lunes, 4 de enero de 2010

Disabled Early, Gay Late

by Charles Coventry on March 14, 2007 (

I was born in 1943 in the west of Scotland, and with the exception of a year at a school for children with cerebral palsy (CP) in Edinburgh, I lived till the age of twelve with my parents in Glasgow. The school for children with CP, Westerlea, had assessed me as fit to attend a small mainstream school with other children of my own age, where my abilities, notably a mechanical ability, skill with words, and musical talent could have been developed. Back in Glasgow, however, all disabled children were required to attend special schools where the pace was that of the slowest. Because I was more physically fit or more mentally agile than most of my classmates, I had no friends at school, the beginning of a life of loneliness.

At home my sister and my girl cousins created their own society, so once again I was isolated. My father couldn’t be bothered with my interest in mechanical things. Instead he tried to cram the subjects of his own expertise—politics, economics and social studies—into my head even before I was of school age, which is five in the United Kingdom. When I finally made it into mainstream education, at Alloa Academy in Clackmannanshire, east central Scotland, I came out with the required passes for university entrance, mainly languages, but that was really all I got out of school. Unable to participate in physical education and games, my isolation grew. I wasn’t bullied for not playing rugby, as I might have been at a school supported by public funds, but still I was excluded from the company of other pupils.

Instead of helping me to find pursuits that might have given me the company of my peers, the school found nothing for me but extra lessons. Now that I have gay friends for the first time in my life I realize that many gay people understand what being “non-sports” was like as a child, much better, I believe, than most straight people do. At a conference in Belfast, for example, I met a gay man who had been educated at a Roman Catholic school for boys. He was always in trouble, he told me, for not being good at PE and team games. When I mentioned that I had been left out for being “non-sports”, there was no need to explain. He got the point straight away. “Yes,” he said, “isolation.”

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Another example relates to a specific activity. When I came to Edinburgh at the age of forty for further degree study, I got the chance to learn to swim by a method specially designed for disabled people. A gay journalist I met, who had been sent to one of the “good” Edinburgh schools, had been taken to a swimming pool at the age of eight and literally “thrown in at the deep end.” Terrified, he could never face swimming again, yet when I told him about learning to swim he could appreciate the feeling of independence that being in the water gave me.

Outside of school I was fortunate that relatives on my mother’s side of the family, keen on outdoor activities, encouraged me to go for walks in the country. These were mostly solitary excursions, so when I read Exile and Pride I was struck that Eli Clare was allowed to take part in a cross-country run, a group activity. Even so, the adults involved reacted to Eli exactly as they had to me, by setting the experience apart. I recall this same feeling when I had to endure an “interview” with one of the tabloid newspapers about an essay I had written. In no time the whole county had heard of “the boy that looks at old buildings.” Singled out in this condescending fashion, I felt myself a freak and was put off the subject of architecture till after completion of my first degree at St. Andrews University.

The contrast between Alloa Academy in rural Scotland in the late 1950s and early 1960s and Eli Clare’s school in Ohio in the 1970s makes me wonder whether it reflects a change of attitude over time, or whether this kind of difference between Britain and America always existed. I know that pupils with disabilities are now being helped to do PE in two of our primary schools in Edinburgh, but I still don’t know what would happen at secondary level.

My inability to dance when I was a boy inspired odd and often contradictory attitudes on the part of adults. Sometimes I got the impression that my not being able to dance was a sign of how “good” I was for not getting involved with girls at an inappropriate age. Learning about the lives of other gay men has given me a larger view of all sorts of personal experience. One able-bodied couple I met both suffered from their enthusiasm for dancing of different kinds. One partner, originally from the south of England, was seen as effeminate when he was the only boy in a children’s ballet class; his partner, from the Edinburgh area, was tormented in primary school for being good at Scottish country dancing.

Does this suggest that my inability to dance was seen by some adults as evidence that I was a “real” man, not effeminate? I cannot be sure.

Sex and Isolation

The first thing I learned about sex came from my father’s warning that something would happen to little boys who played with their penises—as I tended to do. I began to wonder if that “something” was “become homosexual”. Reading a magazine article that addressed medical myths about homosexuality only confirmed my suspicion. A gay friend a few years my senior said that in our school days the gay (able-bodied) boy attracted to other boys in the changing room might, to avoid trouble, put on a show of being inept at games. Remember that homosexual acts were still a criminal offense at this time.

Looking back, I think that I came to realize at an early age that there were many ways of being isolated, and that while being left out was something done to me, it was also something I could embrace as a form of self protection. In my case the typical “I hate girls” stage persisted longer than the regulation age of fifteen...

Teasing about girlfriends ceased having an effect by my late teens, and when careers were being discussed, I knew that I had missed out on so many childhood things that I was unsure about school teaching and being able to control a class. Gay dads and lesbian mums abound, of course, but not all gay men make good fathers; for my part, I was dubious about being able not only to control school children in a class but to raise children of my own. My unsettled feelings about children proved to be deeper than I’d realized: they got me sacked from my first job when I lashed out and hit a child full force because it was the only way I could think to deal with a difficult situation.

I wonder how widespread these feelings are among gay men of my generation. One gay man of my acquaintance told me that he had to warn his brother-in-law not to let his children rush up to him clamoring for sweets because he was liable to hit them; another man said that he couldn’t communicate with children until they were of an age to think about university; and a gay friend in London with manic depression said that parenthood suited some gay people, suggesting that it probably wouldn’t suit him.

I realize now that the disabled person’s uneasiness over gender roles has to do with more than parenting. Where able-bodied gay men and lesbians may do things they aren’t supposed to do conventionally (a boy might do embroidery, a girl auto mechanics), those of us with a physical disability may find that we fail at “male” or “female” things in more ordinary ways, something I realized from reading Eli Clare who, in Exile and Pride describes a family photograph that makes her remember being forcibly got into a skirt at the age of thirteen. She recalls asking her mother, “Am I feminine?” As an adult, since she can’t put on a skirt without help, she wears jeans instead. Most people think she’s a teenage boy, or, as she puts it, “neither a boy nor a girl.”

After reading Clare’s account, I recognized several things that symbolized my inability to “be male” as a teenager, including tobacco, alcohol, and driving. Because my ability to focus visually is diminished by paralysis of one eye I could not manage to light things and, consequently, was terrified by flames. When I was about sixteen my father expected me to start smoking a pipe, like him, or, on special occasions, a cigar. It was the pipe, however, that was the sign of the “real” man, and, for my Labour-voting parents, enjoyed extra cachet as a left-wing symbol, but as soon as cigarettes or cigars came near me I panicked. With a scream of “No!” I would nearly jump through the ceiling.

At home the result was a lecture on manners and, in public, comments from strangers about cowardice. Sometimes I was told not to be “like an old lady.” I was even told that smoking “soothed the nerves.” How could something frightening possibly soothe the nerves, I wondered? Alcohol consumption, too, as a measure of manliness, was something I failed at. With no taste for whisky I suppose I make a thoroughly second-rate Scotsman.

Although smoking and drinking no longer loom large as symbols in my life, somebody who discovers that I have never run a car and have to get household repairs done by others, might question my “manliness”. The truth, of course, is that I simply can’t manage those things physically. Looking to opposite stereotypes, a visitor seeing no sign of sewing or embroidery in my home might conclude that I am a “real man” after all, while the truth is these are things I can’t do because of my partial vision. Some might despise men who engage in those pursuits; I have every admiration for them.

Stereotypes like the ones I’ve mentioned above help to create attitudes that result in gay-directed hate crimes, but if I were to be assaulted it would probably be because of my disability. In fact just such an incident did take place in 1999, when I was stoned by a group of children as if it were 1850 and I the village idiot. Because this attack started soon after the revived Scottish Parliament met for the first time since 1707 I do not think it far-fetched to assume that the children’s behavior might have been part of a perverted sense of reborn nationalism, as if someone had taught them to revive a venerable old Scottish custom.

Coping with Learning Disabilities

My learning difficulties, first detected at Westerlea, include something similar to severe dyslexia that results in a failure to manage arithmetic, as well as difficulty grasping abstract ideas. The latter upset my parents unduly because each of the four Scottish Universities then in existence required a philosophy course as a requirement for an arts degree. Even after I passed my philosophy course with the help of extra tutoring I was still expected to understand discussions of politics and economics. I began to wish for a brain transplant so that I could become numerate and enter banking or accountancy. At other times, particularly when being bullied for lack of concentration or application, I thought I was either mentally deficient or would have been better off that way. At least a certifiable incompetence would have proved I was incapable of coping with subjects my parents and the educational establishment insisted were important.

It was not until I learned Transcendental Meditation that I was able to come to terms with my learning disabilities. TM gave me confidence in the skills I did have while at the same time it helped me to see parental intolerance for what it was. To put it another way, instead of being “cured” of my learning disabilities I was enabled, finally, to lose my obsession with them. At last I was able to see myself not as somebody incapable of coping with economics or politics, but as someone capable of other pursuits instead. I became a Gaelic scholar.

It was after learning TM that I went to Edinburgh University for Celtic Studies. I had learned Gaelic after my first degree, and with a background of English, French, and classics (and no distractions from subjects I was incapable of managing), it all came very easily. I attained full speaking, reading and writing ability in three years.

Learning to be Myself

Early on sex had been added, tacitly, to the long list of things I supposedly could not do. For a long time this was not an issue, since I was not attracted to girls; perhaps the knowledge that sex with other boys, and later with men at university was a crime might have suppressed my natural inclinations. After all these years it’s difficult to know. I suppose because I didn’t meet anyone who admitted to being gay I was indoctrinated into thinking that love for men was “unnatural” as well as criminal.

Not until 1974 in Edinburgh was I first aware of a gay rights demonstration. By then my perspective was so skewed I immediately got the idea that these were people getting jobs at the expense of the disabled and were probably anti-disabled themselves. This attitude persisted until 1983 when, settled into study, some freelance work, and some volunteer work I gradually forgot all about being homophobic. When I discovered that many of the scholars who had become my friends were gay, there seemed to be no point in snubbing them and losing their friendship.

In my late fifties, after the death of my mother, I first began to wonder if I might be gay myself. I mentioned it to a gay friend, asking if he knew of any gay groups. He was in the Gay Outdoor Club, whose swimming session I joined. Later I found good company at their socials, but the first real evidence that I was gay occurred one day in a straight sauna when another man invited me to share the shower with him. We went into a cubicle, where he started to massage his penis, then leant over and began doing the same to me, asking if I liked it. I said it was a new experience. It certainly felt nice, this first ever experience of sex with another person. I later decided that it must prove I was gay. Since my attitudes had been formed by those of my father’s generation, surely if I had been heterosexual I would have been shocked by his action, would have pushed him off and reported the “offense” to the staff.

The other incident, in fact my first experience of falling in love with somebody, followed my sending a piece to the Gay Outdoor Club newsletter about finding the Edinburgh branch of the club and learning to swim. I asked if anybody would like to get in touch, saying that if I was anything at all now I was probably gay. I got a reply from London (the friend with manic depression I referred to earlier). He said he was probably the same. I went to visit him, and as soon as I saw him, a tall young man in his late twenties, I found him attractive.

During an enjoyable weekend spent together we one afternoon found ourselves sitting in his flat wearing just T-shirts and shorts. I surrendered to a sudden urge to touch his leg, something that had never happened with anyone. He took my hand and we sat holding hands, then went into a cuddle. When it was time for me to return home I was almost in tears leaving him. In a letter thanking him for the weekend I asked if he would be willing to be my boyfriend, but he said that because of his depression he would be happier for us just to be friends. This proved to me that I really must have been gay all along. By the late ’ 90s it was, of course, perfectly safe to be that way. When we kissed on the train as I was leaving London, no railway official stopped us, something that would have happened in my younger days.

Going on from Here

There is a U.K. organization for gay disabled people, but being based in London it doesn’t really benefit Scotland, so I have become involved in a steering group established to bring gay disabled people together here. We meet alternately in Glasgow and Edinburgh. This is a form of socialization and, if you will, of education, for even among people with disabilities hierarchies and prejudices get in the way of communal feeling and the possibility of concerted action. Eli Clare writes, for example, that when among disabled people with severe mobility problems or those who use wheelchairs, she is out of the group, a “walkie”, and although this word isn’t used in the U.K., the attitude is the same.

Among wheelchair users I may be perceived as “too fit”, because I am on my feet and able to swim, although some disabled people may be inappropriately overawed by my university education. Different kinds of distinctions may exist among nondisabled people. Clare observes that among lesbians she is accepted as a writer; I have had similar experiences among abled gay men impressed by my involvement in Gaelic studies.

If my life has taught me anything it is that education is called for so that disabled people can enjoy wider acceptance, both among the general population and among their gay peers. Eli Clare observes that even in cosmopolitan New York City a man sitting down beside her on a bus might suddenly jump up when he perceives her athetoid disability. Sometimes, Clare maintains, adults will still stare at disabled people in public. When it happens in Britain nowadays it usually involves young children, whose parents will reprimand them.

My own experience has convinced me that it is parents who need the most education, in the private sphere as well as the public. They need to be shown that their children, particularly if they are disabled, should not be forced into opposite-sex relationships if they exhibit no such inclinations, nor should they be coerced into adopting stereotypical masculine or feminine attitudes that may be foreign to their natures.

My journey toward recognizing my essential nature has shown me how much damage stereotypes can inflict, how difficult it can be for people (even for parents) to see the person instead of the disability, how even one’s own perception of self can be disguised or distorted. It is late in life to “come out”. I wish there had been no necessity to do so.

Charles Coventry was born in 1943 near Glasgow, Scotland, with mild cerebral palsy. Now over sixty, he still does freelance work and volunteers in the community.

Editor's note: The full essay originally appeared in BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices

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