While many say the gay community is obsessed with perfection of the body, there are some within the community who are attracted to physical difference.
The root of some of the discomfort in the lesbian and gay community and in society at large about discussing disabilities may lie in disability fetishism, a particular attraction some people have to disabled people. It is an attraction that often goes unnamed and usually goes undiscussed.
While this fetish doesn’t begin to explain all the issues involved in disability and society’s reactions to those issues, it is an important but concealed subject.
“The disability fetish has to be addressed because it is so prevalent and so impacts the lives of disabled people,” Peter Hegedus, a San Francisco psychotherapist and board member of Able-Together, Inc., said in an interview.
Able-Together publishes a newsletter with editorial content and personal ads from around the world for people with and without disabilities. It seeks to bridge the gap between disabled and non-disabled men and to help men explore the personal meaning of being gay and disabled, according to Hegedus. It also helps alleviate the isolation many gay men with disabilities feel by linking them with other disabled men and with men who do not have a negative reaction to disabilities.
“Some people think that the purpose of Able-Together is hooking up disabled men with non-disabled men,” Hegedus said. “It isn’t. The proportions of the subscribership are skewed.” The organization has more disabled members than non-disabled ones.
Hegedus says he is involved with the organization because of his professional interest in disability issues and because, as a man born before the polio vaccine, he suffered for years from a fear instilled by his parents that something would happen to him.
Because of what the organization seeks to do, it encounters a number of disability fetishists.
While no statistics are available on exactly how prevalent the fetish is, Hegedus said he has encountered enough fetishists and disabled people effected by them that he knows the fetish exists in relatively large numbers. By way of comparison, he said the disability fetish is probably somewhat less prevalent than the leather fetish.
While fetishism is probably no less prevalent in women than in men, Able-Together focuses on men. Within the fetish, people may have particular attractions to certain types of disabled people — like amputees, paraplegic men or those with bodies shaped by cerebral palsy. Those who are particularly attracted to amputees often call themselves devotees, a word Hegedus dislikes because of its religious sound.
“You don’t have to surf the web very hard to find a vast number of amputee chat rooms and devotee pages where people trade pictures — and this is straight as well as gay,” he said.
While gay sites focused on sex usually feature naked men, nudity is not allowed on many devotee sites because of restrictions placed on the site by its owner or by the provider whose web services the site uses.
Nudity is not necessary, though, because it is not the focus of these sites. The form of the person with the disability (or in some cases the residual limb or the wheelchair) is the focus.
Hegedus is quick to point out that while there is much disagreement about whether fetishists forming relationship with disabled people is an acceptable practice, fetishists probably should not be perceived as disturbed or mentally-ill people.
“They’re actually wonderful people very often who are handsome and bright and have high paying jobs who desperately want love like everybody else — and the fetish is handicapping them,” he said.
And not everyone who has a sexual or emotional interest in disabilities in a fetishist. Some interest, Hegedus said, is “normal.” While neither Hegedus nor Able-Together make value judgments, he said activities that cause harm to the disabled person are not appropriate.
“Any person has a human-to-human interest in another persons life — in their fortune,” he said. “You might even one day find yourself saying, ‘I might like to do it with a guy in a chair just to see what it’s like.’ Now, that might be the beginning of fetishism because you are thinking about it as ‘the guy in the chair’ rather than as Joe or Ted.”
Another example of a fetish as opposed to an interest, according to Hegedus: “Instead of ‘So, you broke your neck; that must suck; what kind of music do you like?’ it’s ‘So you broke your neck; that must suck; what kind of wheelchair do you use?'”
He said that in his experience, disabled people are usually not excited about their disability and are uncomfortable with those who are.
“People with disabilities want one thing more than anything else: they want to seen as people, and then with a long, long, long gap and a pause — who happen to have a disability.”
Blaine Waterman, the president of Able-Together’s board of directors, was born with cerebral palsy. He said he thinks the fetish is “largely a strange but harmless interest.”
“It’s difficult for me to understand because that which is what the fetishist is attracted to is what I’m at best ambivalent about: those physical characteristics which mark me as different from abled guys.”
“One man I met through the Internet wanted me to send him photos of my hands and feet, which are deformed,” Waterman said. “For me, his request crossed the line into disrespect. If he met me and found my body sexy, great. But I wasn’t going to turn myself into a small time producer of esoteric porn for his amusement.”
Hegedus said because many disabled men are aware of fetishists who are interested in them only because of their disability, they sometimes feel that no one will be interested in them for who they are.
“One of our subscribers put it to me rather succinctly,” Hegedus said. “We want non-disabled people to like us and when they do, we wonder why.” In the end, though, while some people’s discomfort about disability issues may lie in a fetish they are trying to hide, many people’s discomfort is because they simply don’t understand.
“The feelings that are stirred in me by somebody disabled are ‘Oh, my God! This is really catastrophic,'” Hegedus said. “And what I’ve come to realize is that, well, yes, it is catastrophic, but the person has dealt with it.”
“The person who hasn’t dealt with it is me — because I haven’t had to deal with it.”