Illustration by Liz McHugh
My mirror-image and I don’t get along very well. I can be civil, so long as I don’t have to spend too much time with him. But if I linger — when I’m getting dressed in the morning, or getting ready to go out for the evening — I become acutely aware of how freakish he looks. That barrel chest, that pot belly? Those twisted, scarred, stubby legs? That amazing lack of a neck? This is what other people see when they look at me? This is me? Really?
It isn’t that I hate the way I look. I used to, but over 40-plus years I’ve come to accept my body as it is. Still, that’s a far cry from loving it — much less expecting anyone else to love it.
Which made it that much harder for me one morning about two years ago, when I sat in front of the mirror, locked eyes with my reflection, and spoke two words out loud for the very first time:
This is the first time I’ve written those words for any print publication. Some readers may be wondering why I’m writing them in NEW MOBILITY. What does my sexual orientation, or anyone else’s, have to do with life as a wheelchair user? I suppose we may even get one or two angry letters or cancelled subscriptions over it.
But NM is about living on wheels. Being a gay man on wheels certainly qualifies. And in two years of getting to know the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered) community, plus a lifetime membership in the disability community, I’ve encountered very few people who openly belong to both. Especially among gay men, it seems “out gay man” and “wheelchair user” just don’t occur together very often. I can’t possibly be the only one.
This isn’t a typical coming-out-of-the-closet story. Actually, it’s about coming out of two closets — and the challenges of staying out of both.
I may not have admitted I was gay until my mid-40s, but I learned I was different — unacceptable — on my very first day of school. The day I went not to the same school as my sister and my brothers, but to the other school — the “special” school.
It made no sense to me. I was smart — already reading the same books as my 8-year-old brother — so why were they sending me here, to this school filled with crippled kids I didn’t even know? Some of them had to wear helmets. Some of them wore diapers, babbled, even drooled. To my kindergarten-aged mind, they were freaks. The grownups must have thought I was a freak, too.
I didn’t belong there. I knew it. And from that day forward, I set out to prove it — to prove that I wasn’t a freak, that I was normal, acceptable.
And thus my journey into the closet of disability began.
It may sound strange to speak of disability as having a “closet” in the same way that gayness does. Invisible disabilities do exist, of course, but using a wheelchair? People’s brains tell them, “Gimp at 12 o’clock,” the instant they see you rolling toward them.
But the closet isn’t just about hiding from others — it’s also about hiding from yourself. Some gays and lesbians in deep denial of their sexuality are often jokingly described as being in a closet with a glass door. Everyone already knows they’re gay — friends, co-workers, loved ones — everyone except themselves.
The same can be said about many people with disabilities — maybe all of us, at some point in our lives. The whole world knows we’re disabled — and we hate it. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would admit we’d do anything to become normal — to be cured, fixed.
Throughout my own childhood, and a good chunk of adolescence, my life revolved around getting “fixed.” Painful surgeries and treatments to make my bones stronger and straighter. Physical therapy, mineral supplements, experimental leg braces — all to get me out of the wheelchair and walking like “normal” people. Countless public examinations, just me in my birthday suit and a couple dozen med students, listening and taking notes as the doctor pointed out each of my deformities.
None of it wound up fixing me, of course. Mostly, it just left me distrusting doctors and hating my own body. I knew now that I could never be normal, but in response I simply became more desperate to pretend I was. Even today, when someone utters the ableist canard, “I don’t think of you as disabled,” I feel a small burst of happiness. It makes me feel as if I’ve passed, somehow.
In his book, The Velvet Rage, clinical psychologist Alan Downs posits that many gay men — even those who are fully out and proud — continue to be driven by the shame they felt growing up in a straight world. While reading the book I often found myself doing a mental search-and-replace on the text, substituting “gay” with “disabled.” Either way, Downs’ thesis resonated with me. As people with disabilities, we have been so bombarded with society’s messages of shame that we’ve internalized them. Even if we know rationally that the messages are false, a small part of us still feels damaged and unlovable.
Go back 25 years, throw gayness into the mix, and you’ve got me as a teenager. In retrospect, I’ve known I was gay since junior high school, maybe even earlier. But by the time I got around to questioning my sexuality, it seemed kind of pointless. “Gay? Straight? Who gives a shit?” I told myself. “No one’s going to want me either way.”
It took way too long, but I finally managed to clear away most of that junk and find my way out of the disability closet. Once I did, coming out of the other closet was a cakewalk.
Or a cake-wheel.
I often tell people that I’ve had the easiest coming-out ever. So many of the coming-out stories I’ve heard from others are filled with rage and bile — parental disownings, slammed doors and thrown punches, hateful words that can never be unsaid. By contrast, I’ve received nothing but love and support from the people around me — even from those whose religious or political beliefs made me afraid they’d reject me. The only thing even close to a negative reaction came jokingly from one of my gay friends: “You? Gay? Oh, come on. You don’t even like Madonna.”
Telling my friends, family and co-workers, however, was the end of the process. It’s often said that in coming out as gay, the first and most difficult step is coming out to yourself. For me, taking that one step was as sweat-drenched and agonizing as all those PT sessions I endured as a kid trying to walk. There were nights of soul-searching, hours of Googling gay-and-disabled websites, and years of feeling as if I was stuck in some kind of existential holding pattern. Finally, a combination of life changes, personal tragedies and medical emergencies pushed me to a tipping point.
Fittingly, that point arrived while I was watching the movie Milk.
About half an hour into the film, Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor (played by Sean Penn) receives a phone call from a teenager in the Midwest. The young man is desperate and suicidal; his parents have found out that he is gay and are taking him to a hospital the next day to “fix” him. Milk pleads with him not to commit suicide, but to get on a bus to the nearest big city, someplace where he will be accepted for who he is.
“I can’t,” the boy says. The camera pulls back, and we see that the young man is in a wheelchair. “I can’t walk, sir.”
For many viewers, that might have been a throwaway scene. For me, it was like getting kicked in the chest. So many of the harsh realities of life as a gay man, colliding with the realities of life with a disability — the sort of thing activists call “intersecting oppressions” — all on just a few feet of celluloid. A lot of young gays and lesbians have had to run away from home to save their own lives — but how many have been kept from doing so by the lack of accessible transportation? How many have stayed in the closet well into adulthood because they fear the reactions of family members or attendants who they depend on for their care? How many are stuck in institutions that deny them any sexual expression at all?
All these thoughts, and countless others, tumbled around in my head on the way home from the movie.
The next morning, the closet was open.
I sometimes think I should have come out decades ago. It certainly would have made my college years a lot more fun. On the other hand, I might have simply worn myself out, fighting my way out of two closets at once. Being a member of one socially stigmatized group of people was exhausting enough without proclaiming membership in another one.
Nor is staying out of both closets — living proudly as gay and disabled, all of the time — as easy as you might think. Being openly gay hasn’t been a cure of loneliness, though at least now I’m looking for love in the right places. There is also homophobia to deal with among people with disabilities, as well as ableism among LGBTs. When I’m around gay people I’ve met since coming out,
I often find myself downplaying my disability, in a way I don’t around straight friends I’ve known for a long time.
One of my gay friends, who is also a fellow wheelchair user, has told me, “I don’t feel like I’m part of the disability community — I’m more comfortable with the gay community.” Conversely, I’m acquainted with more than one disability activist who is openly LGBT, but chooses to focus his or her energy on disability issues.
I suppose it’s just a matter of finding one’s personal comfort zone — but also stretching its boundaries every now and then, to make sure they don’t become too confining.
About a year ago, not long after coming out to my circle of straight friends, I ran into a casual acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while. My news had already reached him through the usual gossip channels, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Is it true what I heard about you?”
“Yes. It’s true,” I deadpanned. “I’m in a wheelchair. I know — it’s shocking, isn’t it?”
I’m not sure he got the joke. But it didn’t really matter.