When you have a disability that doesn’t require you use noticeable assistive devices such as wheelchairs or crutches, you are essentially invisible. Chronic pain, mental illnesses, diabetes; these are just a few examples of invisible disabilties. Interestingly, invisible disabilities come with a lot of the same issues as being LGBT.
Since people can’t tell what you are at first glance, they’re more likely to show their ignorance, making insensitive statements and assuming things that aren’t true. Below are the five most common assumptions people make about invisibly disabled and queer folk, and what makes them so obnoxious.
“You don’t look like I would expect!”
People with disabilities look overwhelmingly like all different kinds of people, and queer people look overwhelmingly like all different kinds of people too. The idea that one can always spot a trans person is wrong, because even if you think you’ve noticed every trans woman that you’ve ever seen, you have a skewed preconception of what trans women look like to base your identification on.
On the disability front, there are more reasons to use a disabled parking space than just being in a wheelchair. Similarly, despite the common assumption that only children have autism, there are plenty of autistic people who aren’t kids.
All sorts of LGBT and disabled people face stereotypes, but the level changes depending on how much you fit a stereotype. For example, a butch lesbian gets a different amount of blowback than a femme lesbian because mainstream society assumes that all lesbians are butch and you can’t possibly be a femme lesbian. The cause? Mainstream society perceives female-attraction as “a masculine thing”; thus, by those standards lesbians have to be masculine.
“Your struggle isn’t real!”
Invisible groups frequently have their needs and causes made invisible too by people who declare them as illegitimate or unreal. Trans women of color are murdered at an astonishing rate for the crime of existing, and yet this is trumped by gay marriage as the most visible LGBT issue in the media.
There’s a reason for the lack of attention paid to trans, bi, genderqueer and neuroqueer issues (that is, issues of people whose brains and cognitive abilities differ from medical “norms”). And it’s not just attributable to invisibility.
Some people feel that not being visible as queer or disabled actually gives one a certain privilege. They’ll insist, for example, that bisexual people actually have it as easy as straight people because bisexuals have “heterosexual privilege”. Since bisexual people can appear to be straight, they argue, bisexuals receive the same benefits that straight people do like social acceptance for who you are, the ability to be open about your relationships, and freedom from workplace discrimination. This leads to some folks accusing bisexual people of being inherently homophobic — since they get the same privileges as straight people, they must also be part of the same oppressive system that favors straight people too.
Thus, the real struggles faced by invisible demographics get pushed aside to focus on how their mere existence makes it harder for other more visible faces (something I discussed in my article about “white feminism”). In the past, this has been taken to the extreme of the HRC demanding that trans flags be removed from a gay marriage protest because it supposedly distracted from the larger issue.
When it comes to disabilities, there’s even the concept of a hierarchy of disability, which essentially says that some disabilities are more valid and acceptable than others, with people like army veterans at the top and people with mental illnesses at the bottom. It ends up ranking who has the most socially acceptable and thus “most legitimate” struggle.
The irony is that the more marginalized you are in the LGBT community or the further down you are on the hierarchy of disability, the more struggles you’re likely face due to not having a visible public face fighting for your rights. It’s a sad irony, but unfortunately many people don’t see that being told that your struggles aren’t real is a struggle in itself.
“Everyone has that these days”
It’s a pretty common stereotype that some types of queerness and disability are incredibly common. It happens because of misconceptions of what certain disabilities entail, such as the idea that ADHD is just being a little hyper (like most kids are) or that anyone could date any gender if they really tried.
Well, those things aren’t true. If everyone really had ADHD and everyone really was bisexual, we wouldn’t need to have names for those things. It would just be called normal and we’d all get on with our lives.
In addition to being untrue, it also sets the stage for worse misunderstandings. After all, what’s the point of Bi Pride if everyone’s bisexual? What’s the point of medicating for ADHD if everyone has ADHD? When people claim that everyone faces a certain issue, they invalidate the experiences of those who really do face it. It may seem like a little thing, but it can really hurt when people start seeing your pride or personal medical needs as illegitimate.
“You have it easy because people can’t tell.”
Ah, passing privilege. It’s actually kind of nice to go outside and not have people tell you that genderqueers are freaks or that autism would end if folks just stopped vaccinating against terrifyingly lethal diseases. People might not say those things if they know you’re an austistic genderqueer, but then again, maybe they already say those things around you because you look “normal” to them.
Hence the sucky side of passing privilege. When you’re disabled but pass as abled, you can lose out on services such as note takers in school for ADHD people or places to sit down at work if you’re unable to stand for long periods. Fighting for these services often means that you have to out yourself to get them. It’s a catch-22 that can lead to discrimination at the places where you out yourself.
When you’re bisexual but pass as straight because you’re dating a different gender than your own, you have to deal with being treated like something that you’re not. Folks end up treating you like a straight person who has never known the pain of homophobia.
When you pass, people start wondering if you’re “really” bisexual or disabled or whatever, and whether you’re just faking it. It might save you from hate, but passing as something you’re not can hurt, because you go through the real pain of being what you are every day without people believing it’s real. You’ve worked hard to come to terms with what you are just to have all of that mean nothing because you pass as “normal.” Maybe you pass, but it hardly feels like a privilege.
“It’s all in your head”
It’s perfectly logical to make up being a part of a discriminated-against demographic, right? Totally! It’s awesome getting special treatment for being disabled or extra attention for being bisexual. Just think of the disability benefits you can get from the government! Never mind that the attention can easily become dangerous, that people sometimes become violent when they find out you’re queer, and that it’s quite difficult to get disability benefits. It makes total sense to fake disability or queerness, at least in the minds of people who aren’t invisibly disabled or queer.
People with depression, for instance, deal with a lot of nonsense in the “you’re just faking it” vein. God forbid anyone ever see them smiling or laughing, because being depressed means being a somber ball of awful all of the time — clearly, smiling depressed people are just faking their mental disability.
It’s an argument that makes tons of sense, until you realize that that’s complete bullshit and not really how depression works. Genderqueer people deal with this too but in an odd way because people don’t always have preconceived notions about genderqueerness. More often folks will think that it doesn’t exist or that it’s just a fad.
All in all, it’s total nonsense. We should believe people about their experiences rather than tell them that they’re faking something that’s usually much harder to experience than we realize.
Yes, there’re always the chance that some unscrupulous person is faking it. But those rare instances don’t make it okay to accuse others of lying about their lives. After all, there’s a chance that you’ll invalidate someone’s actual experience, and that’s much shittier than whatever validation you might get from being right about them lying.
(Featured image by Ehsan Khakbaz H.)
Previously published March 29, 2015.