Sexuality can be a difficult subject to talk about. Disability can be a difficult subject to talk about. When the two intersect, conversations are often halted before they even begin. But sometimes, a picture can convey more than a conversation ever could, a reality Robert Andy Coombs understands quite intimately. Robert is an MFA student at Yale University who uses photography to challenge the stereotypes that shape our misguided notions of sexuality and disability.
Banter: What are the most harmful misconceptions about people with disabilities and their sexuality?
RAC: I think the most common misconceptions are that we are not sexual beings and that we just lie there during sex. In fact, I think people with physical disabilities have a more ferocious sex drive because we don't get the same opportunities for sexual release as our able-bodied counterparts. I actually believe we are quite active in our sexual encounters, especially with our minds and how we communicate during sex. I have to dictate a lot of what I want to do to the other person by telling them which positions work best and so on.
Banter: It’s Pride. You’re gay. Generally speaking, do you think Pride Month and the LGBTQ+ movement is sufficiently inclusive of people with disabilities?
RAC: I just spent a week in NYC for this year's World Pride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. First and foremost, none of the events were accommodating for people with physical disabilities. Navigating these public events, especially the street gatherings with the physical metal barriers, it was extremely hard to figure out where to go and how to get through these barriers, especially when they interfere with curb cuts on sidewalks. Also, when it came to these events, some of the cops who were in charge of these checkpoints, were not knowledgeable on where to go and also not very helpful when it came to trying to get through the small openings.
Even politely asking them to widen the opening caused unnecessary attitude. Another thing would be the lack of spatial awareness that able-bodied people have.
Able-bodied people constantly wander around and don't look nor care about anyone else around them. They will cut me off, or simply give my friends dirty looks and attitudes when we politely asked them to move so that I can get through, some people straight up ignore us altogether. finally, able-bodied people will rarely interact with me. I see all of them embracing, laughing, kissing, while I rarely get a look in my direction. Even if I catch eyes with someone and a smile in their direction, I get dirty looks from them as if they are saying, "You're disgusting. Why are you looking at me?"
Banter: In the past, you’ve released a series of photographs titled “CripFag”. Some people think words like “cripple” and “faggot” are pejorative. What do you say to those people?
RAC: I think it's important to reclaim words. I am both of those things, and I am proud to be both of those things. It is an ongoing series that represents my sexual adventures and intimate encounters as a disabled gay male in today's society. I also like to push the envelope when it comes to people's comfort level. In order for change, I think it's my job to make people uncomfortable. We need to have a dialogue around these topics.
Banter: A lot of your work exhibits the human body in its most naked form. You’ve mentioned that some of your pictures have been censored and removed from social media. As an artist, do you think social media companies are too restrictive of creative expression?
RAC: Yes, I do believe that social media loves to censor art, specifically queer art. It is a common thing within the queer community where artists like me are being censored for the littlest things. Yet our straight counterparts are free to upload their erotic artwork with little to no repercussions, especially when it comes to celebrities and those with a large social media presence. If something of theirs gets censored, they just complain, and presto, their posts are up again.
Banter: Some people think that attraction to disability is a form of paraphilia. How does that make you feel?
RAC: People who are attracted to disabled people have an inner turmoil with themselves because of society's view that if someone is attracted or wants to have sexual encounters with a disabled person, then they are praying on the "poor weak disabled person." Which is completely absurd. That position assumes that disabled people aren't in control of their sexuality or sexual experiences, and, once again, that we couldn't possibly be sexual beings. It is wrongly assumed that we don't contribute anything to a sexual experience.