The second closet: LGBTs with disabilities

In Western industrial nations gay people can live their lives and loves in the open. Most countries allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and, in some cases, even to adopt children. So all goes well in the rainbow world? Not yet. Discriminations still persists, especially for gay people with disabilities.

"In the early 80ies, James (nickname) used to call our Gay line regularly. His speech was hard to understand and first everyone in the call centre thought he was a prank caller,” remembers Stephen Lock, then Coordinator of a Canadian Gay chat line. “It turned out that James had cerebral palsy affecting his speech capacity,” says Lock. “He was an older gay man living in an extended care facility, and was very, very lonely. His one possibility for gay social contact was calling us a couple of times per week.”

Lock eventually got to know James, taking him out to a few gay bars in town that happened, by accident and not by design, to be wheelchair-accessible. “I found James to be an engaging, funny and intelligent man with a strong sense of humour and self-irony,” says Lock. But James had to cope with some care’s negative reaction towards his sexual orientation. One person continually tried to press religious literature on him. Once he was even prevented by a driver of a disability transport 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?”

Different levels of acceptance

Lock feels some gay disabled people are more “acceptable” within gay communities than others. “People seem far less uncomfortable around people 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 reflected also in the heterosexual 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 are bombarded with images of young, beautiful, able-bodied people. So when a man finds me attractive I’m automatically suspicious of him,” Hull admits.

Facing lack of accessibility and disrespect in the gay community are two of his biggest challenges, says Hull. It’s the “ultimate insult” he says, that Glad Day Books, a well known gay bookstore in Toronto, and Hassle-Free Clinic which offers anonymous HIV testing, are not accessible. “I feel so betrayed by my own community sometimes,” Hull says, and the pain of being rejected by the gay community is greater for him than rejection by the straight community. “After what they’ve been through,’” Hull says, the gay community should have learned more about accepting difference.

Fighting for acceptance

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), Israel has been a long-time proud disability activist and presenter on the subject of sexuality and disability. She has 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” many times she has complained about accessibility at events she wanted to attend. At lesbian dances, where there was no wheelchair accessible washroom, disabled women have been told to go behind a curtain to use a bedpan, she says. But she is also frustrated with the disabled community, where she says, she has encountered a fair amount of homophobia. She was even been told by disability groups not to bring up gay sex when she talks to them about sexuality.

The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability

People like Cory Silverberg are working to change that. The able-bodied co-owner of Come As You Are, a gay- and disability-friendly sex shop in Toronto, says disability is a part of his consciousness. The Toronto store has a ramp, a wheelchair accessible washroom, and 85% of the merchandise is displayed under five feet 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 has also 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 paediatrician, Kaufman works with many teenagers who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, some of whom are gay, and says, “Everyone who works with teens is interested in sexuality” as it is such a huge issue for their clients.

Gay teens with disabilities

Some teens with disabilities, she says, feel guilty about having a disability and about being gay. They do not 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 do not feel it is such a big deal, Kaufman says. “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,” she muses.

Pat Israel puts her faith in young gay disabled people 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 in events... if you’re there and you’re active, people think, yeah, that person has a right to be there.” She 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.

Text and Translation: Michel Benedetti - 07/2011