​Where queer and disabled intersect

Rejected by her family after coming out as gay, Patience Mufamadi-Mogashwa attempted suicide. She was diagnosed with depression.

She has also recently been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and frontal lobe epilepsy.

Although she initially “never really took being diagnosed with depression seriously”, she says the lack of family support made her illness worse.

Patience married Naledi Mufamadi-Mogashwa two years ago. She too has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

In addition to these disabilities and lack of acceptance from their families, the couple has had to face insensitive, prejudiced and uninformed medical practitioners.

“I have been to clinics where, after I said that I am in a relationship with a woman, I’d have nurses or doctors ask me: ‘But how does that work?’ ” says Naledi.

“This kind of thing has made us want to avoid seeing medical practitioners about certain things in our lives. It used to make my anxiety much worse, just the thought of having to tell this person how you have sex or whatever.”

She adds: “We have it good now, because we can go to private hospitals.”

Tish White, who identifies as non-binary, has been diagnosed with epilepsy, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When it comes to queerness, there’s already a lot of stigma and pathology. With mental disability there is also this overarching assumption that, first, you don’t experience desire and that, second, you have to be protected. This combination can be condescending at best and abusive at worst.”

Citing an example of this, White, who identifies as asexual and nonbinary, says: “I remember seeing a doctor in hospital once and he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I work with LGBTIQA+ people [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual and more].

“He asked me what the ‘A’ stands for and, when I told him, he said: ‘That’s a very serious disease.’

“Asexuality is so pathologised … it is not understood,” says White. “One has to remember that, although a common side-effect of mood stabilisers and antipsychotic agents is a drop in libido, being asexual has nothing to do with libido. If medical practitioners are not careful, they can play a very damaging and abusive role.”

The double discrimination queer people with disabilities face was highlighted in a report titled Disability, Sex Radicalism and Political Agency.

Written by Abby Wilkerson in 2002, the report used “queer and disability perspectives to argue that sexual agency is central to political agency”. It said a group’s experience of “sexually based harms and constraints on sexual agency” should be recognised as a “hallmark of oppression”.

The report found that “medical authority over sexuality” had the ability to shape sexual options and even their sense of themselves as sexual beings.

“Even ­— and perhaps especially — when this authority is used in benevolent ways, it accords the medical profession and related institutions an increasingly influential form of political power, which is too seldom acknowledged.”

Acknowledging this “form of political power” is discussed in a 2012 South African Medical Journal report, titled Sexuality, Disability and Human Rights: Strengthening Healthcare for Disabled People.

The report said healthcare practitioners “acted paternalistically towards disabled people, often deciding on their behalf what is in their best interests”. It acknowledged that “historically, health practitioners have underestimated the capacities of disabled people and from clinical encounters view disability as an illness, whereas in reality most disabled people are not ill”.

It added: “Health professionals have been seen as complicit in denying disabled people their rights to sexual expression and sexual choices, and in perpetuating myths about disabled people.

“On the one hand, disabled people have been viewed as asexual or as eternal children, and on the other they have been viewed as sexually rampant and unable to control sexual impulses.”

Eddie Ndopu is a queer and disabled persons’ rights activist.

“There is a desexualisation of people with disabilities; an imposition of the absence of wanting sexual pleasure. You are told that you should not want to feel desire because you’re disabled. It is quite insidious,” he says.

“If we look at the way in which we construct beauty and pleasure, in a very active way, we render disabled bodies undesirable and invisible. As a society, we need to start seeing sexuality in more complex ways. We need to re-educate ourselves.”

Offering up an opportunity for education (and re-education) was what the See It, Sign It, Know It, Share it project aimed to do. Headed up by John Meletse, a deaf person and gay rights activist, and Cheraé Halley, the project was spearheaded by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA).

Initiated in 2006, the project aimed to help reduce the level of HIV in the general deaf population in South Africa. It included the publication of an LGBTI-focused comic book titled Are Your Rights Respected? and video tutorials for deaf lesbians aimed at breaking stereotypes and providing steps for women to take if assaulted in any way.

“Homosexuality is extremely discriminated against in the deaf community,” says Halley. “What particularly came out of the peer education sessions we held was that these boxes that we have created — labels such as LGBTI — were not known in the deaf community. One participant, now a well-known deaf transgender woman, didn’t use or even know the word transgender. It was a revelation for this woman to discover that she is not gay but a trans woman.

“Even sign language was largely discriminatory. The sign language used for gay indicated anal sex. So people were going around using these kinds of signs that were actually discriminatory. For a gay person, seeing someone use that sign was offensive.”

Although the project yielded success, it ended in March last year, largely because of a lack of funding.

“People distance themselves from anything to do with disability,” says Ndopu, adding: “You know, in my previous relationships, I had to do a lot of educating. But this is not much different from everyday relationships. It’s the same shit. It’s all fucked and you’re just negotiating your way through the fuckery.

“But at this point in my life, I’m not compromising. I’m not diminishing my disability to accommodate someone’s sensibility. I’m an unapologetically disabled, black queer.”

This uncompromising stance is one Patience and Naledi have adopted.

“When I have to deal with a medical practitioner, a doctor or my psychologist, I always mention my wife. It is because of her that I am better today. She is my number one.”

As for her struggle with her family’s lack of acceptance, Patience says: “It would be nice if they acknowledged my relationship and sexual orientation but it doesn’t really matter that much anymore. I have someone who accepts me and loves me as I am. We support each other completely. And that’s so important. It’s all that matters to me.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa
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