Disabled and Sexual is a monthly(-ish) column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which will explore all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.
If you took one look at a Pride parade or any of the capitalist Pride advertising during June, you’d be forgiven for assuming that disabled people are almost non-existent in the LGBTQ+ community.
In truth, we are many and we are proud. As a pansexual, disabled woman, I am one of them.
But every one of us knows that being in possession of a disability means always being left wanting when it comes to full inclusion, even amongst other marginalised communities.
Although approximately one third of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults in the US also identify as disabled, accessibility needs are often sidelined in the queer community. It can even take years longer for us to come out due to a lack of queer relationships and sex education for disabled folks.
(I wish I had more specific statistics on the representation of queer people in the disabled community, however, I cannot find a single conclusive study with reliable data on the number of disabled LGBTQ+ people in the UK population.)
Considering that LGBTQ+ people have a keen understanding of what it means to be marginalised and oppressed, you might assume that disabled people entering the community are welcomed seamlessly but this is rarely the case.
While many queer people welcome us with the best of intentions, disabled people are frequently excluded from queer spaces by inaccessibility and we wrestle with the complexity of multi-layered oppression on a daily basis. Managing our daily lives in a world that oppresses us by denying basic access – like to restaurants and events – is a huge drain on our limited energy.
In the LGBTQ+ world, the exclusion of disabled people manifests in several ways; most notably in how disabled people are left out of Pride events.
Every year, my social media feeds are flooded with disabled people who attended a Pride event only to find it inaccessible. Sometimes it’s because of an inaccessible route on the parade, a lack of disabled toilets and interpreters or even that the events were focused on alcohol and drinking. This is just a sprinkling of the accessibility issues faced by disabled people at these events.
I want to be a part of Pride but it can feel like there is a glaring sign saying ‘disabled people do not belong here’, which is why so many disabled, queer people choose not to attend instead. Plus, it’s not just at Pride events that disabled people are excluded. Even in rainbow capitalist advertising, queer disabled voices are often ignored.
My own queer journey began when I crushed on Laura Dern in Jurassic Park just as hard as I did Jeff Goldblum in his iconic scene. Without the tiniest shred of LGBTQ+ sex education, my only knowledge of queerness came from the slurs I heard thrown at anyone daring to step across the strict gender boundaries that ruled the playground, so I never questioned my sexual orientation.
When I started developing feelings for people of other genders, I suppressed it – hard. I swallowed my queerness and my disabilities like a bitter pill. Internalized ableism and homophobia united to suppress two key parts of my identity, and they nearly won.
As my friends kissed girls for the sake of it, I became entranced by my own gender; excited to explore the romantic connection I could have with them. But at 14, after I’d been seen kissing a girl outside an under-18s club night and the teasing started, I made a conscious decision to suppress my sexuality.
Though the girl I’d been seeing was incredible, my fear of being ostracized convinced me to pick the easier option of only dating men. Besides, I couldn’t face adding another label.
I’d also started to get sick. The first rumblings of a mess of conditions that still love to play havoc on my life today were sounding at the same time as my burgeoning sexual identity. Sick days were racking up – soon to outnumber my days in attendance at school – and I succumbed to what society had taught me. Disability was an ugly word I wanted no part of.
Already morphing into the “sick girl”, the terror of facing another label meant I suppressed both. I willingly bowed to the ableism and homophobia that still sows a trail of poisonous thorns in the fabric of our society.
I know that if I – and other disabled people – were empowered with knowledge about disability, gender identity and sexual orientation from a young age, we could overcome internalized prejudice before it ever takes root.
Though we’re all becoming more aware of how privilege and oppression interweave into every aspect of society, disabled people keep getting left behind. Even in the world of love we are either cast aside before we can even begin to understand our sexuality or we’re denied access because we’re simply too hard to find love for, like in BBC Journalist Lucy Webster’s case.
To better represent and include disabled queer people, our community needs people to fight for our inclusion. We need allies to listen to us and ensure that our lives are spolighted too, and not just at Pride events.
Disabled LGBTQ+ lives should be celebrated every day of the week, so please don’t forget about us. We’re here and we’re queer too.
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