The way the world sees people with apparent physical disabilities is not ideal. I am a proud Latinx disabled woman but I am also Queer/Bi/Pan and despite being 26, I’m treated like I’m 6. Especially when it comes to building romantic and platonic relationships in the LGBTQIA community, people can’t seem to comprehend that somebody in a wheelchair isn’t heterosexual. If they even see me as someone who engages in sex at all. To be frank, people assume physically disabled people don’t fuck, lust, or love.
Just like other marginalized groups, there is variety in the disability community, not only in the ways our disabilities manifest but in the other parts that form our individual identities. It’s something that I love about my community—anyone can be a part of it, you don’t have to be born into it, and you can’t predict when you will join it. But even within the disability community, it isn’t always safe to be open about your orientation. Sometimes I feel like I’m between worlds, fitting in completely with neither. But still I try.
No one ever gave me permission to have any kind of sexual orientation or romantic desires. In 5th grade, I told a group of girls from my class that I had a crush on this angsty nerd guy. I didn’t think anything of it—my best friends also had physical disabilities and we talked about crushes constantly. But these girls I told weren’t disabled. At first they tried to dissuade me on this nerd boy. He wasn’t for me. What they of course meant was that he wasn’t disabled. They then spent a good 10 minutes trying to get me to say that I liked another wheelchair user in our grade. For the next two years, I was bullied mercilessly for having that crush.
Every piece of mainstream literature and film has painted a bleak, heterosexual image into the community consciousness about what relationships with disabled people look like.
I remember very clearly at the age of 20, my dad telling me that I would eventually find a nice guy when I was in my 40s because there would be less competition. My mom would cruelly joke that her closeted butch lesbian daughter would die alone, when she thought I wasn’t around to hear. These were my parents; these were people that knew me, that should’ve been able to see that I was a human being with complex feelings and emotions.
So when I go into a social situation where I can be open about my orientation and the only thing I’m met with is awkward silence, it can be disheartening. I don’t actually blame people that are uncomfortable with the idea of people like me being sexual. Why wouldn’t they be? Every piece of mainstream literature and film has painted a bleak, heterosexual image into the community consciousness about what relationships with disabled people look like. Or on the flip side, disabled people go from the human embodiment of innocence and purity to something that should be fetishized in secret, oftentimes without our consent. Yet we are expected to be grateful for any scraps of attention we receive, even those that are unwanted.
How do you stop perpetuating misconceptions, micro-aggressions, and erasures of physically disabled people in queer spaces and in relationships both romantic and platonic? I’m so glad you asked, because I have some thoughts. This is NOT an exhaustive list but it’s a great place to start.
- Always assume competence. Don’t talk down to people when they are requesting accommodations or information
- Accessibility of a physical space is the bare minimum. Always assume that somebody with a disability wants to attend your event.
- If you have advertised an event as Queer and/or Trans only and a physically disabled person shows up guess what—they are probably Queer and/or Trans and not just there as an ‘ally.’
- Always assume competence. Don’t speak to us like we’re children.
- Mobility devices like wheelchairs and walkers are extensions of our bodies. Do not touch them or move them without our consent.
- Don’t ask people what is wrong with them or what happened to them as soon as you meet them. I have had dozens of people ask me this before even asking what my name was.
- Don’t argue with disabled people about the terms they use to identify themselves. I, for example, am a disabled person. I am proud of that. Please don’t tell me that I should call myself a person with a disability. That is not something you get to decide.
- Helping people is nice, but if you ask someone if they need assistance and they say no, listen to them. Don’t do it anyway. And definitely don’t keep asking them.
- Often times people with physical disabilities don’t have control over their wardrobe, so don’t shame Queer and Trans people if they can’t dress a certain way.
- Don’t tell a person you understand their disability because you have a family member who has the same disability.
- Listen to what your friend is comfortable with. Often times people will want to lift me over a step. I don’t find that safe, and I get to decide what’s accessible for me and what I’m willing to risk.
- Don’t guilt people for having to cancel at the last minute. Disabled bodies are unpredictable, and sometimes we have to make tough choices to be able to do the things we need to do.
- Please don’t try to set us up with somebody just because they are also disabled.
- Be conscious of the limited transportation options that physically disabled people have.
- Don’t compare one disabled person to another or try to shame people for not doing more.
- Disabled people do not exist to inspire you or make you feel better about your own life.
For Sexual partners/ Romantic partners
- Communicate before engaging in sex, even if you’ve already had sex. Their body might be a little bit different this time.
- Make sure the disabled person feels safe. That might mean making sure their mobility device is put in a certain area, or that certain parts of their body won’t be touched or put into certain positions.
- Disabled people do not owe you extra “perks” like not using condoms or engaging in threesomes.
- You are not a saint or a good person just for dating somebody with a disability.
And a good general rule for everyone: Do not speak for disabled people. If other nondisabled people around you assume you speak on their behalf, tell the person engaging you that the disabled person can communicate for themselves.
My sexual orientation is something that I access through my body, not in spite of it. When I imagine my perfect Queer life, everything about me is the same. My legs have the same six scars. I still can’t go through grass without getting my wheels stuck, and I don’t weigh a pound less. The thing that has changed is the fact that I am allowed to meaningfully contribute to the issues that the LGBTQ+ community in my area faces. I am relied on. Even better, I get to relax. Instead of having to do mini cultural-competency trainings every time I meet a new person, I get to spend hours doing fun stuff like touting the merits of making fictional characters canonically bisexual or trying to figure out if an invitation I received earlier is just a friendly hang or a date. I don’t need outside validation to be secure in my sexual orientation. But the human connection and community around shared experience is an amazingly fortifying source of joy that everyone in our community should have access to.