Dec 312015

2015 really does feel like it was a turning point – no, a launching pad – for sex and disability conversations.

Here’s just a small sampling:

Mainstream media outlets approached sex and disability in ways they rarely have before, including coverage from the CBC, Cosmo, The atlantic, and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Toronto saw its first disability-friendly sex party organized by the founders (both disabled) of Deliciously Disabled.

The ever-popular Huffington Post’s “gay voices” section included a regular column on sex and disability for queer folks, including an article on just what it was like to plan that sex party anyway.

Wright State University held it’s first ever Sex and Disability Conference

See my coverage of Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

An organization in France published the first two issues of a quarterly magazine on love and sex written by and for people with intellectual disabilities. Titled “J’existe et je veux” (“I exist and I want), this magazine might be the first publication of its kind released anywhere, in any language.

Disabled women presented a panel on disability concerns, including sexuality at a prominent feminist conference. Even in 2015, inclusion of disabled women in feminist spaces is rare and noteworthy.

The Disability Visibility Project interviewed Olivia Davis about attitudes towrds disabled people’s sexualities, and the need for open, honest conversations about sex.

Disabled people were also writing, writing, writing in 2015, publishing raw, honest, educational pieces including everything from 3 Ways You Might Be Marginalizing Disabled Asexual People (And What to Do About It) to Being Disabled, Kinky, & Into BDSM – and of course Kylie Jenner’s sexualized photo shoot with wheelchair as prop stirred up all kinds of sex and disability commentary by disabled voices.

And then there were books.

I think this might have been a record year for sex and disability related books.

Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency

QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology (Reviewed here.)

Poetic Confessions

Trophy Wife: Sexuality. Disability. Femininity.

Loneliness and Its Opposite: Sex, Disability, and the Ethics of Engagement

These two aren’t specific to sex and sexuality, but are incredibly meaningful contributions to disability history.

Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

What were your 2015 sex and disability discoveries?

Dec 212015

“An unexamined public kiss is a privilege, enjoyed by those who are not marked out as the “other” by a stranger’s gaze. For me, a kiss is a political act of lustful resistance, whether I want it to be or not because it highlights those things people don’t want to think about let alone talk about—that people with disabilities are sexual and that some of us are gay.”

— Jax Jacki Brown | The Politics of Pashing from QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology

A kiss as resistance – For queer people who have so often had to hide who they are so they could exist safely in the world. For disabled people who just want to be seen in public spaces without being stared at. For disabled queer people who are so often doubly erased and doubly objectified at the same time.

I think QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology is like that kiss, unapologetic, brave, and beautiful. It’s like that kiss, bringing LGBTQ disabled people’s beauty out to shine. This anthology fits snugly in the intersection of disability, sexuality, and gender.

QDA is exquisite! It’s politics, passion, and really good writing all rolled into one.

I knew we were getting something beyond amazing when I saw author and editor Raymmond Luczak named as the editor for this book. I’ve read several of his previous anthologies, cried tears of self-recognition in public while reading Eyes of Desire II: A Deaf GLBT Reader.

Now, he’s pulled together stories, essays, and poems from forty-eight writers (including his own explicitly honest poetry) – forty-eight writers living in different places, with different disabilities, having diferent gender identities and sexualities, and, sometimes, holding diverging goals and desires – and he’s made the work fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

I really enjoyed the contrasts, and outright surprises, in this anthology, such as contradictions placing a lyrical poem about pain and love (D. Allens Posession) right before a snark-filled personal essay on erectile dysfunction (Gregory Villa, Limp). Meg Day’s poem On What I Didn’t hear you Say is full of nonsense words showing how complex language is for people who struggle to hear or speech-read another person’s spoken word, while Whittier Strong’s On Inheritance uses clinical-sounding quotes about mental health as structure for a story on child abuse and emotional pain. The contrasts and surprises continue throughout the book, which, by the way, includes some of the best poetry, nonfiction, and short story writing I’ve seen in years. Because disabled people are so often seen as less capable, or as living less full lives than nondisabled people, I think works like this, that showcase disabled writers’ artistry and skill, are extra important.

Maybe the best part of this writing is the richly textured portrait of queer disabled people’s lives, from the work they do, to the sex they have (or want to have), to the yoga classes they attend and the bars they hang out at. When I read this, which I’ve done about four times now, I can almost see, hear, smell and taste the experiences held in the words of these pages.

For the rest of this review I’ll be looking mostly at how QDA’s writers tackled the themes of sexuality and relationships. But, I do want to mention a couple of points that really made me sit up and take notice.

1. Liv Mammone has some advice for nondisabled participants in a disability-related poetry workshop. This is, I think, the best list of advice (with plenty of examples that should make people cringe, and laugh) for both respecting difference and accepting that people with disabilities are still people, and that, overall, disabled participants are there to discuss poetry.

Some of the advice:

  • When asking about my disability, please remember you have Siri at your beck and call, and that what you really need to know will come up in the poems.
  • Your head had best be a microscope. Ask yourself why you’re here. But question my motives, too. Slam your hand hard on my buttons.
  • Speak for me, not over me.

2. InDisability Made Me Do It or Modeling for the Cause, Kenny Fries finishes with the observation that The Venus de Milo, with all her scars and missing body parts, is considered beautiful; people with scars and missing parts are rarely looked at with wonder and admiration. That brought me up short. Why do we accept, even celebrate, something in art that we reject in flesh and blood people?

— — — —

It’s a strange irony that disabled people are assumed to not think about, let alone want, sex, while queer people are stereotyped as thinking about nothing else. Where does that even leave queer disabled folks?

Luckily, the truth is far more complex – and beautiful – and QDA is here to help us see that.

In Vagina Resigning, Liv Mammone shows us that the sexual part of herself is so much more powerful, so much more eager, so much more reliable and pleasurable, than the rest of her disabled body. Andrew Morrison-Gurza and Ashley Molion both write about how they desire passionate abandon, not the careful treatment or chaste touches they get from most people, even lovers.

Barbara Ruth’s poem 8 Ways of Being Disabled in Love speaks to a reality most nondisabled people don’t think about and probably couldn’t imagine – a world where couples keep on touching, keep on loving, even with medicines, hospitals,and pain that won’t go away.

IN Possession, D. Allen puts this in poetry:

Often I confuse pain with a poverty
of love. I don’t have hands today
means I can’t use them to touch you.

Sarah Ibrahim goes deeper into this as she explores how one person’s pain can bring lovers together and tear them apart. D. Allen spells out, in prose this time, this deep relationship between bodies, pain, and lovers:

You rub my back during a pain flare and I remind you to avoid the spine. Often you remember on your own, now. I say the spine because it is easier than saying my body feels broken and your touch makes it real.

Because we really can’t untangle relationships, of any kind, from the ways we feel about ourselves, from the ways we live in our bodies.

It’s complex enough to sort out relationships with lovers and partners. When we throw family into the mix, it often gets positively messy.

Many of QDA’s writers share the deep conflicts they’ve had with family. Joel Gates starts his essay Outcast: Deaf, Gay, Christian: “All my life I could never fit in anywhere.” The only way he could literally survive this isolation was to finally tell his family and friends that he’s gay. Joel has payed a big price for that: He and his family are “drifting apart” and he’s had to build a family of his own, with his fiance, and new friends at his new church lead by a gay pastor.

Disability is an isolating experience. As is having a gender or sexuality people don’t understand. harder still when people who claim to love you blame your queerness on your disability.

Brenna Syr captures this in a way that makes my heart ache every time I read it:

I called my sister for comfort. I spoke to her of my pain: the physical and the relational.

“Brenna, don’t you think your arthritis might get better if you stopped deciding to be gay?”

…I live in constant pain, and a part of me will always believe that it is caused by a God who cares not for my happiness, but for the genitalia of my partners.

But there’s laughter mixed into QDA, if not from family, than from and with lovers and partners.

Larry Connolly thinks he must be The Worst Husband You Can Imagine. He loses patience with his husband John’s slowness and limited mobility, noncompliance with medical instructions, and, worst of all, his habit of leaving dirty clothes and dishes all over Larry’s nice neat house.

Finally, he goes too far, and there I am standing in the kitchen doorway, in an apron, brandishing a rolling pin and screaming, YOU LEFT YOUR GODDAMN WHEELCHAIR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LIVING ROOM.
Silence covers the earth. We know a line has been crossed.
It doesn’t really matter what straw broke this back, or how exactly we got to this place on this day, but we look into one another’s eyes, catch the tail end of whatever soul dares to remain, and begin to laugh. And laugh. And Laugh.

Enough said.

There’s a theory that queer people and disabled people share a common experience, that these two groups are united by having experienced rejection from their families. I have no idea how true this sense of connection between the communities actually is.

Writers in QDA have not found queer communities welcoming or accessible.

Kit Mead hasn’t been able to find their queer community. They’re autistic, and the fast paced noise and chaos of clubs, pride parades, and campus LGBTQ student meetings causes too much sensory stimulation, meaning that Kit shuts down and can’t interact. Not being able to access queer community makes Kit feel invisible as a queer person, especially since their queerness has been discounted as “symptoms” of autism, not expressions of queer identity.

Maverick Smith, Invisible Within the Ten Percent, spells out what is happening behind this lack of accessibility in queer spaces:

Pride is a rainbow blanket smothering difference
it makes words palatable to diverse communities
but even as folks’s lips shape these verbs for others’s ears
ableism & audism are omnipresent during Pride

I loved and learned from every piece in this book, but the one that gives me chills, the one that keeps pulling me back to read it again and again is John Whittier Treat’s fictional short story A Girl For Us.

Hal is in his mid-thirties, works at a grocery store, loves going to the planetarium, has a best friend named Stan, and has intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Without asking what he wants, his parents decide to put out a personal ad to find Hal a girlfriend. Maybe no one is really interested in what Hal wants, or thinks he can even know what he wants, but Hal is the only character in this story who knows or acknowledges that something is wrong with this set-up. In fact, Hal understands almost everything that’s happening around him.

“Hal, how are we doing?”
“Well, this is our second date, isn’t it?”
Hal thought, I haven’t ever asked her on a date. Mom and Dad have.
“I guess.”
Carolyn put both her hands flat on the tablecloth.
“Do you like me?”
Hal panicked. He wasn’t sure how to answer. If he said no, she might get mad. If he said yes, she might think I want to marry her or something. It was only then that Hal thought to answer truthfully.
“I don’t know you, Carolyn.”
Carolyn smiled. “That’s right, Hal. We don’t know each other. But everyone has first impressions.”

You’ll need to read the story to find out what Hal’s first impressions are, and what he’d tell people if only they asked. Like all well-written fiction, the big picture is slow to emerge, and is like a slap in the face when it does.


Thank you to Raymond Luczak for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

We need more books like QDA, as starters for conversations, as works of art, as resources for people trying to survive and love themselves.

Dec 042015

We need to talk about the fact that Kylie Jenner, a conventionally beautiful able-bodied woman who fits societal standards of beauty in almost every way is allowed to be sexy and edgy in a wheelchair, when that reality is so often denied to many wheelchair using women. We need to talk about the fact that disabled people, real disabled people, are still largely missing in media representation, especially media representation around beauty and sexuality.

–Karin Hitselberger: Why We Need to Talk about Kylie Jenner

When I first heard about Kylie Jenner’s wheelchair enabled photo shoot, I wondered: why a wheelchair? Why not a toilet, or adult-sized infant car seat, or a Victorian fainting couch.

Any of those could have helped her show how disempowered and imprisoned she feels by the media, and the first two would have given her plenty of options for the sexualized edginess she, or at least her photographers, were going for.

Instead, she chose a wheelchair, and BDSM gear, neither of which mean what she or the photographer thinks they mean.

So much has already been said about the choice to use a wheelchair in this shoot. I’ve stayed quiet all this week, because as someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair, this isn’t my conversation to have. but I wanted to pull this all together and look at it through a broader sexuality and disability lens.

let’s start with the BDSM gear.

Kylie wants to explore her identity. Lots of people use bondage gear, and BDSM gear in general, to explore who they are. Lots more use it to express who they are.

My collar is my mirror. It’s my wellness check. It’s my sense of freedom because it’s my sense of stability. It represents to me the journey I made through myself and my partner to earn my collar; The hard work and self-exploration and acceptance I had to go through to get it. When my partner takes me by my collar or cuffs me, or in any way binds me, it’s a reminder that I am face to face with myself in this life, and I’d better be the person I want to see close-up in those moments when I can’t break free. (Well, i could, but safe words aside, assuming they’re not part of this.)

I get bound for the kink, but within the kink, for me, is a much deeper place where I can feel safe and comfortable with who I am. Beyond that, my collar is my safety, reminding me I’m not taking on the world alone.

— Written by a friend (who is disabled, but isn’t a wheelchair user) when I asked about what the gear means in her BDSM relationship.

That’s not exactly imprisonment…and it’s not self-reinvention either. Sure, for some people, bondage gear is about putting on a costume, about becoming someone else, about doing something edgy and contrary, about reinventing oneself, even just for a little bit, but for most people, whether they’re dominant or submissive, BDSM gear is about expressing themselves more fully, not hiding from who they are.

Kylie was going for sexy. That’s usually what bare skin, corsets, and other fetish wear means.

Problem is, visibly disabled people (including folks in wheelchairs) aren’t read as passively sexual. Instead, we’re frequently read as nonsexual, as unlikely candidates for a sexual or romantic relationship. Or, we’re seen as sexually desirable because of our disabilities, which is a good thing, or a bad thing depending on who you talk to. Hint: Being transparent about finding disability attractive and sexy is good. Only being attracted to someone because they’re disabled (that is, not seeing them as a whole person) is not-so-good, unless the person is cool with it.

Either way, the sexuality of people with any type of disability isn’t automatically passive. People with disabilities have a full range of sexualities and sexual feelings, from not experiencing sexual desire or attraction (asexuality), to being submissive (not passive) in their sexual play, to desiring a traditional heterosexual relationship, to… pretty much anything anyone could imagine. It’s almost always the beliefs of others, not disability, that limit disabled people’s sexualities.

Now, the wheelchair.

Yes, wheelchairs do signify public scrutiny.

We’re told, by a representative from the magazine that the photo shoot “aims to unpack Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention.”

most disabled folks don’t get to engineer whether they’re objects of attention or not.

Emily Ladau tells us just exactly what that scrutiny looks and feels like for her:

As a visibly disabled woman, I never have the option to choose if I want to put myself on display. People stare at me, often directly and unabashedly, because my wheelchair demands attention. I’m not sitting to make a cultural statement, though. I’m sitting because it’s my reality.

A nondisabled person using a wheelchair in a symbolic way is treading a fine line between accuracy and appropriation because she’s dictating what the wheelchair means. yet the wheelchair can have no real meaning for her since she simply sits in it for the photo shoot, then gets up and walks away.

For someone who needs a wheelchair, it doesn’t – can’t – just mean one thing.

Wheelchair users need their chairs for diferent purposes. Some folks only use a wheelchair when they leave their house; others can’t get out of bed without one. What someone needs their chair for, how long they’ve had to use one, why they had to start using a chair in the first place – all these things are going to afect how someone feels about their chair, and what symbolic meaning it has.

Disability rights advocate and sexologist Bethany Stevens posted on her Facebook page: “Disability can be very glamorous, wheels can be wings with bling.” Activist Ophelia Brown doesn’t think that way about her chair; she says that her wheelchair isn’t a fashion accessory.

But, Ophelia does agree thather wheelchair is her wings.

Bethany and Ophelia are both crystal clear; their wheelchairs are what make it possible to do what they do, to live the way they want to live. Their wheelchairs are freedom, not prison.

It’s great that Kylie loves to experiment with her looks. A person with a visible disability can change their looks all they want to, it’s still most often the disability, or the assistive device, that people will notice first, or pay most attention to.

S.E. Smith points out that the whole photo shoot would have read very differently if it had been done with a disabled model, and could have made a “powerful statement” challenging the idea that women are there to be watched, that disability equals vulnerability, that a woman can only express sexiness by making herself appear passive, or at least for what passes as passive in the public imagination.

If I’m told I’m attractive, it’s often said that I’m “attractive for a girl in a wheelchair.” But Jenner is considered sexy, full stop, because people know the wheelchair is only pretend.

— Emily Ladau: Dear Kylie Jenner, My Wheelchair Isn’t a Prop: Stop Playing Dress-up Games With My Reality

If Kylie Jenner really wanted to explore the way mass media represents her, she could have started by challenging that representation. What better way to explore feeling powerless than to express power? Instead, the photo shoot put her in a traditional feminine role (revealing outfit, serving drinks).

If Kylie Jenner really wanted to explore her powerlessness in the face of media sscrutiny, she could have started by exploring her sexual agency. She’s a young, conventionally attractive white woman. She’d have plenty of tropes and symbols to draw on for a photo shoot expressing how confined and controlled she feels without appropriating other symbols and totally missing the mark on what they mean.

Here’s a photo shoot with a disabled woman, a wheelchair user, exploring all parts of her life, including her sexuality.