Non-binary and disabled

This piece was previously published in September 2018 in the Disgender zine – you can see the zine here, and I encourage you to check it out. There’s lots of cool stuff in it, all themed around being trans/non-binary and disabled/chronically ill.


Becoming (realising I was) non-binary was a lifetime’s process, of fighting a femaleness (femininity) that never belonged to me; of hating the breasts and periods that life burdened me with; of not knowing who I was, what I was, only what I wasn’t, a confusion made worse by growing up in a place and time that barely acknowledged the L and G of LGBT+ (never mind the rest), and so left me bereft of words, of a name for my being, stranding me in a place of “well, female I guess, if I have to choose (but why do I have to choose?)” that never felt right or true; of always wondering why I wasn’t like everyone else, why calling myself female was unsettling, but calling myself male was definitely wrong.

Becoming disabled has been half a lifetime’s process, of injury and illness, of pain and cumulative slow failure of my body’s systems, and yet, I can love my non-binary disabled body in a way I never could love my abled, presumed female body; I can revel in what it can do, appreciate my non-binary self for what it is. Weirdly, it’s illness that taught me to love my body, to appreciate being alive – and it’s illness that finally gave me both the courage and the words to call myself both non-binary and disabled. After years of thinking (insisting) I wasn’t disabled enough to claim that as an identity (because I can x, because I can’t y, because I’m not z) I got cancer, and it was weirdly revelatory in some ways. I had to think about death, and about how having cancer means always having to think about cancer, at least a little bit, even though I’m now in remission, and I thought about what I wanted the rest of my life (however short or long) to look like. And the biggest part of that was I wanted the rest of my life to be mine, to stop being afraid of what people might think of me, and claim myself. And I looked at the mix of physical issues I have and thought, yeah, I’m disabled. I need to own it. I walk with a fucking stick, clearly I’m disabled. Being able to sometimes do without the stick doesn’t make me not disabled, any more than wearing a skirt makes me female. And it was having a mastectomy that made me realise that it’s not that I’m a woman who’s bad at being female, it’s that I’m not a woman at all – which was a deeply and profoundly liberating experience.

The first day I left the house as a newly-identified non-binary person I felt like I owned the world. All the anxiety of a lifetime of faking femaleness fell away from me, and I felt free. I felt like my body finally belonged to me and I could stop caring what other people thought of me; like I could look at myself and not see a failed woman, but see someone who was living on their own terms, someone who belonged not to the world, but to themself – someone who could build their identity from the ground up without any shoulds from society (how to dress, how to act, how to be), someone who could create their own norms – someone who wasn’t an imposter, but who belonged. Someone who could wear a dress if they wanted, or not – but either way it didn’t define them; someone who could be themself, whoever that might be. Someone who is (finally) happy to be themself.

© bardofupton 2019

Embracing my disability

Content note: cancer, discussion of ableism

It took me a long time to be willing to call myself disabled. Longer than it should have, really. I kept finding reasons why it wasn’t true – I don’t use mobility aids (until I did); I’m not “officially” disabled (as though that matters – my chronic pain certainly doesn’t care that I don’t count as disabled under the Equality Act); I don’t want to presume to call myself disabled when other people are much more disabled than me (and yet, I’d furiously disagree with someone who told me I wasn’t queer enough). But that was all a veneer papering over the fact that I just didn’t want to be disabled.

I wanted to be like everyone else (but only in this one way). I didn’t want pity, or special treatment. I told myself lies about how I wasn’t different, that the things that were becoming difficult were things I didn’t want to do. But really, underneath, it was pure internalised ableism. Subconsciously, I thought of people with disabilities as being different from everyone else – and I wanted to be part of the everyone else. Ironic, really, since I’ve never wanted that in any other aspects of my life.

And then I got cancer. Which made all my other symptoms worse. And during the course of cancer treatment and the aftermath of that treatment, I was finally willing to accept that I am disabled.

I’m sure I would have reached that conclusion eventually: my conditions were only ever going to get worse, after all. But cancer definitely helped to speed up that realisation.

The root of my resistance to labelling myself disabled was that I didn’t think of it as a positive identity – unlike being queer, or non-binary, or mixed race, I didn’t see any positives in it; it seemed to be an identity consisting solely of losses. But of course, that’s the ableism talking.

I came across the social model of disability a while ago, which helped to clarify my thoughts about disability: it made so much sense! But I still didn’t feel comfortable using words like disabled to describe myself. I felt like I didn’t have the right to those words at the same time as not wanting to admit to myself that I was disabled. I felt like embracing the label of disabled would be giving up on the possibility of becoming “healthy” again – even though I knew full well that there was no chance of a cure. My dodgy joints will remain so, my chronic pain will never disappear. The best I can hope for is to minimise the effects of both.

I’m still not part of any disabled community, nor taking part in any activism, but maybe that will come in time. For right now, I am just accepting that part of myself, acknowledging its existence, and recognising that it’s okay, that I am still me, that this aspect of my identity is just another part of myself that I need to come to terms with.

© bardofupton 2018