I’ve been wondering what to write for the “We Got Your Back” project. Neo Prodigy wrote a great essay (reposted here), which has a lot of generally-useful information as well as information targeted at teens of color. I wanted to expand on it with some thoughts for disabled teens. I use “GLBT*” as an acronym covering Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexed, Questioning, and other non-mainstream forms of gender and sexual expression (I’m a geek, so of course I’d use an asterisk as a wildcard character).
As a note, if the tips below sound like I’m equating homophobia with some forms of violence and abuse? I am. In that vein, I have taken the liberty of adapting knowledge from domestic violence advocacy in developing this advice, including some relevant links. I do this because I’m more concerned with helping people who will be endangered by coming out than in only offering uplifting advice (though I offer some of that, too).
You Are Beautiful
As disabled people, we are often taught that our disabilities make us undesirable. Being GLBT* often adds another cultural message of unlovability to this equation. In my own experience, the diversity of tastes that humans have is so broad and expansive that everyone has something about them that someone else will find beautiful. There is no sound basis to believe that you will “always be alone” when it comes to love and relationships, unless that is specifically what you want.
Your Body, Your Self
You have a right to be sexual, and to decide when, how, and if you want to exercise that sexuality. This is true regardless of your sexual orientation, but it cannot be reinforced enough: Your body is yours. No one else has the automatic right to decide what to do with it.
Unfortunately, disabled people are at extremely high risk of abuse of all kinds: sexual, physical, emotional, and so on. If you a survivor of abuse, I strongly encourage you to find someone to talk to: a trusted adult, members of the clergy, a therapist, or even a support hotline.
On Coming Out
If your disability means you rely on personal assistants (whether parents, aides, or interpreters) to meet your day-to-day needs, think very carefully about when and whether to come out. Able-bodied people don’t have to worry about caregivers refusing life-saving servies, or abusing your medical needs as a way of controlling you. You, OTOH, must realistically evaluate and consider how likely your caregivers are to participate in this form of abuse.
If you have any doubts at all about your caregivers’ reactions after coming out, develop a backup plan. In low-risk contexts, this can be as simple as “going to college far enough away that my family cannot control my day-to-day actions,” or “moving out and getting a job to support myself”.
In high-risk contexts, this may mean having necessary supplies stashed in a safe place away from home. Things to consider having in the stash: extra medical supplies if you need them; copies of your IDs – if possible, include your Social Security card, passport, and any immigration documents if you are a documented immigrant; enough cash for transportation to a shelter or alternative residence; and enough change for multiple phone calls to locate a shelter that can accomodate your disability needs.
(If you think your family and/or caregivers will become actively abusive towards you, consider contacting a domestic violence agency for assistance in developing something called a “Safety Plan”.)
On Using the Internet
Depending on your particular disability(ies) and needs, the internet can be a life-saving resource. There are also dangers in using the internet, especially if other people have access to your computer, its browser history, its file cache, and/or your email accounts. If necessary, get your own web-based email address (Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail all offer free accounts). Also learn how to erase your browsing history and other electronic footprints. (The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has some useful tips on getting started with this.)
The More Things Change…
Be aware that GLBT* communities can be extremely ableist. GLBT* people, on average, will react to and cope with your disability(ies) just as well – or poorly – as any other group of people. Fortunately, you probably already have lots of practice with this one, and I won’t presume to tell you which tactics will work best for you.
I was harrassed, bullied, and teased from elementary school on, both for being disabled and for being perceived as gay. This started before I managed to connect the dots and figure out that I am, in fact, gay. I came out during my freshman year of college.
In some ways, I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up in a supportive family, and knew that my family would be OK with learning I am gay. This made it far easier for me to come to terms with my identity as a gay man, and meant that it was safe for me to come out to them. I did not have to worry about losing financial support, or having my family physically threaten me, or try to “cure” me. Nevertheless, the intersection of disability and sexuality means that I still have to struggle with overprotective parenting, ill-informed “advice” on how to live my life and express my identity, and other issues that are specific to that context.
It was actually much harder for me to come to terms with being kinky. If there’s one thing I wish I’d known as a teenager, it is this: It’s OK to be kinky. Safe, aware, consensual kink can be a beautiful thing. Bonus: In my experience, healthy kinksters deal with disability pretty well, because safety demands much more explicit discussion and negotiation between partners about boundaries, limits, and what does and doesn’t work for each individual. (Just like any other group, there are still some really skeevy people around. Trust your judgment.)
I’ve come to have many wonderful friends, straight and otherwise. They accept me, my partner, and the realities of my life as a disabled gay man. I’ve done things that would blow my teenage mind away. Would I ever choose to relive my childhood? No. But I have worked my way to a place where I am reasonably safe, healthy, and able to live my life on my terms. I hope you’ll find your way to that kind of life, too.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read Neo Prodigy’s essay, too, for more general thoughts.