There’s one thing about me that you wouldn’t be able to tell if you hadn’t seen pictures of me. A quick glance at the blog would reveal that I’m gay, and the generally nostalgic bent of my writing would probably give away my age, if you hadn’t already read the About page at the top of the site. But you wouldn’t know that I have cerebral palsy, or that I’m in a wheelchair. It may sound odd for someone who writes a blog with the tagline Introspection masked as culture criticism to not disclose something like this; don’t I think that being disabled is an important part who I am? Don’t I encounter the fact that I’m disabled when I’m doing said introspection? I certainly do. But not as much as you might think.
For example, the fact that I’m disabled will never be as important to my identity as my being gay is. Neither of those attributes could be cured or repressed in any meaningful way, but as long as I live in a country that accepts both of those traits, and offers me opportunities regardless of them, I actually have a choice: Do I want to be defined as disabled first, or do I want to be gay first? If I had to choose, and to the extent that these labels even say anything meaningful about me, I’d choose to be gay first and disabled second. I’m not running away from the fact that I’m disabled (pun unintended), but being gay has more to do with who I am on the inside. My legs don’t fall in love with other guys, my brain and my heart does.
Since I didn’t come out until I was 21, however, for many years I didn’t have the luxury of getting to switch labels, from the disabled guy to the gay guy and back again, whenever I felt like it. In fact, it has always fascinated me that it took me so long to realize to myself that I was gay. The signs were there, of course; the thoughts and feelings I had trouble expressing, the weakness for boyband pop etc. It was just that I didn’t know what to do with them, or maybe I didn’t want to. But over the years I have been thinking more and more about another, more complicated possibility, one that I’m not sure I even wanted to consider, fearing it would sound like self-loathing. But what if the fact that I was so preoccupied with the disabled label actually slowed my self-realization as gay?
I’m perfectly fine with being disabled now, because I have been able to show people how more there is to me, but there was a time when I absolutely hated it. One thing was that it took until I was 12 years old for the doctors to conclude that I would never be able to learn to walk. That was a terrible blow for at the time, since much of what I did had been centered around that ultimate goal. But another thing was that I felt that my disability, and the wheelchair in particular, created some sort of distance between me and my classmates. It was like they didn’t really know whether to treat me like they would anybody else, or as some who was at best kind of exotic, or at worst simply awkward. I never suffered any real abuse for being disabled, but I didn’t have the self-esteem to treat it as a non-issue, either. Whether it was real or imagined, I suffered from what I’d call a wheelchair in the room problem. So I kept my head down and tried to be this kinda smart, but deeply insecure kid who didn”t want to attract any attention.
In retrospect, I’ve been puzzled by how I never really managed to be interested in girls, although I certainly tried, and there was one or two who excited me over the years. I suspect that it had something to do with my generally low self-esteem. I was a chubby, socially awkward guy in a wheelchair who learned to not expect any interest from girls, and that sort of smoothed over the fact that I showed as little interest in them as they did in me. But I still couldn’t connect that in any way with being gay. Instead, I just assumed I was ‘un-boyfriendable’, to steal a phrase from Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. In short, I had the otherness thing covered already. Being in a wheelchair made me feel plenty different. I didn’t have the time to ponder whether I could be gay.
Neither did I have a reason to. What I would later learn to appreciate as gay crushes were mostly limited to celebrities and others who I could safely worship from a distance. That didn’t change until I moved to another part of the country when I was 13. The move itself was liberating. I had the chance to redefine who I was for people who didn’t know my past, and I became more confident. I also made a couple of close friends, and realized that I didn’t have to be defined by the fact that I was disabled. I don’t know how real the wheelchair in the room problem had been, or if I had just used it as an excuse not to more outgoing around other people. Whichever it was, I now discovered that it had probably been a bigger deal for me than it ever was for them, and particularly now that we had reached an age where their penchant for schoolyard taunts, at least ideally, should have been replaced by other interests.
There was something else that was even more liberating and more terrifying, at the same time: I crushed on a classmate of mine. It was wonderful, like all crushes are, but a little unsettling, too. And I was around him all day, every day in school, meaning that I also had to do all the pathetic things people do when they’re interested in someone but don’t know how to handle it: Daydreaming endlessly, staring at him while trying not to get caught, trying to set up conversations and thinking of smart things to say, only to either back out of it or sitting there not remembering anything. Stuff like that. To acknowlegde that I was attracted to another guy also meant that I had to ask myself the gay question for the first time. Although I must have known the actual answer, I managed to suppress it, and I was deeply relieved when the crush eventually waned. But the underlying feelings didn’t go away, of course. I learned to live with the occasional gay crushes, but I stubbornly refused to accept that they meant that I was gay. I didn’t fear that I was gay, I just couldn’t imagine being so. So even if being disabled may have in some ways postponed my self-realization as gay, it can’t have been the main reason. If it were, I wouldn’t have stayed in the closet for another eight years after the wheelchair in the room problem started loosening its grip on me.
The best thing about embracing the gay label over that of the disabled guy, is that being gay doesn’t attract pity. Had it not been for the fact that people are still attacked for showing to the world that they are gay, I would actually have preferred that people could see it on me. My disability is not something I can present to people in whatever way I like, and I absolutely hate it when people come up to me and tell me that I’m brave for living with disability, or when they assume that I’m helpless in some way. Had it been the other way around, that my gayness had been obvious for everyone and my disability was something you had to know me to know about, I bet there would have been fewer displays of pity. I would love that.