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Gay and disabled: hard times or rich rewards?

by Nuala Calvi

16th August 2004

The counsellor I saw when I came out told me to expect gay men to be 'harder' on me about my impairment than heterosexuals. For a moment, I thought he was trying to prepare me for the probability that guys would find me extraordinarily attractive - if you catch my drift - but no, he didn't mean that at all.
Young, scared and gullible, I remember swallowing hard and setting off to battle against the intolerance of non-disabled people, yet again. I thanked him for his wise counsel, but I think I probably should have thanked him for the self-fulfilling prophecy he left me with.

What a stupid thing to say to a 19-year-old disabled guy, who had just watched a 'coming out' teen movie and thought, "Yes! That's me!" So, just when I needed some affirmation, positive self-image and general morale boosting, my therapist decides to 'get real' on me.

It reminded me of an incident with a school teacher when I was about 12 years old. She asked my twin brother, in front of me, if he liked a girl in our class.

"Er, what about me?" I asked, feeling naively defensive about the response she gave.

"Oh, she wouldn't be interested in a disabled person, love!"

I wish she'd said, "Don't be stupid, you're a flaming poof, love!"

Similarly, my therapist could have said, "Listen, love, gay men are a shallow, fickle lot. You're far too good for most of them." Both would have been more to the point.

But in many respects they were right. There are a myriad of unspoken 'rules' that guide non-disabled people's responses to intimacy with disabled people. I began thinking about this stuff at 16, and I still haven't really sussed it out twenty years on.

There's this thing that happens - 'thing' meaning dynamic, circumstance, reaction - when I meet a guy. It goes like this.

I notice him. He notices my wheelchair. I look at him. He thinks that he could find me attractive. I just fancy him. He thinks of everything he's heard about attractive guys. I still fancy him. He thinks of everything he's heard about guys in wheelchairs. I look away, bashfully. He notices the oxymoron. I meet his eyes. He realises. I realise he realises. He freaks. I freak. He looks away. I pluck an expletive from my dog-eared repertoire.

Then there's a hiatus where one of two things will happen ­ either nothing, or I'll go over and say hi. It's anyone's guess. Usually it's nothing, because I do another 'thing' where I fantasise, assume, judge and eradicate him - nah, he's not worth it. It's my fear of fear, masked by nonchalance.

Suffice to say, sometimes I wish I was a lesbian.

When I asked my first boyfriend why he was breaking it off with me, he said it was because his friends couldn't understand why he'd want to be seen with me.

I remember deciding not to argue with him. But I can't deny that my deep-seated belief that he and his friends had a point may have somehow justified - in my own mind - their stigma.

The moment sticks with me as my first real experience of rejection. It hurt - I was in love. It gouged a huge hole in my self-esteem, messed up my self-image more than a bit and had a huge impact on my current view of relationships with men.

Maybe I didn't run after him, begging for understanding, because I thought I wasn't worthy. But then again maybe I realised, even at that tender age, that being in a relationship was not as important as uncompromisingly being true to myself, and demanding that people with whom I am intimate should accept me completely.

The few men I have loved, who have dared to love me, have had to go that one step further to understand the complexities and the simplicity of who I am and be OK with that. That has demanded quite a degree of self-awareness and self-confidence on their part, which, sadly, is not common.

Having been single and (mostly) celibate for longer than I can remember, it is a significant part of who I am and I consider it a highly under-rated art. I don't equate being single with being alone ­ on the contrary, I have maintained a steady relationship with myself for many years, in which time I have come to know myself well.

I can genuinely say that I feel comfortable with myself in all circumstances. I pretty much know how I will react in any given situation, but not to the point of boring monotony ­ I still surprise myself every so often.

My experience of being gay and disabled is of unrequited and fulfilled desire, pride and embarrassment. It is a tableau that I cherish for what it has taught me, and how it has allowed me to express who I am.

And, despite my therapist's gloomy warning, it's been a lot of fun. But that's another story ...

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