READ THE VERSIONS
by RAY AGUILERA and
when I got my first computer, I was feeling isolated, just going
to work and coming home, without any social life. I hoped the
computer would help me broaden my horizons and meet new people.
Because I've been totally
blind since infancy, I worked hard at Braille, learning how to travel
with a cane, and eventually getting a guide dog, but none of these
efforts to be self-sufficient helped me meet other gay men. Stimulated
by the computer's potential, I joined many lists. Still I found
that I was not meeting people; certainly I was not making contact
with gay disabled guys.
You can imagine how
excited I was when I heard about BENT and Disgaytalk, its e-mail
list for gay disabled men. I joined the list and even moderated
it for a time. Finally I found I was making contacts, both through
e-mail and telephone chats. Because the sound of a person's voice
is important to us, blind people rely on the telephone more than
sighted people do. I never would attempt to meet someone I hadn't
spoken to by phone; e-mails cannot tell me as much as phone conversations
While moderating Disgaytalk,
I asked for volunteers to read to me over the phone. Bob Guter and
Michael Perreault responded. In addition, I met Ray Aguilera, whose
buoyant personality always left me smiling, and we had long talks
about many different subjects. So, Bob, Michael, and Ray became
my close Internet friends. As I got to know them I learned more
about their different disabilities and how they handled them. For
the first time I began to feel a part of the gay disabled world.
Although all three are
mobility impaired, the fact that they had grown up sighted made
them more a part of the gay world than I ever expect to be. For
the first time I found that I could ask the kind of questions about
gay life I'd never dare ask nondisabled guys, questions I feared
were impossibly naïve, like: "Do gay guys always suck each other
off?" "Can you have sex if you only use your hands to stimulate
your partner?" "How do guys look at each other to convey their interest?"
I began to think how
wonderful it would be to meet these new friends. But would they
want to meet me? Would the help I need as a blind person prove too
difficult for them? How would we fill time, something that can be
such a problem for a blind person? And how would I react to meeting
them? Would I feel awkward, asking for help they couldn't give me?
Despite my concerns,
I was confident that all would go well. My guide dog Harley was
an excellent follower, so I envisioned being able to negotiate a
strange environment without much hands-on help. Things changed drastically
in January, when Harley suddenly grew ill and had to be put down,
and I became dependent on using a cane and being guided. Distraught
over losing Harley, I decided that a trip to San Francisco would
be a way to make new contacts in person, and to see if I could manage
without another dog. I asked my friends if they could help me get
around and they all said Yes.
After a lot of planning
and worry, I decided to spend a week in San Francisco in July. Before
leaving, I sat for hours trying to imagine what it would be like
walking with Bob, Michael and Ray. I was especially uneasy about
meeting Bob, only because I knew that his right hand was not "standard
issue." Often, when a blind person touches something unusual, he
will pull back, or look startled. I was petrified that I would act
inappropriately, not out of malice, but out of surprise.
I tried in vain to imagine
what Bob's hand would be like. How would he guide me? Would I have
to take his left hand? I hate being guided on the right side. In
preparation, I had my friend John walk on my right while I held
my cane in my left hand. I got used to this way of walking, and
it seemed much less of a problem. I decided that when I met Bob,
I would always deal with his left hand and that would solve my problem.
What I don't touch does not exist for me.
When I arrived at the
airport in San Francisco things went smoothly. Michael had made
some calls for me, and the woman who met me at the gate guided me
out to the curb and stayed with me until Michael arrived. It seemed
to take ages, so by the time Michael pulled up I was rattled. As
soon as we shook hands I noticed that his hand did not feel right.
The thumb seemed a bit out of place, and there was evident muscle
loss. Being totally unprepared for this, and having the matchless
facility for putting my foot in my mouth, I blurted, "Your hand
is messed up!" Once these words were out of my mouth, I knew I had
unintentionally hurt Michael's feelings, and in an attempt to make
things better I said, "Well, it's really not that bad." Michael
took the whole thing in stride, while I wondered if I should just
take the return flight back to New York.
But we hit it off immediately,
with Michael teasing me about my gauche comment. He described the
scenery, and soon we were talking about everything. When we got
to my motel we had no trouble walking together and he was able to
help me get to my roomwhich turned out to be on the third
floor, even though I had reserved a first floor room. (Two friends
from Reno who arrived later helped me change rooms the next day
and were helpful with everything throughout my stay.)
While unpacking, I began
to learn my way around the room and started to put necessary information
into Braille. Then Bob Guter arrived. We met, hugged, and he casually
offered me his right hand. I touched it, and the ice was broken.
It made less of an impression on me than I had expected.
I want to stop here
to emphasize something important. Often, when two people meet, whether
one or both are disabled, fear can get in the way. We focus so much
on disability we forget that the person is "not" his disability.
I knew Bob from our lengthy telephone reading sessions and discussions.
Why his hand assumed such a disproportionately significant role
in my mind is hard for me to even guess. Once we met, he was Bob
and that was that. I had already become comfortable with Michael,
so things were off to a wonderful start.
A non-disabled telephone
friend named Eddie also became an integral part of my trip. Although
he had never met a blind person before, he seemed to understand
what life was like for me. After we met I wondered if his initial
reaction to seeing me was anything like my reaction to Bob's hand.
Did he worry about spending time with me? Was he uneasy, but hiding
it well? Would he make time to be with me? Could he integrate our
phone chats into meeting a real live blind person? In fact, he seemed
unfazed by everything.
One day he took me walking
through the Castro, where he described the different stores and
people we passed. At one point I heard a guy who sounded a bit queeny
yell at a taxi driver for not stopping. I liked the feeling that
everyone was gay, or at least, open to those who were, something
I could not have experienced without Eddie.
Without going into endless
detail, it's difficult to convey how magical my trip was. Michael,
Bob, Eddie, and Ray all went out of their way to spend time with
me. Ray and his friend, another Michael, took me on a tour of Alcatraz.
The sea lions near the pier sounded like Harley, my guide dog, and
my eyes filled with tears. Luckily, I wear contacts that make my
eyes look more natural, so no one noticed.
At first, I had difficulty
because Ray walked more quickly than I was comfortable with, and
his gait threw me off. He was a sweetheart about slowing down, and
I soon got accustomed to walking with him. And, boy did we walk!
I have never walked so much in my entire life. By the time evening
was nigh, I thought I was going to have to ask Ray and Michael to
find a way to get me home that did not involve walking. But the
time we spent together was so interesting that I nearly forgot how
tired I was. Ray described a great deal to me, and I especially
enjoyed my time . . . in prison.
Near the end of my stay
Michael Perreault took a day off from work and drove us to the Headlands
beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, where some of the hills made the
car feel almost like a roller coaster. We found some of the WW II
bunkers that are scattered along the coast, and I was touched by
Michael's desire to let me feel things, even when he had to climb
steps and do some intricate guiding. We sat on a wall near the water
as I listened to the waves roar while Michael described the surfers
below, something I had no idea about.
I would like to mention
two other events that I will never forget. First is a potluck party
that Michael organized at his apartment. I don't hang around with
sighted people enough, and the few sighted friends that I do have
usually interact with me on a one-to-one basis, so the party was
difficult at times, but I heard most of what was going on, and everyone
did his best to make me feel part of things. The food was delicious,
too. I think Michael was staggered by my appetite.
The second event was
having the chance to breakfast with Bob, and then spend time at
his house, outside on a balmy day, being read toeven better
than phone reading.
After my last supper
in San Francisco, with Michael and Ray, something happened that
makes me smile even now. Michael started executing all kinds of
fancy turns around us in his electric wheelchair. It's such a quiet
chair that I might not have known, except for the occasional breeze
and Ray's commentary. Michael was "herding" us like a sheepdog.
It was funny and sweet, and it showed me the freedom the chair gives
The week seemed over
in no time. Bob drove me to the airport and Eddie came along so
that he could walk me to the gate. Flying home I had time to think
about all the things that made the trip possible: without the computer,
I would not have met any of my San Francisco friends. If Michael
and Bob hadn't started reading to me, the trip would never have
taken place. Had I let my fear of meeting new people with different
disabilities stand in my way, I would have lost out on my best vacation
How odd to realize that
I do not know as many people in New York willing to put themselves
out for me the way everyone I met in San Francisco did. For me,
the promise of friendship was a big reason for getting a computer.
This trip fulfilled the promise.
Text © 2003 Robert Feinsein
Photo montage/title design © 2003 Idea | Monger
know what you think of this BENT feature.
Feinstein lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Search "Bent Voices" and "Archive" for other
articles by Bob, who is always interested in hearing from readers
and loves to keep up with friends by phone.Bob is a contributor
to the anthology "Queer Crips," edited by Bob Guter and
John R. Killacky, Haworth Press, November 2003.