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Stop Paying Lip Service to Diversity

D’Arcee Charington

As I sat watching the makeup artist apply the sapphire-blue makeup to my skin, transforming me into Ursula the Sea Witch for my solo with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., in March, I had a moment when I wanted to leave. Everyone was buzzing around me, primping my wig and my epic 10-pound crown, sliding this massive pouf of purple gown over my wheelchair.

Amid the noise, I sat there silently asking myself questions. How did I become the first person I’d ever seen who looks like me to take on this role? I’m just some disabled kid looking crazy in drag. And I was scared. Scared of always being out on the edge by myself, always seeming to be the only one trying to live.

In many ways, being black while having cerebral palsy and also being gay is very much like a solo. But at 29, I constantly think it shouldn’t be such a solitary role. It seems so much easier for everyone else. I have yet to have more than four dates a year — at least for something more meaningful than the occasional friend coming over for  “benefits.”

When I consider why that is, I think back to when I was 15, making my way to the public library during the summer to read something that was positively sinful: gay literature. Running With Scissors recalls author Augusten Burroughs’s life in poignant, humorous slices, finding him at one point lying in bed with his lover and asking him whether they would still be together if Burroughs was hurt. His boyfriend replies, “Like how bad? Like, a limp? Cause if it were anything more than that, nope.”

I stopped reading, closed the book, and cried for several minutes in the corner. Although that was 15 years ago, it strikes me that this is how today’s LGBT community views people with disabilities. That is, when we’re visible at all. For a group of individuals who pride ourselves on our ability to thrive at the margins of society, the level of hypocritical social ostracism that we perpetuate within our so-called community borders on the absurd.

What makes this all the more confusing is how loud and proud we are about proclaiming our difference. By this point in history, we gays have effectively channeled the very essence of what our patron saint Madonna has made into a career: reinvention. When something happens that we don’t like — be it language, policy, or legal status — we adapt until we find a way to own our new reality.

Take body image, for example. The highest rank on the desirability scale still belongs to a traditionally “masculine” whitewashed teeny-bopper, with a chiseled face and six-pack abs to match. But we’ve also  made space for bears, otters, foxes, daddies, twinks, jocks, and nerds. The zoo is open, and there’s an app for that.

Unless you’re disabled, that is. The suitors most actively interested in pursuing me tend to be men in the medical world who are secretly fascinated with my body and its oddities. Otherwise, the general public mistakenly assumes that disability makes you asexual — though there are several men on this planet who, after I’ve finished with them, can swear under oath that this asexual assumption is flat-out false.

Growing up, I was always obsessed with the X-Men. I couldn’t put my finger on why I connected with these mutants — aside from the fact that Storm is the baddest bitch who has ever existed. But the story of people born “different,” forced to make their own lives in the face of adversity, appealed to me, even as I lamented the fact that I would never shoot laser beams from my eyes.

As a little kid, I remember being accepted by everyone. Yes, I still had cerebral palsy, and I walked like a crab with my knees turned all the way in, but I played "Ring Around the Rosy" and "Duck, Duck, Goose," and it was glorious. But then puberty happened. The same people who I’d grown up laughing with now slid a few inches away when I showed up in my double-leg, neon purple and orange casts from the latest surgery — because if you have to have them, they might as well make a statement, I figured.

That mistrust calcified into disgust by high school and was permanently embedded by college. There I was, still learning how to flirt while even my fellow gays were getting married. Now perched on the edge of 30, I’m still trying to master cruising from below eye level in my wheelchair.

So while mine is not the typical story, I know it’s a common one, shared by people with varying degrees of disabilities who happen to be LGBT. And in this big “family,” supposedly all together underneath the rainbow, sharing those stories is all but forbidden. We’d rather just ignore those folks trying to make themselves heard, and continue yelling “Equality!” from the rooftops and “masc, white, and neg only” on our Grindr profiles.

Even that doesn’t stop people from pointing out the blatantly evil version of what they believe to be true. “No one will ever hit on you on the club,” a so-called friend once told me. “You’re literally the desperate guy. If people are seen talking to you, everyone knows it’s a pity lay. The only way I’m giving my number to you is in the dark, where no one can see.”

Even though we don’t speak now, I can’t help feeling like he gave voice to a cold truth. That’s what I think people most believe — but I know it not to be the case.

When I lived in Germany, being me was never a problem. During graduate school in London, I went on dates constantly. That leads me to believe this is a distinctly American issue. My money is on our collective conservative ideology when it comes to our own bodies and how we see the bodies of others.

But I want people to prove me wrong. Show us off in public, in the light of day. What we need is a Matt Bomer at the Emmys with a guy in a chair — not a stunt piece, but an actual living, breathing, flawed, and beautiful human being. We need an Ellen DeGeneres married to a woman with MS. But until we get there, the next time you’re in the club and you see someone with a disability, don’t be that guy. Be open. Go say something. Stop screaming “diversity” and go live like you believe in it, like it’s your guiding ethos. 

D’Arcee Charington
D'ARCEE CHARINGTON NEAL is a 29-year-old human rights activist with a master’s in creative writing from almost-Hogwarts, who moonlights as a baritone with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. When he’s not managing correspondence for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Secretary, he enjoys fighting injustice with a good cosmo and Netflix-n-Chill sessions.
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