It’s funny how, as we grow and find out more about this world and how we fit in, our perspectives change. My values are such a pale version of what they once were, despite my adolescent proclamations that I’d never change. I’m still relatively liberal in my politics, but even that word tends to change in meaning as we learn how the world works. I see things in such a different light now the strengths and weaknesses of society. My father and I used to go round after round about such topics as the education system and the lack of discipline therein. My perspectives were drawn from a student’s point of view. Now I see more of what he was talking about as I grow further from the age-group of which I was once a part. I still don’t agree with a lot of his politics, but part of becoming an adult is learning to respect the opinions of others while holding fast to your own.
He and my mom spent some time teaching in Seoul, Korea, which, I think, changed a lot of his ethics seeing a very old culture and realizing how far we’ve come, yet how far we still have to go. I remember receiving a fax from him telling me all about a young man named Han, who’d been involved in a car accident that had rendered him physically handicapped, and how Korean society had pretty much written him off. Han is now an American citizen studying golf and learning to play one-handed. It’s an example of the accomplishments one can make if given a chance to learn to work with whatever complications he or she might be faced.
I took particular interest in Han’s story, as told to me by my dad, because of my own, similar experience. The summer of 1985 was tumultuous for my family, to say the least. In one infinitesimal second, everything changed for all of us. Sometimes things happen and there are no apparent reasons for them. They can’t be explained or undone. All we can do is move forward within those changed parameters. A man decided to drink and drive. And I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on my bike. My life was nearly taken from me, and I was to change the life of everyone I touched from then on. I spent the first weeks of that summer in a coma and the rest, through Thanksgiving, in recovery. Intense, inpatient physical rehabilitation. Isn’t that ironic! He’s the alcoholic and I’m the one who spends a summer in rehab.
I was eleven years old. And that, in itself, was a blessing. I was able to grow and develop through adolescence with my handicap, to which I attribute my easy adaptability now. I know what I can do. I know what I can’t do. And I know what I can try to do. We all have obstacles with which we deal every day. The limitations of my body (and there aren’t that many) are just my own personal obstacles. Don’t get me wrong. They’re still obstacles. It all focuses on my left extremities, nerve-damaged from the impact and injury to the rear, right cortex of my brain. The limp caused by my left leg is probably the most prominent, yet the least hindering. I know what it looks like, and it’s more severe when I’m tired, but I’m 100% mobile and if it looks weird to others then I suggest a lot of people look in the mirror before they step outside in the morning. My left hand isn’t able to open as well as my right and the fingers certainly aren’t as strong, but I can do enough with it to excel in life and be very good at my job. Probably the most debilitating of my residual injuries is my speech impairment, which doctors have labeled dysarthria, which is well, I don’t exactly know the specs of the condition. I just know, perfectionist that I am, that if there was one thing I could change about me it’d be to restore my voice. But looking at the big picture, my speech impairment has been the cause for many a humorous situation in past dealings with friends, as they’ve responded to what they thought I’d said with something which had absolutely nothing to do with what I’d actually said.
My best friend once said to me: “I am once again saddened at the ignorance and prejudice of the mass of society that perceives a [disability] negatively I interact with people with a fundamental belief that every individual has the capacity to achieve [his or her] greatest aspirations.” That’s one of the most beautiful, eloquent quotes I have heard to date. And it was one of the things that made me fall in love with him. Mostly because it was directed toward me after sharing with him the events of my accident nearly two decades ago, and the frustrations I’ve had to deal with during the course of my lifelong recovery since. And I guess the majority of my mature perspectives have arisen from living and growing with my disability.
No. I don’t like that word, regardless of its current political correctness. I think of myself as a Handicapped American. The word “disability” has, in my opinion, very negative connotations. It implies an inability to effectively function in society, and I am nothing if not a productive citizen. Even the term “physically challenged” doesn’t work, because of it’s very basic meaning. I mean, my brother, who is perfectly fine physically, is a single father raising a set of fraternal twins, and he’s more physically challenged every day than I am. So the term “handicapped” suits me just fine.
My family and I have gained, grown, and learned much from my accident and its aftermath, and have become a stronger family unit as a result, but I guess there’s always been this small twinge of guilt on my behalf for putting my family through the hell of that summer. But when I turned 22 and came out of the closet even though I knew long before then that I was gay I couldn’t help but think: what more could I put them through? Generally, being gay isn’t such a big deal in today’s society anymore, given the popularity of shows like Melrose Place and Will & Grace which portray and glamorize openly gay characters interacting with heterosexual friends as well as the growing number of shows with gay undertones like “Oz” on HBO. But couple the two minority labels (handicapped and homosexual) and you have a situation that more than doubles in difficulty unless, of course, you blow off both labels and anyone who has issues with either of them. I’ve taken great steps to integrate each part of me into a charismatic personality that works. Even so, the gay community has a tendency to be focused on youth, beauty, and perfection. I can’t walk into a bar without stares and automatic judgments being made on me. It’s one of the reasons I don’t revel in the gay lifestyle. Well, that and it just isn’t my style to begin with. I guess I used to believe that to be who I am I had to be part of the bars, the drinking, the loud music. And for a while I did jump into it, headfirst. But I think there’s a period in every young gay man’s life when he comes to a fork in the road.
If every gay man were being honest with himself and those around him, he’d tell you that he wants to find happiness with that one, perfect guy and live ever after in blissful monogamy. And had society been more accepting of us years ago, things might be different than they are today. But since homosexuals have been, until very recently, pretty much forced to conceal their true selves and confine their lifestyle to places which were designed specifically for them, the community has become a veritable underworld, as mysterious and culturally disreputable as the Mafia (read the book The Evening Crowd At Kirmser’s by Ricardo J. Brown). And the bitter irony of it is, it’s those people who, without knowing anything about it, choose to ignore and even deny its existence, and who claim to be experts and know everything about the “wrongness” of it it is they who condemn us by perpetuating the dark rumors of the seediness and corruptive atmosphere. Because of this condemnation and ostracism, many who belong to this tabooed culture have become what those on the outside have accused them of being, simply because they’ve had no other choice. And if you think about the parallels between being gay and being handicapped, you’ll start to understand me a little bit more, and why I work so hard to render both aspects nonexistent, perhaps ironically, by showing them off as badges I wear.
I used to find it so contemptible this lifestyle, and those who had become a part of it. Night after night I saw the same men, mostly middle-aged to older, enter the arena of the bar. These men had been players in their prime. And as a result, they’d fallen prey to the vacuum. And that’s really what my world is: a vacuum. And as much as I may dispute my part in that world, there are moments when the call of each community sings in my heart and I can’t help but feel proud of my lifestyle. In a twisted way, I feel fortunate to have grown up in this era of deadly STDs such as the HIV virus and AIDS. My generation has been conditioned to be more careful. To date more and sleep around less. Casual sex still occurs more in this community than in the socially accepted straight community, but condoms and other prophylactics have become as en vogue as abstinence. It’s sad that it took a rancorous plague like AIDS to force us to come to our senses, but that’s the way life goes. Still, I’ve worked hard to build up and maintain my own reputation, such as it is. I felt the pull of the black hole early on and looking back I see how close I came to falling into its unfathomable darkness. But I had a good enough head on my shoulders to resist it. Not that there’s anything wrong with living that way, if it fits who you are. I just didn’t feel like it fit me. And I’ve never regretted whatever decision I made that brought me to where I am now.
But, like I said, the older I get, the more I find out how life works. And since moving to Minneapolis over a year ago, I’ve pretty much figured out that I can be me without attaching any labels to myself. The open-mindedness of this city is still mind-boggling. I can walk, hand in hand, with my boyfriend here and not feel persecuted simply by existing. There’s a niche for us all here, and those niches form together to make one big group, collectively called the community. A place where we can be ourselves and fit in. Our individuality is the trait that conforms all of us. “Minnesota Nice” is laughed at but there’s a lot of truth to the term. I’ve found only warm, friendly people during my time here willing
to take time and listen, learning from me, teaching to me, talking with me. The friends I’ve made have accepted me,
not because of or in spite of my sexuality or my handicap, but because I’m me! And those friends are the greatest thing
in the world to me. Because I’m guarded with myself and wary of rejection and discrimination, I don’t give my
friendship easily so friendships with me are true. My mom always told me that, of my brothers and me, when I fall
in love it’d be the real thing. And she was right. The man that I’m with now is completely flipped for me, both because
of and despite my physical handicap.
Still, life is lived in your head. It’s all about your attitude. The power to be happy is within us, no matter what our physical or financial state is. To find true peace, we need look no further than within our own selves. That’s my secret. I not only value myself, but I think I’m a valuable person to know. And I think everybody has a value in this world. I try to treat anyone with the value they might bring to my life, but it’s up to each individual to carry their value with them. Life’s a trip, so pack your value.
Derek VanderVeen is employed full-time, and is an aspiring author with an educational background in psychology.