Back in the Fall, I wrote about going to a P-FLAG meeting in L.A and how it made me miss the P-FLAG chapter that used to be in Claremont when I came out. It also made me remember a piece I wrote that was published in the chapter’s newsletter, and I thought about sharing it here but couldn’t find it. Then - as always happens, right? - when I was looking for another paper a couple weeks ago, I came across the newsletter. You can read the piece as it was published in the summer of 2001 below.
A short note: At the time, I was using a small voice synthesizer called a LightWriter, which was attached to my chair and consisted of a keyboard and a one-line screen. Unlike the device I now have, it required that I actually type, which ultimately proved to be too laborious, tedious and tiring.
FINDING MY WAY IN NO-MAN’S LAND: ON BEING GAY AND DISABLED
When I attended my first P-FLAG meeting two and a half years ago, I was terrified. In fact, I went only on the condition that my friends Jim and Alan would be attending. I needed them there for support, if not to hold my hand.
Part of my concern had to do with how folks would deal with my impaired speech, even with my use of a speech synthesizer. I face this whenever I encounter people who don’t know me or aren’t used to conversing with me. A bigger fear was in saying, “Hi, I’m John, and I’m gay” in a public setting. I had come out a month or two earlier, and I was now announcing it for all to hear. This is a huge step and scary for many P-FLAG newcomers, but it was scarier for me, because I was afraid people would say, “Yeah, right!”
In addition to having impaired speech, I use a wheelchair. Having Cerebral Palsy, I am disabled - “severely disabled” is how it has always been put - and have been all my life. Although I had had vague sexual feelings and yearnings, I never saw myself in a sexual relationship, and I was never treated as if I would (or could) be, presumably because of my disability. Now, suddenly, at the tender age of 39, I found myself in a sexual relationship, and, in coming out, I wasn’t only saying that I’m a gay man; I was proclaiming myself to be a sexual being.
Although it was and is a great joy to say this, I feel that I was and am taking a real risk when doing so, not only in the straight world but also, and perhaps even more so, in the gay community. I have always loved dancing, but I have always been wary of dancing in bars or clubs, for fear I might freak people out (“Oh, he’s having a seizure!”).
Likewise, I didn’t and still don’t go to gay bars and clubs. I didn’t and don’t want to deal with the “What are you doing here?” stares and the “You think I’d want you?” laughter. (I’ve realized that this is why I didn’t come out five and even eighteen years ago.)
Real or not, these were the messages I got. Shortly after attending my first P-FLAG meeting, I began attending a local gay men’s conversational group. Although I was welcomed - it was an open group, after all, and there were rules about everyone being allowed to speak and not putting anyone down - it was clear to me that I was not wanted there. I went nearly every Thursday evening for the better part of a year, but it was a chore, and I only realized more and more that I didn’t look forward to going. I once had my former boyfriend attend, and he spoke quite movingly and in some detail about being with me, but it didn’t help. I still wasn’t one of those sexually active gay men, that is, if I was even gay. “What are you doing here?” was still the message I got.
In the past year and a half, as I have continued to attend Claremont P-FLAG meetings, if on a sporadic basis, I have become involved with several other groups with much more success. Two of these are the Moon Circle, a L.A area of the Radical Faeries, and, just recently, the California Men’s Gathering. Although my first meetings were still terrifying, I have found the mostly gay and bisexual men in these groups to be, for the most part, quite friendly and warmly accepting. There are still awkward pauses and side glances, and I do wish that I didn’t have to travel so far to participate in the many and varied activities, but I deeply appreciate these groups’ commitment to openness and diversity.
This isn’t to say that all is nice and easy. There have been plenty of times when I’ve had to get on these guys’ cases, rattle their cages, to remind them that I’m there and to accommodate and assist me. However, I sense that they mean well and that, for the most part, they are trying, and there is always the guy like the guy at a recent clothing-optional pool party who, without my saying anything, offered to and was not afraid to take me into the pool.
And there are still times when all my cage rattling doesn’t help. At the California Men’s Gathering over Memorial Day weekend, I read a poem of mine at the talent show. The poem is about my body, about how my body is sexual and desirable despite being crippled and contorted, and the reading was a dramatic one. A friend read it along with me, and, for the first time, I read it as I meant it to be read when I wrote it a few years ago - in the nude. For me, and most of the 250 or so men in the hall, it was a profoundly powerful experience and one of celebration.
I say most, because, as my attendant told me later, a man came up to him in the restroom afterwards and said that my reading was “the saddest part of the show.”
“Man,” my attendant said, looking at the guy as he left the restroom, “you’re missing the point. You just don’t get it.”
He doesn’t. And it’s his loss.