Kirk Cameron’s Acne: Accepting My Disabled Self in an Ableist World

I gave a version of this talk during a panel entitled “Community, Reconciliation, and Healing” during the Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Conference at Guilford College on May 6, 2015 under the title of “Learning to be Whole: Finding my Sexuality as a Person with a Disability in an Ableist World”. I have edited the manuscript and retitled it.

I feel that my journey in realizing my sexuality in an ableist world is paralleled to my spiritual journey. As a campus minister, these two journeys are so intertwined. I find that I cannot talk about one journey without the other.

When I was young, probably 8 or 9, I remember at least once crying at night and asking my mother why me? What did I do wrong to deserve a speech impediment? Why did God do this to me? I didn’t feel whole.

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This is what I imagine when I think of a perfect Jesus and the first image shown when I did a Google search for “Perfect Jesus”. (Source)

Since a young age, I have had a difficult relationship with God. For a long time I tried to disassociate myself from Christianity because growing up on the northern edge of the Bible Belt there was a lot of talk about God, Christ, and perfection, as if perfection was the third part of the Trinity instead of the Holy Spirit. I often wondered: Why should I follow a God who curse me with a disability?

Since a young age, I treated my speech impediment as not part of my whole self. In essence, it was a detriment that kept me from succeeding in life. Part of this thinking was due to being misdiagnosed early in life. I remember, throughout elementary school, doctors thinking that I would grow out of my speech impediment by high school. I could not wait until high school.

Around this same time, I remember seeing a Full House episode, where two teenage girl characters, DJ and Kimmy, were talking about one of DJ’s male cousins, Steve, coming back to visit. Steve was supposed to be “nerdy-looking” or as Kimmy called him a “Geek-burger with cheese”: Glasses, braces, and acne.

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Isn’t he a hottie? (Source)

Yet, when they open the door, he had no glasses, nice teeth and clear skin. The two girls found him to be hot. (The actor playing the cousin was Kirk Cameron, who in the late 1980s was considered to be one of the more attractive young male actors.)

The two teenage girls asked what happened to him. He explained that he now had contacts, the braces came off and the acne cleared up.

For years afterwards, I remembered the scene incorrectly. In my mind, Steve had said:One morning I woke up and bam the acne was gone.”

After watching that episode and having the wrong recollection of the scene, I dreamt that: One day I would awake and find that my speech impediment was totally gone, like Kirk Cameron’s acne.

I wished for that day to come for years! Once that day happened, I would be more accepted and girls would finally find me attractive.

But that day never came. I felt disappointed as high school went by and my speech impediment continued to stay, like unwanted acne.

I spent a lot of my teenage years and my twenties feeling alone and just wanting to be loved. Even though I had a loving family and a huge network of friends, I felt that I just needed romantic love to finally feel whole. But for the most part I didn’t have any luck with dating in college or right after.

Yet when my relationship with my now-wife, Jenn, started over four years ago, I quickly realized that, nope, romantic relationships were not the magical cure to the depth of self-hate I had. I still did not feel whole.

Soon after I started dating Jenn, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Over the years, I had felt called by God to ministry in different ways. Then, after college, I felt a call to seminary and I resisted the call for years, but I finally caved in and applied.

Throughout seminary I wrestled with my anger towards God and why God chose to give me a disability or at least why God did not prevent it. At one point in seminary, I started to view my disability as a gift as an attempt to quickly reconcile my anger with God with my calling to ministry in God’s name. But one of my field education supervisors called me out on using that kind of messed-up theology.

After that intervention with my supervisor, I was again at a loss for how to reconcile my anger with God and I realized it would be a difficult path.

Finally, in my last semester of seminary, I took Sexuality and the Christian Body. Through the class, I had finally able to deal with my anger with God about my disability and actually confront my feelings of feeling lonely and abandoned by God

Through the class I was able to admit that, yes my disability was not a gift, it felt more like a burden, but also I learned that I was not as alone as I once thought.

In reading Disabled God, by Nancy Eisland, for my final paper in the class, I realized that the Savior that I had been worshipped was differently-abled too. In her book, Eisland writes: “The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin… Our bodies… are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”

In the Gospel of John, there is a scene after the Crucifixion when Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. In the scene, all of the apostles, besides Thomas, have encountered him after the Resurrection. But Thomas does not believe the others and Thomas says he will only believe when he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touch the wounds that Jesus had sustained on the cross.

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Jesus appears to Thomas and allows him to touch his wounds. This scene is known as Doubting Thomas and this story is mainly used to preach about the virtues of believing without seeing.

Yet, rereading this through the lens of Eisland’s book, I see this scene in a completely different way. Through this scene, I realized my conception of a perfect God, a perfect Jesus, was false. Christ could have come back perfect but He didn’t. Instead He bore the wounds He had suffered up on the Cross. He came back differently-abled.

My disability is not a hindrance to the Kingdom of God but just a part of my whole being, just as God created. I am indeed made in the image of God, as it is written in Genesis 1.

For years, I have let my sexuality and my spirituality be defined in an ableist world where perfection is the measure, but not anymore. My disability is not like Kirk Cameron’s acne. My speech impediment is part of me, not an unwanted inconvenience that will clear up one day.

I am disabled and both God and Jenn love me just as I am!

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A Personal Journey in Acknowledging my Ableism… (and finding love)

In my last blog post “I’m the Man”, I began to unpack how Greg and I strive for a partnership built on equality, looking specifically at how we address sexism and patriarchy in our relationship. I referenced towards the end of the post that part of building an equal partnership is being aware of other systems of oppression impacting our relationships including ableism. Greg was born with a disability that impacted his speech and fine motor skills and he has faced discrimination and oppression as a person with a disability throughout his life. I am (currently) an able bodied person.

In that last post, I made it sound as if it were so simple and easy for me to address my ableism when in reality, it has been and continues to be a difficult and ongoing journey. In fact, acknowledging my ableism was a key step in the story of Greg and I coming together.

See Greg and I are were friends 1½ years before we started dating. Greg pursued me within 4 months of us meeting with homemade pumpkin pie and drinks at a bar and a night of cooking. And while I can easily reference our differing opinions about living in an urban vs. rural setting or my commitment issues and fear of being in a serious relationship as the reasons for not dating when first pursued – all of which is part of the truth – I often omit from the tale my own prejudices towards people with disabilities. It took me confronting my ableism before I took Greg seriously as a dating partner.

A photo from SOJUCA the event that brought Greg and I together as friends

Social Justice Camp (SOJUCA) DC in Jan. 2010, the event that brought Greg and I together as friends as we helped in the organizing.

In the fall of 2010 (a year after meeting Greg), I started my Masters of Social Work and took a diversity class with Dr. Michael Sheridan. In this course, we looked at different systems of oppression and examined our status within each system – whether in the privileged/agent group or oppressed/targeted group. Early on, we were encouraged to visit Project Implicit  which has tests for measuring implicit thoughts/attitudes towards groups. When I took the test that measured implicit thoughts/attitudes on disability/ability, I was shocked at the result – a strong implicit preference for abled bodied persons if memory serves. This realization led to a cascade of reading, self-reflection, research and writing that semester to challenge my implicit attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice towards people with disabilities.

I share below a couple (of many) of the attitudes/prejudices/stereotypes I examined.

Disability as an Unbearable Condition / The Devaluing of Persons with Disabilities

It’s common to think or say in reaction to people with disabilities, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, “I am blessed” or “I am lucky”. Within these statements, an implicit value is placed upon the person with the disability as a person less than. These statements say “I’m lucky not to be like that”  with that being an undesirable/unbearable conditionIn writing this blog, I re-read one of my personal learning journals from my diversity class that reveals me realizing my own devaluing of persons with disabilities. (Note this one paragraph could probably spur it’s own series of posts and makes me cringe today but here goes):

“I remember thinking when I was a kid how awful it would be to have a disability, particularly one that impacted cognitive abilities. This thought was often followed by a worry that God/Fate would punish me for these thoughts by giving me a child with disabilities if I ever had kids. When I was a child, I put a lot of meaning into being book smart as doing good in school was a means for affirmation and attention and really came to define who I was. I imagine I found it hard to believe that life could be just as rich and meaningful for persons that have disabilities.”

These attitudes engender at best feelings of pity in the abled bodied person and at worst fear, dislike, and scorn. And for the person with the disability, being confronted with these attitudes can potentially make one feel shame, guilt, and a lack of confidence. 

Greg powerfully said in a sermon“People with disabilities are not here for abled body people to feel blessed or feel lucky. We are not here for others’ self-realizations.”

Persons with Disabilities as Non-Sexual

A common myth about people with disabilities is that they are non-sexual. In the mainstream media, there is little representation of people with disabilities engaging in dating, relationships, or sex. A recent article in the Atlantic titled “Disabled and Fighting for a Sex Life” includes a quote from actor Matt Fraser stating: “When you are disabled the two things people think you can’t do are fight and have sex … so I’ve got a black belt and I’m really good at shagging. The physical pleasures in life are really important to me.”

Take this attitude to another level and you get a perspective that sex with a person with a disability is gross or disgusting. And, an even darker version of this attitude is the idea that people with disabilities shouldn’t engage in sex and procreate which is of course an attitude that fueled eugenics in the 20th century.

Creating fertile ground. These attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices were not fertile ground for attraction or love. I’m not sure I ever consciously thought to myself, “Sure. Greg’s nice but I pity him and am a little weirded out by him because he’s got a speech impediment. And is he really shagg-able with his disability?”. But it wasn’t until I confronted my ableism and the implicit attitudes/beliefs/prejudices/stereotypes that came with it that I took Greg seriously as a suitor. And so one day, after I had also worked through the before mentioned commitment issues, the ground was fertile for me to say yes to Greg, let’s give this relationship a try.

Greg and I the day we started dating

Greg and I the day we started dating

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My partner Greg has several blog posts and sermons relating to his experiences with a disability that are linked to below: