5 Intersections of Being Queer and Disabled
I came out as a lesbian when I was 13 years old. I have also had cerebral palsy for my entire life. When I first realized I was queer, I wondered how on Earth I could possibly have two marginalized identities like that at the same time. “Is it really possible to be both gay and disabled? What are the odds? There must be no one else who is both of these things.” I was genuinely baffled that such an intersection could exist – in part because I knew few examples of anyone else who was even gay at the time – let alone anyone who also had a disability.
Over the past few years, I have learned about the intersections between having a physical disability and being queer. These two identities connect with one another in ways I would not have expected. I have labeled these intersections into five categories.
Both of these identities are generally not ones you have in common with your family members. You will most likely be the only one in your family with your disability or who is gay (with some exceptions of course!) This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, for many other marginalized identities, such as race, class and religion, people often share them with their family. This can help young people immediately have a community as they grow into their identities, and as they are forced to navigate the ways society stigmatizes and discriminates against them because of those identities.
But when I came out as queer, no one else in my family identified as such. No one in my family has a disability – let alone cerebral palsy. If I could have asked my dad about how to navigate coming out to my classmates, or if I could have asked my mom how to navigate puberty growing pains while having cerebral palsy, and they could have responded from firsthand experience, that would have helped me so much. While my family always supported me, they did not understand how I felt or the experiences I had. This made it very lonely and isolating to possess both identities. It took me years to find friends who share these identities – and I still don’t know anyone who is both queer and who has CP. When I realized I was gay, it felt like one more identity I did not share with my family.
The second way these two identities intersect for me is in the world of dating. As a queer woman who was trying to find a girlfriend before apps like Tinder and OkCupid existed, I felt compelled to occupy spaces like gay bars and clubs in order to find someone to date. Not only that, but in order to impress anyone in these spaces I felt like I needed to dance in some type of “hot” or “sexy” way. The music was always too loud to engage anyone in conversation, so you had to use your body to get their attention. Not only was it hard if not impossible for me to dance, but oftentimes I could not even access gay bars because stairs and a ton of standing were required, which is too painful with my CP. For many years, I felt like my disability was isolating me from the only queer spaces I had access to.
My fashion and gender presentation are another thing my disability and sexuality have both impacted in interesting ways. As someone who has cerebral palsy, it is very difficult to wear dresses because the straps fall off of my shoulder due to my posture impairments. Bras are also difficult to put on and wear for this same reason. I cannot wear heels or flats because of how much they hurt the already tight muscles in my legs. This forces me to wear formal lace up shoes and suit jackets and blazers when I need to dress professionally. When I am going out, I wear button up shirts and pants instead of dresses. It is also hard for me to put on makeup or to shave by myself – two more feminine traits.
Combined with my queer identity, these fashion choices often cause me to be labeled as “butch,” or a more masculine presenting woman (versus “lipstick,” which is a more
feminine presenting woman). Within the lesbian dating community, people oftentimes have preferences over whether or not they prefer to date butches or lipsticks. These gender labels have a surprising impact on who pays attention to you and how other queer women perceive you.
Many queer women feel pressure (especially when they first come out) to align with one of these labels. When I came out, I felt like I should cut my hair and present even more masculine to fit this butch stereotype. I feel like the limitations of my disability automatically categorize me into certain gender roles within the queer community.
Coming Out / Disclosing
My particular type of cerebral palsy is not visible to a stranger. This means that both my disability and my queer sexuality involve some process of me coming out. I choose when and how people know about my disability and sexuality. Though they both often meet with very different reactions. Interestingly enough, when I was a child and teenager, I feared coming out as a lesbian way more than I did coming out as someone with a disability. But now as an adult, those roles have reversed, and I am much more anxious about coming out as someone with a disability.
Pride and Acceptance
Society teaches us to hate both our queer sexualities and our disabilities because they are not seen as what is “normal” for bodies and minds. Life is harder with either of these identities simply because they are often marginalized and discriminated against. But both identities are an innate part of you – within your body and within your mind and heart. For both of them, you eventually learn to accept yourself as someone with a disability and as someone who is queer. You learn to advocate for yourself, and over time you learn how to love yourself. And as you become more involved within your community, you learn how to have pride in yourself.
Both of these identities give me strength and courage. Both of these identities caused me to face bullying, and therefore allowed me to grow resilience. Both of these identities helped me become extremely empathetic. Both of these identities forced me to redefine what support and love means. Both of these identities have instilled a passion for equity and social justice into my life. Both of these identities are aspects of myself I would not give up, and have pushed me to become a better version of myself. And both of these identities inevitably make me who I am.
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