Wheels of Change: Dating for Gay Men with Disabilities

Aaron Anderson with his dog Buddy in his Uptown apartment.
Aaron Anderson with his dog Buddy in his Uptown apartment. (Peter Jones/MEDILL)

By Peter Jones

Peter Vishneski was 20 years old when a car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. The Oak Park native was attending college at St. Louis University but had to take a year off to recover. Four years later, Vishneski has adapted to life as a wheelchair user and plans to return to St. Louis to start a master’s program in the fall.

Aaron Anderson started experiencing numbness in his feet in May 2014, which then spread to his arms and chest. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition where the body’s immune system attacks its nerves. Now 40, Anderson has regained some upper body mobility, but his legs are paralyzed. He lives in Uptown with his dog Buddy.

Vishneski and Anderson comprise a unique demographic. Both are gay and had boyfriends when they became disabled. They are now single and looking to date as members of the LGBTQ community with physical disabilities, presenting them with challenges from either or both identities.

According to a 2012 research study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, “lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults showed higher prevalence of disability than did their heterosexual counterparts.” The study found that 26 percent of gay men and 40 percent of bisexual men had a disability, compared with 22 percent of heterosexual men.

Belonging to the LGBTQ community alone presents its own obstacles separate from having a disability. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.”

Vishneski and Anderson both cite apps and mutual friends as ways of meeting people to date. The two always disclose their physical disabilities through their profiles or photos.

Peter Vishneski sits in the living room of his family’s home in Oak Park.
Peter Vishneski sits in his family’s living room in Oak Park. (Peter Jones/MEDILL)

“When it’s online or through a dating app, my first line is ‘My legs are paralyzed but here’s some interesting things about me,’” Vishneski said. “Having a disability is an icebreaker.”

Anderson feels uncomfortable dating or interacting with other gay men because of their focus on physical appearances. A 2016 study published by the American Psychological Association found that, “gay men were more likely than heterosexual men to report dissatisfaction with their physical appearance (29 vs. 21 percent).”

“Gay men are so conditioned to everything has to be perfect,” Anderson said. “You have to have it all. [My body] is so not perfect. The gay men I know don’t know how to deal with it [my disability]. They pretend it’s not a thing or superficial acquaintances will just ignore me.”

Anderson said having a disability has exacerbated his insecurity about looks.

“Before I was self-conscious and focused on going to the gym,” Anderson said. “No matter how hard I go to the gym, my legs just aren’t going to work.”

Eric Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker and counselor for LGBTQ issues. A gay man himself, he says this obsession for gay men stems from a sense of shame.

“In order to escape rejection or ridicule, we basically are forced to put up appearances,” Johnson said.

On the other hand, Vishneski feels a greater sense of inclusion within the LGBTQ community because of his disability.

“The LGBT community is relatively receptive to people with disabilities,” he said. “People with disabilities are still a minority group, as LGBT people are. I think that is something that brings us together.”

In addition to body image and inclusivity, Vishneski and Anderson face another obstacle in their dating lives. Whether LGBTQ or not, members of the disability community often feel they are desexualized by society.

“I think a lot of that desexualization comes from other people’s perspectives on just not knowing how to approach sex with someone that is physically disabled because they haven’t had that experience,” Vishneski said.

This stigma against people with disabilities having sexual urges like their able-bodied counterparts has even led to a lack of education.

“Generally speaking, accurate information [about sexuality] is not readily available to the disabled community,” said Jae Jin Pak, self advocacy discipline coordinator at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Photo at top: Aaron Anderson with his dog Buddy in his Uptown apartment. (Peter Jones/MEDILL)