My disability is not always obvious. From a young age, I have suffered from severe depression, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder. This seems like an extensive list, but it gives you a little insight into how I navigate my everyday life. It took years to receive diagnoses for all of these, but it put me at ease to have a name for the feelings I was having. It helped me not to feel so ostracised, that I was not simply a moody individual, someone who was perpetually sad, shy and prone to panic attacks. I had a couple of health conditions, disabilities, that I could name, and with assistance and support, do my best to manage every day.
I am also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Personally, I do not think it is surprising that a large proportion of the community have disabilities, whether they are hidden like mine, or not. I sometimes wonder whether my sexual orientation is a contributing factor to, or perhaps the source of consistent anxiety in my life. Growing up, I was an outcast, members of my family and kids at school, were always adept at finding a way to inform me that I was different, something not quite normal about me. That difference became a source of ridicule for them and placed an invisible target on my back. It took me until my late teens to figure out what that was.
When I finished school, and luckily progressed to university, I decided to embrace my difference, experiment and figured out what made me happy. This took time, patience, a fair amount of heartbreak and remarkable tolerance towards those who simply cannot or do not take the time to understand. This was made even more difficult with my disability. My fear of negative evaluation, of standing out for the wrong reasons, can someday, completely inhibit me. Some days are better than others. This combined with the consistent societal pressure to make decisions about yourself and your future, with next to no time to think, is troubling. I have had to decide to ignore that pressure, to take time to think, to heal, and to live my life the way I want to, and at whatever pace I need day-to-day. If there’s one message I can impart, there is no hurry to life, to figure out how to live it, and how you should feel each day, be it physical, emotional or psychological.
Back to the title I guess, that being pride. Well, associated with the LGBTQ+ community, pride is a gathering, a radical display of uniqueness and diversity. This is something we should absolutely embrace. From my own experience, I have had to adopt a different mentality. Pride is every day. Pride is a promise from myself to love myself unconditionally, to accept that I am not perfect, but I will manage to live and love as authentically as I can.
Pride can be intimidating. Unfortunately, pride events can be inaccessible to those of us living with a disability. Physical spaces playing host to the events can present difficulties for those with sensory difficulties or those with a physical disability. For myself, the sheer number of people, sensory overload and the pressure to be and express myself in a certain way is terrifying and has quickly brought on a panic attack in the past.
Sometimes, those of us living with a disability are labelled as being incapable of being anything else other than disabled. I am here to remind you that we are so much more. The meaning behind pride is to embrace your uniqueness, your sexuality, your body and physical appearance. But why should your disability be separate to this feeling of pride? Short answer, it should not. Being LGBTQ+ and having a disability is just as valid and worthy of embrace, as any other identity.
Our identity is multi-faceted. Being LGBTQ+ and having a disability should not be separate, conflicting entities, they intersect. If our disabilities are ignored, as integral parts of our identity, we are being excluded. No one is unworthy of pride and acceptance, and I hope to remind you of that. Through our pride, we must endeavour to love and recognise all the lives that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Having a disability is no exception.
Some of my earliest memories are of the subtle ways I was made to feel different because of my disability. I felt that receiving any extra help highlighted that there was something about me that made me stand out from my classmates. This resulted in a deep-rooted fear of not fitting in, that still affects me today. One of the ways it does is in being LGBT+. It always bothered me that the first, and sometimes the only thing people knew about me was my disability. I was terrified of adding another label to myself, and in some ways I still am. The prospect of coming out is always daunting, but I don’t think I would have found it as scary if I hadn’t experienced growing up with a disability.
I’ve never considered the connection between my disability and being LGBT+, but I’ve realised it is a huge factor. I often felt like my problems relating to my disability weren’t valid because people had it so much worse. I feel similar things with being LGBT+ because my environment is better than a lot of people who have faced coming out. I have a habit of downplaying the difficulties relating to both things, so even thinking about the way that they are connected is hard for me to do.
I don’t think the connection is exclusively negative. Coming to terms with my disability has had a knock-on effect, and appreciating these similarities makes it easier to deal with being LGBT+. They are both crucial parts of my self-acceptance. Although I have a long way to go, I feel that I now embrace having a disability and being LGBT+ more than I ever had before.
When I began to think about it I found that there were a number of similarities between my “disability” and being LGBT+. I have anxiety and a panic disorder, and that is the first similarity, it is a hidden disability. I also have the privilege of having what would be termed “straight passing” meaning that on first appearances I do not appear to be obviously LGBT. This coupled with my hidden anxiety and panic has meant that there are a number of things about me that I have kept, and continue to keep, hidden from others. Since a young age, I have had it drilled into me to not show my anxiety, not tell anyone, not make a fuss. Thus, I found it difficult to come to terms with a formal diagnosis and later becoming registered with the Disability Service in college. It is the same with my sexuality, I had repressed my feelings for years during school, only coming out to anyone when I entered college. However, I got a similar reaction from my parents when I eventually came out to them- keep this to yourself, be careful who you tell, and it might make people see you differently, an echo of past conversations. And so, I had another part of myself to hide, to mask, to not let people in on. This has led to a lot of internalising and doubt in myself and my identity. Since I don’t fit into a stereotypical lesbian image am I faking my feelings that I feel? Am I just overreacting to the insane panic I feel before ordinary activities? Does everyone feel this, and if so, how does everyone cope with this? If this is normal, then is there something seriously wrong in the way humans are designed?
Another thought that was racing through my mind was the connection between LGBT and mental illness. I couldn’t help thinking “Am I gay because I have a mental illness, or do I have a mental illness because I am gay?” I have since tried to convince myself that these two things are not correlated. Yes, my sexuality and the extra stresses that come with it do cause a certain level of anxiety, but it is not the sole cause. I have had problems with anxiety and panic and a whole other list of side effects caused by it since I was a very young child long before I began questioning my sexuality. I have found it different and sometimes difficult to open up to people and to seek support for my mental health due to past messages of keeping it hidden, and I still have a tendency to deal with things on my own. But, I am growing to accept who I am and my small differences. I am fully aware that I do have the privilege of a hidden disability as in it is not obvious and of having straight passing, however, this Pride I thought I would take this opportunity to explore and discuss two parts of my life that I have consistently hidden from others.