Coming out for me was comparatively easy compared to some of the stories I’ve heard. I would almost say my family outed me to myself. I had friends who said, please be gay, I don’t want to be the only queer I know, and straight and queer friends alike to go to Big Gay Out with. But I stayed in the closet while I was waiting on the funding and resource consent to build the ramp that would let me roll on out in my rainbow wheelchair. My first coming out to myself was a conversation that went something like: Really another minority? You just like making things hard for yourself. Fuck off. I was worried I was just shrinking my chances that there would be someone out there who might kiss this crip, because now they not only had to be open-minded but also queer! It took me a while, and far too much glitter hair spray and pride flags, to get over myself.
From this place it has taken me even longer to wonder if being disabled might actually have helped my coming out in a tangential way. I was used to some of the processes you have to prepare yourself for in coming out. Mostly the questions. Nobody—ranging from school friends to medical professionals—seemed to know how I’d have sex anyway regardless of my partner’s gender: So I guess your partner would do everything? How would you have sex? What about children? Is your partner a lesbian/disabled too? These are all questions I’ve had about both identities, and it was once suggested I might be choosing queerness because it would somehow be easier with a disability. There has always been an over-zealous interest in the way my body works, from people of all orientations. The wheelchair had outed me time and time again, without any conscious decision about the times and places that I want explain the how and why of crippledom.
A particular similarity that I have experienced is the social grouping of us minorities together. As though all queer folk or all disabled people will get on purely on that basis: Hey I have a friend who is also queer/disabled too you’d get on. A lot of this is well intentioned and in some cases it even works out. But for me this has two major problems.
The first is that it is a rare event that I can ever bring my queerness and my disability comfortably into the same room. This is both physically—wheelchair access to Ivy anyone?—and also in terms of the need to explain myself. Although in queer spaces I do not have to explain queerness, that expectation to explain disability does not get left at the door.
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It was only recently I experienced a synergy of both. Working on a theatre project called Body Sovereignty in Auckland, I performed a monologue called A Cripple Talks About Anatomy. It was written to pose some of the awkward questions I’d been asked as a disabled woman back at its audience. The performers were mostly queer and we each brought stories of our own bodies to sit together in the same work. The access issues I faced in getting into that space became woven into the storytelling. While we had set out to create a space in which it was safe to be queer, we also intended it as a safe space to be in our bodies however they came. The representation of predominantly queer artists in that space spoke to the fact that the stories of their bodies are marginalised, but my story fit there too as an authentic body story.
The second problem is that no matter how complex and political it can be to exist in a queer space, there is the potential for—oh, she’s cute. Wider society is slowly beginning to understand at least the LGB (T, I am not excluding. I just think that we are not as far along with understanding this in simple terms and don’t wish to speak for trans people) identities as based on love, attraction, and desire.
But there isn’t a word like love to boil disability down to. There is something fearful in having a body like mine whoever you are. And when we crips get together the stories we are telling each other are still limited largely to struggles and battles. I remember going to a group for disabled young people—we went out for dinner—and coming home drained, all the talk had been sad. And me, I’d come out on top: You’re so smart. Because I was confident and I had the same expectations for myself that my able-bodied friends had for themselves: study, travel, a good job, love. And I wondered desperately, where is the crip-pride? I want a place that my wheels, my girlfriend, and my spine can all be at once.