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June 25, 2004

Fighting to be seen

From: Washington Blade, DC - Jun 25, 2004

Gays with disabilities say they often feel invisible

Jun. 25, 2004

IN A RECENT night in San Francisco, John Killacky, a 51-year-old writer and video artist, attended an AIDS benefit with his partner, Larry. During the reception, Killacky, who became a paraplegic eight years ago after doctors removed a benign tumor from his spinal cord, says he felt invisible.

"People leaned over me in my wheelchair and asked Larry, 'How is he feeling?'" he says. "It's as if my mind wasn't there."

As a gay man with a disability, Killacky's experience isn't unique. He and other gay disabled people say they frequently encounter discrimination within both the gay and disability communities.

To bring this discrimination to light, Killacky and Bob Guter co-edited "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories," which was published earlier this year by Haworth Press and recently won a Lambda Literary Award in the Non-fiction Anthology category.

Guter says disabled people appropriated the negative word "crip" in the same way that gay people adopt "queer." "We use it to retain our identity with pride rather than shame," he says, noting that crip is used generically, to refer to people with all types of disabilities.

"'Disability' is more of a medical or public policy term," Guter says. "'Crip' is more in-your-face."

BEING PROUD OF ONESELF isn't always easy if one is gay and disabled, various gay people with disabilities told the Blade.

Before Killacky became disabled at age 43, he was athletic. "The night before my surgery, I went running," he says. After the operation, his body froze. "I got a whole new perspective [from having a disability]."

Killacky says gay men no longer felt comfortable around him, and he ran up against homophobia among other disabled people. "In rehab, all of the material on sexuality was for heterosexuals," he says.

At a conference for artists with disabilities, there were no openly gay men or lesbians. "A paraplegic comedienne made homophobic jokes at the event," Killacky says.

Guter's disability is the result of malformation birth defects. When he was six, his legs were amputated below his knees.

Guter, 58, says that he has known that he is gay since he was a little boy. Coming out was hard, he says, but coming out to himself as a person with a disability was far more difficult. "When I'd see other disabled people, I'd be reminded of what I hated about myself," he says, noting that the non-disabled world confirmed his negative self-image.

In college, he fell in love with his male roommate.

He asked me, 'Do you think you'll ever find a man who'll sleep with you,'" Guter recalls.

He describes that as "the challenge that mysteriously engendered hope." Somehow, Guter says he had the self-possession to tell his roommate: "Yes. If I can find the right man."

Guter began to identify with other disabled people eight years ago. "It was a slow process," he says.

Today, he edits a Web zine — "Bent:A Journal of Crip Gay Voices" at

"The male gay sub-culture is about looks," Guter says. "Gay men with disabilities don't fit into the queer image of beauty. In places where gay men congregate … for erotic connection — like bars — we quickly get the impression that we aren't welcome."

D.C. RESIDENT BERRITA "RENEE" Parker, 57, has pulmonary hypertension and degenerative arthritis and uses bottled oxygen and an electric wheelchair. "A lot of social events aren't accessible or smoke free," she says. "If there's smoke I'm up a creek."

Roberta Goldberg, a 38-year-old lesbian who is an interpreter for deaf people in Danbury, Conn., says lesbian groups sometimes have interpreters or wheelchair ramps at community events such as meetings or music festivals.

"They feel that they're 'sensitive,'" she says. "But it's really, 'We'll keep you at arms length. We won't date you.'"

Susan McDaniel Stanley a lesbian who lives in Bowie, Md.,finds the dating world to be an unwelcoming place. Stanley's disability, spinal cerrellbum degeneration, was diagnosed in 1986.

Stanley, 44, uses a rollator — a walker with four wheels and handbrakes — to get around. She says lesbians seem frightened of dating women with disabilities.

"They think, 'I can't be together with a disabled woman because I'd have to take care of her,'" Stanley says, adding that this fear is misguided.

"Having a disability doesn't make us incompetent," she says. "We're not going to ask a partner to be our nurse."

Disabled gay women or "crips" don't fit "the lesbian model," says Corbett O'Toole, who operates a Web site at in Albany, Calif.

"The lesbian image is of a woman who can work and support her lover," says O'Toole, who has had a physical disability since age 1 and uses a wheelchair. If you're disabled it's hard to be seen as sexual, she says, no matter how out you are.

"If I'm in a bookstore, lesbians would just think I needed help getting a book from a shelf," O'Toole says. "They wouldn't ask me to have coffee."

THERE ARE CULTURAL differences in the ways in which gay men and lesbians with some disabilities relate to the gay community, observers say.

For example, many hearing men make references to movies and music, says Raymond Luczak, a gay deaf writer in New York. "They toss off a line or two from a Broadway show for laughs," he says, noting that humor for most deaf gay men is visual.

"Often someone's mannerisms can be imitated very well in ASL [American Sign Language] for laughs," he says.

Terry Galloway, a 53-year-old writer, director and performer for video and stage, is deaf but does not consider herself "culturally deaf."

"I'm deaf with a small 'd' which means that, although I've studied [American Sign Language] at various times in my life, my [ability to sign] is on par with my Spanish, which is shitty," she said in an e-mail message.

Culturally deaf people communicate using American Sign Language. Individuals such as Galloway, who is hearing-impaired, do not use ASL to communicate.

Galloway, who has been with her partner for 21 years, splits her time between homes in Tallahassee, Fla., and Austin, Texas. She has known that she is gay since her childhood. But, as with many people who are gay and disabled, she faced challenges coming out on various fronts.

"As a lesbian and as a 'small d' deaf woman I could always pass," she says. "I could go out with guys and wear my hair long to cover up my hearing aids and pretend that my inability to understand was just some cute girl way of being attractively vague and vulnerable."

When she is out about being lesbian and deaf, however, Galloway says she feels like a political target.

"[I am] the target of the stares and the ire of people who find anything sexual and anything different to be threatening and fearful," she says.

Despite this harsh political reality, Galloway says she feels "perfectly at ease being an out queer" among her friends and her professional colleagues.

"The crips and deaf people I associate with are people with whom I share not just a disability but a profound life interest," she says. "We are all interested in theater and many of us are interested in political activism."

She and her associates try to change what it means to be gay and living with disabilities.

"Anyone who has any vulnerabilities — physical, sexual, racial, economic — ought to be able to recognize common ground," Galloway says, noting that through her work in film, video and theater she strives to create "community."

"I'm out to get people together talking about themselves, their lives, their humor, their desires," she says, adding that she wants to make a difference.

"Otherwise, I'd be doing what my guidance counselor told me to do when I was about to graduate as an A student in high school — work at Motorola," she says. "He gave me a brochure that said, 'Factory work make good job for deaf.'"

Butch Arnold, a gay visually impaired man living in Baltimore, says that for many sighted gay people, "making friends and dating is based on visual interaction," but this is not necessarily his experience.

Arnold is a member of the board of directors of BFLAG, which he says, is the only known group in the world for blind gay people. BFLAG (Blind Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People) is scheduled to hold its national convention in Birmingham, Ala., from July 3-10. (The group is a chartered affiliate of the American Council of the Blind.)

"We get things by listening," Arnold says. "Our humor comes from making verbal, sometimes sly comments." If people could get beyond their fears of blind people, he says, "they would see that we like to do what everyone else does."

Blind and visually impaired people go to movies, Arnold says. "Look at people on a dance floor. No two people dance alike," he jokes. A visually impaired dancer wouldn't look or feel out of place, Arnold says.

Arnold says one of the best things about the BFLAG convention is the support group meetings, in part, because blind gay and lesbian people can be afraid to come out.

"In the support groups they'll have a safe place to talk about being gay. [They will] learn that they're not alone," Arnold says.

At a fund-raiser BFLAG was scheduled to hold on Tuesday, a proclamation from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's office was to be presented to mark June 22 as "BFLAG Day in the City of Baltimore," Arnold says. His hope was that the proclamation would "let people know that we're here."

Many gay blind people never come out, Arnold says. "They're afraid of being shunned by gay people for being blind and by blind people for being gay," he says.

There is little chance that the discrimination faced by gay men and lesbians with disabilities will go away any time soon, observers say. But increasingly there are small signs of hope.

Arnold says the recognition in Baltimore for BFLAG is believed to be the first proclamation to be issued to honor a gay disability group.

Killacky noted that "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" is being used by queer studies and disabilities studies classes. He and Guter hope this will help change attitudes.

So while gay people with disabilities might often feel isolated or invisible, O'Toole and others say "there's a network with thousands" out there, and a growing number are finding each other.

© 2004 The Washington Blade | A Window Media Publication