by Roman C. Justice



I grew up with Helen Keller as a role model, whether I liked it or not. My image of her was madonna-like, shining in saintly virtue, heroic in overcoming all odds, perfect in all aspects. I was convinced that she glowed like my aunt's bedside statue of the Virgin Mary. Impure thoughts were foreign to Helen—who would teach her the signs? To emulate, I made sure I smiled a lot—and remained a virgin.

Then I read a biography that depicted my Helen as more than a poster child. Full of yearning, she was a woman driven by passion to experience everything. I don't know if she died a virgin, but I do know that she had a suitor. Her caretakers were no more ready for a sexual Helen than was the world at large. Her would-be-lover wrote to her about his "normal" life, with all its wonders. Helen wrote back, "your letter has made me painfully aware of how vast the impenetrable gulf is that exists between your world and mine." In the end, she never married.

Biologically, we are told, beauty may be synonymous with symmetry. It follows, then, that asymmetry is . . . ugly. In the animal kingdom a "malformed" newborn might be killed by its mother. Beneath our civilizing whitewash, we humans are the product of millions of years of evolution. We are programmed to seek mates with the "healthy" characteristics that will insure the survival of the species. Unhealthy, anything even perceived as unhealthy, is shit out of luck.

Among gay men, this evolutionary imperative translates into a passion for overdeveloped musculature, symmetrical features, flawless skin, and perfect teeth. "I can't help it. It's in the genes. It's what makes my dick hard. But we can still be friends."

Nazi Germany systematically eliminated disabled people. Euthanasia for our own good, for the good of the state. If only I had been alive then I might have surrendered to the doctors, to the healers prepared to starve me, treat me to a lethal injection, gas me, or simply hang me if they ran out of gas. I might have starred in one of their propaganda films extolling the Aryan ideal and the need to eliminate pitiful creatures like me, doomed to be a drain on the state.

I am an ocean and a generation removed from a nation that made "ugliness" and disability crimes against the state. Yet here, today, Peter Singer, star of Princeton University's Philosophy Department, argues passionately for the elimination of disabled babies, while arguing no less passionately for the rights of all life—even insects. Many bright people agree that my life is of less value than an insect's.


Music has inhabited my soul since I was six years old. It is a calling—and when you have a calling you must obey; anything else becomes a lie.

Everyone has my best interest at heart. The opera diva I sing for tells me to give up. Opera, after all, demands "normal" bodies. Mom and dad, out of love, are convinced I cannot make a living at music. "Become a counselor for the disabled," they tell me. What I hear, instead, is "Know your place." Still, I fight. No one hires me as a teacher. Oddly, every position is filled the instant I show up for the interview. My education professors tell me that I "need to be realistic." Everyone is right. I am wrong—and I am getting so tired of the fight.

In the end though, I do become a musician, and a good one, but not before alcohol dulls my senses, not before cocaine sends me into a paralyzing ecstasy peopled with hustlers and dealers who know I can't fight back. They, like their animal ancestors, swoop in for the easy kill. I am held prisoner in my car for three days, an overdose away from blessed oblivion. What's worse is that in the middle of this nightmare I realize that I have become incapable of feeling anything—no joy, no love—everything is gray, all emotion gone. I have become the walking dead.

Before that, in New Orleans' gay ghetto, alcohol transforms me into a sexual barracuda searching to get laid; sex becomes a fulltime occupation, leaving no time for anything else. I am like a vampire, afraid of the dawn, sucking out the life of everyone around me. Sleep with me, prove to me I am desirable, fill me up, make the emptiness go away. I don't care how. I'm never above a mercy fuck. Are you curious?

No matter what else I accomplish with my life, personally or professionally, the burning question remains: how do I masturbate? Self-inflicted sex is all I can expect, apparently.

Dirt is an art form in New Orleans, broken bottles a domestic accessory to keep the vermin out. And I am vermin. George Dureau wants to take my picture but I say No. I do not want to be in a gallery of freaks. I do not realize I am there already.

Ten "No's" precede a single "Yes." By then I'm too drunk to perform . . . or care, and the next morning, homeless, all I can do is take, take whatever you will give—money, shelter, goodwill, pity—I'll take it all until you're sucked dry and still I need more. I take because I am empty, with nothing to give, nowhere to go. Beauty is everywhere, but all I see is gray endless concrete and all those broken bottles.

I become what I detest. I am a failure in every aspect of my life and God is nowhere to be found. But He is with me, and has been all the time. I stop beating my head against a wall for a moment, a moment of clarity like a nudge from God. I leave the gay ghetto. I get sober. I become the musician I know I am meant to be. I gain respect. Friends materialize, friends who love me because, for the first time, I can return their love. Friends who assume that I know what is in my own best interest. For the first time I have something to give.

Kids still stare, and when they do I feel the old rage, but only for a moment, before it dissolves into heartburn. I hang with beautiful straight men who accept me. Thank God for the swimming pool—if I can't touch I can at least look. Gay porn, my erotic salvation, is a lot better these days (real men, hairy men, instead of those damn twinks).

I haven't touched anyone in ten years. Prozac takes care of my libido and I am content, sometimes even happy, but when I shut the door to my apartment and find myself alone again, the empty place remains. Life is wonderful in my little world. The newspaper says so: every time I start a new job an article extolls my courage and fortitude, but I always wonder: Do they like my music?

I am, at any rate, an amazing sight, a digitally impaired organist, an inspiration, someone for people to emulate, at least people like me. For gay guys I'm too threatening (I can always tell if a guy is gay; they're the ones that look away).

One day it all explodes. I put in my fifty cents for a newspaper, open the door, reach for the paper, but my short asymmetrical freak of an ugly fuck-ass arm slips, and the door slams shut on my face and I'm bleeding. In a blind rage I kick the machine, only it's not a machine, its every bastard that ever stared, its every faggot who wouldn't give me the time of day, its every employer whose eyes glaze over when they see me. I kick again and again because I can't hit—my flipper arms are too weak—and I scream "fuck you" at all those bastards that refuse to see me and what I've achieved and what I'm about.

But there's no relief, just rage and impotent tears that well up and scald my face. I'm having a temper tantrum because I have no power. I'm impotent, as always, but for once I just want to beat the crap out of somebody.

I hire an escort. He's not only handsome, but a nice guy. We kiss and I feel a connection. I love this moment, emotions flood, and I'm not in a hurry for him to take off his clothes. I feel his neck and shoulders, warm and solid, the hair on his chest is just visible. The moment is exquisite, like a jewel. I feel comfortable and desirable, at peace, human.

Two hundred dollars later it was wonderful but not real. How does it feel to have someone touch you because they want to touch you? In my despair I realize I don't know. The door slams shut and I am again alone.

So here I am: lots of questions, some insights, not many answers. My journey continues whether I want it to or not. Self-pity (boring, boring, boring) gains me nothing, so I smile and pretend that the blankness where my soul should be is just another obstacle I can overcome if I put my mind to it. I plow on, choosing at last to try and build a bridge, a bridge over that impenetrable gulf.

I see now, and way too clearly, that that bridge is my only hope. I don't know for certain if I can build it, but it becomes increasingly, disturbingly clear, that I cannot build it alone.

©2003 Roman C. Justice


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Roman C. Justice has thalidomide-like deformities resulting in malformed hands. He is an organist and choir director with degrees in music and choral conducting, and making music is his passion. Growing up as "the only one," his recent discovery of a cripgay community has been cathartic, an experience that will no doubt be a catalyst for growth. Although celibate for a while, he is open to new experiences and the possibility of life-affirming ways of seeing our God-given gift of sexuality.

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2003