Wannabees, and . . . Race
Raymond J. Aguilera, Robert Feinstein, Bob Guter, Keith Hogan, Donald
Lawrence, Stephen Mudge, Michael Perreault, Larry Roberts
is the online discussion
group associated with BENT, where cripgay men talk about the
issues that matter to themfunny, serious and everything
time to time, with the cooperation of the participants, BENT
presents an edited version of an exchange we think will interest
a wider audience. You'll find the previous Forum here,
and older Forums archived.
Recently I had an
upsetting experience with someone I met online who claimed to be
blind from birth. He began calling me five times a day, saying things
like "We can celebrate our blindness when we meet." Something about
the way he talked made me suspicious. I'm convinced he was a pretender,
When I asked what
blind people he knew he named people I'd never heard of. He seemed
to know about organizations of the blind, but he told me things
I knew weren't true. He said he knew blind gay couples who lived
in California and did very well. I never heard of any of the people
he named. I asked blind people in California and nobody had heard
of this guy. You've got go understand that blind society is small
and close-knit in ways sighted people would find surprising. Blind
people often know each other by name, and reputation. I can tell
you about blind people I have never met: the rumors of whom they
slept with, what they do, if they have vestiges of sight, etc. It's
A friend did a Websearch
for me and even though this guy claimed he was a lawyer, his name
didn't come up. I finally wrote to him and told him that I had reason
to believe he wasn't blind, and that if he would come clean with
me, we could talk. He was furious, said some nasty things, and dropped
Had he said he liked
blind people and blindness turned him on, I wouldn't have had a
problem. If I were to meet someone who identified with blindness
and loved me more for it, that would be marvelous. But to have met
this guy, to know he probably could see and was using his sight
when with me, that gives me an awful feeling.
Bob, I came across
a thoughtful article written by a disabled woman about pretenders,
wannabees and, perhaps most importantly, devotees, called "Do You
Think I'm Sexy." I think the way we feel about these individuals
depends on how we view ourselves. I'm going to shut uptemporarilyuntil
I see what you all think of the article, sans my comments. Ah, Hell,
I hafta at least ask: would you seek out a PWD (person with disabilities)
I would neither seek
out nor avoid dating a person with a disability. As a bisexual man
with an obvious physical disability, I would even date a devotee,
if he or she was somebody that I was attracted to.
I had polio 57 years
ago and am now "significantly lame," as a close friend once put
it. I have on occasion been the object of a devotee's attention
and have been a devotee myself when it comes to race: I'm a white
man who is attracted to black men, to the point of exclusivity for
twenty-five years. I always found brown-eyed men with black hair
and dark skin to be my 'type." It felt natural. Of late, I'm
more open to dark men in general, but dark nonetheless. Like my
gayness, I had no control over whom I found attractive, and also
like my gayness, I found that the best course was to go with the
flow. After all, I have the right, just like anyone else, to seek
what attracts me and to explore it fully.
Friends have pointed
out that my preference limits the possibility of meeting someone.
I respond that simply being gay limits my options to far less then
half the world's population. (They say that's different; I say "Is
it, really?"). It has also been my experience that a lot of
people find disability to be unattractive. Even some of my friends
who offer loving support would not consider dating someone with
a disability. I still have a hard time with that preference, but
I've discovered the same attitude prevalent among disabled gay men.
I dated two disabled men at separate times. One was a black man
with cerebral palsy and the other a Latino with post-polio. Both
had great difficulty being seen with me publicly, particularly in
the Castro district of San Francisco.
They noticed how
much attention we drew from passersby. To paraphrase what they each
told me: "Michael, you are a mirror in which I see myself and I
cannot tolerate the pain and shame your image brings up for me."
I had assumed that two men with disabilities who were attracted
to one another would enjoy a special connection. Because of their
common understanding of what it is like to be disabled, I hoped
that they might even love the parts of each other's bodies that
the world finds unlovable. That's what I hoped for; that's not what
happened. I believe that neither man was able to move past his shame.
I decided that I
don't want to be involved with someone ashamed to be seen with me.
I have enough difficulty being seen with myself. Because many black
men have been distrustful of my interest I believe that cultural
dynamics also came to bear on the relationships I described above.
It was hard to know if the men of color I was interested in were
uncomfortable with my disability, my color, possibly bothor
maybe they just didn't like me! I can relate to all of that just
from having someone attracted to me. It takes me a long while to
trust a man to be true to his word, particularly if his come-on
is rapid; I've experienced many a flash-in-the-pan when the attraction
was to the "object," be it race or disability, rather than to the
Whew! Michael, I'm
reeling from your post. It is stunning. Almost every sentence inspires
a response. I'm gonna take a chunk at a time, and say what it brings
up. It strikes me on many levels: I am black, gay, and fifty-six,
with a colostomy and muscular dystrophy, so my response may take
awhile! I was glad you spoke of devoteeism directed at race as well
as disability. They feel very similar to me. I can say the same
about any traits I have that are seen as ''less-than," by society,
and thus bring exclusion and, usually, shame, attributes that make
others think that by looking at my outside they know all about my
Yes, extending devoteeism
from disability to race does not seem a stretch to me. Race and
disability are deeply conflicted issues, but in both cases getting
past the obvious still requires dealing with a real human being
and all his baggage. I cannot imagine myself as a disabled gay man
in today's world not having baggage any more than I can imagine
gay men of color (disabled or not) not having baggage. I don't understand
pretenders and wannabees wanting to go down the road they do. I
do understand compassion, love and the need to connect, however,
so if I'm treated with respect, kindness and understanding, I'll
likely try to respond in kind. I don't necessarily need to understand
something in order to go along with it, and the devotees I've met
have treated me well.
Right or wrong, when
I step out into the world I don't expect my presence to be greeted
warmly. But how can I even hope for understanding from others if
I cannot offer it. The nature of attraction opens the door; what
happens after that requires effort. All my life I've had the door
slammed in my face for reasons beyond my control. If I cannot find
it within myself to say "no thank you" with grace, then it's my
defensiveness that's running the show. I don't want anyone telling
me that what I find attractive is wrong, just as I can't tell them,
unless of course, someone gets hurt. To me, it's more about what
attracts me rather than what repels me. If I'm attracted to a two-headed
man, I must find something attractive about both heads.
Michael, you wrote
that the "devotees I've met have treated me well." I would like
to join the discussion from that starting point, but in the context
of the article that Don introduced earlier.
Don, it's taken me
a while to read that article. It's full of passionate claims and
therefore attractive on first reading. On rereading it I found it
also full of half-truths and ideas that stop short of logic or full
development. For those reasons I think it obscures our understanding
instead of contributing to it. Let me cite some examples. First,
the author ("Barbara M.") writes: "Why is it that peopledisabled
and non-disabledthink that an adult magazine featuring nude
crips would be disgusting? I like looking at naked people. A lot
of 'normal' people do. Why shouldn't we be considered beautiful,
and celebrated as such, in our own culture, and in mainstream society?"
Her questions are
good ones (I like looking at naked people, too, by the way. Well,
naked guys, in the interest of accuracy), but she poses her questions
without benefit of a broad cultural context, but with benefit
of rhetorical flourishes that raise my suspicion. Just who are these
people that find nude crips disgusting? Have they been lobbying
and demonstrating against the kind of magazine Barbara would like
to see? Barbara fails to tell us. I believe that no "adult magazine
featuring nude crips" exists for the same reason that no adult magazines
exist featuring obese models, or models with acne, or models with
tiny dicks, or models with breasts that hang to their crotches.
It's because "mainstream society" (and probably crip society, too,
though I won't indulge in the kind of unsupported claims that Barbara
does) prefers to idealize the bodies it wants to lust after. I'll
bet most of us do.
One thing I'm confident
of claiming: If crip stroke books were money makers they would be
widely available right now. Look around you, folks: When did "morality"
in America ever stand in the way of Mammon? The Religious Right
is purported to wield enormous influence over American culture.
Well, they don't seem to have put a dent in the porn industry last
time I looked. Because it makes money, a commodity we have always
found far more compelling than morality.
Barbara goes on to
write, "These 'chains of shame' surrounding the disabled admirers,
and ourselves, are ridiculous, to put it mildly. Wethe disabled
culture feed this shame by abusing those who admire us. I
do not want someone who is attracted to me to be looked at as a
mentally ill person. If they are attracted to me because of my disabilityand
are humiliated for itwhat does that make me? I'll tell you
what that makes mea FREAK."
Here again I am made
suspicious by logical fallacies based on over-broad assumptions
("Wethe disabled culture"? Who is this "we" and which
culture are we talking about, please?). More to the point, I am
less interested in throwing labels around, as Barbara does, than
I am in exploring the dynamics of relationships. Genuine relationships,
fruitful relationships, I propose, are those in which two people
cultivate a common bond (intellectual, emotional, erotic) based
on equality of attraction and intercourse. We can measure the health
of any relationship using those terms. Therefore, what is telling
to me is what happens between people who agree that they want to
be together. Are they both sufficiently satisfied to want to continue
their relationship? My own experience with devotees suggests that,
measured only in sexual terms, that outcome is questionable.
asserts, "I do not want someone who is attracted to me to be looked
at as a mentally ill person." Sad to say, what the author wants
is immaterial here. Some of her admirers might be mentally ill,
others not. I've had my share of both in both camps. Mental stability
per se proves nothing about any of the author's claims.
My last point, involves
an assertion that raises a host of red flags. Barbara writes, "That
is why any attempt at a business venture involving the sale of disabled
photographs must be shrouded in a thick curtain of anonymity. I
have been told by an admirer of mine that he has to keep his sexual
attraction of disabled women a dark secret from his AB wife." An
admirer. What is Barbara's relation to this married "admirer"?
Might she herself be profiting from "a business venture involving
the sale of disabled photographs"? I have no moral qualms about
such endeavors, but if that is the case, journalistic standards
demand disclosure. And if that is the case, we can read Barbara's
article as a piece of business promotion, as propaganda, naked propaganda,
I'm tempted to say, which casts a rather different light on every
word she writes. We can't ask her these questions, however, because
no biographical information is provided, nor will she tell us her
Michael, you wrote
that, "Like my gayness, I had no control over whom I found attractive,
and also like my gayness, I found that the best course was to go
with the flow." I couldn't agree more, but I had the following conflict
in group therapy: I was the only African American in the group of
gay men, but they "didn't think of me as black." Oh, lucky me.
So there we were,
all supporting one member in his search for Mr. Right, via a personals
ad. When he read his ad to us, and Mr. R. was, among other things,
white, I knew I had a problem. Once again, I was Mr. Wrong. I tried
very hard to explain that, while I wanted to support him in looking
for exactly who he wanted, at some point I would also have to address
how out-of-place it made me feel. If I didn't confess that feeling
I knew I would eventually drop out of the group.
He didn't get it,
and felt I was criticizing his ad. He responded that he had "even
been to bed with a black manand didn't like it." A random
sample, one out of millions. I guess he'd ever been to bed with
a white man he didn't like, and been forced to exclude that entire
race. I did not make these points. I didn't want to persuade
him of anything. I just wanted to exercise my place in the group
by talking about one of my big issues, much as I'm doing here. Flip
side: there are black men who advertise for white men, and vice
versa, all prerogatives I want to support. (How many older men complain
about being discarded, only to advertise for a twink?)
I simply wonder if
in dismissing men like one's self, one is actually dismissing
one's self. Or, again,the flip side "I want someone as different
from me as possible, because there is something basically wrong
with me (and logically, ironically, with anyone attracted to me).
I have also learned that one is definitely not assured of finding
kindness and inclusion in a group just because the members of the
group have themselves been marginalized. A pity! I might be off
the track here, so I'll wind this one up. I guess I want to reiterate
your point, Michael, that it's all so deep and complicated. And
I'm making myself punchy.
The article Don
introduced seems a brilliant resume of everything I have always
thought about the subject. I live with a disabled guy and this was
roughly the theory I put forward to him when we met. As far as I
can see, most disabled people object to devotees because of their
occasional obsessional behavior, especially on the Net. For this
I can put forward a couple reasons. It is not easy to live with
a fantasy image of your ideal partner, a man in my case, not being
a top model. Many people gently take me aside and ask questions
like, "Hey you are a good-looking guy, why are you with JP?" Or
worse still, "don't you miss having sex?" Or even more irritating
for both of us "It's so good of you to look after JP." My response
is simple "I think JP is the handsomest man in the world, we have
great sex, and he looks after me".
This however is after
many years of scouting around looking for the right guy, and accepting
my own admittedly complex sexuality. Imagine growing up and realizing
not only that you are gay but you are more attracted to your classmate
in a wheelchair than the gay porn in the corner shop. I promise
you it takes a while to work out.
Many devotees suffer
rejection from both nondisabled and disabled men. Small wonder some
end up a bit desperate, but guys who seek out women with big breasts
can get a bit one-track minded on occasion, or so I have been told!
Surely it's better, as the article explains so clearly, to be regarded
by a minority as a vibrant sexual being rather than to wear an asexual
badge for courage in adversity.
I have been silent
because the conversation seems to be all about "live and let
live" and "attraction is mysterious," so I haven't
wanted to give an objecting opinion, afraid that an avalanche might
occur, but I can't take it anymore.
First, there is no
empirical evidence that "experiential exercises" work, so the idea
that "pretenders" will gain understanding of "what it's like" holds
no water. In my opinion what simulation teaches is that being disabled
is about mechanics and obstacles, instead of about the human experience
that millions of us have and can share with others.
I reject out-of-hand
the comparison, made in some quarters as a plea for tolerance, of
disability pretenders to transgendered persons. What evidence is
there that a sighted person can have a sense that he is blind or
that a person without CP actually "knows" what life with
CP is like? If someone wants
to use a wheelchair, a white cane, or a guide dogeven if such
props are used sexuallythat person already can do so with
impunity. To ask people with disabilities to care, or to respond
positively, is another matter.
Devotees put me ill
at ease. Having had a bad experience with one certainly colors my
opinion. The guy in question tracked me down through contacts he
had at the local social security office, got my parents address
and phone number, and located me at college. He ended up yelling
at me because I didn't meet his fantasy of the sweet, innocent cripple.
I actually wanted sex, horror of horrors!
The reasons people
are attracted to certain things (and to one another) are multiply
complicated, but does that mean we should not investigate the reasons?
I can reject a person as a sexual partner, as a friend, and as a
political ally for any number of reasons, including why he is attracted
to me in the first place. Finally, an important political question:
Are pretenders, devotees, and others who are "interested in us"
our allies? I believe that they focus on what's 'wrong' with us,
which is what makes us unique' to them, instead of having a much
more complex view of 'us' as complete beings. Like many others,
they are stuck with an outmoded model that begins and ends with
"the problem of disability." This is of no value to us as a individuals
with disabilities or to the disability rights movement.
Although my attitude
may not be quite as doctrinaire as Larry's, my experience has been
the same. I believe that devotees (OK, the generous handful I interacted
with twenty years agomaybe they've all changed since then)
are more likely (watch out, there's a generalization coming) to
be motivated by something closer to a personality disorder than
an "attraction preference." This does not mean they are "bad" people.
It might mean, however, that their sexual interaction with
the crips they fetishize will leave said crips unsatisfied.
Let's be a little
more intellectually rigorous if we're going to discuss this, which
means we need to return to the definition of "fetishism," because
it's not just a pop term, it means something specific. According
to my trusty online Merriam-Webster, "fetishism" is "the
displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to a fetish." "Fetish"
is "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion; an
object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically
necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation
to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression."
then, the devotee is not interested, sexually, in me. He is interested
in my stump (or your cerebral palsy limp, or the next guy's paraplegic
incapacity). If he is capable of attraction to the whole human being
then he is, by definition, not a fetishist (or devotee),
he's simply, in the terms of this discussion, a guy who finds disabled
guys attractive. For more on this, see How
to Find Love With a Fetishist.
Thanks Bob. I expected
to be misheard simply because the conversation was going in a certain
direction. I was trying to be honest in confessing that my one experience
could in fact influence how I feel about devotees. Having said that
I still maintain that I have a right to make choices about who I
allow to be part of my life and to offer the reasons for those choices
publicly in order to help clarify issues like this.
reasons we are attracted to certain things are important. I would
not want to engage in sex, friendship or political
alliance with a devotee because I would distrust his understanding
of my personal sense of disability (or, at a political level "our"
sense of disability). You could argue that the same problem might
pertain with nondisabled people (and even some disabled people),
but injecting the various kinds of "admirers" into the mix simply
muddies the waters for me in an unacceptable and unnecessary way.
I hope to be seen
as a person trying to offer a point of view; whatever problems I
might haveand I have them ought not to be collapsed
into this discussion. My choices are my choices. I share them in
the hope of clarifying the problems associated with decisions about
whether and how to engage the issue of pretenders/wannabees/and
devotees and (whether) and how to treat them in the context of the
wider disability (and queer) community.
I'm finding everyone's
opinions very interesting. Because I have done (academic) work around
the issues of devs/pretenders/etc. I have been watching this discussion
quite intently. I have a "live-and-let-live" attitude, so the whole
thing doesn't bother me, in theory at least. Problem is, theory
is hardly ever reality. Every single one of the devs or pretenders
that I worked with was self-identified as such, and every single
one of them claimed that they were not like all the other devs/pretenders
out there, and that they really cared for the person, blah blah
In my opinion, they
were all pretty far from what I would consider to be "hip" to the
reality of disability, and all of them at one time or another gave
me the heebie-jeebies, at least a little bit. As a researcher, I
tried as hard as I could to maintain impartiality, but I was struck
by the way that all of the people I worked with chose to distance
themselves from other devs/pretenders. It was most often the first
thing out of someone's mouth. What that told me was that even people
who self-identified with this group were aware on some level that
something wasn't quite "right" with the situation.
As I said, I'm pretty
much a live-and-let-live kind of guy, provided everyone doing said
living is making educated choices for themselves. Unfortunately,
many of the devs & pretenders I met weren't as upfront as I felt
they should be, and thus I was often uncomfortable hearing about
their actions and choices. I began to wonder: are devs and pretenders
sometimes less than honest about their motivations because there
is something innately wrong with them, or because they fear that
we as disabled people may prejudge them if they are completely honest?
I think it is hard
for us to imagine our disabilities as being attractive. Pretenders
bother me in a strange way I almost feel they are mocking disabled
people. Those of you who have partners, I would imagine that the
disability has to fit in somewhere. Is it ignored? Is it something
your partner felt an initial attraction to? Is it something that
exists but is overlooked because of other qualities and personality
traits? If I ever have a long-term relationship my blindness would
definitely enter into the equation. It might be cool if it were
viewed positively, but this is rare. And as a sexual turn on? I
can't imagine it.
I can't say anything
about blindness as a turn on. I can comment only about my own relationship.
My lover of many years would probably be shocked that there are
devotees and certainly not see himself as one. I think I can speak
with some authority when I say that he finds the whole me sexy,
just as I am. So, since it is possible for nondisabled men to desire
men with disabilities and not be devotees, please tell me
what the difference is. I think that's the crux of the issue,
It feels trite to rail against categories and labels, but they are
utterly useless. Even if we could reach a consensus about devs,
pretenders, wannabees, crips, ABs, we would know almost nothing
about them as individuals. Too obviously, they will include rotten,
compatible, irritating, bright,not-so-bright, and on-and-on. I have
had no experience with devs, for instance, but if you've known one,
or one hundred, you don't know much about the next one coming down
the road. I do know from experience that when I hear someone refer
to the black-community, or the gay community, they know diddly squat
about us. The press loves to do this, out of sheer laziness. It's
easier to talk about some imagined monolith than to address real
individuals. It is also useful in keeping factions apart and squabbling
and distrustful of each other.
I agree that categorization
is risky, yet there are groups of people that do, demonstrably,
display common characteristics. How could we engage in the social
sciences if we refused to make generalizations? It's a fact that
some men fetishize people with disabilities (or particular aspects
of disability) and that seems "wrong" to me (wrong meaning
ill-conceived, and unexamined). Devotees (and to a much larger extent
pretenders) seem to adopt a view of disability antithetical to the
work that disability rights activists have tried to do.
The fact that many
people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities has tremendous
personal costs for each of us. How much more damaging to us is engagement
with people who, more than most, objectify us (devotees) or focus
on mechanics of disability to the exclusion of the whole person
(pretenders). Both of these attitudes contribute to a "problematized"
view of disability.
We, as a group
of people, are more than capable of bringing a holistic view
of disability to public awareness. We ought to be able to do it
without having to engage those whose view of us is as badly off-kilter
as that of devotees and pretenders. That's what I mean when I say,
in a political sense, that pretenders and devotees are not my problem.
© 2004 BENT
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