How Having A Disability Influenced My Queer Dating Life
These days, I hardly ever think about my disability when it comes to dating. But it hasn't always been easy.
In an Uber on the way to my first date with Rebecca, I frantically reapplied my lipstick and stuffed a granola bar down my throat, mentally cycling through some potential conversation topics. I was extremely nervous. From what I’d seen online, Rebecca seemed witty and cool — her Tinder profile said, “Crop tops, cats, and Joanne the Scammer are the key to life. Currently have blue hair.” Plus, she was gorgeous.
Meanwhile, my profile said: “I like wine, books, and feminism. I don’t want to have a threesome with you and your ugly-ass boyfriend.” I didn’t mention my disability in my profile, though it was visible in one of my pictures.
When I arrived, I took a deep breath, forced myself out of the Uber and into the bar, and searched for Rebecca in the sea of Brooklynites. She was sitting at a table with a tall beer in front of her, dressed in a black top and shorts. We connected instantly — even more so as we continued to order drinks. We talked about our mutual love for trash TV, our coming out stories, and our experiences going out to Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole, some of the only NYC lesbian bars left standing.
As if it wasn’t hard enough being a queer teen in conservative Long Island suburbia, I also had my missing left arm to contend with.
We hadn’t talked about my arm. It was only when Rebecca asked me what I did and I said I volunteered to raise funds for amputees in developing countries that I stopped and thought about the fact that so far during our date, I had not addressed my disability. I told her I was passionate about my volunteer work because, in case she hadn’t noticed, I was an amputee. “You are?!” she joked. I wasn’t wearing my bionic arm at the time, so it was clear as day I was missing my left arm just below the elbow. Rebecca didn’t seem to care, and I didn’t expect her to.
But it wasn’t always that easy. I was pretty self-conscious of my disability at times when I was younger. As if it wasn’t hard enough being a queer teen in conservative Long Island suburbia, I also had my missing left arm to contend with. Even if my classmates weren’t directly saying something about my disability, I was occasionally worrying that they would. My desire to be with a woman was something I realized early in life, but soon afterward I began to fear that my arm made me undesirable.
But luckily, queer women tend to be more accepting. And the older I get, the less concerned I am about my arm counting against my attractiveness. I don’t see my disability as a negative — sometimes I even see it as a positive thing. Now, in my twenties, I feel more confident than ever thanks to age, maturity, and my badass bionic arm. But it’s been a journey getting here — one that has included some not-so-great moments involving my disability and my dating life.
I dated my first girlfriend, Charlie, when I was 15. We’d secretly watch The L Word in her basement (my parents thought I was at dance class). For the two years we were dating, I don’t ever remember having a conversation with her about my arm. I worried that I wasn’t as thin as her previous girlfriend, and I was self-conscious about my bushy eyebrows — but not about my disability.
Once, during a typical L Word-watching session, I burst into tears after the infamous oil wrestling scene with Nikki Stevens and Jenny Schecter, because they were so thin and so beautiful. When I pictured my girlfriend and me wrestling in oil, it seemed like a scene that’d be the brunt of a joke in some bro comedy. We certainly did not look like Jenny and Nikki: Charlie was very butch and I was a weird theater kid.
I wanted to be beautiful in the way that all young girls are conditioned to aspire to: thin, tall, with long, flowing hair. Yet my missing arm did not yet enter that equation of wanting. At the time, my disability did not factor into my understanding of beauty standards. Queer women have lots of options in terms of gender presentation — we tend to embrace looks that differ from the norm. But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily immune to the pressures of conventional beauty placed upon all women.
Embarrassingly, The L Word significantly influenced my sense of self and how I came to terms with my sexuality. This was the case for many young queer women: The L Word, even with all of its problems, was sacred to us. I tried all the types of queer femininity the show depicts: I cut off all my hair and started wearing T-shirts and blazers to get the Shane look (dark times) but ended up channeling Jenny with long, black hair and red lips. (Yes, I’m a Jenny fangirl. No, I will not apologize for it.) I often received compliments from adults like, “You’re so brave for dressing like that!” I now realize that people felt the need to congratulate me for making myself stand out even more when I was clearly visibly disabled.
I now realize that people felt the need to congratulate me for making myself stand out even more when I was clearly visibly disabled.
Charlie and I continued to date even though she also talked to a few other girls behind my back. I was insecure and didn’t say anything. I was attached to her and didn’t want to lose her, even if she cheated on me. It was like we were trauma-bonded: We were one of the first out queer couples in high school. She was much stronger than I was — she was always the one to respond to straight guys calling us dykes in the hallway or classmates gawking at us kissing in front of my locker. I wasn’t happy with her, but at 17 years old, I irrationally worried she’d be the only other queer woman I’d ever meet. Even though our relationship wasn’t working, we stayed together.
We were about 17 when the anonymous comment website Formspring became popular. Formspring was a social networking service that had its heyday in 2009. Users were able to set up a profile and others could comment anything they wanted, completely anonymously. This was obviously very popular for high school students who wanted to cyberbully each other. I made a profile because I wanted to know what my classmates thought of me. Deep down, I worried people thought I was ugly — or worse, ugly because of my arm.
On my Formspring profile, I received compliments saying that I inspired people to be themselves (I was never afraid to experiment with my look or speak my mind) but was equally flooded with insults. I received nasty comments for being gay, for having an orange spray tan, for being a theater geek — but nothing about being disabled.
Before having access to my classmates’ opinions about me, I hadn’t given my disability much thought. But now that they could say anything behind the safety of a computer screen, I began to worry that someone would make fun of me for being an amputee.
I was asked if I was dating Charlie, who was completely out. Charlie got comments about me in her inbox when she wasn’t being told that she turned straight girls gay. (She was very swaggy and all girls, including straight ones, liked her.) “Why are you dating Dayna? She’s orange.” All pretty benign comments, and none that had to do with my disability. Charlie didn’t defend me — she just approved the comments and let them sit on her profile. I could tell she didn’t really care about me anymore. This enraged me, so I did something immature: I hatched a plan to get her to care about me again.
After school one day, I went straight to the computer lab. Looking to either side of me to make sure no one was watching, I logged on to one of the PCs and went on Charlie’s Formspring. I commented anonymously, “How could you date a girl with only one arm?” My hands shook as I typed.
I stayed in the library, switching between homework and compulsively refreshing the page until Charlie responded a few hours later. The rush I felt from her defending me was almost sexual. She threatened to fight whoever said it and listed a whole bunch of nice things about me. Even a girl she was talking to on the down-low jumped in to defend me. “Keep talking shit about Dayna and you’ll be the one missing an arm,” she said.
No one had ever blatantly questioned whether I was undateable because of my arm, so why did I? I thought my disability was something I didn’t think about, something that didn’t bother me, but apparently it did. I wanted Charlie to stand up for me because she hadn’t in so long — we broke up shortly after. But mostly I was so terrified of someone else saying I was unattractive because of my arm that I tried to mitigate the pain by saying it first.
My confidence level got much higher when I got to college. Though people began asking questions about my disability more, I got hit on and hooked up frequently. Having grown into my style, I felt attractive.
Until one night, a girl I dated my freshman year and I were at Dizzy’s, the quintessential Long Island dive bar, and I started drunk-crying, saying that I was the only person in the bar who was different. “I’m glad you have one arm,” she said, apparently attempting to comfort me. “If you didn’t, you’d be straight and really slutty.”
I hardly reacted to her comment at the time, because I was too busy drunkenly bawling my eyes out. We broke up a few months later, but I continued to think about what she said. In retrospect, what bothers me most about her comment is the implication that disabled gay women would be straight if it weren’t for their disability. (This might be shocking to someone who hasn’t taken a disability studies class, but it is a pretty common and harmful stereotype: Queer disabled women “become” gay because men reject them.) Of course, that’s completely ridiculous. I realized I was attracted to women way before I realized how my disability impacted my sexuality and dating life.
I was so terrified of someone else saying I was unattractive because of my arm that I tried to mitigate the pain by saying it first.
In a way, yeah, I got it — if I had two hands, even more men would probably hit on me. (I already get hit on a lot; I blame my boobs.) But in another way, I didn’t get it at all; if I had two hands, I’d still be queer.
My confidence has certainly gone up since the days of drunk-crying in Dizzy’s. Like most people’s, it fluctuates depending on the day, if I’m PMSing, what my weight is, what I’m wearing. Most days, I feel pretty good. The Formspring and Dizzy’s incidents are the only two blatant examples of my disability making me feel ugly that I can remember. Other times, it’s more subtle, more subconscious. These days, most of the time, I hardly think about it.
Although I feel quite secure now and am happily dating Rebecca, a beautiful, funny, and smart able-bodied woman, it would be false to insist that my disability hasn’t impacted my dating life. It’s less of a question of has it or hasn’t it — it’s more of a question of how. My experience of starting a relationship on Tinder didn’t feel as informed by my disability as I would’ve thought. Perhaps this is because I’m queer and these different aspects of my identity intersect in a positive way. Perhaps I’ve felt less affected because I’m confident and attractive and have good style — but stigma and discrimination can impact people regardless of these things. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.
I met Rebecca for our second date at the movies. This time I was wearing my new, state-of-the-art bionic arm. To me, the arm was undeniably sexy. I carefully balanced on my high heels on the way up the stairs, gripping the banister with my right hand, holding my purse with my prosthetic. I really liked Rebecca; I'd never liked someone this much after a first date. My heart started to pound when I saw her in the crowd of moviegoers. My heart pounded even harder when she leaned over during the movie and kissed me.
In the past, I've sometimes felt ugly around women I was attracted to — both because of how women are conditioned to compare themselves to each other and because of my arm. But this time I felt beautiful, I felt comfortable, I felt sexy. Once we moved our kissing from the theater to a bar to Rebecca’s bed, I struggled to find a comfortable position for my bionic arm. "Can you hang on a sec?" I wasn't even embarrassed by the farting noise it produced as I yanked it off. The whole time, I wasn’t really focusing on my disability — even though it’s unavoidable and part of who I am. As Rebecca laughed and placed my prosthetic on the nightstand, all I could think about was how much I liked her.