ADMIRERS:
Devotees, Pretenders,
Wannabees, and . . . Race

A BENT/Disgaytalk Forum

With contributions from
Raymond J. Aguilera, Robert Feinstein, Bob Guter, Keith Hogan, Donald Lawrence, Stephen Mudge, Michael Perreault, Larry Roberts

Disgaytalk is the online discussion group associated with BENT, where cripgay men talk about the issues that matter to them—funny, serious and everything in between.

From 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.

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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 quite incredible!

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 me.

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.

~Robert Feinstein
New York

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 up—temporarily—until 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) to date?

~Don Lawrence
North Carolina

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.

~Keith Hogan
Texas

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 both—or 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 person himself.

~Michael Perreault
California

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 inside.

~Don

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

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 people—disabled and non-disabled—think 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. We—the 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 disability—and are humiliated for it—what does that make me? I'll tell you what that makes me—a FREAK."

Here again I am made suspicious by logical fallacies based on over-broad assumptions ("We—the 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.

Finally, Barbara 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 name.

~Bob Guter
California

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 man—and 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.

~Don

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.

~Steven Mudge
Paris

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 dog—even if such props are used sexually—that 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.

~Larry Roberts
New York

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 ago—maybe 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."

By definition, 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.

~Bob Guter

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.

The 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 have—and 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.

~Larry

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 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?

~Raymond J. Aguilera
California

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.

~Robert

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,

~Larry

Generalizations! 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.

~Don

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.

~Larry

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2004