How My Queer Friends Have Helped Me To Understand My Disability

This post is part of >Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more >here.

I’m a cisgender straight woman who, despite a fairly standard Midwestern-ish Christian upbringing in the 1980s and ’90s, has always felt a special affinity for LGBTQ people. I recently heard Pride season described as an opportunity to be fully, happily out and visible, and that got me thinking about my bond with queer people. I’ve realized that I relate to the choices LGTBQ people make in revealing or hiding their queerness because I must make the same choices as a disabled person.

The connection seems obvious, but for years, I’ve just sort of assumed my comradery was because I’m (ahem) so admirably open-minded. I’ve long worked in the theater and the literary arts, which has brought many queer people into my life, including my best friend, who is a gay man. I also have LGBTQ family members and, in my late 20s and early 30s, belonged to a church that participated in the local Pride parade every year. The proximity to so many queer lives allowed me to see our common humanity, which is no small thing. But upon reflection, I think it’s the similarities between my life as a disabled person and my friends’ lives as queer people that truly accounts for my empathy.

The parallels are striking. Some disabilities are immediately visible, but a hearing impairment like mine is not—akin to the way that queer people are often invisibly so to the casual observer. If I like, I can go through much of life without alerting the people around me to my status. Interested or suspicious parties can peek into my ears for hearing aids or scan my gay friend’s bag for an ACT UP pin, but mostly, we pass. For those in the know, there are plenty of signals and cues that give our status away, which we can amplify if we so desire, but we can also pass for “normal.” Some might even say we’re not really disabled or queer, since we don’t match the stereotypes of what handicapped or gay people look like. We might even feel that way ourselves.

Wanting our difference to be seen as part of the fullness of our being is something disabled and queer folks share.

There are good reasons to keep our identities private. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “You don’t look hearing-impaired.” I’m not in my 80s and don’t walk around with a perpetually perplexed look on my face, which is what people seem to think “hearing-impaired” looks like. In fact, I’ve occasionally had trouble convincing people I really am disabled. (I guess I just look so able!) This is not very different from friends who “look straight” and are accused of pretending to be queer because it’s trendy.

Like my LGBTQ friends, I might choose not to out myself to strangers, because I’m not sure how people will react, despite our changing culture. Learning someone is disabled makes some people uncomfortable, to the point that it may stop short a developing friendship. It can feel easier to leave it unsaid, no matter how educational a conversation could be. Besides, who wants to educate every nurse, food server, and Target clerk about queerness or disability? Life isn’t an after-school special. The truth is, while I am happy with myself, I know that there are many who will feel sorry for me once they find out who I really am, and that gets old. I know my queer friends can relate.

The connection I see between disability and queerness is not just an academic exercise. It’s more than that for me, because it clearly taught me empathy for my queer friends and for myself. I now better understand my own desire to be stealthy: It’s all very well to celebrate the revelation of true identity as a universal good (and I think it is, generally speaking), but I understand how tiring it is to always be the face of your group for others. The desire to simply live and let live can be strong.

But I also celebrate those moments in which identity is claimed, even when—as is almost always the case—it’s complicated and difficult. I’ve followed my queer friends’ example in this. I happen to have a job that allows me to explain my disability to my students at the beginning of every semester. It isn’t easy to out myself, but I appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate for them that disabled people truly are just differently abled. In turn, my many queer students teach me that openness is becoming a more natural stance. Fewer LGBTQ folks are in the closet these days. We are all becoming more honest about who we are. I’m glad of that, and I’m so glad to have the model of my queer friends’ coming-out in my life.

I don’t mean to oversimplify the connection between my identity and that of my queer friends. The truth is that they live with greater risk than I do. I mostly face the annoyance of being treated as an idiot, but my friends risk hateful slurs and violence. I am condescended to; they are threatened. It’s not equivalent, and the truth is that, given the choice, I’d stick with my current identity, as much as I suspect the high points of being queer are much better than the high points of being disabled.

But of course, none of us are given the choice. I was born this way, and so were my friends. We are who we are. Wanting our difference to be seen as part of the fullness of our being is something disabled and queer folks share. But for that to happen, we need empathy from others—we need allies. I take seriously the task of being one for my queer friends, and I feel grateful for my own.

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