We all look back on our teen years at some point in our lives, right? Some of us look back on those moments with a fondness for them; old memories flooding back to us like they were yesterday. Many of us in our teenage years have memories of our first forays into the world of sex, making out, romance and all that exciting, coming of age stuff. I look back on my teenage years somewhat differently.
No access to the party
Growing up as a disabled teenager who used a power wheelchair, I didn’t necessarily have all the opportunities to jump into sex and dating like my able-bodied peers did (although, being a full time power chair user, I wasn’t really jumping into anything, lol.) I had attendant care, surgeries and fighting for accessibility to worry about, so having sex or worrying about sexuality wasn’t always top of my mind. I would see the kids planning dates and breakups and hookups all around me, but I didn’t necessarily feel included in that group. I struggled with (and still struggle with) a lot of anxiety around how other people perceive my disability. I tried desperately to fit in with them, but each time I tried to include myself—whether by going to parties, asking someone out to Prom or even trying to get laid—the fact that I was disabled usually got in the way somehow.
I remember when I was 16, there was a big party at a really popular girl’s house. All of the high school seniors were going. I had never been to a big high school party like that, and for some reason I was dying to go. I hadn’t been officially asked, but I spoke to one of my friends in drama class who snagged me an invite. I was so excited and nervous. I remember getting all dressed up in what was considered cool for 2000 (baggy jeans and a kangol hat). I pimped out my wheelchair with multi-colored lights so that they would see me, and off I went. My dad drove me there in our big, clunky wheelchair accessible van.
As he let me out so that I could mingle with the cool kids, I very quickly realized that the girl’s house was inaccessible to me. She had five steps into the party area. Instead of looking for an accessible solution, she suggested that I just go home. I was crushed! I called my dad in tears to come get me, even though he had dropped me off not 30 minutes before. As I waited for him, I could see the party-goers through the window, starting to drink and make out. I peered through the window, and I knew that in some ways I would always be on the outside looking in.
The queer community and ableism
One of the biggest moments that defined my understanding of sexuality as a disabled teen was my first time coming out. I say first because I have come out numerous times since then as my various identities have come to light. I was 16, and started to realize that I liked boys—A LOT. I would devour queer television, wishing that I could emulate what I was seeing on-screen. I was dying to see a hot, disabled guy in a wheelchair on shows like Queer As Folk, but I never did.
This freaked me out. Looking back on it, I realize now that I was scared because I didn’t want to have my family see me as more of a burden. All I kept saying to myself was, “You’re already disabled. Your family has enough to deal with, do you have to be gay too?” I was terrified that my queerness compounded by my disability would be too much pressure for my family, and they’d hate me. At the time, I’d wished there was a pamphlet that said It’s OK to be Gay AND Disabled (and I kinda still do.)
In the end, my family was more than supportive of me. But I’ll never forget something my mom said after I came out. She looked me in the eyes, and in a low calming voice she said, “You know, it might be harder for you, being disabled.”
She wasn’t wrong. Ever since that moment, some 22 years ago, I am still searching for my community. I don’t often get invited to the big queer parties, and when I do, it becomes quickly apparent that the venue is not accessible to me. The ableism in the queer community is very similar to the high school party that I tried to go to 20 years ago; I have been confronted with both physical barriers and emotional ones. Queer men don’t want to engage with me because they’re scared of what disability is. I am often told in a variety of ways to just go home.
I remember in college, I went out to the town gay bar one night. I was on the dance floor in my big, electric power chair trying to mingle and be sexy, when out of nowhere the host of the night, a glamorous drag queen waltzed up to me and said, “Oh, honey, can you please get off the dance floor? Your wheelchair is making it harder for the other guys to dance.” I wanted to scream and cry, but instead I just went home, as I had before. Except this time I didn’t have my dad to comfort me.
Looking forward to the second date
At 37 as a queer, non-binary disabled person, I feel like I am going through a different kind of puberty. I have had a lot of sexual relationships with people, but I haven’t ever had a first date that went well enough that there was a second. I am still trying to fit in with the cool kids who don’t know how to navigate being with a wheelchair user, still trying to manage my own expectations around sex and disability, and still trying to find my place and my peers. I have so many “firsts” left to experience: my first long term relationship, my first partner, my first time bringing that partner over to meet my parents.
I don’t have a lot of sexy memories from my disabled teenagehood; there were no hot teen sex romps to speak of. I am not worried, though, because as I enter my second adolescence of sorts, I have made the decision to enjoy the fact that these are my “firsts”, and stop worrying about some arbitrary timeline that isn’t accessible to me. I know that people’s approaches to dating and disability are largely ableist. That hasn’t really changed all that much since I was a teenager. My advice to young disabled teens trying to date today is this: things may take longer, and that’s just fine. If your sexual experiences happen a little later in your life, you will still get to experience them. Second adolescences can be sexy too.