by Kayla Whaley
The first essay I ever submitted won an award. A group of writing professors at my university read the piece, described it as written with “delicate emotion,” and handed me a check along with the certificate. I called home as soon as I found out, literally breathless with the news. I told Mom I’d won a writing contest, and before she could even react, rushed to say she couldn’t ever, ever read the essay.
A few days later my sister told me to call home. “Mom’s freaking out,” she said. “She doesn’t know why she isn’t allowed to read it. She thinks it might be about drugs or something.”
It wasn’t. It was about the bracelet a friend had given me. It was about unrequited first love. And it was the last thing I wanted to admit to my mother.
I almost let her continue thinking the worst. I told myself I was embarrassed, because who wants to talk about boys with their mom? (Of course, my sister did, regularly and at length, but my sister was different than me. I’d always known that.) As I tried to reassure her she had nothing to worry about, my chest tightened with the realization that I needed to come clean to fully ease her fears. I said, “It’s just about a friend. Just a crush on a friend,” and I nearly burst from the effort of expelling those words from my lungs. She didn’t sound relieved, quite. Maybe she sounded confused, but it could have just as easily been discomfort and so the latter’s what I believed.
It wasn’t until much later that I finally understood that throat-clenched, face-flushed, clammy-handed feeling for what it was: shame.
I’ve talked before both about the denial of sexual desirability to disabled bodies and about how difficult it was for me to recognize and accept my queerness. What I haven’t talked about is the ways those two facets of my identity—my disability and my queerness—intersect.
Growing up, I saw few disabled characters in romantic relationships and even fewer in sexual ones. In media, much like in my own family, disabled people weren’t expected to want or to be wanted. In the few instances where they were allowed one or (miraculously) both, they certainly couldn’t also be queer.
Sexual attraction while disabled had been presented all my life as unnatural, and queer attraction while disabled as unfathomable. As I started exploring my sexuality and eventually my queerness, all while in this disabled and therefore undesirable body, I, perhaps inevitably, recognized—and feared—myself as both unnatural and unfathomable.
But forced invisibility is not the same thing as deviance, and a lack of mirrors does not mean you have no reflection.
It’s taken years to assert—even to myself—my right to be sexual, disabled, and queer. I had so few examples of how to be any one of those, let alone all three. I tried stitching my gathered scraps of representation into something I could wear, something that could cover all of me, but it was an impossible task, and even after years of eager patchwork, piercing needles, and teeth-torn threads, all I’ve managed is an ugly, incomplete quilt of mismatched rags.
I’ve just started writing a new book. It’s a YA romance starring a wheelchair user and the girl she falls in love with. They flirt, tease, laugh. They gift themselves full first touches and trade hesitant, hopeful smiles. They are physical and sexual with each other; they are romantic and tender, too. They fight, they miscommunicate, they want, and they get a happy ending.
I’m writing the narrative I never saw, crafting the mirror I never had. I’m imbuing it with as much nuance and truth and passion as I can coax from this body society refuses to acknowledge, from this body desperate for the validation of flesh seen and desires known.
Who can say at this point if it’ll ever reach readers, but no matter what happens with my book, I pray that today’s queer, disabled girls will grow up without the lack and without the shame. I pray that we’ll fill the gap where I slipped and fell and settled before clawing my way into myself.
I pray, most of all, that no one else will have to endure the pain of this particular invisibility.