Impact Feature Issue on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities
A Witness to Courage
"Can we talk to you after the conference?" Public speakers hate this question. It means that someone wants us to sit and do a free consultation after we have spent an entire day in front of an audience. Few seem to realize that public speaking takes a lot of energy and at the end of a day all that is wanted is beer and bed.
Here my initial assessment was wrong. A small group of very nervous people gathered to ask me what I was doing the next day. They knew, they said, that I was staying over Saturday and flying home Sunday, and they wanted to take me somewhere. Right after presenting "pro-sex attitudes" in a state wherein agencies had an almost universally hostile practise towards sexuality and disability, they wanted me to get in a car with a bunch of them. I said that I was uncomfortable with the idea as they were all strangers to me and I could tell by their behaviour that something was up. They said they were just excited and really wanted me to come. To their credit they didn't pressure me, and just said, "We'll come by tomorrow morning at 10:00. If you decide then you don't want to come we will just drop it." I agreed.
The next morning I went outside the hotel to watch for them. When they drove up in a vehicle with an agency logo on it, I made my decision. I'd go. It seemed to me that it would take an awful lot of coordination to arrange for an agency car to abduct a harmless Canadian. I got in and we drove for almost an hour. I enjoyed chatting with them and I felt buoyed along by their excitement. We crossed a state line and I asked why we were leaving the state. They said, "Just wait."
We entered a smallish city and in moments were pulling into the parking lot of a Unitarian church. I went in with them and saw several people, many who had been at the conference the day before, rushing about decorating the sanctuary. Clearly I had come to a church where a wedding was about to be performed. I sat near the back with the group with whom I had travelled. When the music began the small crowd of about 50 hushed, an air of expectancy – no, reverence – filled the room. Then into the sanctuary, into the house of God, came a man with a developmental disability. He walked slowly, his gait that of one who had once worn the shackles of institutionalization. He looked to be near 60. I smiled, tears formed in my eyes. When I see people with disabilities marry, I recognize that the march to the altar to stand before God is long. They must march past societal bigotry, family disapproval, religious intolerance, and agency dictates. He finally reached the altar. The music stopped. Silence. The music began again.
From the other door came another man. He too was older. He too walked as if the chains that bound his feet had only recently vanished. I looked at the woman next to me and said, "What's going on!?!" She smiled and said, "They are finally getting married." She continued by telling me that they had met as young men in the state institution and had been caught together "engaging in sexual behaviours" (social worker for "making love"). They had endured years of punishment and separation. A staff member heard the story from one of the men and diligently set out to reunite them. When she found the other man living in a group home operated by the same agency in a different town, nothing could stop her. They would live together if they chose.
When they were reunited, they decided that they would not live together, they would not have sex, until they were married. They had been punished so often, told continuously that they were dirty, sinful, hateful creatures, that they needed to get married "like other people." When they were told that they couldn't get married, they cried but had seemed prepared for that answer. The staff member wouldn't let go of it. She visited a Unitarian church in their town and worked with the minister to find a church out of state where a ceremony could be performed. She felt that this would be far enough removed to protect the sanctity of the ceremony and provide the secrecy that was needed. Everyone there had pledged support and secrecy.
The two were informed that a marriage could be performed. The staff told them that while God might smile on the marriage, the government wouldn't. It would be a holy ceremony, not a legal contract. That was fine with them, they said, seemingly unconcerned that we in the modern world had switched allegiances and granted governments more power than God ever wanted.
"See the fellow on the right?" I nodded while noting the man who had walked in first. "When he was in the institution, he was castrated. They thought that would stop him from being homosexual and wanting to see his boyfriend. Can you believe it?" I can and did, having worked with two women with disabilities who had been clitorectomized to stop them from being sexual. How we hate the hearts of people with disabilities! We have caged their bodies, disfigured their genitals, drugged their thoughts. But we have never, ever captured their hearts or controlled their spirits. What other group of people could walk from institution hallways to community streets with so little difficulty? What other person could go from the sacrificial table of medicine to the altar of God and still take the hand of a man he had loved for decades?
The two men stood and pledged their lives to each other. They stood on holy ground and each professed, through their pledge, a faith in each other. Seeing the beauty and steadfastness of human love and the power of the human spirit, I wept. And, I believe, so did God.
Reprinted from "Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting Diversity" (Summer 1996), published by the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.