me most of my life to find out that I'm gay. After reading the
anthology "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and their Stories"
and Eli Clare's book "Exile and Pride," I was prompted to set
down my own account of what it was like growing up in Scotland
gay with a disability.
I was born in 1943
in the west of Scotland, and with the exception of a year at a school
for children with cerebral palsy in Edinburgh, I lived till the
age of twelve with my parents in Glasgow. The school for children
with CP, Westerlea, had assessed me as fit to attend a small mainstream
school with other children of my own age, where my abilities, notably
a mechanical ability, skill with words, and musical talent could
have been developed. Back in Glasgow, however, all disabled children
were required to attend special schools where the pace was that
of the slowest. Because I was more physically fit or more mentally
agile than most of my classmates, I had no friends at school, the
beginning of a life of loneliness.
At home my sister
and my girl cousins created their own society, so once again I was
isolated. My father couldn't be bothered with my interest in mechanical
things. Instead he tried to cram the subjects of his own expertisepolitics,
economics and social studiesinto my head even before I was
of school age, which is five in the United Kingdom. When I finally
made it into mainstream education, at Alloa Academy in Clackmannanshire,
east central Scotland, I came out with the required passes for university
entrance, mainly languages, but that was really all I got out of
school. Unable to participate in Physical Education and games, my
isolation grew. I wasn't bullied for not playing rugby, as I might
have been at a school supported by public funds, but still I was
excluded from the company of other pupils.
Instead of helping
me to find pursuits that might have given me the company of my peers,
the school found nothing for me but extra lessons. Now that I have
gay friends for the first time in my life I realize that many gay
people understand what being "non-sports" was like as a child, much
better, I believe, than most straight people do. At a conference
in Belfast, for example, I met a gay man who had been educated at
a Roman Catholic school for boys. He was always in trouble, he told
me, for not being good at PE and team games. When I mentioned that
I had been left out for being "non-sports," there was no need to
explain. He got the point straight away. "Yes," he said, "isolation."
Another example relates
to a specific activity. When I came to Edinburgh at the age of 40
for further degree study, I got the chance to learn to swim by a
method specially designed for disabled people. A gay journalist
I met, who had been sent to one of the "good" Edinburgh schools,
had been taken to a swimming pool at the age of eight and literally
"thrown in at the deep end." Terrified, he could never face swimming
again, yet when I told him about learning to swim he could appreciate
the feeling of independence that being in the water gave me.
Outside of school
I was fortunate that relatives on my mother's side of the family,
keen on outdoor activities, encouraged me to go for walks in the
country. These were mostly solitary excursions, so when I read "Exile
and Pride" I was struck that Eli Clare was allowed to take part
in a cross-country run, a group activity. Even so, the adults involved
reacted to Eli exactly as they had to me, by setting the experience
apart. I recall this same feeling when I had to endure an "interview"
with one of the tabloid newspapers about an essay I had written.
In no time the whole county had heard of "the boy that looks at
old buildings." Singled out in this condescending fashion, I felt
myself a freak and was put off the subject of architecture till
after completion of my first degree at St. Andrews University.
The contrast between
Alloa Academy in rural Scotland in the late 1950s and early 1960s
and Eli Clare's school in Ohio in the 1970s makes me wonder whether
it reflects a change of attitude over time, or whether this kind
of difference between Britain and America always existed. I know
that pupils with disabilities are now being helped to do PE in two
of our primary schools in Edinburgh, but I still don't know what
would happen at secondary level.
My inability to dance
when I was a boy inspired odd and often contradictory attitudes
on the part of adults. Sometimes I got the impression that my not
being able to dance was a sign of how "good" I was for not getting
involved with girls at an inappropriate age. Learning about the
lives of other gay men has given me a larger view of all sorts of
personal experience. One able-bodied couple I met both suffered
from their enthusiasm for dancing of different kinds. One partner,
originally from the south of England, was seen as effeminate when
he was the only boy in a children's ballet class; his partner, from
the Edinburgh area, was tormented in primary school for being good
at Scottish country dancing.
Does this suggest
that my inability to dance was seen by some adults as evidence that
I was a "real" man, not effeminate? I cannot be sure.
The first thing I
learned about sex came from my father's warning that something would
happen to little boys who played with their penisesas I tended
to do. I began to wonder if that "something" was "become homosexual."
Reading a magazine article that addressed medical myths about homosexuality
only confirmed my suspicion. A gay friend a few years my senior
said that in our school days the gay (able-bodied) boy attracted
to other boys in the changing room might, to avoid trouble, put
on a show of being inept at games. Remember that homosexual acts
were still a criminal offense at this time.
Looking back, I think
that I came to realize at an early age that there were many ways
of being isolated, and that while being left out was something done
to me, it was also something I could embrace as a form of self protection.
In my case the typical "I hate girls" stage persisted longer than
the regulation age of fifteen. Right from the age of puberty and
the beginning of secondary school, I reverted to associating with
small boys still in primary school. I wanted to handle them physically
(although not sexually) because their short trousers and bare thighs
made them attractive to me. They weren't interested in girls, nor
were they old enough to play rugby, the principal sport my CP deprived
me of, so they were safe on two counts. My parents warned me that
this behavior was socially disapproved of, but my inability to take
part in school dances was a barrier to opposite sex relationships,
while same-sex relationships (even if I had been aware of them)
happened only in single-sex private schools, it seemed.
Teasing about girlfriends
ceased having an effect by my late teens, and when careers were
being discussed, I knew that I had missed out on so many childhood
things that I was unsure about school teaching and being able to
control a class. Gay dads and lesbian mums abound, of course, but
not all gay men make good fathers; for my part, I was dubious about
being able not only to control school children in a class but to
raise children of my own. My unsettled feelings about children proved
to be deeper than I'd realized: they got me sacked from my first
job when I lashed out and hit a child full force because it was
the only way I could think to deal with a difficult situation.
I wonder how widespread
these feelings are among gay men of my generation. One gay man of
my acquaintance told me that he had to warn his brother-in-law not
to let his children rush up to him clamoring for sweets because
he was liable to hit them; another man said that he couldn't communicate
with children until they were of an age to think about university;
and a gay friend in London with manic depression said that parenthood
suited some gay people, suggesting that it probably wouldn't suit
I realize now that
the disabled person's uneasiness over gender roles has to do with
more than parenting. Where able-bodied gay men and lesbians may
do things they aren't supposed to do conventionally (a boy might
do embroidery, a girl auto mechanics), those of us with a physical
disability may find that we fail at "male" or "female" things in
more ordinary ways, something I realized from reading Eli Clare
who, in "Exile and Pride" describes a family photograph that makes
her remember being forcibly got into a skirt at the age of thirteen.
She recalls asking her mother, "Am I feminine?" As an adult, since
she can't put on a skirt without help, she wears jeans instead.
Most people think she's a teenage boy, or, as she puts it, "neither
a boy nor a girl."
After reading Clare's
account, I recognized several things that symbolized my inability
to "be male" as a teenager, including tobacco, alcohol, and driving.
Because my ability to focus visually is diminished by paralysis
of one eye I could not manage to light things and, consequently,
was terrified by flames. When I was about sixteen my father expected
me to start smoking a pipe, like him, or, on special occasions,
a cigar. It was the pipe, however, that was the sign of the "real"
man, and, for my Labour-voting parents, enjoyed extra cachet as
a left-wing symbol, but as soon as cigarettes or cigars came near
me I panicked. With a scream of "No!" I would nearly jump through
At home the result
was a lecture on manners and, in public, comments from strangers
about cowardice. Sometimes I was told not to be "like an old lady."
I was even told that smoking "soothed the nerves." How could something
frightening possibly soothe the nerves, I wondered? Alcohol consumption,
too, as a measure of manliness, was something I failed at. With
no taste for whisky I suppose I make a thoroughly second-rate Scotsman.
and drinking no longer loom large as symbols in my life, somebody
who discovers that I have never run a car and have to get household
repairs done by others, might question my "manliness." The truth,
of course, is that I simply can't manage those things physically.
Looking to opposite stereotypes, a visitor seeing no sign of sewing
or embroidery in my home might conclude that I am a "real man" after
all, while the truth is these are things I can't do because of my
partial vision. Some might despise men who engage in those pursuits;
I have every admiration for them.
the ones I've mentioned above help to create attitudes that result
in gay-directed hate crimes, but if I were to be assaulted it would
probably be because of my disability. In fact just such an incident
did take place in 1999, when I was stoned by a group of children
as if it were 1850 and I the village idiot. Because this attack
started soon after the revived Scottish Parliament met for the first
time since 1707 I do not think it far-fetched to assume that the
children's behavior might have been part of a perverted sense of
reborn nationalism, as if someone had taught them to revive a venerable
old Scottish custom.
with LEARNING DISABILITIES
My learning difficulties,
first detected at Westerlea, include something similar to severe
dyslexia that results in a failure to manage arithmetic, as well
as difficulty grasping abstract ideas. The latter upset my parents
unduly because each of the four Scottish Universities then in existence
required a philosophy course as a requirement for an arts degree.
Even after I passed my philosophy course with the help of extra
tutoring I was still expected to understand discussions of politics
and economics. I began to wish for a brain transplant so that I
could become numerate and enter banking or accountancy. At other
times, particularly when being bullied for lack of concentration
or application, I thought I was either mentally deficient or would
have been better off that way. At least a certifiable incompetence
would have proved I was incapable of coping with subjects my parents
and the educational establishment insisted were important.
It was not until
I learned Transcendental Meditation that I was able to come to terms
with my learning disabilities. TM gave me confidence in the skills
I did have while at the same time it helped me to see parental intolerance
for what it was. To put it another way, instead of being "cured"
of my learning disabilities I was enabled, finally, to lose my obsession
with them. At last I was able to see myself not as somebody incapable
of coping with economics or politics, but as someone capable of
other pursuits instead. I became a Gaelic scholar.
It was after learning
TM that I went to Edinburgh University for Celtic Studies. I had
learned Gaelic after my first degree, and with a background of English,
French, and classics (and no distractions from subjects I was incapable
of managing), it all came very easily. I attained full speaking,
reading and writing ability in three years.
to be MYSELF
Early on sex had
been added, tacitly, to the long list of things I supposedly could
not do. For a long time this was not an issue, since I was not attracted
to girls; perhaps the knowledge that sex with other boys, and later
with men at university was a crime might have suppressed my natural
inclinations. After all these years it's difficult to know. I suppose
because I didn't meet anyone who admitted to being gay I was indoctrinated
into thinking that love for men was "unnatural" as well as criminal.
Not until 1974 in
Edinburgh was I first aware of a gay rights demonstration. By then
my perspective was so skewed I immediately got the idea that these
were people getting jobs at the expense of the disabled and were
probably anti-disabled themselves. This attitude persisted until
1983 when, settled into study, some freelance work, and some volunteer
work I gradually forgot all about being homophobic. When I discovered
that many of the scholars who had become my friends were gay, there
seemed to be no point in snubbing them and losing their friendship.
In my late fifties,
after the death of my mother, I first began to wonder if I might
be gay myself. I mentioned it to a gay friend, asking if he knew
of any gay groups. He was in the Gay Outdoor Club, whose swimming
session I joined. Later I found good company at their socials, but
the first real evidence that I was gay occurred one day in a straight
sauna when another man invited me to share the shower with him.
We went into a cubicle, where he started to massage his penis, then
leant over and began doing the same to me, asking if I liked it.
I said it was a new experience. It certainly felt nice, this first
ever experience of sex with another person. I later decided that
it must prove I was gay. Since my attitudes had been formed by those
of my father's generation, surely if I had been heterosexual I would
have been shocked by his action, would have pushed him off and reported
the "offense" to the staff.
The other incident,
in fact my first experience of falling in love with somebody, followed
my sending a piece to the Gay Outdoor Club newsletter about finding
the Edinburgh branch of the club and learning to swim. I asked if
anybody would like to get in touch, saying that if I was anything
at all now I was probably gay. I got a reply from London (the friend
with manic depression I referred to earlier). He said he was probably
the same. I went to visit him, and as soon as I saw him, a tall
young man in his late twenties, I found him attractive.
During an enjoyable
weekend spent together we one afternoon found ourselves sitting
in his flat wearing just T-shirts and shorts. I surrendered to a
sudden urge to touch his leg, something that had never happened
with anyone. He took my hand and we sat holding hands, then went
into a cuddle. When it was time for me to return home I was almost
in tears leaving him. In a letter thanking him for the weekend I
asked if he would be willing to be my boyfriend, but he said that
because of his depression he would be happier for us just to be
friends. This proved to me that I really must have been gay all
along. By the late nineties it was, of course, perfectly safe to
be that way. When we kissed on the train as I was leaving London,
no railway official stopped us, something that would have happened
in my younger days.
on from HERE
There is a UK organization
for gay disabled people, but being based in London it doesn't really
benefit Scotland, so I have become involved in a steering group
established to bring gay disabled people together here. We meet
alternately in Glasgow and Edinburgh. This is a form of socialization
and, if you will, of education, for even among people with disabilities
hierarchies and prejudices get in the way of communal feeling and
the possibility of concerted action. Eli Clare writes, for example,
that when among disabled people with severe mobility problems or
those who use wheelchairs, she is out of the group, a "walkie,"
and although this word isn't used in the UK, the attitude is the
users I may be perceived as "too fit," because I am on my feet and
able to swim, although some disabled people may be inappropriately
overawed by my university education. Different kinds of distinctions
may exist among non-disabled people. Clare observes that among lesbians
she is accepted as a writer; I have had similar experiences among
abled gay men impressed by my involvement in Gaelic studies.
If my life has taught
me anything it is that education is called for so that disabled
people can enjoy wider acceptance, both among the general population
and among their gay peers. Eli Clare observes that even in cosmopolitan
New York City a man sitting down beside her on a bus might suddenly
jump up when he perceives her athetoid disability. Sometimes, Clare
maintains, adults will still stare at disabled people in public.
When it happens in Britain nowadays it usually involves young children,
whose parents will reprimand them.
My own experience
has convinced me that it is parents who need the most education,
in the private sphere as well as the public. They need to be shown
that their children, particularly if they are disabled, should not
be forced into opposite-sex relationships if they exhibit no such
inclinations, nor should they be coerced into adopting stereotypical
masculine or feminine attitudes that may be foreign to their natures.
My journey toward
recognizing my essential nature has shown me how much damage stereotypes
can inflict, how difficult it can be for people (even for parents)
to see the disability instead of the person, how even one's own
perception of self can be disguised or distorted. It is late in
life to "come out." I wish there had been no necessity to do so.
© 2004 Charles
Header © 2004 Mark Mcbeth, IDEA | MONGER
Let us know what you
think of this BENT feature.
I was born in 1943 near Glasgow, Scotland,
with mild cerebral palsy. At the age of six it was discovered
that I had spatial perception difficulties and was innumerate, but
with a high linguistic ability.
Only in my late fifties did I realize I was gay; since
then I have made many good friends in the local gay community. Now
over sixty and with two postgraduate degrees, I no longer have to
look for a full-time job and am free to cultivate freelance and
voluntary work opportunities. Despite my age, nobody can believe
that I'm any more than forty. This must be why I attract older men.