It was probably twenty years ago now. I had come into the office and was told that there was a man with a disability waiting to see me in the interview room. I had no appointments that morning so I peeked in to see who was there. I didn't know him, he was a man in his late thirties sitting quietly, looking very serious with his hands twisting something in his lap. I dropped my briefcase in my office and went to see what this was all about.
He addressed me by name when I entered the room, he told me that he often saw me coming to the sheltered industry where he worked and that one of his friends was seeing me about 'sex stuff'. I asked him how he came to be in the office this morning. He told me that instead of taking the bus he had walked on over to the hospital where our offices were. It took a second to figure out that he hadn't told anyone what he had done, didn't want me to call and tell them where he was even though he knew others would be looking for him. He said he'd go straight back to the day programme when he was done but that he didn't want them to know he was here, didn't want them asking why he had come to talk to me.
OK. But I need to say it was a harder decision than you might imagine to not call and inform everyone where he was and that he was safe. But I didn't call.
In my heart I knew that this was going to be about sex. But I was wrong. Quite wrong. It took him a while to work up the courage to ask me his question. A question that he had carried for a very long time. A question that was waking him up in the night. And finally he asked.
"Is it OK for me to love?"
I didn't get it. I started talking without thinking first, a habit I've yet to break, about consent and about time and place. He looked at me so intently, I stopped.
"I'm not talking about sex."
"OK, what then?"
"Is it OK for me to love?"
I am thinking now. And there is a long pause before I answer. The agency he lives in has a 'no sex, no relationships' policy. Once I knew his name I remembered being told about him by staff at the day programme, they'd had to separate him from a woman because both sets of parents, his and hers, had demanded that the relationship be stopped and they be separated. In a world where he would be punished at home and harrassed by parents for simply falling in love ... the answer 'Yes' seemed somehow both right and wrong.
I looked up at him and he stared at me. Waiting. He was very serious about his question. He wasn't there making a political statement about oppression, he simply wanted to know if it was OK for him to love. If for him loving was wrong. I had faced this question myself. In a world of intolerance and bias, I had to determine if the heart in my chest had been wrongly placed. It had been a difficult time for me, I knew that this was a difficult time for him.
So I said, "Yes." What else could I say? He'd asked about love. About something sacred. About the essence of what it was to be human. I couldn't deny him this answer simply because he lived in an agency wherein love was persecuted, simply because his family would rise in anger at his desire. What kind of person would that have made me? Claiming love, against all odds for me and now denying it to another. So I said 'Yes.'
It didn't end there.
I said, "Yes, but ..."
... the ageny may punish you.
... your parents may not support you.
But, it's not only OK for you to love, it's wonderful that you do so.
We talked awhile longer and I offered him a drive back to the day programme. He accepted and we drove together. He cried a little bit in the car and I said nothing and felt his gratefulness that I didn't pry. He thanked me when he got out of the car and walked into the workplace.
No one there ever asked me about that day, so no one must have seen me drop him off. He smiled when I saw him there and I always waved.
Two years later, I assisted that agency draft a new policy regarding sexuality and relationships. They had a desire to change practice and they did. I went to see him to tell him about the new policy and found that his family had withdrawn him from service when the new policy came into place. They didn't want him living somewhere that might allow him to be in relationship.
My heart broke.
It is Valentines day today. If you are a staff working in an agency at any level - from direct care to executive director or CEO - ask yourself what love means to you. Ask yourself what would happen to someone in your care if they fell in love and wanted to marry. If your agency would not support ... love ... then do something. Send an email up to a manager or supervisor asking 'why' about the policy. Suggest it's time to rethink who you are as an agency. If you are a parent of a child with a disability - a young child - look at your child forever differently. Forget all those things you've been told about your child never growing up. Your child will one day fall in love. It will happen. Begin to prepare your child for a life of loving. Don't take it out of the equation. If you are the parent of an older child - and you've been hesitant to think of your child as a loving being. Realize that they are competent in loving you ... and get the message.
I will not eat a chocolate heart today.
I do not celebrate Valentine's day.
Joe and I, long ago, realized that we - every day - lived in a world that denied our feelings. And as such we had to affirm them to ourselves and others every day that love existed between us. That without the approval of family or society, we loved, every day. Valentine's day was redundant. We didn't need it then, we don't need it now.
But other's do. Not as a celebration of love. But as a call to arms ...