Gay Men Have an Ableism Problem

I’m Alexander Cheves, a writer, author, and sex educator. My nickname is Beastly. I give adult advice on this blog — no question is off-limits. To ask me something, email AskBeastly@gmail.com or send a message via the Ask Beastly contact form.

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I’m a 61 year old, cis gay male – pronouns: he, him, Bette Midler. Disabled (genetic neuromuscular disease – weak and soft). One constant of my gay life is that I seem to get two reactions from other gay men – dirty looks or I’m completely ignored. I have gone for years at a time with no sexual contact with other men. I’m a very sex-positive person but have had very, very few good sexual experiences in my life. This has been very depressing, and at my age, is unlikely to improve. I try not to internalize it, but it seems for lots of men, being gay is a party, and I was never invited. It’s been hard coping with this. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, I don’t think there’s a solution, I just feel profoundly sad that this has been my life.

Hi Bette,

Yes, it does seem that way. I don’t know why every gay man I know feels locked out of an imagined party. It’s always because of something wrong with us, some failing of ours. The tragic fact is that so many of us — men of varying body types and abilities — all feel that way, and gay culture does much to foster and sustain the feeling we share of being unwelcome and inadequate.

I’m half-Deaf, HIV-positive, and have chronic GI issues. Earlier this month, a doctor told me I “might have Crohn’s disease.” Now I have to sit here and worry over the possibility that I might have another permanent illness, as if one wasn’t bad enough. Sometimes my health issues make the sex life I want seem painfully out of reach — like everyone has it easier than I do.

Brent, my boyfriend, had back surgery some years ago and still experiences intense pain. If he injures it again, he’ll have to give up gym exercise, which is a big part in his self-image and confidence. And I know many men who’ve struggled with substances like crystal meth and are mostly celibate in their recovery. Meth wires itself to the brain’s pleasure chemicals, to a person’s experience of sex, and once those neural links are made, it’s hard to unweave them. For many men, sobriety requires them to give up sex, so they too feel locked out of the party — unwelcome, inadequate.

It’s perhaps cold comfort that many gay men can relate to your feelings and understand them — there are many disabled and differently-abled gay men out there — but it’s true. I don’t really believe in “typical” ability, just as I don’t believe in neurotypicality. I think most people struggle, in some way, physically and mentally, to exist in a world that is designed for unattainably ideal bodies with unattainably ideal abilities and privileges.

Let’s state something plain: the “party” doesn’t exist — and if it does, it’s a toxic, horrible place. Even the people we think are in the party — handsome, athletic men who appear to enjoy effortless sex and easy beauty — have their own struggles that they believe make them ugly and lacking, even though that might seem preposterous to those of us who look at them like they are gods. We know where the myth of the exclusive gay party — the prized nexus of queer life — comes from. Gay men are, for the most part, born to straight parents and grow up in straight worlds without role models, so for most of us, our first evidence of gay life is porn. From there, we discover gay erotic art and gay photography and gay fashion and gay media and gay magazines — all which collectively present a glamorous, chiseled (and typically white) physical ideal that’s hard to achieve without a great deal of luck and privilege and a whole lot of money to burn.

This indoctrination into an impossible ideal creates a commonly-held belief that gay standards are less forgiving than straight ones, and this belief becomes reality: every gay man I know has body dysmorphia, including me. Most men I know go to the gym, and a shocking percentage of us take steroids. We are not well.

This is a brutal atmosphere to have medical issues and disabilities in. I obviously can’t step into your body and know your struggles, but I know what you mean when you’re not sure what you’re asking for or if a solution exists, because this problem seems pervasive, systemic, and enormous. On days when I feel locked out of the party, my frustrations can’t really be turned into questions because I just feel like screaming.

Sex can be great. We know this. So we ask ourselves: Why can’t it just be removed from all these social politics, all these cruel standards and expectations?

It can, but the only way to do that is to find the right people. You will have to hunt for them.

Look for the sex radicals and queers and people who reject the mythic image standards and ableism of gay culture. I promise they’re out there. They’re not always easy to find, but they make the best and most creative sex partners when you do find them.

I’m not going to say “Just be confident!” because that’s patronizing. But I will suggest having one-on-one talks with a therapist and doing whatever you can to cultivate a new circle of friends — or a better circle of friends. I suggest casting your net among punks and gender-fuck queers and every “alternative” homo you can find — people who intentionally buck the mold.

I also recommend hiring a sex worker. A good sex worker who will go slow and practice with you, and practice can make a huge difference. Sex is hard and it’s rare to find playmates who let us practice without expectations — and harder still to find playmates who give pointers. For that, we have sex workers. Why do you need practice? Because sex makes you feel better about yourself in bed, which boosts confidence and generally makes it easier to find more sex. It’s a feedback loop — a good one. If you’ve only had unrewarding sexual experiences, you probably need some pointers and encouragement — a mental and emotional boost to get you back in the game.

I’m a sex worker, but I’ve also hired a sex worker after a long dry spell, and the experience was so rewarding, so necessary, that I can hardly put it into words. I needed someone to help me get back into sex, someone to make me feel better and stronger in my body, and I’m glad to say I hired the right guy. When he left, I felt more capable and ready that I had in over a year.

Lastly, please read my response to a reader who felt like, because of various health conditions, his sex life was over. Sex ends when you say it does.

Sex is part of life, but it’s not life. We put sex on a pedestal as something life demands, and on top of it we pile so many myths, expectations, and impossibilities presented by our culture. This view of sex is fantasy — it doesn’t match sex in the real world. In reality, sex is more often lackluster than amazing. Sometimes you have great fucks, but it’s just as easy to have disappointing ones. Taking some of the fantasy away from sex and setting realistic expectations will make it more enjoyable. I’ve enjoyed meals and music and vacations that, on a physical pleasure scale, were better than sex. You can decide if lackluster sex is enough to make you sad about your life and all the wonderful things you can experience in it, but that discredits a lot of great things to be witnessed by simply living. Don’t overlook them.

Love, Beastly

6 Comments

    1. I normally don’t reply to trolls, but I’m genuinely curious why, being extremely hard-of-hearing, my perspective is somehow “able-splaining,” which is the most precious, invented, meaningless Critical Theory term I’ve heard since “intersectionality.” Is my 60% Deafness not disabled enough for you?

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  1. Interesting blog post – instead of addressing ableism (amongst other prejudices in the gay world) and the challenges faced by disabled gay men, you engage in victim-blaming and disability-shaming. The sad thing is, you probably don’t even see it. What an asshole. Just lost all respect for you.

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    1. This asshole spent a lot of time carefully writing a post that I believed did none of those things. But I am only human, writing answers for people, for free. So if you’d like to illuminate and educate me and show me where I’m engaging in “victim-blaming and disability-shaming,” I’ll be receptive and appreciative so that I can do better next time.

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      1. I find it interesting that you call him an asshole, so I guess you know him? If you don’t, what exactly did he write that makes you think he’s an asshole?

        You start off talking about the porn industry and the negative impact that it has had on gay men’s self-image – yet didn’t you work for Fort Troff/Grunt, that actively promotes this porn-centric image? You also bring up your HIV status. Again, Fort Troff/Grunt promoted bare-backing before there was PrEP. This guy is 61? Then he came of age just as AIDS hit – his generation was blind-sided by this, yet they fought to get the research that developed the drugs that keep you alive and the education that, had you bothered, would have kept you from seroconverting. And you think there is any equivalence between a disease someone was born with and an infection you acquired as a result of your own choices? The same with addiction – although some people are born to addicted mothers, most people who become addicted become so through their own bad choices. And you, who goes on and on about your endless slutty exploits, really know what it is like to face what this guy is facing – constant rejection? Rejection in which his disability apparently has played a big role? Yet you don’t think he’s talking about ableism amongst gay men?

        Do you ever browse Instagram or Facebook? All the able-bodied, attractive men are constantly posting pictures of themselves with all their attractive partners and friends – the gay world is so highly curated – I have yet to see photos that include disabled (or even older) men. Have you ever been to a Pride celebration? Again, all the beautiful people are having a great time. Maybe this is what he means by gay life looking like a party? Maybe this toxic culture is what needs to change.

        You say “I know men with more severe disability than yours who have more sex than I have.” Again, I assume you know this guy and have both reviewed his medical history and have the medical expertise to evaluate it. To me, you sound completely ignorant about disability – you do realize that not all disability is visible, especially to the untrained eye? You say you may have an autoimmune disease – so you should know about invisible disability. Please study “spoon theory.” You may see this guy when he is out and about looking ‘normal,’ but you have no idea how exhausting looking normal my be for him. Do you visit him the days fatigue and pain keep him in bed? Have you offered to help him with housework, shopping, laundry, a meal once in a while? Have you been to his home? He might not invite you in, he may be too embarrassed because he can no longer keep his home clean. Walking a city block may be more exhausting for him than going 10 blocks in a wheelchair – how on earth would you know? Then you go on about hiring a sex professional – what makes you think that someone living on disability benefits can afford that, or that he even lives somewhere where that is an option (again, unless you know he lives in NYC). Poverty exacerbates what affluence mitigates – you need to be familiar with how someone’s disability has impacted their income, their standard of living, what support and resources they have – has this guy shared that with you? How do you know that his disability is his only health challenge; has he shared that with you, too? And he does not say his sex is unsatisfactory, he says men reject him for, as he says, being “weak and soft.” It sounds that his disability, at least in his own mind, has de-gendered him. Sounds to me like he isn’t getting much, if any, sex at all. I really doubt you can relate to that.

        Playing Disability Olympics is not OK.

        You do bring up some good points – but ones that aren’t really relevant to what this man wrote, and much of what you say seems to blame him for his situation. You just should NEVER do that to someone born with a disability. Ever.

        You might think of how to be a better friend to this guy – sounds to me like he is very isolated. Next time you’re going to a black-out party, why not invite him and see if you can help get him there, or introduce him to some of your other disabled friends? Or if he really is an asshole, why be his friend at all?

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        1. That message is so poz-phobic that it’s almost not worth responding to.

          I do not know the man who sent me this question. The words “this asshole” in my first comment refers to me — because, in your original comment, you called me an asshole. Never mind the fact that I spend an great amount of time working on a blog to answer people’s sex questions for free — so much time that it amounts to an unpaid part-time job. I’m still, in your eyes, and only because of a post you don’t like, an “asshole.” This blog consumes my free labor, my time, and my money, all in service of my community. But, OK, I’m the asshole.

          I have indeed worked in porn. I even directed the videos at Fort Troff. We’ve never shot a bareback scene — not once. The company is based in Georgia, and the company’s lawyer says Georgia law does not explicitly allow condomless porn, so the company’s owner has never risked it. But leaving that aside, I don’t know who is better qualified to speak on some of the harmful effects of the porn industry than someone who has actually worked in it.

          I’d like to note that I actually have a favorable view of porn and porn performers. I love porn. I think it has problems, of course, but it itself is not a problem — and there are many adult entertainers who are actively changing the industry and making it better, more diverse, more educational. They are mending some of the cultural and psychological wounds porn has caused.

          You just wrote that this man’s generation “fought to get the research that developed the drugs that keep you alive and the education that, had you bothered, would have kept you from seroconverting.” You just presented the “you did it to yourself” argument of HIV/AIDS, which has been used by anti-gay lawmakers and poz-phobic activists like Jerry Falwell to justify 50 years of hatred, fear, and criminalization of HIV-positive people. You have no idea how dangerous that is. By your presented reasoning, anyone who tests positive today, who is perhaps not aware of safe sex — who lives in an isolated area or was never taught safe sex by an adult — and accidentally tests positive for HIV should be blamed and shamed for their “bad choices.” By your reasoning, they should be condemned for “not heeding the advice of their elders” or “respecting the education from their elders.” What a cruel and ignorant thing to say.

          This might come as a surprise to you, but most queer people aren’t taught their own history. Most queer people start having sex in the closet and don’t know to ask about safe sex or how to avoid HIV. I was one of those people. I grew up in an isolated, fiercely homophobic part of the country and tested positive as a young, childish 21-year-old kid. Should I be blamed for not heeding the words and respecting the work of my elders? I didn’t even know any gay elders at the time. No one had taught me safe sex.

          Many people believe what you believe — that HIV-positive people are simply irresponsible and should bear the consequences of their actions — and because of people like you, there are gay men across the country in prison because of their HIV. Because of people like you, there are gay men with symptoms of HIV who are terrified to take an HIV test because they don’t want to be part of a stigmatized community. People like you have exacerbated a public health crisis and blood is on your hands. Because of people like you, there are lawmakers trying to get HIV-positive people forcibly quarantined from everyone else — presumably forever — because they believe we are all “dangerous.” Because of people like you, young kids who test positive for HIV commit suicide because they’re ashamed and afraid everyone will see them as “irresponsible” and “slutty” and think they “deserve it”— I almost did. Shame on you.

          The same with addiction: Do you really think everyone who tries a drug and gets addicted should be punished forever for their mistake? We have data showing that people try drugs when they’re suffering — when they’re living in poverty or have lost loved ones or are struggling with illness. I consider both HIV and addiction to be disabilities because the former is a chronic physical illness and the second, as far as we know, is a chronic mental illness (possibly even a brain disorder). No one asks to be HIV-positive or an addict any more than they ask to be born with cerebral palsy or MS or blind. People like you are the ones who think addicts, because of their “bad choices,” should be thrown in jail instead of supported with therapy and community.

          I do know what it’s like to face constant rejection. I tried to date and have sex for over two years after I became HIV-positive and no one would touch me. If I had messaged you on an app, it sounds like you would have been one of the countless gay men who blocked me or refused to speak to me because of my status. I know exactly what this man’s constant rejection feels like — I lived it, and it was one of the most miserable parts of my life.

          He is indeed talking about ableism in the gay community and so am I. That’s what my entire answer is about. You’ve yet to point out a single, specific example where I talk about anything else. The toxic culture you’re describing is the “party” that he is talking about in his question, at least as I understand it, and it is what I mean by the “party” in my answer. I wholeheartedly agree: social media and various industries (porn included) often make us despise ourselves. These are toxic parts of gay culture we must address, and that is the objective of my answer and this post.

          He stated his disability in his question — a genetic neuromuscular disease — and I do in fact know people with equally severe and more severe disabilities who are able to be very sexual. I have never done any of the things for this man that you list — I’m still not sure why those questions are relevant or how they add to your overall point — but I would gladly do any of them if I knew him in person. I’d happily invite him to a sex party.

          I asked for specific examples of where I engaged in “victim-blaming and disability-shaming.” You gave me none. I asked for ways I can make future posts better. You gave me none. You, in fact, just reiterated your assertion that I “blamed him for his situation” without specifically telling me where I did so. You’ve been incredibly unhelpful and worse, you’ve presented views of HIV and addiction that are harmful to my readers and the queer community.

          I obviously do not know this man’s finances, but I stand by my advice that he should hire an escort, and my reasons for doing so are laid out clearly in my answer. Escorts save lives. It’s ridiculous for you to ask me if I’m aware of his finances — the only information I have about him is the information that appears in his question. I have escorted for years and have many clients just like this man, men with disabilities who need help discovering good sex, who need someone patient and understanding. I’m far from the only escort that offers this service. I have seen lives improve and sex lives get so much better because of the noble work we do.

          Your message above is ignorant, assumptive, confused, slut-shaming, poz-phobic, and incredibly immature. I have sat on panels with AIDS activists from the ‘80s and sat in ACT UP NEW YORK meetings and spoken with countless gay men who survived the darkest days of the plague. They didn’t fight for “information to prevent people from seroconverting.” They fought for the medicine to treat the ones who did. On top of that, they found AIDS-shaming perspectives like the ones you’ve just presented and the dangerous laws that still exist as a result of those perspectives. They fought people who only see HIV/AIDS as “an infection you acquired as a result of your own choices.” In other words, they fought people like you.

          I am appalled at your message and ask you to stay away from my blog and the people who send messages to it, and I will not approve another one of your comments.

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