NO NEED TO KICK MY TIRES

by Danny Kodmur

"All the Boys Together," Photo © 2000 Robbo

In 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.

The 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.

A 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."

In 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.

I 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.

You 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.

That's 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.

It 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.

Nowadays, 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.

This 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.

What 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.

As 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.

Sometimes 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 was told.

If 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 have said:

Guy meeting me in person for first time: "But...but...you're really cute!"

What I said: "Thanks! That's very nice of you."

What I was thinking: "You've seen my photo, so you shouldn't be that shocked, unless you were expecting Quasimodo!"

Guy 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!"

What 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 your candor."

What 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 me?"

I 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.

After 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.

There 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.

Conversely, 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.

In 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?

These 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.

Not 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!"

I 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 people.

We 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

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DANNY KODMUR
lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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 dkodmur@comcast.net.

 

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/May 2002