This article is part of Thirst Week, a series that approaches the idea of “thirst” from various angles—some straightforward, others more challenging. A new Thirst Week piece will be released every day this week. Check them out here.
Growing up, I loved TV. Superman, the Ghostbusters animated series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like most kids raised in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I wanted to have superpowers, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. But while I was absorbing these images, I was also learning a hard truth I’d confront well beyond my childhood: The characters I grew up alongside weren’t like me at all.
Every single one of them could walk.
I am a queer man with cerebral palsy and I use a wheelchair to get around. Where were the cartoons of me?
In 1995, when I was 11 years old, Christopher Reeve was paralyzed. On a nightly newscast shortly after the accident, I was mesmerized by his presence onscreen. I don’t remember exactly what he was wearing, or which newscast it was, or even what he said. I just remember lying in bed watching, grinning ear to ear. Seeing him smile as he sat in his electric wheelchair—the same one I had—I felt as if I knew this man better than anyone else. Here was a Hollywood legend, an actor who personified one of the most iconic, superhuman characters in pop culture, existing in a body that looked like mine.
After seeing Reeve, I began to use television to connect with stories that were unavailable to me in real life: school dances, high school parties, dating. As I watched each of these plotlines unfold, I felt I was vicariously able to experience them. Television provided me a level of accessibility that I couldn’t get anywhere else.
But while this entertainment satisfied my craving for adolescent milestones, it struggled to speak to my experience as a disabled person. The character I had to look up to was Forrest Gump, who, if he ran fast enough, could break free from his leg braces; or Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy in My Left Foot, whose exceptional artistic genius outshined his cerebral palsy. As a disabled person, these representations failed to highlight the reality of actually being a disabled person. As a queer disabled person, I didn’t exist at all.
With no examples to look to, I—like many gay men—latched onto the groundbreaking Queer As Folk as my entry way into understanding queerness. While it was validating to see men explore their sexuality so freely, the show sent me a strong message: Abled bodies were muscled and desired, they could dance and make love. My disabled body could do none of these things.
As I absorbed these depictions of muscular, able-bodied queer men on television in my late teens, they shaped my personal view on love, sex and dating—but not for the better. When I was in my twenties, about the time I started to date, I sought out only able-bodied, muscular men. I was looking for real life versions of the characters I saw on TV who I believed could stand as proof that my sexuality was valid; if they accepted me in the bedroom, I thought, they would accept me outside of it as well.
It didn’t work out that way, and for most of my formative sexual years, I remained on the outside peering in.
Over the years, I’ve playfully labeled myself as my lover’s “first queer cripple,” a juvenile way to poke fun at my own identity so that the guy I was laying next to in bed wouldn’t. Various men have told me: “Having sex with you wouldn’t bother me at all” and “I don’t know why, but I find myself very attracted to you.” And the ultimate killer: “Being with you wasn’t so bad.” Most of the time I hear these words and say nothing in return, perhaps believing I do not deserve to defend myself and my body. But when I do receive a positive, genuine comment about my appearance, I struggle to listen to its truth and kindness, fearing the shred of vulnerability it requires of me: I can be wanted by somebody else.
It’s not hard to understand why queer men often view me with trepidation. They’re nervous and scared. They don’t know how to react to my body, which is one that, both onscreen and in real life, hasn’t been available to them.
But there’s also a deeper answer to their fear: It forces them to confront the ever-changing state of their own bodies—the reality that, one day, they may have to reevaluate their prejudices around disability should they get sick or have an accident. The gay community has clung to health and fitness as pillars of perfection, as a balm to illness and disease, which we suffered from tragically throughout the AIDS epidemic. Oftentimes, when a gay man is attracted to someone outside his idealized rubric, he’s at a loss. Sex culture and history has taught him that this person is not worthy of affection and should be avoided. But what happens when discipline comes in conflict with desire? What does an able-bodied gay man loving a gay disabled man look like? And will there ever be a time when that appearance doesn’t matter—when it’s ordinary, accepted, equal?
I can’t say for certain that a queer disabled person on television would affect change within the community, let alone beyond it. The pressures and responsibilities pushed upon that figure would be overwhelming if not all-consuming; inappropriate questions, backlash, and ableism from within the LGBT community are all expected challenges and possible pitfalls. But trailblazers have carved paths before and can again, and like any person who believes in change and progress, the prospect of seeing someone like myself in the public eye brings me hope. This representation could do so much good: It could create role models for young, queer disabled people to look up to; it could send a message to the LGBT community that there is more to our identities than how our bodies look.
I can’t wait for the day when the queer, disabled kid comes home from school, turns on the TV, frantically flips channels, and—as he stares into that big, bright screen—smiles when he sees himself.