He’s the first date to not ask about my cane as soon as I walk through the door. He has a quiff, square glasses and a pair of red suspenders. While we talk, a piece of my mind is waiting for the inevitable moment to arrive when he says I hope you don’t mind me asking but…My coffee arrives and he hasn’t said it yet. He tells me about his quest to read every single one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. And then we’re saying goodbye, and we hug. Later, I would wonder whether he noticed how I flinched away from his embrace, how I didn’t know what to do with my hands once he was hugging me.
I was so gobsmacked by the fact he never asked about my cane, or the way I never met his eye that I was able to think of little else. I’d grown to expect casual ableism anytime I walked into a date. I always had exactly the same response to their incessant questions. Yes, I have cerebral palsy, I use this cane. No, I am not like My Left Foot. Yes, I am autistic. Yes, you can be autistic and have something else too. No, I am not like Rain Man. To not have to resort to that tired script threw me off, and it angered me that I’d just accepted ableism being a seemingly natural part of my dating life.
I’ve never been in an LGBT+ space where ableism wasn’t present in some way. I stuck it out, and stayed in those spaces. Whenever I had the guts to go to a social event, I always encountered problems. The venues were always loud, and I could never make out what anyone was saying. Individual voices would drift away, and I’d be met with a wall of noise. I would nod, and just hope someone hadn’t asked a question. The places where my universities’ LGBT+ society would meet were almost never physically accessible. Eventually, the LGBT+ society argued that someone couldn’t be society president, as they wouldn’t be able to carry out their ‘presidential duties’ from a wheelchair. I started drifting away from the LGBT+ society after that.
Now, I can see that I was expected to inhabit a closet of my own about disability, in a space where, supposedly, all closets could finally be burst open. Masking is a kind of closet. Queer autistic people not only have to come out as their queer selves, they have to come out as autistic, too. Growing up queer and autistic, I knew I had to hide myself. I was hyperaware of how my body was moving in the world, whether my wrist was giving off the wrong signal or whether my hands were flapping too much. As a queer autistic person, I am constantly assessing the spaces around me to see how safe they are. Is it safe to hold a date’s hand? Is it safe for me to stim? More often than not, the answer is no on both fronts.
I’m always disappointed to find that ableism is so rampant in queer spaces, but never surprised. Ask any disabled queer person you know (do you know disabled queer people?) about what their experience has been like on dating apps, and you’ll quickly realise the prevalence of ableism. If I had a penny for each time a prospective partner asked me, can you even have sex? I would be a fiercely rich man.
Thinking about what I could write for this blog, I realised that more than anything, I think of myself as often being in-between. I’m too queer for autistic spaces, and too autistic for queer spaces. Whether I’m in a queer space or an autistic space, a piece of myself is always being hidden and denied. Ableism emerges in queer spaces, and homophobia emerges in disabled spaces. I emerge from one closet, only to be locked into another. When Harvey Milk said ‘If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door’ he didn’t just mean gay closets. He meant disabled closets, queer closets, all the closets that stop people from being their whole, unabashed selves. (It’s also worth noting that Harvey Milk campaigned around disability issues alongside queer issues). If you’re a nondisabled queer person, it’s up to you to interrogate your ableism. Do you truly believe queer spaces are for everybody, or are you acting as though queer spaces are only for some? The next time you’re in a queer space, ask yourself, ‘how accessible is this space? How many closets am I firmly shutting people into?’
No one should always feel like they’re ‘in-between,’ that they have to hide one side of themselves in order to give the other light. I hope a day will come where I enter a queer space and I feel like I can be wholly myself. I hope that I’ll enter a space and feel comfortable holding a date’s hand, or stimming, or both. I hope that one day I can go on a date and not be asked ableist questions, and I hope that I’d accept it as a norm, rather than being surprised at a simple courtesy. I hope that one day I can enter a queer space and not find any facet of myself in a closet. Queer autistic people deserve to be wholly themselves. Queer autistic people should have some relief from masking all the time. Queer spaces can be places where no one feels they have to wear a mask. Queer spaces can be places where we leave the padlocks of our closets at the door. As it stands, ableism isn’t interrogated within the LGBT+ community. If the pandemic ever abates, will queer spaces take the opportunity to assess who they’ve excluded in the past? It’s up to us to ask the difficult questions, and to see the pieces of ourselves we might not like, the pieces we’d prefer not to talk about. It’s up to us to make sure no one has to wear a mask. The keys to everyone’s closets are in your hands. What will you do with them?
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Karl Knights is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. He's on Twitter @Inadarkwood
#teamnono is please to have Karl joining our efforts to make the employment world more inclusive of people on the Autistic Spectrum. Karl is available for anyone wishing to recruit him for your journalistic, blogging needs.