Ausnew Home Care | When disability and queerness collide, a unique world of inaccessibility becomes clear

When disability and queerness collide, a unique world of inaccessibility becomes clear

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There came a certain point in my gender transition when I started getting the dubious compliment: "I couldn't even tell!" 

In the trans community, we refer to this as "passing", and while no-one says this about my brain injury — it's impossible to deny the scars on my head, or the steel of my wheelchair — the word is also common within the context of disability.

I am fascinated by the word. Pass by what? It denotes some kind of barrier; an invisible wall, like a pane of glass, one glittering face of the prism that I see through.

It's these walls that we refer to when we talk about inaccessibility.

Not everyone can see them — and it has nothing to do with your eyes.

For me, I gained the ability to see them five years ago, when, just days after I was meant to begin my medical gender transition, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and the surgery that followed went dramatically wrong.

My life was abruptly divided into a "before" and "after".

I awoke to a world and a body that were vastly different to what I had known.

For a long time, I thought I was alone in that world, but then I met Bryson Eli, 32.

We met at one of the monthly meetings of Queer Peers, a group led by Newcastle not-for-profit Community Disability Alliance Hunter (CDAH).

A man, wearing glasses and a flanno, smiles while looking away from the camera.
Bryson Eli is a co-facilitator at Queer Peers in Newcastle.(ABC: Az Cosgrove)

"I'm a bi trans man, and I'm also disabled," he said.

It's the "and" that enables him to perceive the same world that I do.

Coupled with complex mental health and cognitive differences, Bryson has cerebral palsy, an umbrella term referring to a huge spectrum of movement differences. 

"It's the systemic barriers that exist for minority communities," he said, defining inaccessibility.

"Obvious examples are things like toilets, buses, trains … but I also think about things like legislation, societal attitudes."

This means that the concept of inaccessibility is far larger than it is currently understood to be — and there are a vast range of experiences that simply cannot be accounted for by the blue wheelchair symbol.

a man speaking at an open mic at a bar.
Bryson Eli says he has found some purpose in local queer groups.(ABC: Az Cosgrove)

Experiences like going on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as someone with a disability.

At Bryson's appointment to commence HRT, he said the doctor's first comment was that he was surprised Bryson wasn't in a wheelchair.

"And immediately it made me feel…" he trailed off, and we slipped easily into the wordless understanding that comes with shared lived experience. Misunderstood. Angry. Scared.

But there are perks, too. Due to our disabilities, Bryson and I can both pass the unpleasant task of administering our own testosterone injections to doctors or nurses.

"That's a good one!" Bryson laughed.

A world not built for us

Dane Noonan, 27, describes himself as "gay as they come" and has a rare form of dwarfism called mucopolysaccharidosis type VI.

As a reformed introvert, at first I was nervous to meet him.

Would we have things to talk about? Would we find common ground?

But then he said: "Growing up, I knew I was different," and any awkwardness between us fell away.

A man, wearing a black shirt, glasses and a necklace leans against a wall.
Dane Noonan is a proud queer man, and lives with a rare form of dwarfism.(ABC: Justin Huntsdale)

"I knew I was different." Like an echo, I heard those words in my own voice, and then in the voices of almost every queer person I know.

"I grew up in a world not built for me, full stop," Dane said.

"My height and my disability was always a barrier."

However, height is not the only condition of entry. Being queer also means diverging from what disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson refers to as the "normate" body.

"Being a person with a disability and also knowing that you're gay is a double whammy," Dane said.

A man, who has dwarfism, poses for the camera. He is wearing brightly-coloured neon heels.
Dane Noonan is a fierce advocate for queer expression.(ABC: Justin Huntsdale)

It's also a world that doesn't smell particularly good, at least in Dane's experience.

"I can tell you right now, I've smelt everything from down here," Dane laughed, but it is without humour.

Then his voice becomes softer, revealing a bruise.

"People are kind of like vultures," he said.

"I've had my glasses pulled off and been smacked across the face … I've been trampled that many times."

His experience is unfortunately far from unique. The recent report released by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability shows such experiences are disturbingly common among LGBTQ+ people with a disability.

Despite this grim reality, however, people like Dane — like us — have no shortage of pride.

"I'm just me. It feels good," he said.

Life-changing adjustments

Chances are that without her power wheelchair — which she got at the start of 2022 — I wouldn't have met Catherine Cain, 44.

"It allows me to go out infinitely more often and do much more things — like pop over to the ABC, for instance," she said.

"It's life-changing."

Catherine is clearly proud of her wheelchair, but is still working on that pride in relation to her queer identity.

A woman in a wheelchair, smiles and holds up her hands during a conversation.
Catherine Cain is proud of her disability, and is hoping to be just as proud of being queer.(ABC: Az Cosgrove)

"For a long time I identified as queer adjacent," she laughed, running a hand self-consciously over her shaved head.

"I'm trying to get more comfortable with applying [that label] to myself."

My heart doesn't break, but it aches along a poorly healed scar. The language of not enough is all too common in both the queer and disability communities, and the observation highlights their overlap.

As Catherine put it: "Welcome to being marginalised even on the margins!"

The words are ugly traces of the ideas of purity or essentialism that underpinned the eugenic practices shared by both LGBTQIA+ history and that of disability.

It's estimated that anywhere from 5,000–15,000 homosexuals were killed during the Holocaust, while almost 250,000 disabled people were murdered during Hitler's "T4" euthanasia program.

Today, eugenic practices still persist, with the sterilisation of disabled people still often deemed "medically necessary", the gatekeeping of gender-affirming healthcare, the surgical "correction" of healthy intersex babies

What this intersection reveals is that inaccessibility is not just a disability thing.

It is the drawing of lines around what is considered a "normal" body — and that body is not queer and does not have a disability.

Close up of a woman's hand, directing an electric wheelchair.
Catherine Cain's electric wheelchair has opened up a whole new world for her.(ABC: Az Cosgrove)

Catherine sees evidence of this everyday in her advocacy work around accessible housing.

"Do you think they're going to pick the person on the disability support pension? [Or] the two multi-coloured hair pansexuals who don't like using pronouns?" she asked.

Accessibility, Catherine said, is about more than just ramps.

"Ramps are fantastic. Ramps to all things, please. [But] what we really need is the default of, 'There is no default'," she said.

In other words: if we want to overcome inaccessibility, we must acknowledge that there is no normal.

This is the first, and perhaps the most important, step to envision a space without inaccessibility.

These are safe spaces, and they fill the dreams of thousands of Australians.

Safe spaces that accommodates all bodies, rather than just some.

Maybe, one day, those spaces might open into an entire world.

Az Cosgrove is a writer based in Newcastle, NSW, and is an ABC Regional Storyteller Scholar for 2023-24.

 

Source: ABC


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