I never had to come out as a person with a disability. When you first meet me, you will see that I use a wheelchair. This is because I live with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 3, and as my muscles have weakened, I’ve lost many of the everyday abilities people take for granted – the strength to walk, to dress myself independently or to get in and out of bed without the help of a personal care assistant.
However, I did have to come out as a gay man with a disability. This was a different matter altogether. I hope that everyone reading this accepts who they are no matter where in the rainbow or LGBTQIA+ spectrum they may fall, but I understand the challenges associated with that more than most. I had to learn to accept myself twice.
I had a hard time coming out. I already had my two visible identities – I am Latino and I have a disability – and acknowledging this other part of me was daunting. But having a disability and accepting your sexual or gender identity has a lot of intersectionality that needs to be recognized. This intersection has affected my dating life, my personal care and my relationship with my family, in addition to my view of myself.
I specifically remember being nine years old, depressed and wondering why God had picked me to have a disability. Accepting and embracing my disability was just as hard as accepting my sexuality. But when you accept your disability, you are better positioned to accept other facets of yourself. I have a similar memory of being 19 and wondering why I was gay. I already had a disability that caused me to experience discrimination. Now I would struggle even more and be judged for loving someone of the same sex. I had to remember my 9-year-old self and realize that I needed to accept my gay identity the same way I accepted my disability. I believe it is not until you accept all aspects of who you are that you can truly be yourself and begin self-advocating.
Accepting myself was also essential when I had to have difficult conversations with my many personal care assistants (PCAs) who help me with the activities of daily living. Since I cannot care for myself, these PCAs are essential parts of my life, and I worried that some of them may no longer want to work for me because of my sexual orientation. Even though I am professional while they are helping me, I feared my male or even female PCAs might be uncomfortable or discriminate against me. I was so concerned they would decide to stop working for me or even leave me stranded that I came out to my PCA’s before even coming out to my family. I invited each PCA out to coffee or lunch and sat them down to tell them about my newly embraced identity. To my surprise not a single PCA quit working for me. In fact, it strengthened our relationships. People with disabilities at times rely on their family members for their primary care and coming out might not be a safe option or an option at all. One of the main reasons I came out to my PCAs first instead of my family was because I knew if my family was not going to accept me or want to care for me anymore, I needed to make sure my PCAs were still going to be there to care for my health and possibly also give me emotional support. I once again lucked out. My immediate family completely embraced me and accepted me for who I am.
Once I had that out of the way, I needed to confront another reality: dating. The ironic thing about all of this is that many people don’t even think of people with disabilities as sexual beings. They assume because I use a wheelchair, I don’t date or have a love life. I see that reflected in both overt and more subtle ways. For example, we all know the world is not always fully accessible to people in wheelchairs, and even though you might think that the LGBTQIA+ community might relate to another minority community such as the disabled community, I have found that the majority of the LGBTQIA+ community lives within the able-bodied world. More often than not, gay bars are not accessible. Dating within with the gay community is also challenging due to the focus on perfect bodies. For anyone who doesn’t conform to the stereotypical ideal, this can lead to feeling ashamed of your body and not accepting yourself, imperfections and all. It is even harder for me when one of those “imperfections” is obvious to the naked eye. It takes a lot more self-acceptance and confidence to try and date, but I’ve often been met with a lot of resistance. I have had some good experiences but nothing that has led to a serious relationship.
Should I eventually find true love and explore going down the path toward marriage, I face another set of obstacles. Yes, marriage equality may be the law of the land, but people with disabilities are often put in positions where marriage means losing more than you gain. For example, we may lose the state services we rely on if we get married. This is because the law states that once married, a spouse’s assets count with my own, which would likely mean that our combined incomes would be over the allowed limit for state benefits. So, I would no longer qualify for state-funded PCAs and would have to rely on my spouse to be my only care taker. When I find someone who I love and want to marry, I do not want them to be my primary care taker, and I do not think I should be punished for being in love or wanting to get married. While straight able-bodied people can potentially receive hundreds of benefits for getting married, people with disabilities face penalties. It is shocking but if I decided to tie the knot legally, I could lose so much of my independence. The fight for marriage equality for people with disabilities is far from over.
While there are many things to be proud of for the LGBTQIA+ community, let us not forget that much work still needs to be done for individuals with disabilities. Now is a time to stand together and protect access to disability services for those who need them and speak out against any rollback on laws that protect members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We must continue to spread love and acceptance. LOVE IS LOVE and LOVE ALWAYS WINS. It took time to accept myself and all of my identities but I would not change them for the world. No matter what group of friends I hang out with I am always a minority. I love the fact that I am three different minorities and that I get to be an ambassador for each of my identities. I love talking to others about my experiences and while it might be tiresome having to always educate others, it is wonderful when I can help people be more understanding and loving. It takes pride, but we have made it this far, so celebrate the beauty of who you are.
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