Love, drugs & the club: As a gay man, life looks different with a new disability

Love, drugs & the club: As a gay man, life looks different with a new disability
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Few things beat the buzz of donning a sparkly, slutty outfit; maybe a touch of well-placed eyeliner; the stentorian, squeaky tones of Ariana; and the first cocktail of the night—your dressing drink while you suit up, ready to go out. You may dance all night (or all weekend), call your dealer, have a fight, and fall in love all at once. This is part of how you relate to friends, to your community, and to yourself. Queerness, for you, is going out.

And so it was for me, a then-29-year-old, gay, Caucasian, cisgender man with a preference for the nightclub over the book club and a body that used to both work well and… well… werk. Last summer, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, which in any case feels like an upheaval. Still, for someone whose LGBTQ+ identity is expressed through social, and usually boozy, intercourse (of all manner), a new disability creates a particular set of challenges.

The transition from non-disabled to disabled can present a daunting and onerous adjustment period for anyone, to say nothing of those who have lived with their disability since birth. But the transformation is especially jarring for members of the LGBTQ+ community, as our experiences as queer people often center on socializing and self-realization that is disproportionately geared towards participants without disabilities.

Transportation to the social venue, which is usually loud, bright, and on multiple floors, is physically and financially prohibitive; when you arrive, substances tend to be at the core of social life—something that those on medication or with certain conditions might have to avoid; judgment, superficiality, and stigma tend to raise barriers to connection in the smoking area or at the bar; bars, clubs, saunas, and pubs are rarely equipped (at least in my native UK) with ear loops, ramps, quiet rooms or wheelchair accessible toilets. Even house parties and afterparties tend to produce yet more drugs, drinks, and stairs.

Many spaces and collectives do exist that either are not predicated on partying or provide accessible, identity-affirming nightlife. In the London scene, for example, where some of the centuries-old buildings understandably cannot be updated to be accessible, bars such as the Two Brewers and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (which, as the oldest gay venue in London, puts the rest to shame) are open to all and have even collaborated with disabled performers.

Wayne Allingham (alias Sugar Cube) is a drag performer and founder of the queer disabled association Disabled, Queer and Hear. They mount programs showcasing LGBTQ+ performers with disabilities, creating space for typically underrepresented performers and audiences looking for an inclusive place to feel at home.

“Growing up as I did in the 1970s, there were no role models to inspire us,” Wayne told LGBTQ Nation. “That is what Disabled, Queer and Hear is all about—creating a platform for LGBT+ performers with disabilities to inspire and entertain, as well as providing the community with a good night out!”

My socializing has necessarily transfigured from “where are we meeting?” to “what can I bring?”

Training staff, equipping venues, and considering the needs of a diverse community like ours, are all it takes to make LGBTQ+ with disabilities feel welcome.

Dating, too, can be a minefield for those with disabilities. The aforementioned stigma raises its ugly head tenfold on dating and hookup apps. We’re all too familiar with ableist, racist, and homophobic dogma (think “no fats, no fems, no Asians”).

While these barriers are undoubtedly present outside of the community, LGBTQ+ people with disabilities face not only the mistrust—or sometimes outright revulsion—that our straight, cis counterparts do. We also encounter all the challenges that our fellow queers do, to wit, pernicious body image standards, internalized homophobia, the disproportionate incidence of poor mental health, and issues of self-worth, all of which feeds ableism in our community.

“It’s all about having the perfect body, about looking the part,” says Wayne. “People with disabilities are made to feel like we’re on the margins.” On the margins of an already marginalized group, that is.

So destructive are these norms that I once turned up to a date without my walking stick (without which walking is possible but painful) for fear of scaring the date away. Reader, never fear: it didn’t—three months later, he finds my limp charming.

My little gay life changed when I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis (not dissimilar to its celebrity cousin, rheumatoid arthritis), an auto-immune disease. It works by coaxing the paranoid immune system to create inflammation to fight a threat that isn’t there. Thus, chronic joint pain, fatigue, and brain fog (among other delights) have been my illness’s hallmarks since last year. How I move—figuratively and literally—through spaces has become limited and sometimes painful. My disease-battling medication works effectively but comes with its own constraint: it does not mix well with alcohol. Stairs present less opportunity to join the fun and more of a hurdle to flail gracelessly over. My socializing has necessarily transfigured from “where are we meeting?” to “what can I bring?”

Even sex has to be approached from, shall we say, a different angle to accommodate pain and tiredness. (Is he saying he’s a top now?). Yes, yes, I am.

But does all this mean my new disability threatens my queerness? Certainly not. Only that queerness, combined with disabled living, takes on a fresh form involving a unique set of considerations and a new perspective. It requires creativity, but LGBTQ+ and disabled identities can and do co-exist and intersect beautifully. Now it’s for the rest of the community to catch up and make room.

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