THE IDEAL MAN
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
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 malethat 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
· 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 fearfear of losing control, fear
of dependence, fear of negative public perception, and fear of losing
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
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 feelingor
being perceived asless "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 livesdue to
stigma, disablement, homophobia and the likethat 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?
Please feel free to visit me at www.diversityworks.co.nz
and email me at email@example.com