In My Shoes: Gay, Middle Eastern and Disabled

Charlie Zada explores the impact of his identities on his experience

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Words || Charbel Zada

My name is Charbel, and I am an openly gay hard of hearing man. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to even say that, let alone live that life.

I was born with a mild to severe sensory-neural hearing impairment. It’s genetic from my mum’s side. With that physical disability, it sowed the seeds of anxiety and depression. People don’t realize how one plays into the other. My disability meant I was routinely isolated from other people, meaning I didn’t get to develop the social skills and social networks I should have. I developed anxiety being around people in general, which in turn fueled my depression.

I grew up thinking having any sort of disability meant having to work twice as hard to get just half as much as our abled peers, which ended up fueling my need to consistently “”prove”” myself just as good as my abled peers by constantly overworking myself.

Having this disability hindered me quite significantly and still does – on occasions where I don’t wear my hearing aids, I mishear things, which embarrasses me. Not only does it make others think I’m stupid when I’m not wearing them, wearing my hearing aids is still a thing I have to divorce from my sense of shame because I worry about being judged by other (usually abled) people.

Another thing I certainly feel is more pronounced in ethnic families is the intergenerational sense of shame. My mother was a person with a hearing impairment and my grandmother, in a misguided attempt to protect her, would consistently keep my mother by her side and hide her away from our family. So my mother grew up learning to be ashamed of her disability and she’s passed on those lessons to her children too.

Fortunately, I’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to unlearn these lessons – because having a disability isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s just a different way of being.

One thing that aggravates me is that disabled people are constantly forced to prove our disabilities over and over and over. The amount of times I’ve been told “you don’t seem deaf” is staggering. God forbid that we as complex human beings don’t fit neatly into your narrow perceptions of what a person with a disability looks like. I don’t even want to think about the amount of times that people have wanted to test me when I tell them I lip read – as if it’s a novelty and not a byproduct of trying to function in a society hostile to people with disabilities.

As a gay man, I grew up in complete fear of my own sexuality. I spent more time agonizing over my attraction to men than reaching the same social milestones straight people did. These days I’m much more assured of myself. I’ve gone on a journey that’s ended with me completely coming into my own, but this is not the journey heterosexual people undertake. Heterosexual people are lucky enough to explore their sexual and romantic attraction in an environment that’s designed for them, while queer people spend that exact time trying to figure out their own sexuality and wrestle with the accompanying anxiety as part of growing up in a heteronormative world.

We don’t get the luxury of having a social license to explore our attractions until we’re much older, where we’re usually in a safer environment and old enough to exercise our own autonomy.

That’s a crash course in Who I Am but let’s get to the bigger stuff – let’s ask ourselves why is it these are the lessons queer people with disabilities learn?

The answer is pretty obvious: we live in a society that actively works at dehumanizing the “other”. This means that people who are “other” (queer, ethnic, poor, disabled, transgender) are constantly forced to watch ourselves be dismissed by our own friends, family, doctors, teachers, etc. We’re constantly forced to fight for our own humanity by protesting.

It’s important to realize how wrong it is that people have to spend so much of their time actively trying to remind others of their own humanity.

Being openly gay is hard work. I can already see some straight people reading this and rolling their eyes as if to say: “we gave you marriage equality, homophobia isn’t real, so your life shouldn’t be hard.”

Firstly, shut your mouth and throw yourself into the ocean. In this world, being gay is already one strike against you, being a person with a disability is two strikes, but being a Middle Eastern man living in a world where white people are statistically more likely to not hire you if you have an “ethnic sounding” name? Being a Middle Eastern man subjected to taunts about bombing someone every time you get mildly annoyed at anything? Being a Middle Eastern man and having to reassure white people that you’re not “that arab”? Being a Middle Eastern man that has to go by Charlie because white people literally cannot pronounce the name “Charbel” but they can pronounce Michelangelo, Dostoyevsky, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? I’m already out of the game and I never had a chance.

This isn’t a sob story – it’s just my life. This essay is small glimpse into what it’s like to be disadvantaged.

I’m going to use this essay as an opportunity to ask you to do a couple of things:

Evaluate your biases. We all have biases – that does not make us awful people – it makes us a product of our own society. We owe it to ourselves to be better people and we cannot be better people if we are not willing to confront ourselves over our own bullshit.

Stop asking people with disabilities to prove ourselves – we owe you nothing. We’re not here for inspiration porn, we’re not here to remind you over how lucky you are to be abled. Shut your mouth and stay in your lane.

Understand that marriage equality was only one step forward in our march for equality.

Allies to those with disabilities and to those who are queer – This is not about you or how “woke” you can be. We know when your activism is performative. If you want to help, stand aside and lift the voices of those who are queer and those who have disabilities. We have voices too and don’t need you to speak for us.

Support organizations that help like the AntiCollonial Asian Alliance, the Women’s Collective, the Queer Collective and the Sydney Queer and Disability community group (I lead the last two groups mentioned because people with disabilities can do things ourselves). Let US be the hero and YOU be the sidekick.

Educate yourselves – Google is right there. It’s completely irresponsible in the age where information is at your fingertips, you continue to be completely ignorant of the lives of others.

This personal essay is here to remind you that we are complex individuals. There are people behind a bunch of descriptors so the next time you want to bicker about LGBTQIA+ people and/or people with disabilities, remember, we’re human beings and if you can’t respect that, shut the fuck up.