Searching For


A few weeks ago I was part of a Maori Queer (Takataapui) Christmas TV special. It was an experience that left me, as a gay disabled man, thinking a lot about how what I would call "multiple-minority status" impacts on identity. I'm still cogitating on that and will address it in a future column.

But something I have already formulated more developed thoughts about is how being gay and disabled influences male identity. My thinking began when I made a radio documentary called "Pragmatic Love," about romance, impairment and disability, which aired as part of a "Global Perspectives" series in ten countries earlier this year.

I ended up realizing that we queer crips could well be evolving into the Ideal Man. Not because we are gay and disabled per se, but because we are more likely to have the opportunity to purposefully surrender control, ignore public perception, reject rejection, and take responsibility for who we are.

But first, let's get clear about definitions. The language of disability is changing all the time. Unfortunately every word ever used to describe crips has been inherently negative, comparative and, accordingly, value-laden. I'm lobbying for a new, gay-type word, one that says who we are rather than who we're not. Edward de Bono, originator of Lateral Thinking, talks about words as symbols for concepts. As we develop new understanding and conceptual identity, de Bono says, we need to invent new words to express those changes. Being gay is not what it was thirty years ago, nor is being disabled-so we need new words that symbolize the current notions of who we are.

For now, what has been called the social model of disability represents the most progressive understanding of who we are as disabled people. This model distinguishes between impairment and disability. Impairment is "the deviation or loss of physiological, anatomical, or cognitive structure or function from a person's usual biomedical state. Impairments may result in functional limitations that restrict activity and participation" (New Zealand Health Research Council). Disability, on the other hand, describes "the disadvantages people with impairment experience due to social, economic, political and environmental factors, which restrict or exclude them from full participation in their communities" (New Zealand Disability Strategy).

In "Pragmatic Love," I interviewed disabled people about their experience with romance, but it was the documentary's three disabled men (all straight, but not their fault)—and their views on the contrast between the roles of being disabled and being male—that got me thinking. Tony was happily involved in a new relationship after his marriage had broken under the stress of disability. Timote was married with kids, after having become disabled in a 1992 car accident. A car accident disabled Rob, too, when he was 16; he and Karen have been living together for four years after meeting at university.

Four themes became apparent in the lives of these disabled men: control, dependence, public perception and responsibility, themes that correspond to a set of Traditional Male Role Attitude Items that I stumbled across on the Internet (Pleck, Sonenstein, and Ku, 1993, in "Masculinity Ideology: Its Impact on Adolescent Males Heterosexual Relationships", Journal of Social Issues, 49 (3), 11-29).

Here are the laments of "the real man":
It is essential for a guy to get respect from others.
A man always deserves the respect of his wife and children.
I admire a guy who is totally sure of himself.
A guy will lose respect if he talks about his problems.
A young man should be physically tough, even if he's not big.
It bothers me when a guy acts like a girl.
I don't think a husband should have to do housework.
Men are always ready for sex.

My conversations with the men in the documentary made me realize that when men lose function they experience high levels of fear—fear of losing control, fear of dependence, fear of negative public perception, and fear of losing responsibility.

Perhaps this is because, in most cultures, men are valued for pragmatic, physical abilities, where control or its absence can mean the difference between life and death, whereas women are valued for their esoteric, spiritual capabilities. This is, of course, a generalization, but one that corresponds to the Traditional Male Role Attitude Items above. And if we look at what we disabled or impaired people are valued for, we might say that society values us for no particular skills or abilities whatsoever.

For years I have noticed how few men work in the disability services sector. When you map the impact of the loss of function for men and women onto those of disabled people, one thing is clear: men have a lot more "value" to lose when they lose function than women do. Thus, I theorize, men are less comfortable than women with issues of impairment and disability, simply because it pushes their buttons.

This squares with the attitudes of the men I spoke to, especially with respect to how they perceived women's reactions to them. One said he wondered if some women were attracted to him because he was a captive audience, a non-threatening male. Another agreed that women who consider disabled men as viable partners see them as safer because they perceive less of a power imbalance.

Compared to the strong male provider, an image fashioned by traditional role expectations, disabled men are often perceived as the opposite, vulnerable, needy, dependent. I have come to understand that in many ways disabled men, like gay men, have the choice to be either shackled or liberated by feeling—or being perceived as—less "manly" than their non-disabled counterparts.

As gay disabled men, we have a unique opportunity to investigate new ways of being male, since we are bound by neither heterosexual nor non-disabled role stereotypes. We are likely to feel neither compulsion nor expectation to be "real men." And yet, at the same time, we have a distinctive maleness, which I experience as a healthy balance of masculine and feminine.

So how can we capitalize on this unique freedom to be who we really are? Firstly, I think we have to surrender control. There are aspects of our lives—due to stigma, disablement, homophobia and the like—that we cannot control. I no longer expect to control everything and I have developed the ability to trust that everything is perfect. I also accept that, in order to live an autonomous life, my dependence on others, like personal assistants, is necessary and, in order to manage this, I have to make compromises and fit into others' schedules at times.

We need to ignore public perception. Simply put, though it is still difficult sometimes (especially when he's cute) we have to learn to reject rejection. I wouldn't go as far as to say I don't care when people think I'm less than the perfect man, but I don't care for long and I know it's their loss.

Finally, we must take responsibility. We are not victims of circumstance. I've moved away from the "fight for rights" struggle, towards an ongoing search for creativity and identity, and a spiritual understanding of the purpose disadvantaged people have to help humanity evolve. Yes, disabled gay men have rights and no, we are not well afforded those rights yet (disability, especially, is "the last bastion" of human rights"), but we need to move on and creatively form an identity based on who we are, rather than who we are not.

Part of my own creative process has been to understand and believe I am here to raise human consciousness about diversity. At the same time I am empowered by the notion that even though it's bloody hard at times, my soul made a choice to live this life.

All this gives us the potential to be excellent examples of men with standards and principles to which others can aspire. I believe that we may make perfect partners and bring to life a notion of men, which, for many, exists only in the imagination.

So tell me-why am I single again?

©2006 Philip Patston


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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2006