I was in New York last week for the amazing honor of being a finalist at the Lambda Literary Awards. The nomination, my first-ever trip to New York City, and sharing the company of so many gifted writers, were experiences that I will long remember. Little did I know the most important lesson I would come to learn had little to do with the awards and everything to do with humanity and real strength.
My nephew met Sandy and I at our hotel. He made the nine-hour bus trip to support me and I was thrilled to have him with us. Because we live so far apart, I rarely see Chris, and it’s rarer still that I have the opportunity to observe him simply going through his day. Chris suffered a spinal cord injury as a young child, and uses a wheelchair to get around. He’s luckier than some because he has the use of his upper body, but still the simple act of traversing a city block is a challenge that I had never realized until spending the day with him. I lost track of how many times the ‘cuts’ in the corner curbs, designed to be ramps for the disabled, were blocked by piles of garbage, parked cars, dumpsters, or even clueless, able-bodied people oblivious to his attempt to cross the street. I was appalled at the number of businesses in the city had only stairs to access them. It made me angry for him. On more than one occasion, I watched taxi drivers look directly at him, his arm raised to hail them, and they drove right by. They made my blood boil.
And then I realized something amazing. Chris was always smiling. The injustices I witnessed and reacted to were things that I guess are commonplace to him. He noticed my irritation and said, “It’s okay. I’m used to it. We just do the best we can; either figure out a way around the problem—or not.” From that moment, I began to watch in wonder at the positive way he interacted with the world around him. He always sought the bright side of everything, and it’s true what they say about getting what you give. I noticed that people around him responded to his positive outlook and beaming smile. I had always known Chris was an athlete and motivational speaker, but to see the way he interacts with everyone he meets was incredible.
At the Lammy’s, Chris made more than a few new friends. To think I had been worried he would be bored at an LGBT Literary event. Ha! Even there, he made easy connections. In his wise way he drew a correlation between the biases endured by LGBT people and those with disabilities. He related a story to a group of attendees about how he’s often told by religious people that they will pray for him. “Pray for me?” Chris said. “What they’re saying is that I’m damaged or unworthy.” How many of us have gotten a similar message because we’re queer? Chris instinctively understood the parallel. “We don’t need their prayers to be fixed, there’s nothing wrong with us.”
Then author Nicola Griffith took the stage to accept her Outstanding Mid-career Writer’s Award. Her words summed up what I had yet to analyze: “I’ve spent my whole writing life feeling like a stranger in a strange land: the foreigner, the cripple, the queer. But tonight this award says: You belong here. We value who you are and what you do. We see you, we know you, you’re one of us.” Chris squeezed my hand and I realized that was what has really bonded us. Although I’ll never know the difficulty he overcomes daily, being one of the different is the shared experience that makes us the same.
When you get right down to it, isn’t that true of everyone?