Aging with a disability, my body grows increasingly fragile. A recent bout with skin breakdown put me out of commission for three weeks as I lay with my hip propped up waiting for the epidermis to heal. At times like those it's easy for depression to grow suicidal. Instead, I turn my depression sideways, turn it toward practical solutions, so that I can do what I need to do in order to remain healthy.

Sitting in my wheelchair I become terribly uncomfortable at times. The wrinkles in my pants cause pain and the creases under my butt multiply the potential for pressure sores. My hips are weaker and my skin is susceptible to bruising. My ankles constantly ache from the metal screws that keep them stationary, and my feet swell inside my shoes.

Choosing clothing appropriate for the occasion is one way I try to cope. I have fashionable jeans, shorts and slacks. I shower daily and look clean and respectable at work. I wear Hawaiian shirts for summer, jeans shirts for winter, and long shorts to barbecues. I even own a suit for the inevitable funeral. Shoes are no problem. As a quadriplegic, I've had the same four pairs for twenty-three years: loafers, slippers, sandals and sneakers. Despite my best efforts, clothes hang off my body and bunch up in the most uncomfortable places. I'm forever struggling to straighten my collar and keep my jeans from sliding off my butt when I sit up to relieve pressure. My tie slips to one side. My underwear rides up my crotch and squeezes my balls, pulling on my catheter and tubing. In winter I sacrifice the warmth of a coat because its bulkiness makes me wobble in my wheelchair and interferes with driving.

During the workday there's no cure for my clothing ills; on my own time, I've found a solution: I'm a nudist. By now I have lost all inhibitions about it, but getting to that stage took some work. Before my injury the only time I was naked was in the shower or when I was a kid skinny-dipping at scout camp.

The automobile accident that severed my spinal cord was severe enough to have broken most major bones. After intensive care I was subjected to several surgeries to repair my badly damaged body. In rehab for a year, doctors, nurses, and aides worked over my naked and battered frame; I was exposed and helpless under all of those prodding and poking hands. When I wore anything at all it was nothing more than a cotton hospital gown or pullover. In the past twenty-three years, without exaggeration, hundreds of eyes have seen all of me.

Post-injury my first experience wearing real clothes amounted to no more than a tee-shirt, sweat pants without underwear, and sneakers. I had no wardrobe to speak of and constantly struggled to find clothes to fit my disabled figure. With my little five-foot, ninety-five pound frame in oversized clothes I was finally rehabilitated enough to go to college, but I felt lost, a disabled gay man without a life. For four years I suffered the torment of watching guys sunning themselves in the university oval. I was living with a girl who did all my personal care, but I wasn't out to her. Schoolwork and cable TV filled my days. Although I was getting an education and planning a career, I had no privacy to be the man I wanted to be.

Eventually I found an apartment where I could live independently with minimum intrusion from the caregivers who became an essential part of my daily routine. That freedom changed my life once again. Ever since I've been solely responsible for managing my staff of attendants. I try to hire competent and confidential people, but that does not mean I talk about my queerness with all of them. Although about half those who work for me are gay, they are employees and I figure my personal life is none of their business. I hire both male and female attendants and never make sexual advances. My survival depends on their respect and I'm not desperate enough to endanger that for lust.

By the time I moved into my own place it was 1988, when gay liberation had grown more vocal. The availability of websites and chat rooms helped me to test the waters of my own gayness. For the first time since my injury I had the privacy I needed to explore my body and rediscover my erogenous zones. I learned how to satisfy myself through self-stimulation and experimented with a number of sexual aids. For the first few years of my newly independent life I would be dressed by my morning attendant in whatever attire was appropriate for my activities that day and would wear that same outfit until my evening attendant arrived.

In 1991, still in college, I hired mostly students. My male helpers were straight and I never revealed my sexuality. At the beginning of fall semester I went to the campus GLBT office and posted an advertisement on the community bulletin board for a gay attendant. I was excited a few days later when a guy answered my ad.

After dinner that evening I tried to read but I was unable to concentrate. Jim, the prospective attendant, was due at 7:00 PM. A knock on my door about 6:45 startled me—I'm impressed with punctually. I yelled for him to come in. He held out his hand to introduce himself and I returned the courtesy. Jim was an average-looking college student, just the kind of guy I had in mind, since I did not want to advertise my own gayness by hiring someone "obviously" gay. During our interview I was impressed with his maturity. After explaining my bowel routine in graphic detail, my schedule, and what I was willing to pay, he said without hesitation that he could do the job if I could be patient during his learning curve. I scheduled him for training with my outgoing attendant. Within a few weeks Jim had my morning routine down to a tee.

Having a gay attendant was another new beginning for me. At last I could relate to someone honestly and express my true self. There was never a question of any sexual tension between us. We discussed the changing times and Jim educated me about the young gay scene that was emerging from the shadows.

Jim worked on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and was always on time. I talked to him about the many people who had come and gone in my life, about all those who had seen me naked since my accident. I told him I'd become adjusted to it by now, that it had become part of my survival game. One day he asked if I had ever considered not wearing clothes at all. I replied that I'd thought about it but had never sat naked in my wheelchair for recreation. He said he would be willing to help me get undressed in the evenings and there would be no charge for the few minutes of assistance.

Jim started coming by almost daily to take my clothes off at the end of the day. Studying and watching TV naked I felt liberated. Despite the heartache of loneliness, being naked at home encouraged me to explore my body even more. I wasn't afraid to caress my paralyzed legs and search for sensations in my torso and genitals. As I discovered new realms of disability and queerness, living without clothes became an essential part of my life, something natural and normal. Thanks to Jim a whole new world opened for me. With succeeding attendants, I continue to be a nudist.

My first priority at the end of every workday is to get out of my clothes. Unless I have weekend plans, I wear nothing but a smile. When the weather is warm, I wear an XXXL tank top or tee-shirt; when I'm sitting in my wheelchair, people can't tell I'm not wearing shorts. My apartment is in a college town adjacent to a gay neighborhood where I do most of my business. The guys who help me at various shops tease me and say they wish they could get away with what I do. Some have been privileged to observe all my bodyart. I like to drive naked and occasionally at night I take my top off and feel the hot summer breeze on my naked body. That's the only time I break the law!

At a local gay men's gym and swim club I am fortunate to be able to sit in the sun and let the warmth of the rays bathe my soul and ease the aches that ravage me. When guys talk about not having tan lines, I point out that I have only one—at the base of my penis where the tape holds the catheter. At first the other guys at the club were taken aback by my appearance. They were not accustomed to seeing a disabled man unashamed to expose his body, especially not a disabled guy bold enough to flaunt piercings in nipples and scrotum, and several tattoos. By now I've had many interesting conversations about my choice of bodyart. It's clear that I like other guys with tats and metal. I have yet to capture a guy with a Prince Albert piercing, but it is only a matter of time.

The club is disability-friendly, a modern building with all facilities on one level. If I call from my cell phone in the parking lot one of the houseboys will open the front door for me. I learned about the club through one of my morning attendants who told me that a new bathhouse was opening in town. A good-looking college kid, he knew the hot spots. Having been turned off by the bar scene, I said, Thanks but no thanks. He replied, "No, it's not like the bars. The guys are all ages and sizes. You should check it out." Am I glad I took his advice! From early spring until the last vestiges of summer I can brown my body without worrying if other guys are looking at me. I like hanging around naked guys and buzzing to techno music. With all the diversity at the club my wheelchair fits right in.

During winter, when I'm trapped inside by inclement weather, I turn the thermostat to maximum. I don't care about the gas bill or conserving energy. The apartment stays toasty and when I look out the window at the blowing snow I think to myself, spring is just around the corner. As a severely disabled gay man, I have few freedoms left in my life. Not being bound by clothes is one of them. Nudity not only frees my body, it frees my spirit. I'm proud of my achievements since becoming disabled. The life I lead is no less honorable than that of the next guy. I'm just a gay man suffering a spinal cord injury, trapped in a wheelchair, who's found a way get some pleasure out of life.

© 2005 Mike Shumate
Header design by Tom Metz

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God is a concept by which I measure my pain. He lives in my heart and I feel happy and sane. If all the people in this world could feel free like me, the wars of ignorance would cease to be. Peace and love for us all!

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2005