For someone who has always dated men, I have fallen in love with a lot of women over the years. Of course, I didn’t recognize it as love at the time. I was a practically ancient twenty-two before I was sure of my queerness, because I was laughably out of touch with my own feelings. The archetypal queer story line, the one where you know it since kindergarten and come out all at once in a supreme act of courage, never fit me.
I came out slowly, haphazardly, often forgetting whom I’d told and whom I hadn’t. There were no secret girlfriends or covert confessions. There was no formal announcement, no awkward family meeting, no mess. People were either supportive or apathetic, given I had always been with men and it didn’t feel relevant to them. And because there was no closet narrative to speak of, I never quite owned my own bisexuality. It wasn’t hard-won, it didn’t oppress me in any meaningful way, so it felt like I’d cheated, somehow. That’s probably why I hardly ever talk about it; it doesn’t feel entirely real or entirely mine.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more about why it took me so long to realize that I was attracted to women in the same way as men. Some of it was the power of repetition. I always assumed I was straight, “straight as an arrow” as I used to put it, so when I experienced intense feelings for a woman, I imagined all women felt that way about their friends. Spoiler alert, younger self: No they do not.
But the more significant reason for my deep denial is related to my disabilities. When you grow up with needs society deems “special,” it’s hard not to resent your own body. Everything you are told about yourself as a disabled person is dusted with subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about independence. At home, at school, at work and just about everywhere, you are served the paradox: You are dependent, and you should never depend on anyone. You are not as capable as others, and you should be as capable as everyone else. You are not okay, and you must always be okay.
Early on in my journey as a visibly disabled person, I learned to minimize and ignore my needs. I was the kid who wouldn’t ask to go to the washroom because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, leading to inevitable and embarrassing consequences. I found it difficult to ask for food when I was hungry. If I got lost, I had trouble asking for directions. I made myself small, believing on some primal level that my needs were bad and wrong.
As I got older and better able to meet my basic needs independently, I learned to ask for help related to blindness, chronic pain, or mental health. I understood that interdependence was the only way I’d be a functional human being, so I mastered that uncomfortable art and gritted my teeth through the asking.
But I was more sure than ever that needing things was bad and wrong, so I sidelined my non-disability-related needs instead. I allowed myself to be bullied. I refused to share my struggles with most people, even those willing to help. When asked how I was doing, I was adamantly, aggressively okay. In that way, I made myself even smaller.
What does this have to do with queerness? If you’ll excuse some gender generalization, everything.
See, I was almost always able to convince men of my strength. If I told them I was just fine, even with ample evidence to the contrary, they usually believed me. Women, on the other hand, seemed to see right through my hard-shelled deception. Many men have cared for and nurtured me over the years, some of them perceptive enough to notice when I was trying to be a hero. But the women I kept falling for—elder siblings, motherly types, people used to looking after others—were the ones who could not, would not be fooled, maybe because they’d used all my tricks to hide their own pain. They were the ones referring me to crisis teams and buying me groceries because they knew damn well I was hungry and dangerously not-okay. They were the ones trying hard to save me from myself, doggedly asking the hard questions, at times offering help in ways that made me feel overwhelmed and resentful.
One of my crushes was so persistent I accused her of being a Mother Teresa type, which, far from deterring her as I’d hoped, seemed to embolden her. (I’m very good at making people go away when I fear they might actually get to the heart of who I am. She would not be fooled and she would not be turned away.)
All of this was hidden from me because of my afore-mentioned denial skills. It’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve realized I am not an open book with the vast majority of people in my life. Friends and relatives have complained that they can never get anything out of me. I tend to redirect conversations back to the other person if things get too serious. Part of me is still fiercely guarded, and I was the last to know about it. I tend to pull back when I sense someone is starting to understand me a little too well, and the moments in which I do overshare happen because I am so closed-up the rest of the time.
Lately, I’ve been sidelining my emotional needs less. I’ve been reminding myself that those who love me are pleased when I share my burdens and hurt when I don’t. I should not shy away from love’s vulnerable imperative. I should receive it as the counterintuitive, subversive gift that it is.
None of my needs is bad or wrong. No disabled person’s needs are bad or wrong. We should be teaching disabled kids to speak up loudly when they’re hungry, thirsty, lost, scared, or in need of a washroom. We should be encouraging disabled people to welcome, not apologize for, their very human, very normal needs. We should assure them that interdependence is positive and necessary, that they need not pay for their “special” needs by pretending to be aggressively okay. We should remind them of their legitimacy as healthy human beings with emotional and spiritual needs, and we should drown out the drumbeat of shame society forces them to march to each day. They’ll get plenty of that shaming from people who don’t love them the way we love them. Contrary to popular belief, hearing these narratives from loved ones is not less painful than hearing them from strangers, nor are these messages particularly helpful.
Listen, friend who is reading this and thinking, “I see what you’re saying, but…”
I am not telling you to abandon advocacy, independence and self-reliance. One of my greatest personal treasures is my ability to take good care of myself when I must. I am only telling you that you cannot make up for your disability by refusing to lean on the world in any other way. You can’t, and you shouldn’t. And when you meet someone who sees right through you, and wants to take care of you anyway, try letting them, because nondisabled people lean all the time. We just don’t call it “accommodation” when they do. Mostly, we call it love.
Whether you know it or not, friend, your refusal to lean as others lean is costing you. One day, you will be in great, undeniable need. One day, you will come to the end of yourself, of what you can do, and you will have to reach out. Take it from someone who knows: It’ll be a lot easier if you practice.