Voices

My disability masks my queerness – and I prefer it this way

Image is portrait of a darkened, sketched silhouette of a figure with curly hair and wearing glasses, facing our left. A pink balloon floats above their head, the string passes through their left eye and goes from the back of their head, over their shoulder and meets the heart. The various chambers and blood vessels of the heart are drawn with several colours. A chrome yellow layer outlines the silhouette; the background is a deep violet with streaks of pink.

‘What do you tell people when they ask questions about why I’m not married at the age of 40?’ I recently asked my 78-year-old father, who lives in Delhi.

‘I tell them he has eye problems and is now legally blind,’ he responded.

I had suspected that both he and my mother have been using this non sequitur as a response to nosy people asking about my life, but I wanted to hear it directly from him. I know that my father makes a particularly pious face while saying this, slowly batting his eyelids and looking into the distance until the questioner falls silent and is forced to change the subject. My mother’s response is likely very similar, but might include a clouding over of her eyes, perhaps some wallowing. It is certain that both recover quickly — as soon as the topic of conversation changes.

Actually, this fool-proof dodge gets both of them out of situations where they might have to address what I told them fifteen years ago, when I came out to them as queer. My sexuality isn’t something they’re still fully comfortable with discussing, nor is it a subject they feel particularly articulate about.

It’s a dodge that they find effective on themselves, too. Before I was declared legally blind, their concern for my eye condition and impending disability seemed to outweigh any shame or fear that they might have felt about my sexuality.

I only understood the power of my disability to silence or circumvent questions about my sexuality and my fluid gender identity much later in my life.

My first job out of college, at the age of 22, was at a Fortune 50 consumer goods company in Mumbai. Here, I was subjected to intrusive questions about my private life, and felt that I was being mistreated for not being masculine in a way that society expected of me. Snide jokes were made at my expense by the Vice President of Sales, amidst the knowing smiles of an entirely male team who took pleasure in the joys of brotherhood. I avoided him after that and became fearful of meetings with his team.

When I reported his inappropriate behaviour to my own manager, a woman, she seemed more afraid of the repercussions of directly confronting him than feeling aggrieved or trying to protect me.

I was used to being bullied while growing up in a small town and going to an all-boys school, but this felt more hurtful because the bullies were middle-aged adult men with degrees from the best schools in India. I ended up having a nervous breakdown and secretly going for intense psychoanalysis after work, three times a week, for two years.

During my working years in India, I never told anyone about the congenital macular degeneration that affected both my eyes or that in high school this had led to successive retina detachments resulting in complete blindness in my right eye. The vision in the left eye was limited, but I was able to easily fake having ‘normal’ myopic sight.

I didn’t talk about my eye condition, because I feared it would marginalise me even further.

A black and white sketch of a person's face, eyes closed, head bowed, short hair forming a halo around their head.

Credit: Jannete Mark via Flickr Creative Commons, CC by 2.0.

 

At the time, I felt it made no impact on my work but in hindsight, I think it certainly impacted the way people perceived me at work. I would often miss people while walking in the passageways, or appear to be looking upwards when I faced people, which was detrimental in an image-conscious corporate world.

My burning motivation to attend graduate school in the US in 2005 came from wanting to escape working in corporate India, with its constant personal intrusions and patriarchy-determined work culture that penalised anyone in the fringes of what was considered mainstream and normal. I realised that my future in this milieu was bleak at best, and trying my luck elsewhere was perhaps my only chance to live a self-respecting life.

At the top American business school I attended, there was no overt bullying, but I quickly figured out what an important role gender played in everyday American life. I was just as much an oddball in the US as I had been in India, but this time my experience included additional challenges of learning a new culture, developing a new accent and drawing up a new ‘pitch’ (for how I would position my likeability to prospective employers).

Nothing I could have done before would have prepared me for the tough time I would face getting full-time employment after completing my degree.

During on-campus interview season, I practiced my answers to a bank of interview questions incessantly and ‘cracked’ all my case and phone screen interviews, but was relentlessly rejected after face-to-face meetings. Feedback from recruiters, if any, ranged from vague pronouncements like ‘You seem to lack confidence,’ to ‘You look like someone who may not be able to handle pressure.’ There is a reason why, even today, the unemployment rates for LGBT individuals in the United States is more than double the national average.

A well-meaning career coach at school sat me down and told me to ‘…act manly, you know, like John Wayne.’ Unaware of this cultural reference, I googled this bastion of American masculinity the moment I was alone.

He showed me the ‘proper’ way to shake one’s hands ‘like a man’, to square my shoulders, to look deeply and confidently into the eyes of my interviewer and to ‘compensate’ for my high-pitched voice that had failed to crack at puberty by speaking slowly and deliberately. In short he gave me a crash course on how to ‘butch’ up. It was a primer to the American Patriarchy and its institutionalised rules of masculinity.

Perhaps if my parental figures had not always viewed me through the lens of my disability (and its attendant biases), they would have actively instilled notions of masculinity in me when I was younger, and I would have been better equipped to handle the gendered world as an adult. The upshot was that my childhood disability afforded protections that allowed me to blossom into my more natural genderfluid state.

Back at school, I was actively dissuaded from revealing my eye disability with what seemed like practical advice, ‘Why talk about something that might go against you?’ or ‘No one will say anything to your face but they’ll secretly wonder if you can really do the job.’

 In the US as an adult, things are really not that much different.

Activism driven by the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) seems to have resulted in making employers more nervous about hiring employees with disabilities not just because of the job accommodations they need to offer on a mandatory basis but also because of the legal claims that might arise on firing disabled employees. It’s no wonder that unemployment rate for blind individuals in the US hovers at 70–75%. This number doesn’t include a number of employed blind individuals who are doing jobs well below their education and experience levels.

I did not disclose either my disability or my sexuality to any prospective employer. I force-trained my eyeballs (which in their natural state would appear to be looking above an interviewer’s head) to look at the interviewer’s chest so that it would look like I was looking right into their eyes, providing a sense of connection that was supposedly key to ‘successful hiring.’ I would speak slowly, with a quiet confidence, and be aware of how my body language affected people’s perceptions of me.

Carefully constructed roleplays during face-to-face interviews helped me get the last on-campus job.

During the next nine years of working in the US, I thrived at work, despite economic upheavals like the great recession of 2008–2009 and the resultant job uncertainty and restructuring. Once on the job I had no problems exceeding work expectations and also rotated into different roles, which allowed me to diversify my skill set.

Workplace sensitivity training by HR and an emphasis on creating an inclusive culture in the US workplace, caused by and large because of a slew of anti-workplace discrimination lawsuits in the decades before, as well as a gradual shift in cultural attitudes towards LGBT individuals in progressive cities and larger companies, shielded me from any outward discomfort that would have arisen due to my visible queerness.

To my relief, no one made fun of my ‘feminine’ voice or tried to mimic my hand gestures or made sidelong glances at others when I spoke.

In the mostly female-led and female-staffed teams I sought to work in, consciously, I felt included and appreciated outwardly on a day-to-day basis. The few situations where I was uncomfortable or wasn’t considered on an equal footing was once when I inadvertently ended up reporting to straight male manager (a former football star and patriarch to a family of six) or when I tried interviewing internally for roles with some straight male hiring managers where the so-called ‘fit’ (a euphemism for likability) showed up as a concern.

Thankfully because the company I worked at was so large, I had many options in terms of teams to choose from. Sometimes I felt frustrated about not moving up the corporate ranks for reasons that were similar to why I was not recruited in the first place, but for the most part I felt relieved that no one was actively trying to diminish me.

I stayed away from telling anyone about my progressive eye disability. I also avoided going to India, almost entirely ignoring family occasions, for fear of questions as to why I was not yet ‘settled.’

Then in March 2016 at age 37, I was diagnosed as being legally blind, based on a field vision test. My vision in the left eye had finally hit that threshold, a common occurrence after many years of macular degeneration.

Suddenly I didn’t have a choice but to publicly come out with my disability. I started taking white cane training lessons on weekends. Being publicly seen with the white cane, the ultimate disability outing device for low vision and blind people, made me feel painfully embarrassed at first. I was acutely aware of people’s pitying stares. When I carried the cane to work for the first time, some were surprised and others were in a state best described as a mix of awe and fear.

An interesting by-product of coming out with my disability was that straight men became incredibly gallant and friendly, offering help in crowded airports, giving up their seats in buses, volunteering to guide me through a dark auditorium, feeling no sense of discomfort while holding my hand in public and looking at me with a mixture of fear and respect that I had never experienced before.

It felt like I had usurped the unlikely privileges of a pregnant woman.

My queerness was no longer a focal point of my identity and became a non-issue.

A bearded person lying on their back, with their eyes closed, balances a small dog on their feet. The dog looks at them.

Credit: Gwendal Uguen, Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Could it be that sighted straight men have a morbid fear of turning blind? Perhaps it represents a forced loss of what it means to be masculine in a way that society expects. From being the ‘provider’ and ‘protector’ to apparently depending on others for simple tasks for the rest of one’s adult life (because this is how most people wrongly stereotype the experience of blindness) is their nightmare. I noticed that women who supported the patriarchy and distinct gender roles had exactly the same responses too.

This is how it came to be that my blindness became the focal part of my identity, both in India and the US, and took attention away from my queerness.

I have often wondered how other people with disabilities, who live with other marginalised identities experience this. I am sure these experiences vary massively according to disability and other factors, including not only gender and sexuality but also class, caste, religion and other locations.

For me, despite my initial discomfort with the white cane, this has proven to be liberating. Because of the convoluted calculus of cancelled perceptions, people who would shun me for my queerness don’t even notice it because of my disability.

This begs the question of how I feel about this invisibility granted to my queerness. It’s true that this really doesn’t allow for a full conversation about who I am, especially at a time when Pride and campaigns such as National Coming Out Month have contributed to the very slow but steady acceptance of queer people.

For me personally, my queerness was always private, that unfortunately became public because of its outward manifestations. I do find relief in it not being the central focus of my identity. I know that this is not everyone’s experience or preference, but I firmly believe that this is a choice that is entirely mine to make.

Amit Dhar works in tech product marketing and is based in Austin, Texas. He wrote several features for Indian publications while he was still a student, between 1997 and 2001. After a long hiatus, he is pursuing the writer’s life again, and is looking forward to publishing personal essays and stories. Write to him at [email protected] 

Featured image credit: Aurpera Studio