Celebrating Diversity: The Intricacies of being Queer & Disabled
All men are not born equal, some of us are more equal than others. History belongs to everyone, but unfortunately, has always been narrated by men from the dominant majority, while the stories and voices of those on the margins were conveniently forgotten and erased from the annals of history.
Image description: A young woman seated in a wheelchair against a neon rainbow with a purple backdrop which reads “Love is love” “Love is a basic human right” and “Live and Let love”
Throughout the month of June, we saw Pride month being celebrated with various forms of activism and affirmative action to celebrate diversity and facilitating an increased awareness of the struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community. However, even the narrative of Pride month and history has exclusively centered on those who are neurotypical and able bodied. Only recently, July has begun being celebrated as Disability Pride Month, in acknowledgment of the invisibilization and erasure of the sexuality of disabled people.
Disabled individuals may not fit the conventional ableist dominated narratives of beauty. The capitalist and patriarchy fuelled understanding of an “ideal” body type as a benchmark for attractiveness only serves to further alienate those living with a disability from being included in these conversations. The capitalist world we live in with its relentless glorification of hustle culture links our worth as individuals to the financial viability of our bodies which are seen as nothing more than the machinery to contribute “productively’’ to society.
There is a complete negation of the existence of disabled individuals and their contributions to society at large. Acknowledging the fact that even those living with a disability would experience sexual desire or the desire for a partner, just as much as others, remains a long shot. It is, therefore, very unlikely that they would be seen as a potential partner. This could leave disabled individuals feeling isolated, lonely and disconnected from their peers and any potential partners they could have.
Dating can be especially tricky for disabled individuals, regardless of the person’s sexuality or gender identity, with most dating apps not being accessible and even the more pragmatic risks of knowing whether or not to meet an absolute stranger, especially given the vulnerability that city public spaces can bring for disabled individuals. For instance, if a wheelchair user is unable to access a public space without ramps and is forced to seek help from an able-bodied stranger, they run the risk of needing help from a potentially unsafe person who might take undue advantage of their physical vulnerability and inability to escape that space. However, because disabled individuals are conventionally not seen as “‘attractive enough to be desired” they're unlikely to be believed in case they complain of harassment / assaults, because after all, they are expected to be nothing but grateful to the ‘’Good Samaritan who helped them.
Moreover, the distress of constantly having to evaluate how much to reveal about the disability, and when to do so, in how much detail, is another added stressor. The constant worry that one might not be accepted for who one is, can be truly heart wrenching for a lot of people living with a chronic illness or disability, to the point where they might give up on relationships altogether.
The nuances of the daily struggles of disabled individuals - right from accessing public spaces, like office buildings, schools or even shopping, makes even the most mundane of daily life struggles much tougher, particularly accompanied with the stigma attached to being disabled in a country as unaccepting of difference as ours. It must therefore, go without saying that our understanding of disability, chronic pain and illness has to transcend the pathologizing labels of the medical model to a more social model to explain disability. We need to broaden our understanding of the term disability, seeing it less as an individual or medical concern, but also as a social concern.
Disabled/chronically ill individuals aren’t truly disabled by their body, but by the system and the infrastructure around them, that held no consideration for their needs. After all, healthy bodies are ephemeral. Everyone will age, fall ill, or otherwise need assistance at some point. What’s to become of us when the frailty of age or infirmity catches up with all neurotypicals and able- bodied people in a society that is so capitalist that it only prizes the productivity and financial viability of our bodies?
Moreover, It’s no wonder that when the disability seems so all-consuming, it’s that much harder for a disabled person to discover the other aspects of their identity such as their passions, careers and even their gender and sexuality. Sometimes we may come into this realization later than others because of being preoccupied with the more pressing concerns of the disability and fitting in but that they need to have that normalized.
Recent research by Shah and colleagues (2017) discusses the impact of disabled bodies being perceived as deviant, abnormal or otherwise non-normative has fuelled the misconception that disabled people do not experience romantic or sexual desire. The study explains, “Disabled young people are sexual beings, and deserve equal rights and opportunities to have control over, choices about, and access to their sexuality, sexual expression, and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives.’’ A study by Esmail and colleagues (2010) suggest that individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as asexual due to a predominant heteronormative idea of what is considered natural and desirable, and that this stigma might often impact the self-confidence desire and ability to find a partner while distorting one's overall sexual self-concept in individuals with disabilities. However, that is not to say that absolutely no disabled individuals identify as asexual. In other words, research by Lund and Johnson (2015) has also demonstrated that some disabled individuals might also identify as asexual, but to imply that the two are causally linked is a reductionist view that the disability rights movements as well as asexual individuals have long tried to counter.
Moreover, when a disabled person also identifies as queer, or outside the gender binary, this could come with the dual marginalization of being the marginalized within the marginalized. Disabled individuals who also identify as queer therefore, might find themselves stuck at the intersection of a prejudiced disabled community and an often ableist queer community, both of whom might not be willing to engage with the individuals at this intersection in friendships/romantic partnerships. They may therefore, experience a range of emotions like guilt, shame, internalized ableism, depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, burdensomeness and grief surrounding all the intangible losses they experience all of which come from years of living within a system that doesn’t cater to accommodating their needs.
There’s a pressing need for more disability affirmative therapy that acknowledges the external, social locus of disability as being not a personal or health problem, but a societal one. It becomes crucial to acknowledge that disabled individuals are not limited by their bodies but by a system that does not care to make room for difference. Even establishing this understanding of disability that puts the onus on a broken narrow understanding of “normality” on society and not on the disabled individual - as not trying hard enough or lacking willpower to “overcome” their disabilities , can be a powerful step in empowering them. If you are a disabled/neurodivergent and queer person reading this, you do not have to do this alone. There are ways in which professional mental health support can greatly benefit you. Therapy can help create a safe space for individuals who are disabled and/or identify as queer to work through all the complex and inextricably interwoven emotions and also to offer support and improve quality of life while dealing with the challenges of living with chronic health issues.
Esmail S, Darry K, Walter A, Knupp H. Attitudes and perceptions towards disability and sexuality. Disabil Rehabil. 2010;32(14):1148-55. doi: 10.3109/09638280903419277. PMID: 20131952.
Lund, E.M., Johnson, B.A. Asexuality and Disability: Strange but Compatible Bedfellows. Sex Disabil 33, 123–132 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11195-014-9378-0
Shah, S. (2017). “Disabled People Are Sexual Citizens Too”: Supporting Sexual Identity, Well-being, and Safety for Disabled Young People. Frontiers In Education, 2. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2017.00046