Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I was recently in a room surrounded by other gay men. I'm not often in an all gay environment and it should feel a bit like coming home. No matter how much I am fully engaged and included in the larger community, there is a difference that is always subtly there. When we were younger Joe and I would talk about how we needed to go to a gay bar or a gay event just to escape the sense of being surrounded by heterosexual culture and heterosexual assumptions. Since I've become a wheelchair user, that opportunity has virtually disappeared, few of the gay bars in the city are accessible and as such we've grown deeply out of touch with what's going on and the social opportunities that are available.

But, back to being in a room surrounded by gay men. I became aware of it because of a whisper. I looked over and saw two men, my age, looking over at me. They were suppressing giggles. I glanced around and saw that my arrival in the room had thrown a rock into the pool of hilarity. My weight, my wheelchair, the 'all' of who I am seemed to make me the perfect foil for jokes and for eye rolls and facial OMG's. I went very still inside, like I do when I realise I am not safe. I looked for, and found, a place where I could move my wheelchair to to be out of sight of the group.

You may think that you would not have moved.

You may think that you would have said something.

But there are things in this story that I'm not telling you, and those things would have made those responses entirely impossible and highly inappropriate. I do have to edit my life sometimes. But the saying something or the moving are not what this blog post is about. It's about something much deeper than the temporary discomfort I felt in that moment. It's about how people seem incapable of LEARNING from their own experience and applying it to the experience of another.

The It Gets Better project, with it's laudable goal of supporting LGBT? youth who are experiencing bullying and teasing demonstrates the power of a communities response to a serious issue. The idea that 'It Gets Better' is one that gives hope of a brighter future to kids who are in hostile environments. One would hope that those who experienced Bullying and Teasing in their youth, or in their workplace, or in their church or in their family, would have a deep, deep, deep understanding of what it's like to be on the brunt end of a pointed finger, to be on the sharp end of another's joke, to be struck across the face by words that hurt, to have blood drawn from the hostile stares of others. One would hope.

In my mind, I like to imagine that everyone who experienced bullying, experienced the sense of 'outsiderness' that comes with difference, would be really cautious and careful with their words, their attitudes and their actions. But instead it seems to be more like, ... It Gets Better, In Fact It Gets So Good That You Get To Become The Tormentor.

Why is it wrong when something is done to us but acceptable when we do it to others? I think it's because we see ourselves as innocent victims and those we do it to as 'deserving' it in some way. Our behaviour becomes defined by the 'otherness' of the 'other' what is held in common is brushed aside while that old, old social equation of difference = lesser gets pulled out and dusted off again.

I think, therefore, that those of us in the disability community, who experience prejudice or inaccessibility should be hyper alert to our own prejudices and our own attitudinal inaccessibility. I think that because we KNOW we have a responsibility to put KNOWING to good use.

Life is lived for learning, is it not?

The first time you are called a name, the first time you feel that sting, should be the last time you ever call a name. Right?

It's another simple equation, one that I prefer.

Experience of cruelty = Drive to be kind


Stephanie said...

Sigh....I don't understand how any group fighting for equality feels the need to out down others....

I, personally, have an issue with the "It Gets Better" project specifically. Not so much with the project, I guess. But with Dan Savage, the one who started the IGB Project.

He is well known for his outright hate of those who are disabled, defending vehemently his right , even responsibility, to call out the disabled as "retards, rejects" and to encourage women to abort their disabled children.

We have been going back and forth for years over this. He is unapologetic.

When he started the IGB Project, it was a tearful and dramatic confession of having been bullied. I hoped, for one brief minute, that he would "get it". That he has turned into his tormentors.

So, anyway, it doesn't surprise me in a way that a room full of those who have been on the receiving end of this behaviour turn to it in the end, as this is what has been modeled for them. You would think common sense would prevail ........

Hugs Dave!!!

Alicia said...

I'm so sorry that happened, I can't really imagine how you felt but I can guess it was a terrible experience. You are absolutely right, I think we should learn with our own suffering and exclusion to never hurt or exclude others.
I know the feeling of thinking you are in a safe accepting place and finding out you were wrong, it's especially complicated for people with multiple identities, hard to really know if all of you is considered okay for those around you.

@ Stephanie, Dan Savage says the most bigoted things about several groups, disabled, autistic and transgender people had many problems with him, what he says is pure prejudice and hatred for us, I think for him only white gay men deserve some respect in the LGBT community, I know little about the project because the people I know refused to use something created by him because they felt triggered.

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry this happened, as sad as this is you just get used to it as a disabled person, I'm sure you know that just as much as me! But I love this sentiment and thank you for saying this

wendy said...

I'm so sorry this happened, Dave. It's so discouraging and personally painful.

Anonymous said...

Dave, many years ago you and I talked about a project I was doing that focused on supporting gay and bi men with disabilities. The stories of prejudice and abuse from the gay community experienced by the men in that group broke my heart over and again. I'll never understand it (and count myself lucky that I don't).

Shan said...

I like this post a lot. You're right about how we see ourselves as innocent victims and other people as deserving. This Dan Savage guy mentioned above is a perfect example...complete egomania, an utter inability to see (AND LACK OF INTEREST IN) other people's perspective.

Anonymous said...

Its possible there were men in that room who "had" learned from their own experience and werent joining in with that cruelty but we dont tend to notice when people "dont" hurt us. I'm one of the 'hyperaware of my ability to hurt others' people and others rarely notice the choices I make about not hurting them. Which is kind of as it should be given its the right thing to not hurt people rather than a remarkable thing worthy of note. But its very unnoticeableness means there isnt the visible modelling that bullying offers for uncertain people to follow. And most behaviour like you describe is stemming from uncertainty about how 'safe' that person is themselves,especially when in a group with others who are showing themselves capable of that cruelty. No one wants to be the victim of that so joining in with making someone else the victim is more a bad survival choice than a lack of 'getting it'. Youre right that the first time we feel that pain should be the last time we inflict it on others but thats not actually a protective thing that lessens the chances of us being wounded like that again so most people will go with the seemingly protective option of switching sides instead

Kristine said...

I'm sorry you had this experience in a place that SHOULD be safe. Not ok....

And I completely agree with you about how experiencing cruelty should be an extra drive to be kind. In my ESL classes, I feel like I spend equal amounts of time listening to and validating the kids' experiences with racism, and correcting their own unkind comments about other groups of people. When trying to teach the kids some empathy that way, I often end up following a logic train a little like this: "When people treat me [fill in the blank for the situation] because of my disability, it makes me feel bad. Have you ever had people [fill in the racist behavior]? How did that make you feel? Well, when I see that happen, it makes me feel bad too, even though it has nothing to do with me. It hurts you and other people I care about, so it hurts me too. When I hear you saying [fill in the blank] about [fill in the group of people], that also makes me feel bad. It makes other people feel bad. I don't think you want to make people feel that way, do you?"

It's harder to have those conversations with adults....

Anonymous said...

Powerful stuff Dave. Wow. Will we, as humans, never learn? I call it the "kick the cat syndrome". It's is where someone in power pushes one just below who in turn pushes someone below that. Then they in turn pick on someone down the line and so on...until all the is left is the person that kicks the cat. You would hope that those who faced "persecution" and fought for equality in turn would extend it to others - but no. Instead with the little "power" they have, they "kick the cat". That must of hurt a lot.

Colleen said...

It always amazes me when people who have been oppressed oppress others. I cannot fathom how they can do this because they KNOW what it feels like to be on the receiving end of oppression.

Glee said...

I used to think that "greenies", environmentalists, tree huggers would care about the rights of us crips. NUP.

I thought that when I went to live in the Somerton Crippled Children's Home for 2 years that I would be safe from teasing and abuse cos I had a disability. NUP. In fact I got the worst.

We are all human. But we are ALL only ableiod. That is "Like Able (bodied, minded etc)". No one is completely "able". And we are all brought up in a society that is discriminatory to many groups of people, on many levels. We are steeped in discrimination our whole lives so it is almost impossible to be free of it in our own hearts.

But I try, I watch for it and think about it when I notice. I even didn't throw out the glass dog that had a leg broken off. Seriously. Cos I thought about it and saw that it was not fair. The cat still had four legs so it gets to stay. The dog has three legs so it has to go. I Don't Think So!

It's a hard world. It could be great hey if we all could love the dog with three legs :)

Rickismom said...

Unfortnately, this is actually very common. There are (invalid) reasons why people persecute others, and unfortunately no group is imune.

Anonymous said...

Re, bullying among teens: There is apparently an ongoing competition in the US in which teens have been invited to submit videos on how by-standers can help put a stop to bullying; a few samples are shown on the website: These videos have captions for deaf people (though these only seem to transcript spoken content without describing sound).

Given that bullying does also happen among adults (Dave's many reports of such incidents targeted at him as just one collection of examples) maybe we need a similar campaign for adults.

Jojo said...

Dave, I love reading your blog. You always make me feel something sometimes things i would rather forget. Unfortunately, the first time we are picked upon I think we go into survival mode and look for someone else for the bullies to pick on. I think it's a growing up process to learn to go to solidarity mode instead.
I think standards of what makes a person beautiful have lost all moral considerations. Rarely, do we talk about it being as important to be beautiful inside as outside. As an ordinary looking heterosexual man when I hear women laughing and looking at me I go back to high school days when I was rated a zero out of 10 by the cheerleaders of the day. So in the present day when I hear those women laughing I wonder are they laughing at me as I used to be laughed at or is it just a coincidence? Frankly, Dave yes i would have hid away like you. Sometimes you just wish you were invisible.