To Tell or Not to Telll

 

The hardest thing about being a vegetarian is knowing when to tell people. I never know if I should disclose on the first date: “John, there’s something you need to know about me: I like lentils. And I know 50 ways to cook tofu.” Perhaps it would be better to wait until the relationship is more established, trust has been formed and it feels safe to take a risk. “John, we’ve been going out for a year now and you’ve probably noticed that I’ve never eaten with you there’s a reason for that—and I’m not anorexic.”

I don’t have the same problem about disclosing my disability. Unless I sit very still and do not say a word, it becomes very obvious, very quickly, that my body is diverse in function and form. The visibility of my disability both benefits and disadvantages me. I am benefited because I’m not tempted to try and “pass” as non-disabled, only to risk heartbreak later when I reveal a relationship based on a lie and he gets pissed. Instead I get the heartbreak straight away when I fail to get past first base with those guys who can’t see past my physical deviance. Damned either way, damnit. And while I may convince myself that forthright rejection is a blessing in disguise, I’m not so sure that every guy who doesn’t know how to deal with his phobia of physical imperfection is a right-off. Our fears—his of the unknown and mine of the all-too-familiar—collide and, stunned, we stagger from the wreckage.

But that’s IRL (which means “in real life,” my 18-year-old mentee taught me recently). As we know, more and more interaction between people is happening on the net (I don’t know if OTN is a recognized acronym or not). Could I pass as non-disabled in cyberspace? Would I want to? If I did, when would be the best time to tell and, when I did eventually ‘fess up, would I be accused of deceit?

The question of whether to come out of the disability closet when dating online must be one of the biggest dilemmas in the lives of disabled people, as this month’s Forum proves. The temptation to moderate an online version of oneself must be huge for anyone but, for disabled people, the opportunity—to edit out the one aspect of self that, because of stigma, stops people from getting to know you—is a revolution in social dynamics.

I’ve tried at least a hundred different ways, I’m sure, to portray myself on dating sites. From completely omitting my “mark” to explicitly flaunting it. From posting pictures of myself sitting in my chair to Yahoo cartoon avatars of myself, standing up. Ironically, nothing changes the fact that, usually, the guys who contact me are dickheads.

Until recently. Contrary to my usual passive cyber-strategy, I contacted a guy whose profile was significantly different from the run-of-the-mill “I’m a normal guy looking for a shag but pretending to be into a relationship” routine. Contrary to the usual non-sexual attention span of most men who use dating sites, he was willing to chat by MSN for longer than five minutes without having to meet. In fact – let me just check my MSN history – we’ve been chatting daily since 29 June. Not only is this a feat in itself, what makes it fascinating is that I am not sure if he knows that I am disabled or not!

Admittedly, I have not said, straight out, “Hey, I’m disabled. Whaddaya reckon?” For the first few days I deliberately didn’t say anything – not only about my disability but also about my occupation, as guys often recognise me through my media profile. Being disabled is bad enough – being disabled and high-profile screams “Keep Away” to prospective pickups wanting “discreet encounters"!

This time, I chose not to wear impairment on my sleeve from the start because, after trying different approaches, I’ve decided it has no relevance to the online getting-to-know-you process. It is not the first thing people need to know, just as my income or my deeply-held spiritual beliefs or my blood type are not things I would tell a guy on first meeting. Sure, information about physical diversity might make a huge difference to his decision to continue getting to know me, but so might those other things, until he’d gotten to know me first.

Gradually I began alluding to disability. When he asked my age I said, jokingly, that I was so old that I used a wheelchair. I revealed that, coincidentally, I knew someone in the disability office where he works. I never told a lie and I never once omitted to tell him something about myself. On a day-to-day basis, however, disability never came up, as it doesn’t with my nearest and dearest. Several times I thought of forcing it to come up, but realised that it would have only been to rid myself of the discomfort of not telling him my little secret.

Eventually, just about a week ago, he showed me his blog so, in the spirit of self-disclosure, I referred him to my website. This’ll do it, I thought, disability is written all over it. I waited for his "But why didn’t you tell me?” It never came.

So now I’m in a quandary. Should I say something? Given the duration of our acquaintance, it would be more appropriate to ask than tell him, “Do you realise I’m disabled?” But it seems almost irrelevant, as we’ve established a relationship in which disability—refreshingly —isn’t an issue. I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying him.

One day, no doubt, it will become an issue, either OTN or IRL if we meet. How he’ll react, if he doesn’t already know, I have no idea. But I do know exactly how I’ll respond if he asks why I didn’t tell him: “You never asked.”

© 2006 Philip Patson

 

 

Many thanks to all who have emailed me about this column. It's great to get your feedback and hear your stories. Please continue to visit me at www.diversityworks.co.nz and email me at philip@diversityworks.co.nz

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2006