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How I'm Finding Pride as a Gay Man With a 'Sitting Disability'

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Why would I march in a parade called “Pride” when I have so much “shame” hanging over my head due to my illness? Why is it OK to be gay, but not to be sick? Why, in my experience, are many outside of and within the LGBT community so quick to prejudge those with an invisible illness, especially after enduring their own personal journey of turning prejudice into pride?

In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet does not tolerate Mr. Darcy’s prideful ways. In the book, the definition of “pride” is boastful; its definition in Pride Month means “proud.” The opposite of the word, in both cases, is shame. Shame hangs over people with any illness that isn’t recognized, especially invisible illnesses.

I am no stranger to stigmatization, having had to endure it both as being gay and having a mental illness. Coming out as gay went smoothly for me — thank my lucky stars, and those brave souls who paved the way for men like me by enduring so much bigotry and abuse. Coming out with bipolar disorder was like tearing off a Band-Aid while the wound is still open — it stung a little, but the pain soon passed. But coming out with a sitting disability is even more difficult because rather than battling stigmas, I must fight obscurity. Sitting disability? Nobody’s ever heard of it. This puts people with this disability in an awkward position. The purpose of Pride Month is destigmatization, but how can a group be destigmatized when it hasn’t even been stigmatized?

Sitting disability is a new term to most people, but basically, it works like this: it hurts when I sit. It sounds simple, but many of my family and friends, and even doctors have a difficult time grasping the concept of how this plays out in everyday life. That’s why I want to shed light on this silent but debilitating condition. There are accommodations for wheelchairs, but not for people who have difficulty sitting. And the world revolves around sitting. Chairs are the mainstay in everyday living, whether for business or leisure. And although it may be tempting to say “just stand” as a solution, imagine standing the entire time while in a restaurant, car, train, plane, bus, or office.

Most people have heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” somewhere in a magazine, online, or on TV. We all know the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Those with sitting disabilities know this all too well. Many things can cause a sitting disability. Mine comes from lumbago (low back pain) and sciatica (pain down the left leg). The low back pain is a dull ache that is tolerable for a short amount of time, while the sciatica is a sharp jab that is unbearable at its worst. But worse than the pain is the shame. Not being able to work or go to a movie theater is one thing, but rearranging chairs in a restaurant so I can sit at the most comfortable one while everybody watches is a whole other level.

I’ve tried it all for relief, including back surgery, steroid injections, physical therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, biofeedback, yoga, meditation, and massage. Nothing worked, and at the end of each failed treatment, the blame game began — an experience shared with others with chronic pain. We’re accused of faking it, making it up, not completing the physical therapy exercises, not sitting up straight in chairs, and not using chairs with proper support. People attack us with phrases like “popping a pill” when taking pain medications, even when the meds are properly prescribed.

We live in a world where most Americans work in a corporate setting. Many of us have office jobs where we face sitting in traffic, sitting at a desk all day, sitting in traffic again, and getting home to unwind with Netflix — all while sitting, of course. Yet requests for ergonomic solutions such as standing desks can often be met by employers with disdain, while rebuking employees with shame, telling them they don’t “look sick.” It seems likely that sitting disabilities will only increase in the future. It’s better to redesign our lives with flexible options for sitting or standing now rather than later.

The criticism we give people with sitting disabilities, or other invisible or visible disabilities is Health Shame. So coming out to acknowledge and confront this bullying is Health Pride. This show of solidarity could be in the form of a colored ribbon, marathon, or bucket of ice over the head. These things raise money but more importantly, awareness.

I feel that bringing up my sitting disability is part of my responsibility for educating others. We need to un-shame the subject like we have with homophobia and transphobia. And who better to do that than the LGBT community? We can use our struggles with sexuality to embrace those with other struggles, such as sitting disability.

I admit it’s not sexy. It lacks flair. Taking meds or playing musical chairs in a restaurant to get a comfortable seating arrangement isn’t as exciting as a lively parade of rainbow flags and people expressing their identities with pride. As someone who struggles with sitting disability, I find it notable that the Pride Parade is one where I stand to watch. It’s almost as if it is giving me a wink, trying to be inclusive to me and others with sitting disabilities. I didn’t choose my faulty spine, just as I didn’t choose to be gay.

There is an opportunity for growth. In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth was able to overcome her prejudice for Mr. Darcy, Darcy his pride, and they fell in love. The world is battling homophobia and transphobia, and is recognizing mental illness — although all have been painfully slow.

Pride in sexuality and pride in health. It is a gift the LGBT community can give to the future generations of the world.

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Thinkstock photo by Maxvis.

Originally published: June 27, 2017
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