I had to come out twice — as queer and as disabled
Coming out is rarely a one-step process, but it was even more complicated for me because I came out twice — as queer and as disabled.
As a kid, my disability was fairly visible. It affected my ability to walk, stand, and balance, and left me with low muscle tone, muscle spasms, poor coordination, and difficulty with motor skills. I struggled to walk up staircases one foot at a time, and instead grasped the handrail tightly, hoisting both feet up at once. I was taken out of class for weekly physical and occupational therapy. I had a special exercise ball at home that I had to practice using after school and on weekends. I never had to think about whether people would notice that I was different, because kids couldn’t stop staring at me when I walked, and friends had to pause and wait up if they accidentally ran ahead of me during a game of tag.
As I got older, my disability became less visible, at least to outsiders who aren’t used to disabilities that don’t require a mobility aid, American Sign Language, or a white cane. I had already come out as queer starting at age 13, and finally, at age 19, I was fully “out” to everyone in my world.
I never even thought about the fact that my disability was an identity, something I should be proud to talk about and share.
Carrie Wade, disability activist and staff writer at Autostraddle, says:
“[People] tell you that they ‘didn't even notice you're disabled!' like it's some gigantic compliment. I bought into that stuff hook, line, and sinker forever because no one told me otherwise; I didn't know I could feel any other way. That's because I had no meaningful contact with other disabled folks.
During my college undergrad years, I met an incredible group of disabled people who became my close friends, and I started getting more involved in disability rights activism. That’s when I found the queer disability community online.
I found people like Annie Segarra, Bethany Stevens, Carrie Wade, Cat Smith, and Kayla Whaley. They were public about the fact that they were queer and disabled, and proud of it. This was the first time I thought, “Other disabled queer people actually exist.”
Embracing my existence at the intersections was freeing. I hadn’t realized it, but not being out about my disability had been like holding in a breath for too long. I wasn’t being my complete self with other people, and just as I’d done with my queerness, I was positioning myself as a well-meaning ally to the disability community without letting myself be a part of it.
Annie Segarra (known as Annie Elainey on their YouTube channel), a content creator and intersectional activist, says, “It took me a while to say it out loud, in my mind, to identify as disabled is like any other identity, it’s something bold and ever present in your life. For a long time, before I was diagnosed, I thought my symptoms could be temporary.”
Even when symptoms are lifelong, as many of mine are, claiming disability as an identity can still be a process, especially if you’ve already been through the coming out process for sexuality or gender identity, or both.
“Visibility has tremendous impact. I can only think of one major queer disabled Latina in history and that's Frida Kahlo, says Annie. “That's feeling represented: Seeing yourself in other people, seeing that your experience is not so lonely, seeing that it is possible.
That was exactly how I felt when I found the LGBTQIA+ disability community online. It was like being seen for the first time, and finding other people who knew what it was like when not only is your significant other the same gender (so people assume you’re friends) but they’re also able-bodied (so people assume they’re your personal care assistant).
“One of the big things about existing at that intersection is confronting and navigating the societal desexualization and infantilization of disabled bodies, says Kayla Whaley, editor at Disability in KidLit, essayist, and young adult writer, says. “We're often assumed to be non-sexual (not to be confused with asexual, which many of us undoubtedly are!), let alone queer.
Finding this community also helped me have the strength to start bringing up my disability in public spaces — first on my blog, then in conversations with friends, and then in social media posts and in the essays and articles I write.
In the past year, I finally started walking with a bright purple cane, which makes my disability much more immediately visible, the kind of visibility I’m used to from years of walking down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand.
Understanding intersectionality also means understanding the privilege that we do have — in my case, I’m white and have had incredible access to education and other resources. As I’ve embraced the way that my queerness and disability impact my life, I’m also extremely aware of the narratives other than queerness that are often erased from the disability narrative, like those of people of color, Native American people, and low income folks. As Carrie says, “I have to be constantly looking around and amplifying people who aren’t me and elevating them into positions of authority.”
Interacting with and following queer disabled activists — as well as disabled activists of color, and other multiply marginalized disabled people — has absolutely shifted my worldview. I’ve taken my disability from being something about me that went unnoticed unless I needed to ask for an accommodation, and taken it as a non-negotiable part of my identity. If you want me, you need to have everything, purple cane and all.