BY ABBEY JOAN BURGESS
When I first saw a video clip of actor Ryan Haddad staring straight into the camera and loudly proclaiming, “I have CP and I have a higher sex drive than you”, I squealed. Literally. Then frantically Googled everything he’s ever done (including, but not limited to, Ryan’s work with LWT, from being a writer on this blog to being a member of the theatre’s inaugural Artistic Ensemble), because I’d never heard anyone be so unashamedly proud and sure of the sensuality of their disabled body.
The line comes from Ryan’s one-person show, Hi, Are You Single?, and encapsulates the necessary idea that being disabled (CP is a reference to Cerebral Palsy) is not incompatible with leading a fulfilling and full sexual life. Ryan is fabulously gay, unabashedly horny, and unafraid to show off his sexiness.
I finally watched the show a few months ago, and while the show is uproariously funny, it left me in tears… because for the first time on a theatrical stage, I felt… seen. Here’s the thing: I have Cerebral Palsy too, I walk with a cane, and I used to wear leg braces just like Ryan’s.
Without reservation, Ryan takes us through the trials and tribulations of dating, and in particular, of gay bars. How he once sat right outside the men’s restroom to try and increase his chances of scoring a date, and how one night as his friends helped him navigate narrow, uneven New York City stairs a passerby scoffed at him for being too drunk to walk (even though, of course, this is just how Ryan walks).
I went to my first gay bar in college, Partners, on a night when my friends and I were all too drunk for this to be our smartest idea. Partners is well-known amongst students as the “most popular gay bar in New Haven.” New Haven is a complicated place; the city residents and Yale are deeply divided by the unavoidable reality of Yale’s enormous endowment in the midst of an otherwise economically strained city. But New Haven is woven into the student social life, and on Friday and Saturday nights, Yale students spill into the city en masse. Partners is no exception. Partners never fails to be blasting extremely loud, gay music, and is far enough from the center of campus that it feels like an escape. And the students, almost always, go there to dance. It has a dance floor upstairs with a disco ball and a stage that is always packed with people. Unlike most people, I hate being on crowded dance floors; I’m always anxiously waiting for the next person who’s going to crash into me and knock me off balance, and am never able to get lost in the music like everyone else.
I’ve always felt that people… “like me” are more vulnerable, predisposed to moments where your body loses control and inadvertently places you in harm’s way. I still remember walking into my first frat party as a college first-year and getting bowled over by a six-foot tall football player, only to have another guy grab my arm tight and hold me up. I was grateful for the save, until I realized my “rescuer” was drunk out of his mind, barely able to stand up, and wouldn’t let go of my arm. He began asking me if I was with friends or if I had come alone, insisting on “coming with me” no matter how hard I tried to get rid of him. Overwhelmed by the mass of people in the frat, I quickly found a wall I could lean against for support, only to realize my mistake as the man appeared moments later, placing his arms on either side of my head and boxing me in with his body, running his hands wherever he pleased and kissing my neck. I wasn’t strong enough to push him off.
Eventually, I got away, and I told myself there was no real damage done. I block out the cold, clammy feeling of his lips marking my neck, the weight of his body pressed against mine. Putting it in a box is far easier than acknowledging the moments where I can still feel the ghost of his mouth staining my skin. What terrified me the most, I think, is how things could have gone differently, if I had been more drunk, or if he had been more aggressive. Because even though I had my cane in my hand, I didn’t think to use it. Only luck separated my experience and the experience of Chanel Miller the night she was brutally assaulted by Brock Turner at a Stanford University frat party. But I can’t help but wonder if people see me and sense easy prey, if that’s what causes the unwanted touches of random men when I walk down a busy NYC street dressed up for an event. This internalized fear is nothing compared to those who walk down city streets at night terrified for their lives if they get stopped by the police, and yet: my fear stays.
That fear is what pounds in my stomach as I try to dance with my friends at Partners, where I do, inevitably, end up getting knocked over, a noticeable disruption to the bodies all moving together. In these moments, I feel as if I might not be there at all, as I watch my friends slowly pair off with interested parties, and I am left alone. I try to move closer to a few people who catch my eye, but they quickly drift away, and soon I find myself on the outside of the dance floor, watching how everyone there seems to have found someone. It doesn’t surprise me that no one is interested, but disappointment is always bitter, no matter how you swallow.
Romance and sex have always been a deep insecurity for me. My body has been molded by others’ hands: hands of physical therapists, of doctors, of surgeons wielding blades, ready to fix and reshape me. I owe all these practitioners, particularly my physical therapist of twenty-two years (whom I trust with my life and who is like family to me), a debt I can never repay: I wouldn’t have my independence without them. But I have become desensitized to touch, to the idea that my body is my own to give or not, to the understanding that touch can be anything other than clinical. In every other area of my life, my disability is just a part of my identity. But when it comes to sexuality, my disability consumes it; I can’t help but define my idea of sensuality by my CP. I have always been certain that I am undesirable, that no one would choose me over someone who is less of a burden. I’ve repressed my desire for women; I let men use me physically and emotionally in ways I did not want, because it never occurred to me that I deserved more.
Ryan has had similar experiences, men who have ghosted him after finding out about his disability, or who only worry about their pleasure and ignore his. Men who have touched him, only to say, “Oh, it does work”. He doesn’t sugarcoat those moments throughout his monologue.
But when he sprawls on a couch near the end of his hour-long show, he tells the story of having a former football player in his bed, how this muscular and beautiful athlete had run his hands down Ryan’s chest and legs and said “I love your body.” Taken aback, Ryan tells us: “That’s absurd.” That’s absurd.
How could you want this broken body, discarded, used, trembling. Terrified of your touch but eager to be devoured. They would have seen everything, the messy ugliness itching under the skin, twisted hips and clenching muscles and a body so afraid to let go. Expecting the hurt. What if I don’t measure up? How can I be enough?
The football player asks Ryan to date him… and Ryan says no. Ryan asks us, “Why is it that when life presents us with exactly what we want, it’s not enough? Maybe I knew instinctively we weren’t right for each other, but there’s also a chance I didn’t think I was enough”.
Ryan isn’t saying that discrimination and ableism don’t exist in the dating world, but rather that there are also opportunities he let slip through his fingers, because he was too afraid to grasp onto them.
There was someone, who I wanted, my senior year in college. Who met me for coffee, and listened intently while I rambled about theatre, and curled up on my couch to take a break from writing their paper. But instead of leaning in, I panicked. I pushed them away because I didn’t think I was enough.
If there had been people like Ryan doing theatre, or shows like Special available when I was growing up, maybe it would have helped me realize sooner that being different doesn’t mean you are any less worthy. Maybe it wouldn’t be such an internal battle to convince myself that other people can think disability is sexy. This is the power of telling underrepresented stories. It’s why my art is driven by intersectional representation; why I focus on art that challenges the theatrical hierarchy and systemic oppression; why I need to tell stories that expose the rawness of little-talked-about human experiences and challenge the audience by redefining their sense of normal instead of spectaclizing an ‘other’ onstage. I know that art has the power to create change and redefine these internalized stereotypes. We just have to make it.
I have Cerebral Palsy, and my body is more than the scars on my skin or the cane that I use. So to take a page out of Ryan’s book, I guess the only question left to ask is: “Hi, are you single?”
Abbey Joan Burgess is a theatrical director and writer from Chicago, IL. When she’s not busy making art, she focuses her time in disability activism and advocacy, and will be furthering this passion by pursuing a one-year MSc in Global Health and Social Justice at King’s College London this fall.