come As You Are (www.comeasyouare.ca), a gay- and disability-friendly sex shop in Toronto, says disability is a part of his consciousness. The Toronto store has a ramp and wheelchair accessible washroom, and 85 per cent of the merchandise is displayed at a height of five feet or lower to be accessible from a wheelchair.
Sex toys, says Silverberg, are not geared to certain disabilities, genders or sexual orientation, but to certain activities. Nevertheless, it is possible to find products adapted for disability on the store’s website.
Silverberg co-authored The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability with Fran Odette and Dr. Miriam Kaufman, a book that he says is inclusive of gays and lesbians, and covers topics from communication to masturbation (something that can be difficult for some people with certain physical disabilities).
Kaufman says they wrote the book because there were so few resources on sex and disability. A lesbian and a pediatrician, Kaufman works with many teenagers who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, some of whom are gay. “Everyone who works with teens is interested in sexuality,” she says, as it is such a huge issue for their clients.
Some teens with disabilities, Kaufman says, feel guilty about having a disability and about being gay. They don’t want to share their sexual orientation with their parents, because they feel that it would be too much for them to bear on top of their disability. Other young gay people don’t feel it’s such a big deal. “I do wonder if some of that is a bit easier for someone who’s [already] dealt with identity issues around disability and chronic illness,” Kaufman muses.
Another difficulty for young, gay people with disabilities is finding an adult they can talk to. Kaufman points to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (www.pflag.ca) as a good resource for youth and parents with questions, but adds, “I think it would be really great if older gay disabled people would come out to be a resource” for gay youth with disabilities.
But many gay adults with disabilities are still struggling themselves. Brenda Hattie of Halifax deals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her experience of coming out as a lesbian to her church. She’s since left the religion, and says she’s “out whenever there’s a reason to be out,” but recently had to decide whether to reveal her sexual orientation to a female doctor, who made the assumption that Hattie was straight. “As I had left my employment at the church for reasons of orientation, I’ve had to gauge whether or not to tell medical personnel the source of some of my PTSD symptoms.”
A social worker at a community health centre in Toronto, who does not wish her name used, says that access to health care is still a problem for many gay people with disabilities she’s encountered – whether it be due to a health care professional’s attitude toward sexual orientation or an institution’s physical accessibility.
But social isolation is maybe an even bigger problem, one that she tried to remedy by facilitating the birth of a social support group for people who were gay and had disabilities. The group began as a way to help people with disabilities participate in Gay Pride Day. Before it dissolved, members talked about issues of discrimination against them in the gay and disability communities. Unfortunately, they never reached the stage of talking about solutions, partly because there were not enough professionals who were gay and working with the disability community to help keep the group running.
Don Breen, a gay man with disabilities who lives in Bedford, Nova Scotia, agrees that there aren’t enough counsellors who have an understanding of issues facing gay people with disabilities. Nor are there any groups dedicated to supporting them. He would like to start such a group in the Maritime provinces and offers himself as a friendly ear to people who are struggling with disability and sexual identity. “Here’s your chance to be a role model,” he says, hoping to encourage other gay people with disabilities to “come out.”
Breen admits he’s been lucky to have a partner who loves him for himself. He believes acceptance starts in the family, and he’s glad to have three brothers who treat his partner as their brother-in-law. And he says that despite its flaws, he’s lucky to live in Canada, which he feels is more advanced in its view and treatment of gay people with disabilities than many other countries.
Pat Israel puts her faith in young gay people with disabilities to help change things for the better. “I see young people who are gay and disabled and they’re there,” she says. “I’ve always made a point of being visible at events… if you’re there and you’re active, people think, ‘Yeah, that person has a right to be there.’” She herself has stepped down from activism – partly, she says, to let the younger people play a leading role, and partly out of frustration. “It’s nice when you don’t have to fight about it, you can just go… that’s when I feel accepted,” she says.
Frank Hull is still looking for that acceptance, especially from a man who will love him for himself. He claims he experienced abuse at the hands of the Mormon church, and tried for years to be “straight.” “I was the good little crippled boy,” he says. “How could he possibly be gay?”
Today, Hull talks openly about sex, about the ease with which it’s possible to find casual sexual partners in the gay community, but also the pain of feeling used. “I want to be more than a chubby or the fetish in the wheelchair,” he says. He admits to the fear he has of making himself vulnerable, physically and emotionally. During orgasm, his body spasms and he cannot talk, something he thinks other gay men find “freaky.” “I’ve passed up many beautiful loves because of my fear of my own body,” he says.
Something that has helped Hull accept his own body, and his own sexuality, is dance. The first time he danced on his knees at a gay club, a man flicked cigarette ash in his hair, swore at him and asked him what he was doing. “The same thing you are,” Hull replied.
Despite that incident, Hull continued to dance, in his chair or on his knees, though some clubs will not allow him to for reasons of liability. Hull also trained as a dancer in his wheelchair, and considers himself a professional, performing and teaching (he does this free of charge so as not to jeopardize his disability pension). He’s even in the process of founding a non-profit dance company.
“Dance frees my spirit,” Hull says. “I never forget my disability, but it helps you remember your abilities.”
Not long ago Hull held in his arms a lover dying of AIDS, the disease that has been one of the gay community’s greatest disablers. Hull’s friend, once one of the “beautiful people,” told him: “I’m sorry I didn’t see you sooner… you’re the only man who has ever treated me as a human being.”
That changed Hull’s perception of himself forever. “I better hurry up and look at my own beauty,” he says.
Anna Quon is a freelance writer living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (RAD)
This organization for gay Deaf people has chapters in Canada and the U.S. The Montreal chapter can be reached at email@example.com.
This American organization bills itself as “a proud network of queer stutterers and their allies.”
PUBLICATIONS & VIDEOS
Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live With Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness
By Cory Silverburg, Miriam Kaufman and Fran Odette
Cleis Press, 2003
Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader
Raymond Luczak, Editor
Alyson Publications, 1993
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardation: Stories of the Rainbow Support Group
By John D. Allen
Harrington Park Press, 2003
Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories
Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, Editors
Haworth Press, forthcoming
Bent: A Journal of CripGay Voices
A bimonthly online newsletter.
Hot and Safe: A Safe Sex Video for Deaf Gay Men
Aids Committee of Toronto
Phone: (416) 340-2437
The Deaf Queer Resource Centre
An American non-profit resource and information centre. Website features a new Java-based chatroom, DeafQueer Chat.
Deaf LesBiGayTrans Websites
A list of links to gay and Deaf sites.
This gay-lesbian-bi penpal service has several sections devoted to gay people with disabilities.
An e-mail listserv for young lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women with disabilities aged 15 to 25.
Promotes discussion and shares information on “queer/disability issues.”
GENERAL GAY RESOURCES
Search the message boards for the key word “disability.”
A directory of gay-friendly businesses, resources and profiles of gay people online.
Advances equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and their families, across Canada