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.
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.
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.
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!