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We often get swept up in conditionals, in discourse that says we can only be one thing and not another.My body became public when I was 13 years old.
I just began to develop baby bumps of curves. Bikinis were no longer “innocent” in swim class. My lips were constantly sticky with Limited Too gloss.
Before entering middle school, my parents taught me that boys only wanted one thing: my body. I wasn’t sure what girls wanted. I wasn’t sure what I wanted.
I wore a pink polka-dot dress when I “moved up” from elementary school to middle school, and I had to convince my parents to let me wear it because it was made for teens, not kids.
When I said goodbye to a friend on the playground in that dress, my mom told me that she saw my crush checking me out. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I learned.
In middle school, I learned to wear dresses that just barely passed the fingertip rule, but with bike shorts underneath. I learned that long skirts gave the perfect opportunity for boys to step on the hem or try to crawl underneath. I learned that from the chin down, I could be desirable.
My body no longer belonged to me anymore. It was public. It was seen.
I was supposed to want boys to see me and like me and try to catch glimpses of the girls’ locker room. This was the first game: to be wanted. To understand how to want back.
There were a lot of different games we’d play in middle school. Dating games. For a while, it was the name game: If somebody wrote another classmate’s name on the palm of your hand, you had to ask that person out. This was the first time a boy showed any interest in me — as a dare.
This was also the first time I really understood how taboo it was for a girl to ask a girl out. It was a test for a lot of people. Not even for this game, for a ridiculous dare, could anybody remotely express any interest in their same gender.
I learned that "straight" meant good and "gay" meant bad. I didn’t know anything else in between.
I remember walking down the hallway in eighth grade and catching a glimpse of one of the popular girls leaning against her locker. She had shiny black hair that fell to her mid-back and a heart-shaped birthmark under her eye. She was beautiful.
I tried to ignore the warmth in my cheeks, the red splotches on my chest, but I couldn’t help but think, “Am I gay?”
I was used to talking about the boys with forehead bangs and those telltale, lean middle school basketball biceps with my friends. I was used to cutting out dozens of pictures of the Jonas Brothers from teen magazines to fill in the minuscule gaps where my bedroom wall showed through the sticky-tacked posters.
But sometimes, I found myself pausing over the smiling faces of Vanessa Hudgens and the Cheetah Girls. I told myself that I hated them for stealing the celebrities that I liked, but really, I was envious of the men who got to date them.
“Am I gay?”
My gay litmus test was Taylor Swift, who I loved but definitely didn’t want to kiss. So, this had to mean that I was straight and ready to date, right?
I began to negotiate with my sexuality. I was negotiating with my want.
At 13, I was also starting to have severe migraine attacks, and joint swelling and chronic pain. My body was disabling, and no amount of negotiating could save me from its effects. My body felt like loud TV static.
It was only a few months into being an official teenager when I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder that loosens my ligaments and lets my bones shift out of place with each breath.
I had a name for the pain: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It was a concrete label, a Google-able thing. But this still didn’t make it real for a lot of doctors.
I wasn’t sure if I “qualified” as disabled because I was an ambulatory wheelchair user. Because I had good and bad days. Because I had experienced life able-bodied until I couldn’t.
I felt that I was constantly living in that average space I did when my body first became public: not ugly but not pretty; not totally desirable but tolerable; not talented at any one thing but average at a few different skills.
I wasn't able-bodied but I wasn’t what others saw as disabled either.
When it came to the discourse surrounding my body, my disability and my sexuality collided full force.
I didn’t know bisexuality was even a concrete, Google-able label until high school, and even then, I wasn’t sure if I “qualified” to be bisexual because I had dated a boy.
Soon after my diagnosis, I couldn’t attend school in person. I could hardly walk down that hallway where I saw the beautiful girl. I couldn’t make it into the locker rooms to let boys peek.
I ended up making it to the farewell dance — the ultimate eighth grade experience, the end of middle school. I used a transport wheelchair and had to have my friend push me around.
The attention was overwhelming. People talked a lot about my body, but not to me. The rumors were that I was “that girl who broke her back” (untrue) or “that kid who died” (very untrue). I was too public, too seen.
At one point during the farewell dance, my friend left me in the middle of a crowd. I couldn’t see where she went. I kept apologizing to anyone who bumped my wheels. After some time, I think I was apologizing for just being — for taking up their space. The wheelchair girl, on display.
One of the popular girls came up to me.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I love your dress.”
I looked around. At least a dozen other girls were wearing an identical outfit to mine.
The girl turned to her circle of friends behind her.
“Guys, isn’t she just so cute?” she said. I was seconds away from pulling a Flintstone and lowering my feet to the floor so I could drag myself into a corner. But she put her arm across the handle of my wheelchair, her cleavage pressing in real close.
“I should give her a lap dance,” she said. Then, to me: “I really want to give you a lap dance right now.”
My eyebrows shot up to the top of my forehead. I looked around at her friends. Did something change since the dating game? Were you allowed to take part in the dare even if it meant flirting with the same gender as you?
But that wasn’t it at all. The girl felt that it was her job to turn me from cute to sexable — to use me to show her own sexuality. She was willing to grind on anyone or anything. And I was already sitting, so what should I have expected?
I left that night reciting in my head that I didn’t want that girl to give me a lap dance (and she didn’t, for the record; my friend pulled me from the situation). I didn’t want to kiss Taylor Swift. I didn’t want that attention.
But when you’re disabled, your body stops belonging to only you. This is the game — the rules of our ableist world.
When you’re disabled, you’re either infantilized or sexualized to an extreme. As I’ve gotten older and grown with my disability, and because of my disability, I’ve gotten countless comments that either infantilize me or sexualize me:
I’m an inspiration when I’m sexless.
I’m a sex position when I’m not.
I’m cute and well-spoken when I’m sexless.
I’m dirty and slutty when I’m not.
The labels that helped me understand the language of these communities are the same words that keep us trapped in a neat, easy-to-understand box.
We often get swept up in conditionals, in discourse that says we can only be one thing and not another.
This is a simple queering of traditional language, and one that everyone should practice so as not to set limits on all of the many wants and characteristics you can have.
Let me break it down:
I am disabled. And I’m sexy. And I’m cute. And I’m queer. And I’m in a heterosexual-presenting relationship as a cis-woman engaged to a cis-man.
I’m in a heterosexual-presenting relationship as a cis-woman engaged to a cis-man and I’m queer.
I am strong and I’m disabled.
I am in pain and I can walk.
I like women and I don’t find Taylor Swift attractive.
I am cute and sexy.
My body is public, and it is still mine.
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