NEED TO KICK MY TIRES
"All the Boys
Together," Photo © 2000 Robbo
spite of my gregarious nature, meeting guys in person can be difficult
for me, especially in large-group settings designed to get men mingling.
I feel awkward lugging around the peculiar baggage of conspicuousness
and invisibility that accompanies life on wheels.
jitters, the panic, the self-consciousness of meeting can be torture,
but years of experience have taught me that even the most mediocre
live experience is better than several of the virtual ones combined.
Advocates for the Internet may claim it has made communication and
interaction easier for millions, and I have had people tell me that
being online with other gay men was the first nurturing experience
of sexual identity they'd ever had, but for me, cyberspace has just
been a place to obsess over my disability and how to explain it
to the world.
famous New Yorker cartoon from a
few years back shows two resourceful canines, standing on hind legs
with their front paws perched on the edge of a computer desk. One
dog types away carefully, demonstrating to the other. The caption:
"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
2002, thanks in large part to BENT, anyone who did a Web search
on my name and did not know I was disabled could infer it after
just a few minutes of poking around. Ten or fifteen years ago when
I first ventured into online social space as a gay man, the only
way anyone would know I was disabled was if I disclosed it.
realize now that I should have done so completely from the very
beginning, but years of fear and social isolation had me convinced
that doing so would only carry my dismal track record further, into
this new world of chats and emails. As a result, the first few times
I met people, I was like one of those dogs who pretended to human
form. Confronted with the surprise reality of me in a wheelchair,
some guys took the news in stride, some groused at me for a few
minutes then calmed down, and a spectacularly hurtful few yelled
at me and then took off running in the other direction. Of course,
I don't blame them. Such fiascoes were my fault entirely.
would think that such painful experiences would have converted me
instantly into a fierce advocate of full and immediate disclosure,
but things didn't quite work out that way. I knew I needed to be
more forthcoming, but I was still so hurt and scared that I didn't
think I could handle the consequences of total honesty, so I developed
a strategy of sequences, of gradual disability narration.
what it might be called in some theory-headed course on the social
construction of disability, but what it really was was marketing,
public relations. In my mind, I was the product, and the goal was
a sale. Actually I realize now that I wasn't selling myself as if
I were dishwashing liquid; even though I was full of drive and youthful
enthusiasm, I was still thinking of myself as damaged goods, a used
car in a lot full of shiny new models. I guess I thought of coffee
or lunch with a guy as a kind of...er...test drive.
wasn't just my past experiences that had conditioned me to respond
that way. It was also the way the world had taught me to think about
my disability. As a child, I was fortunate enough to get all my
physical therapy through a facility which trained future therapists.
Because I was bright and mouthy and showed interest in how I was
being approached as a patient, I got to know a lot about my disability
and my course of treatment.
collaboration between patient and practitioner is more common than
it was then, though alas still not common enough. Am I grateful
to have been treated as a subject and a partner in the process rather
than just an object of physical and orthopedic manipulation? Of
course I am, but this openness had its unintended consequences.
I became conversant with the detailed ripple effect my disability
had had on my body; as both a neat trick and good practice, I learned
to rattle off concise descriptions of both my symptoms and the surgical
procedures undertaken to alleviate them.
meant I had great knowledge and awareness of my body, but my consciousness
was in fact limited. Everything I knew was filtered through my brain,
totally intellectual, rooted completely in the world of facts. I
could tell easily what about me worked and what didn't, but all
such information did was reinforce my sense of myself as a set of
interlocking biomechanical systems, as a kind of machine.
I needed was not just a sense of structure but one of essence. I
needed to know that my body and mind were together, that my body
was in fact a whole and organic entity capable of giving pleasure
and receiving it. I needed to get beyond that which needed fixing
or required mitigation. But none of these realizations had hit me
during the time I began to figure out how to tell virtual strangers
about my disability.
a result, I had some false starts. I would usually begin with, "I
have something to tell you." Since that opener often prefaces traumas
like coming out or announcement of seropositive status, I tried
to find less dramatic phrasing. I would say I had a disability that
affected my walking and my balance and required me to use a wheelchair
to get around. Vague, I thought, vague is good.
I would say that I had "mild cerebral palsy." But then I would catch
myself and ask why I'd felt the need for that little adjective.
It was true, but only in some Clintonian sense. I think I was trying
to reassure potential dates that I was far from the scary vision
that disability might be conjuring in their heads; I was not some
drooling, helpless nonverbal twitching mass of malfunctioning body
parts, but instead a guy whose body simply didn't always do as it
only I'd recalled that the most charismatic and sexy portrayal of
cerebral palsy ever put on film had been a portrait of the very
same severe spasticity from which I was trying to distance myself.
I guess I'd discounted it because I thought all the sexiness had
come from the baseline yumminess of the able-bodied actor playing
the part, but it hadn't. Rent My Left Foot
sometime and see for yourself.
Eventually I got good at telling people, but timing was always an
issue. Just as with coming out to people, I still would go into
the disability-disclosure conversation fearing the worst, no matter
how many times the disclosure had gone well. I was so eager for
things to continue harmoniously that I bit back things I should
meeting me in person for first time: "But...but...you're really
I said: "Thanks! That's very nice of you."
I was thinking: "You've seen my photo, so you shouldn't be that
shocked, unless you were expecting Quasimodo!"
reacting post-disclosure: "Well, Danny, you'll probably think I'm
a terrible and shallow person for this, but I really can't see myself
dating someone in a wheelchair, and unless I see serious dating
potential with a new guy these days, I usually don't meet him. I
know, you probably hate me!"
I said: "Well, I'm disappointed, but I'm glad you felt you could
be honest with me. So many guys can't be. Besides, I'd rather have
you acknowledge this first than find out later on. I appreciate
I was thinking: "Yeah, I appreciate your honesty, and I am being
polite in denying you are terrible and shallow, but it sure feels
that way on this end. I'm really pissed off, not just at you but
at myself. I'm so afraid of coming off as bitchy and bitter that
I'm actually telling you it's OK to be a jerk. What's wrong with
didn't always play the nice guy though. Sometimes I would get so
fed up with guys and their nonsense that I would be mean. On several
occasions I described myself gradually to a guy, telling him perhaps
thirty things about me, all of them true. By then he would be telling
me how great I was, how close to his ideal type. Then, Thing 31:
the chair. I think I waited so long and put it at the end of a long
list of desirable qualities as a test. It's as if, in this mood,
I would challenge men to consider which was more important: the
many things they claimed to love about the vision of me, or the
reality of my disability. I did get a certain rueful pleasure out
of the total disappearance of guys who'd been so interested just
one fact previously.
many experiences of this kind, friends would console me, reassuring
me that any guy who couldn't accept my disability or was too scared
to even commit to coffee with me was not worth my time. This may
have been true, but what seemed so matter-of-fact to them was a
painful and gradual coming-to-terms for me. I did learn some valuable
lessons about my disability and its impact on others.
are ways that disclosing or not disclosing can really cut short
a promising interaction, but in general, I've found that if a guy
is going to be OK about my disability, there's really no wrong way
or time to tell him.
if a guy isn't ever going to be comfortable interacting with me
because of my disability, there's no magically right way or time
to tell him that will definitely change his mind.
a world where gay men have minute checklists of what they are and
are not looking for in another man, veto decisions can be made on
the basis of height, hair color, eye color, and other minor traits.
If someone ignores you because you are two inches too short for
him, how can you expect him to be comfortable or openminded when
it comes to something really challenging, like disability?
realizations have not necessarily helped me to accept rejection,
since I think I've focused far too much on accepting it in the past,
but they have helped me understand some of the rejection I've experienced.
To be fair, not all of it has been a direct consequence of my disability,
as anyone who's read my previous BENT
article can tell you.
all of the disability-related stress comes from able-bodied men
either. A friend of mine, who is paraplegic, spent much of our first
major phone conversation giving me his entire medical history, down
to all the most graphic details of his catheterization. I stopped
him and as bluntly yet gently as I could, I told him, "Stop that!
You are not a used car. I'm not buying you, and you are under neither
a legal nor a moral obligation to tell me everything that's wrong
with you. It's not as if I'm going to trade you in right away anyway,
since we haven't even met yet!"
realize he was telling me all that as much out of relief as insecurity,
out of a need to share more than a need to confess. At last, he
was talking to another gay crip and didn't have to hold anything
back, because I got it. Anyone else with a disability would have
understood this flood of information, but I'm not sure about able-bodied
shouldn't treat ourselves like 1974 AMC Pacers, and I think we can
cool it on the whole medicalized/system-based view of our disabilities,
but on the other hand, what do I know? I advocate disclosure, but
there are times, in job interviews and on dates, when a little mystery
is best. It's not as if I want anyone to think I'm either a cocker
spaniel or an Olympic swimmer; I'll be happy if anybody finds me
half as sexy in or out of my chair as Daniel Day-Lewis was in his.
©2002 Danny Kodmur
lives and writes in the San Francisco
If you run into him online, be gentle; he's been through a lot.
Say hi, consider giving him your phone number, and then tell him
to get offline ASAP.
Write to him at email@example.com.