At a party some years ago, an attractive man approached me and put his hand on my leg. Excitement coursed through my veins. He leaned in, his breath hot on my neck, and whispered: “I just wanted to check if you could feel your legs. I just assumed you were paralyzed.”
I am a queer man who uses a wheelchair. This happens to me all too often.
In the queer community we talk a lot about inclusion and acceptance. We give credence to the idea that everyone is welcome under our rainbow. But as so many of us know, this isn’t always the truth in everyday life.
Marginalized community members—queer people of color, non-binary or genderqueer folks, and the disabled queer community in particular—are often excluded from LGBT representation, raising an essential question: How can we build better communities that actually model the inclusivity we preach?
As a queer disabled person, here are four tips on how you can be a better ally to the disabled LGBT community.
Advocate for Fully Accessible Queer SpacesAlex Holyoake/Unsplash
The LGBT community has a rich history of bars, clubs, and centers where we can gather to express our sexuality and embrace our identities. Though these spaces have become safe havens for so many, they are often physically inaccessible to queer disabled people. For instance, in my hometown of Toronto, there are only two out of 15 gay nightlife establishments that I can enter through the front door in my wheelchair.
What You Can Do
Instead of limiting queer disabled people’s options, advocate for change. Go to your local LGBT establishments and inquire about accessibility. Ask if they have ramps or elevators. If accessibility is lacking, galvanize your friends and community to organize a gala or fundraiser, or start an online campaign to raise money for accessibility in these spaces. Keep in mind, queer bars and clubs often want to be accessible, but can’t afford the necessary infrastructure.
When I am sharing my experiences of being queer and disabled with gay men, I am often met with the phrase: “Oh, well, that happens to everyone.” Unfortunately, that usually isn’t the case. Non-disabled members of the community don’t encounter the blatant ableism that disabled LGBT people do on a daily basis. They aren’t constantly asked about whether or not their genitals work, they aren’t expected to answer the notorious “What happened to you?” question when out on a date, and they aren’t rejected simply because someone “isn’t into wheelchairs.”
What You Can Do
First, understand your privilege as an able-bodied member of our community. And second, when a disabled person shares the experience of ableism from within the LGBT community, one of the best ways to be there for them is simply to listen. Let them tell you how they feel. Let them be angry and frustrated. Don’t try to compare experiences in an effort to make them feel better because your experience is not the same. Lend an open ear. It goes a very long way.
Educate YourselfSyd Wachs/Unsplash
So many non-disabled people in our community are uneducated about the issues that disabled people face. I can’t count the number of times people say to me, “I’ve never really thought about that before,” after I tell them about some of the things we go through. Able-bodied queer people need to expand their understanding of difference.
What You Can Do
Don’t rely on your disabled friends to tell you their stories of ableism, rejection, and pain all the time. Relying on us to be your teachers is exhausting and unfair. If you really want to work on becoming a better ally to the queer disabled community, please educate yourself.
There are some brilliant anthologies to read (QDA: Queer Disabled Anthology, 2015; Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories, 2004), as well as podcasts (I even have my own called Disability After Dark) or podcast episodes (Risk!’s “True Romance,” August 7, 2017).
Ask Questions—RespectfullyEmily Morter/Unsplash
While it’s natural to be curious about topics we don’t understand, it’s the way questions are posed that is the problem. People will often approach me and immediately inquire about the intersection of my body, disability, and sexuality, and then they will feel entitled to an answer. This is not OK. Able-bodied queer people need to think about how they would feel if they were interrogated about their experiences by a relative stranger.
What You Can Do
The solution is really simple: Be respectful. Instead of asking a barrage of invasive questions, try a more mutual approach. Consider asking, “Maybe we could grab a drink and get to know each other?” This may seem like a simple question, but it will allow you to learn about the other person’s experience of being queer and disabled, without neglecting all the other facets of his or her identity. Chances are that during your drink, disability will come up naturally in conversation and you can talk about it without harshly zeroing in.