By: Claudia Olson
Growing up with a visible physical disability, I was taught to live resiliently in a world that wasn’t built for me. I was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that limits my growth and mobility. I have always been open about my disability as it relates to my identity because it was impossible to hide. However, I could avoid any additional adversity by hiding another part of my identity: my sexuality. Though I realized that I was gay at an early age, I did not come out until I graduated from high school. I could not choose to be gay but I could choose to live without the label.
In high school, I was bullied for my disability but I could avoid further discrimination by pretending I was straight. Although my school district was performatively ‘progressive’, genuine acceptance was an unspoken privilege that only the students who were already privileged could access. Everyone else was ostracized if they proudly displayed any kind of queerness. Since my high school had no real gay community and my performative heterosexuality didn’t attract any guys, I resigned myself to a life without romance. I did not even consider dating until I arrived at Smith College, a historically women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both the college and the town have a reputation for being very welcoming to the gay community. Even though I was surrounded by gay women, I still felt isolated from the dating pool around me because of my own insecurities.
I started to convince myself that I could spend my life alone and be perfectly happy, because what able-bodied person would be perfectly happy dating me? Would anyone be willing to hold hands with someone a foot and a half shorter than them or be comfortable with bending down to kiss their partner? Despite my internalized biases, I decided to take a shot at romance before I left Smith for the summer. I cut my hair, took some cute pictures and created a Tinder profile to start looking for my special someone. Only a few days after creating my profile, I matched with a girl from Mount Holyoke, Smith’s neighboring women’s college, and I set up a date with her the following weekend. I was incredibly nervous about it but the date ended up being better than I could ever imagine. She and I went to dinner then talked for hours in a public garden as the sun set. At the end of the date, I had my first kiss on the front steps of my residence hall. Within a few weeks, she was my ‘girlfriend’, my first ever relationship. I was falling for her but there was still a quiet voice in the back of my head anxiously telling me that she didn’t reciprocate my feelings. I could not tell whether she was put off by my short stature but I had to remind myself that our relationship is about much more than our height difference. It’s about discovering what female intimacy can look like and learning how to navigate a same-sex relationship. She came from a similar background as me, growing up in a high school that was not homophobic but not very gay-friendly either. We are still figuring out how dating is supposed to work but I am excited to see where our journey goes.
After entering into my first relationship, I began to realize that my insecurities originated from widespread yet unspoken societal biases. Because of my disability, one that causes me to be the same height as an average kindergartener, people don’t often consider me as a potential partner. They see my disability as a deficit, something that makes me less attractive.
Often, I am seen as an asexual being with no desire for romance. No able-bodied partner wants to lower their standards to help my self-esteem so they disregard my sexuality entirely. However, these beliefs are all based upon stigma. No one acknowledges that disabled people can be just as attractive and sexy as able-bodied people and no one realizes that an able-bodied person can genuinely love their disabled partner. Unfortunately, most people don’t actually witness this kind of love so their misconceptions are not challenged. If I had not grown up seeing the happy marriage between my father, who is able-bodied, and my mother, who is a little person, I may have completely ruled out the notion that an able-bodied person could truly love me.
These misconceptions are so prevalent because the mainstream media does nothing to disprove them. Stories about people with disabilities, especially those regarding their romantic pursuits, are not nearly as widespread as they should be.
When they are told, they are often either tragedies or mockish portrayals, and rarely does a disabled actor get to play a role. Rather, able-bodied actors take the part of disabled people so they can win awards and be praised for telling an ‘inspirational true story’. I have never seen a gay disabled love story, let alone one told by an actual disabled person, until this year. In 2019, “Special” debuted on Netflix, a television show written and starring Ryan O’Connell, a gay man with cerebral palsy. I was incredibly excited by his groundbreaking work. It gives me hope that more stories like mine, like Ryan’s, like other gay disabled people’s, can be told and heard. I wrote this piece so I can be a part of this movement, even in a small way. I don’t want anyone with a disability to grow up believing that they can’t find love because the media doesn’t tell them that they can. I want to work towards a world where disabled love is not a stigmatized idea but a beautiful reality. If I am lucky enough, I hope to live in this beautiful reality someday.