I recently got coffee with a lovely man I met a few years ago while living in NYC. I got to the coffee shop before he did, occasionally glancing out the windows at the busy street outside as I waited for him to arrive. When he walked in, I greeted him with a hug, we ordered our drinks and then sat at a high bar drinking our coffee of choice as we caught up. The conversation was warm and friendly. He asked interesting, thoughtful questions and maintained eye contact in a reassuring, present way. A few times while we spoke, I noticed he touched my leg with his hand in a natural, affectionate manner, sometimes letting it rest there for a moment. I am always very aware when anyone touches any part of me that is paralyzed, mostly because I am still self-conscious about my disability.
As we spent time together, I could tell that he was comfortable with my body and my wheelchair. He interacted with my chair like it was just another part of me. He moved his feet apart slightly to make way for my foot plate to sit between them, and he adjusted his own body position to respond to mine as I fidgeted to get comfortable, like I usually do. It never felt awkward and that surprised me.
In my experience, most people interact with me spatially as though there’s an invisible forcefield around me and my chair. They give me a wide berth when I roll down the sidewalk or through the aisles of the grocery store. And when it comes to men, they tend to avoid touching the parts of me that are paralyzed, like my legs, even in settings when it would be appropriate to do so.
But the way this man engaged with me was so different. It was like there wasn’t a bubble around me at all, and it was so refreshing that I wasn’t quite sure how to feel during our brief hour together. What was so noteworthy about this encounter was how normal it made me feel. I remembered how it felt to have an abled body, what it was like to just exist in the presence of another. A few minutes after we said goodbye I sent a text saying “That was fun, so good seeing you”. And then I found myself typing the words, “ And thanks. You made me feel so normal”. I paused, my thumbs hovering over the send button. I deleted the message instead.
The words in that text box shocked me. Was feeling “normal” truly so foreign to me that I felt the need to thank him? Apparently, the answer was yes - those words really described the way I felt. And why did I need to thank someone for interacting with me like a human being? What does that imply about the way that I see myself and my body?
I was suddenly stricken with sadness and two jarring realizations. One, that I feel isolated and disoriented in the area of romance and relationships as a disabled queer man. I almost never feel normal. And two, that I still have a lot of internalized ableism. Behind the words of my unsent text message was, “I don’t believe that I am normal or worthy of normal human interactions. Thanks for acting like I’m normal and seeing past my disability” What a painful thing to believe.
As I considered what this text meant about my self-perception, I learned that people around me aren’t the only ones who act like there’s an impenetrable bubble around me - I act like that too because there is clearly a part of me that still believes my body isn’t worthy of touch or interaction. It just follows me everywhere like an unfortunate tagalong that I have to apologize for. So, I keep it out of sight and out of reach enough that I can hide it from both myself and others.
When this man very naturally put his hand on my leg, I immediately started doing basic math to determine just how many days it had been since I had cycled my legs so I could establish just how bony my knee might feel under his muscular palm. I almost waited for him to pull his hand away at the sensation, but he didn’t. He kept it there and in my peripheral vision I could see the subtle movements of his thumb as we spoke.
Part of me wanted him to stop touching me because of how self-conscious I was, but the truer part of me found it almost healing. I felt so seen and validated by his entrance into my space. I felt like a real person again when I didn’t even know I had stopped feeling like one.
But I am a real person with a real body, and I don’t want to be thankful for feeling that way. Ableism is the force that tells me otherwise. It tells me that my body is a burden, something to be hidden, something to keep to myself so as not to burden others with its presence. These messages enter my mind so quietly that I hardly notice them until something like the unremarkable touch of another man feels humanizing.
The hour in that coffee shop was like a tiny ray of sunshine that reminded me that my body deserves to be seen. It deserves to take up space. It deserves to be touched. I am a human being in a worthy body. My heart pumps blood through my veins and my lungs expand and contract as I breathe in and out. My body is the only lifelong partner I will ever have, and there is no other relationship more important for me to nurture than this one.
The longer I live, the more deeply I see that none of us can live a truly free life while being at war with our own bodies, whether because of their ability, shape, color, health or size. To love and know ourselves will require us to know and love our bodies, too. These are the vessels that connect us to ourselves, the world and the people around us. So, what would it take for you to make friends with yours? What beliefs or stories would you have to give up to find peace in your skin? It is a vulnerable process and one that takes courage, but your body already loves you - it’s just waiting for you to love you, too.