Health and Wellness

LGBTQ+ body standards are even more menacing for disabled queer people

LGBTQ+ body standards are even more menacing for disabled queer people
Photo: Shutterstock

At 12 or thereabouts, we all stood in front of the bathroom mirror, palming rolls of fat, standing on tiptoes to grow in height, or slouching to shrink, practicing bodybuilder or beauty queen poses and traumatizing our facial skin with pertinacious pinches and pops. Perfecting our look, looking for perfection—or even just a physical appearance we could tolerate. And don’t pretend you didn’t, you fibber.

The self-loathing of a teenage body escapes only the lucky few. But inherent to the LGBTQ+ experience is a self-reflexive contempt of another kind altogether: the familiar menace of internalized homophobia. Combine this with adolescent corporeal angst, and those body image issues, particularly for queer people, persist well beyond the teenage years and run deep.

This is no truer than for disabled queer people. We are the triple threat, as it were: physically, mentally, or socially encumbered (disabled), self-effacing or even self-hating (LGBTQ+), and self-conscious (human).

Arthritis: Not just for old people

From my own experience, I can avow to the toxicity of this mix. Last year, I was being examined by a rheumatologist (muscles, bones, joints, etc.) when he gave the matter-of-fact diagnosis of arthritis. At the age of only 29, it was to be the last time anyone would address my condition without showing pity; I was grateful to him for that. Twenty-nine is too young to be told that your joints will forever cause you pain, that your life of stealing children’s lollipops and pushing over old ladies is behind you. But it’s the accusation of “you can’t possibly have arthritis” or “that’s an old person’s disease,” the skeptical looks as you park in a designated disabled spot or dare to look joyful while using a mobility aid—these are the most hurtful hurdles to overcome.

Then again, 29 is not really too young. No age group is off limits with an illness such as arthritis. There are many ailments and disabilities which affect a great many more than those we typically see represented in media. Dementia affecting people younger than 65 has the specific name ‘young-onset dementia’ to mark its… queerness. We almost never think of certain symptoms and illnesses (chronic pain, for instance) as liable to affect younger people as well as older, but they can.

So prevalent and insidious is ageism in healthcare that the World Health Organization commissioned a report on it in 2021, which estimated that 6.3 million cases of depression are attributable to ageist bias globally. The report also points to the intersection of homophobia, transphobia, ageism, sexism, and ableism:

“Qualitative studies revealed that older lesbians report frequent experiences of homophobia, heterosexism and ageism in the health care system and elsewhere, and that older black gay men and lesbian women feel alienated from the black community, deliberately conceal their sexual identity and orientation, and feel isolated.”

World Health Organization: Global report on ageism (2021)

How queer people are treated and interact in society may impact their access to healthcare as they age. When disabled people are subjected to this intersection of the above phobias and -isms, their challenges go from imperceptible to plain invisible. Moreover, the misconception of “you’re too whatever to have [insert affliction]” affects queer people by only adding to the stigma, bias, judgment, and cruelty already facing our community—a process of re-othering.

Perfection and body image in the queer community

Body image and bodily autonomy go hand in hand. Feeling confident in the romantic, professional, or family spheres becomes impossible for those who see themselves as incapable or unworthy—for example, the unrealistic and deleterious body standards of pop, print, and social media. My Instagram feed is saturated with heavenly bodies of one kind (usually the toned, gay, Caucasian kind) or another, leading me to the (un)avoidable conclusion that my own body—limited and relatively amorphous as it is—is trash-made flesh. This thought, though patently untrue, is as limiting as my illness itself and leaves me fear-bound and self-shaming. The unreachable corporeal standards of the LGBTQ+ community are doubly oppressive for a queer disabled person.

This intersection damages the whole community because it could affect any of us at any time.

These lessons also apply to people living without a disability. As my case demonstrates, an impairment can appear without warning, like a tax rebate or a sudden, compulsive obsession with brewing your own kombucha (I’m subtweeting myself here). So, watch out.

Fighting against the stigma of ageism/body image/ableism

How do we, as LGBTQ+ people with disabilities, resist, then? We start from within. Expectations around bodily function and body image must be managed, especially when the body’s fundamental make-up, reach, and abilities are altered, as in my case, where a new disability has emerged. Where body image and sexiness is concerned, it bears repeating that every body is beautiful and desirable in their own way. And it must be true if I—with my British allergy to sentimentality—am offering that advice. As drag legend Trixie Mattel reminds us, “I don’t have to f*ck me… thank God.”

Next, we look outwards. To mangle the words of RuPaul slightly (and yes, there are fewer sources of knowledge wiser than drag queens), others’ perceptions of us are none of our business. Master that self-soothing apathy, and you will be free of the pernicious snideness of onlookers outside (and even within) the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities. And if you do master it, you have to tell me how you did it.

That said, this peaceable acceptance should only go so far. In medical practice, where ableism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, or ageism could mean the difference between diagnosis and misdiagnosis, proper and improper treatment, well then, to the barricades! Resist where you feel able and dismiss their dismissal in turn. We disabled and LGBTQ+ folks stand to learn a lot from the lessons of Stonewall and of modern Pride: fight for respect, not just acceptance or tolerance, and don’t let them tell you you’re too anything.

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