“People ask me, how do I have sex? What’s different for me now is, it’s more spiritual, more mental, more emotional. I don’t feel a physical body, so in order to feel my mate, I must feel her with my heart, with my soul, with my mind. That’s how I have sex. That’s how I make love. And it’s beautiful.”
— Professir X
He lies in bed, bare-chested, quad belly and thin, paralyzed arms on full display. She straddles him, clad in a silk nightgown, face hidden, curvaceous body moving for both of them. There’s no makeup, no camera trickery, just lips brushing breasts, fingers caressing soft amber skin, his gaze intertwined with hers in tenderness and passion.
It’s very romantic and very real — but also very jarring. You feel like a voyeur, watching this; it’s too unfiltered, too true-to-life. And such a frank presentation of disabled sexuality makes part of you uncomfortable. You may know — both intellectually and from experience — that people with disabilities aren’t asexual, you may have spent your entire adult life rebelling against the notion that sex is only for the physically perfect, but still, that programming runs deep.
But within that sense of discomfort lies the scene’s true power. It cuts through those negative societal messages more deftly than any dry, clinical sex-and-disability lecture. You keep watching, your lingering prejudices fall away, and what remains is: This is who we are, this is what we do, isn’t it wonderful?
It’s only one scene in a 45-minute documentary film showing many moments in the life of a man with a spinal cord injury, from how he gets dressed in the morning to how he performs his music in front of an audience. Yet its very presence says a great deal about the man. For him, having sex — making love — is very much a part of life.
The Strongest Power
The producer and star of the above documentary, Richard Gaskin — aka Professir X — is finally back at his Montclair, N.J., home after an unexpected UTI put him in the hospital over the Thanksgiving weekend. His long-distance girlfriend, Tashana Curtis, was visiting for the holiday, but has since had to return to her job in Atlanta. The lack of physical proximity, and the fact that the two of them can only get together twice a year, doesn’t faze Gaskin, 42. “We’re always there for each other,” he says.
The man always has more than one thing going on at a time — fitting for someone who has more than one name. As Richard Gaskin, he is a political activist who has worked with Dana Reeve, Ted Kennedy and Michael J. Fox on stem cell advocacy and increasing funding for spinal cord injury research. As Professir X, he is a rapper, music producer and video director. He chose the name Professir X in honor of the wheelchair-using telepathic superhero of the X-Men comic-book series — Charles Xavier. “His power is in his mind. That’s my strongest power, being mentally strong.”
On the phone, he exudes a mellow self-confidence, an easy acceptance of whatever comes his way — qualities that have served him well both since his injury and before, as a young man growing up in some of the tougher parts of New York City.
“I was born in the South Bronx,” he says. “I was raised by my mother and my grandmother. I went to Catholic school from first through eighth grade — I didn’t do too much as a child. But when I was 14 my mother moved us to Far Rockaway, Queens. That’s where I really started to grow up, started to make new friends and started meeting people.”
As the shy new kid in a large public school, Gaskin predictably found himself the target of bullying. Fortunately, he quickly struck up a friendship with a fellow student named Clarence, a martial arts enthusiast who got him interested in the Hung Gar school of kung fu. “Hung Gar is the style of the people who were mistreated and had to fight back … something taught to those who wanted to stop being treated unfairly,” he says. “It is a style with spirit — it gave me the guidance I needed for discipline, courage and strength. A style that made me confident but not conceited.”
Soon enough, he’d become one of the popular kids at his school, and his friendship with another student who was an aspiring DJ led him to pursue an interest in music. He adopted the moniker of DJ Hung Gar in honor of the martial arts discipline that had given him the confidence and will to succeed in life. In the mid-1980s, the hip-hop scene in New York had just begun to explode, and as Gaskin graduated high school he became a part of it, spinning records at local clubs, doing guest spots on radio shows, and meeting rising hip-hop stars like Run-D.M.C. and Salt-n-Pepa. “I got pretty good with the mixing and the cutting and the scratching,” he says. “It was ’87, and I was aspiring to be a DJ. I was doing clubs, I’d made a new friend who I was going to DJ for, and then boom, I got shot.”
Even today, more than 20 years later, the exact circumstances of the shooting that left him paralyzed are still unclear. “There was this young guy from around the area who hung out with us. He was 14, I was 20. His girlfriend dumped him — this is what I heard, after I got shot — and he thought he saw the girl give me her number. I was sitting in the car, going through some records — he opened the car door and said something, and then I heard the gun go off.
“The next thing, I’m waking up lying on the ground. I didn’t know I’d been shot. I didn’t really even know for two months that I was paralyzed — I didn’t understand what paralysis was back then.”
From DJ Hung Gar to Professir X
With a C5-7 spinal cord injury, Gaskin left rehab after a year without much knowledge of how to rebuild his life as a person with a disability. He did, however, have the support of all the friends he’d made in his neighborhood in Queens, a close-knit group that helped Gaskin’s mother take care of him and made sure he didn’t become isolated. “I started doing music again,” he says. “I couldn’t DJ, but I started rapping — I taught myself breath control so I could do it as a quadriplegic.” Still, opportunities to pursue music were limited until he discovered the Internet in the mid-1990s. Before then, “I was just sitting in the house or going out with my friends, parties, stuff like that.”
Coincidentally, Gaskin joined the online world just as Christopher Reeve entered the public arena as an advocate for SCI cure research. The kid from Queens found a role model and standard bearer in the former Superman. “Before, there was nobody famous who represented me, except maybe Teddy Pendergrass,” Gaskin says. In Reeve, “here was somebody who was going out there, fighting for a cure, advocating for better quality of life for people with disabilities, something I’d seen no one else do.” Reeve’s example made him think that, maybe, he could transform his own life into a vehicle for empowering others with SCI. “I decided to create a documentary on my own life — how I eat, sleep, use the bathroom, sexuality, everything. I saw a door being opened. People were now listening to people with disabilities — not just staring, but listening.”
In 2004, while Gaskin was in the midst of making the documentary, Reeve died. Devastated, Gaskin wrote a song, “Forever Superman,” and made a video to accompany it. The tune spread through SCI advocacy circles, and soon Gaskin was invited to a rally in Washington, D.C., where he personally met Dana Reeve. “Seeing tears in her eyes from the song gave me purpose,” he says. “I began advocating, performing, doing speaking and making more videos.” He has spent the last five years bringing a hip-hop vibe to the world of SCI education and advocacy — producing a 30-minute television show airing locally in his New Jersey hometown as well as the annual SCI Hall of Fame awards sponsored by the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. His completed documentary, A City Called Heaven, is available on DVD, via YouTube or through Gaskin’s website, www.professirx.com. He has also started a nonprofit organization, I Believe Inc. (www.ibelieveinc.org) to raise public awareness and provide information, life skills training and other resources for people with paralysis and their families.
“Richard works so hard at everything he does,” says Santina Muha, the host of Gaskin’s show and a communications associate with NSCIA. “He rarely gets compensation for any of the things he’s doing, but he continues to do them. He has a great group of friends and cousins and family members, which is a testament to how wonderful he is. Everyone just wants to be there for him and help him — everyone believes in his mission.”
One of those friends from the neighborhood, Tashana Curtis, was only 12 years old when she first met Gaskin. “He used to hang out with my uncle, and I always had a crush on him,” she says. They began dating when she was 23, and they have been involved in one form or another — exclusive, non-exclusive, up-close, long-distance — for the last 14 years.
Still, convincing her to help capture some of their intimate moments for the documentary took some doing on Gaskin’s part. “At first I was like, ‘OK, that’s like making a porno,’” she says, laughing. “But I agreed after he explained it to me. He’s always wanted others to see that, even though you are disabled, life does not end.”
By the time he and Curtis started dating, Gaskin had already ventured into the sometimes uncertain waters of post-SCI sexuality. “Sex was the first thing on my mind when I became paralyzed — I mean, I was 20 years old,” he says. “I still had girlfriends, but sex no longer was spontaneous — it became planned. I had a Texas cath, and I had to take it off to use a condom, and the girl had to do all of that. I basically had to teach girls how to do all these things before having sex.”
And yet for him, the lack of physical mobility became a blessing, in that it challenged him to connect with his partner on a more spiritual and emotional level — spirituality and emotion that he hoped to bring to life on the screen. “Everybody is afraid — ashamed and afraid to talk about disability. I was too,” he says. But now, “I talk about it, I show how my body looks now from the paralysis, and people have told me it has inspired them to open themselves up.”
For Curtis, Gaskin’s disability has never been an issue. “I’ve never seen it, not with him. The only way it affects us is when we go places, like when we went to Vegas a couple of years ago.” When they travel, “we always have to have a third wheel [an attendant] with us, and that can get a little nerve-wracking.”
“It’s a crazy relationship,” Curtis says. When she moved to Atlanta to take a new job, “it really put a damper on our relationship as far as seeing each other was concerned, but we still talk every day, online or on the phone, and we still get together at least once or twice a year. And I still care about him. I still love him.”
Asked to encapsulate their relationship in one or two words, Gaskin replies, “Soul mates.”
In general, Gaskin prefers not to think too far ahead, either personally or professionally. Like the kung fu master he once aspired to be, he tries to exist in the moment and go wherever the currents of the universe carry him.
Inevitably, though, his thoughts turn toward the future. In 2009 he received a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to upgrade his video equipment and improve the production values of his television show. With co-host Muha, he is seeking out network interest for a show on disability issues. He is also planning a new documentary on the daily lives and aspirations of people with disabilities.
And Tashana? Where does he see his relationship with her going in the future?
Gaskin speaks cautiously about it, aware of how time and distance can pull apart even the tightest bonds. Nevertheless, he is confident that they will always have a special place for each other, whether as lovers or as friends. “We have a comfort zone, a place to go to when times are hard,” he says. “I never see that ending. We’ll always be open to being with each other in every possible way — love, sex, anything.”
He laughs. “Unless one of us gets married. Then we’ve got to stop the sex.”