BEING BLIND & GAY

Robert Feinstein

I was born on December 1, 1949. I was three months early, and only weighed 1lb. 14oz. I was put into an incubator and, due to the amount of oxygen I was given, my retina cells developed too quickly, and became so damaged that by the time I was brought home from the hospital, I was totally blind. I of course have never seen and have absolutely no visual memories at all.

My parents decided that they would try to treat me as normally as possible, and although I often heard the word "blind" I did not really know what it meant. I was guided by my mother, or by my aunts. I was always made a fuss over because people said I was such a "cute little boy". Many lamented my fate, but I was carefree and happy. When I was about 5 years old, I began to realize that I was different from other children. I heard children running around without being guided. Kids talked about coloring, drawing, and writing with a pencil. When I asked my mother, she told me that I would go to school and learn to read and write braille. I knew I was different, but I of course did not understand the ramifications of my blindness, and took all in stride.

ALL I COULD DO
was listen to the sound of the chalk

When I was about 8 years old, I began to realize that other kids made friends more easily than I did. I went to a school far from my home, and was taken there by bus. There were other blind kids at the school, and I noticed that we all stayed together. When we did go to classes with the sighted kids, we were treated kindly, but were not fully included. I would sit for hours listening to kids read out loud from print books, or hear the teacher writing on the blackboard. I loved the sound the chalk made against the blackboard, but I realized that others could read what was being written, and all I could do was listen to the sound of the chalk.

I will skip a few years and talk about when I was 14 years old, and in the ninth grade. I began to be teased by the other blind kids, because I mostly wanted to play with the girls, and did not want to participate in the rough games the blind boys played. They would play a kind of hockey with a large wardrobe and a crushed cigarette box. Where the wardrome touched the wall on each side were the goals and the cigarette box was the puck. The blind kids played another game called taxi, where one of us would sit in a chair and the other would move the chair around the room very quickly. Because we were blind, the person pushing the chair would often bang into things.

I was afraid of these games because I was always overweight, slow, clumsy, and I usually wound up getting badly hurt. I much preferred sitting and reading a braille book, or talking to the girls. I even learned to bounce a ball, and learned some of the rhymes the girls would say while playing ball or jumping rope. I was teased unmercifully, and soon, even the girls got tired of playing with me, and so I mostly stayed alone, reading, and listening to what was going on around me.

I knew that I was very different from the other kids, and I felt horribly lonely. I didn't fit in with the sighted kids, but what was worse, I didn't fit in with the blind kids, either. All the boys were interested in sports and rough games. I wasn't. Some talked about girls, but because I was blind from birth, and because nobody ever talked to me about sex, I had no idea what was being discussed. I am ashamed to say that I didn't even know the difference between girls and boys, except that girls were usually nicer to me, and yet, I felt a strange feeling when hugging a male student.

When I was 15 years old, a girl explained to me how babies were born. "You're very stupid!" Harriet told me. "Your father stuck his penis in your mother's hole, and that's how you were born. Don't you know anything?" I wanted to ask more questions. Where was this hole? What was all this talk about "hard-ons" and "erections?" But I knew that if I admitted how little I knew, I'd be laughed at, so I kept quiet. I could not ask my mother. She never talked about such things, and I knew she would only be upset and tell me not to ask so many questions. So, I ordered books in braille about sex, and read them, and had a vague understanding.

What is surprising, and very important, is that I began to realize that I was attracted to other boys and men, and not to women. I realized that I had a strange feeling when close to people of my own sex that I did not have when I was with women. I somehow knew that this was not the way it should be, and never mentioned it to anyone.

I TRIED DATING GIRLS,
but I knew it wasn't working.

I will now talk about my college years. I spent 4 years at a well known college in Ohio. I had finally figured out that I was gay. I wondered if there were other gay students, but did not know how to meet them. I tried dating girls, and forced myself to kiss them, but I knew it wasn't working. I wanted to talk about my feelings, but had nobody to express them to. When I was a senior, some students who I had heard were gay decided to start a discussion group. I wanted to go, but was afraid to ask for directions to where the discussion was taking place, because I did not want others on campus to realize I was gay.

To understand my dilemma, it is important to realize that I was not able to fit in with the other students because of my blindness. I had some casual friends, but I was not part of any social group. I spent much time alone, or being read to by fellow students. I therefore was very uneasy about admitting that I was gay, because I was afraid I would be even more unaccepted than I already was. I felt that I had enough strikes against me by virtue of the fact that I was blind and overweight. I didn't have the courage to add another problem to the list. During my four years at college, I never had any gay friends, and never even knew that one of my roommates was gay. I kept all of my feelings inside.

Now, I must talk about my two years in France. I went to France through an American program, and I stayed there for two years. I arrived in France after my graduation from college. I met two blind guys who were gay. One was a fellow from Algeria, and the other was a blind French guy. I had my first experiences with them. I wanted desperately to meet other French gay people, but was afraid to ask my classmates. I had no access to printed materials, and no way to try to meet French gay people.

I WAS READY
to conquer the gay world!

When I returned from France, I got a job working with non-English speaking kids who needed help with reading and speaking English. I badgered my parents until they helped me get my own little studio apartment. I still live in this apartment, as rents are very high in NYC, and I am presently on a fixed income because I took an early retirement. But getting back to my story: when I finally had my apartment, I decided I was going to try to meet gay people. I was now free from my parent's restrictions, and I had a guide dog. So, I was ready to conquer the gay world! But how could I find information? I had nobody to read printed material to me dealing with gay subjects. I had no way to know who was gay and who wasn't. I wondered how sighted gay people met. I finally called a gay hotline and was given the names and addresses of some gay bars. I was told about a group called "mirth and girth" which is for overweight gay people. (In Montreal, I think the group exists under the name Club Panda.)

I remember my excitement when my guide dog and I set out for our first gay bar. We got off the subway at Christopher Street, a street in the heart of Greenwich Village. I asked for directions to the bar, but once inside, I realized that this wasn't going to work! First of all, the noise level was incredible! I couldn't hear a thing. Second of all, because I couldn't see, I had no idea what was going on around me. I was basically rendered deaf and blind because of the noise level. I sat at the bar, and felt worse and worse as time went by. Nobody tried to talk to me. I finally got the courage to tap the person next to me, and to try to strike up a conversation. The guy was polite, but after talking with him a while, he told me he was with someone. I realized that I had no way of knowing who was alone, who was with someone, and what was going on. I went to other bars on subsequent days, but had no better luck.

I began to realize that being blind was proving to be a barrier in my meeting gay people. I decided that, perhaps the problem was the fact that I was overweight. So, I decided to go to a Mirth and Girth dance. Surely, there would be people much heavier than I was, and surely I'd have a better time. Well, unfortunately, the same thing happened. I was shown to a seat, and there I stayed. Nobody came over to talk to me. I finally left and vowed I would never try to meet gay people in this way. It wasn't working, and I was feeling worse about being blind and being gay than I ever had in the past.

I AM DISAPPOINTED
with the gay community.

What is my situation now? Well, I am 47 years old. I have very few gay friends. I have strong opinions, though. Basically, I am disappointed with the gay community, at least in NYC. I had thought that, because of the horrors of AIDS, gay people would be sensitized to the needs of others. But this hasn't been my experience. It seems that the gay community is ready to help those who become blind from AIDS. They reach out to those suffering from AIDS. This is how it should be. But this compassion does not extend to those of us who are gay and blind for other reasons. What I am about to say may sound harsh, but it seems to me that if you are a person with AIDS, you gain a certain respect, even a certain prestige in the gay community. Organizations are set up to help meet your needs. You are included, and you are helped. But if you are just an ordinary gay person with a disability, you don't have that certain "mystique". You are made to feel like you do not belong.

I know that many people with HIV suffer visual problems, and I would like to see more communication between people born blind like me and those who went blind later in life from HIV complications. I think we could teach each other a great deal, and broaden each other's horizons. For example, I know what it is like living with blindness, but these people had careers and lived a full gay lives, something that has been denied to me. I now have one friend who is losing his sight. He was a costume designer, and he has been a wonderful resource for me; he says I have helped him, too, so it has grown into a great friendship. I wish gay organizations would open their hearts to those of us who are not blind from AIDS or HIV, but who who do need help with readers and companionship.

Imagine walking down a heavily gay populated street. You see a blind person with his guide dog. You probably don't stop to ask yourself, "Is he gay? Could he want to talk? Would we have something in common?"

I WANT TO HAVE a few buddies
I can feel a closeness to.

I hope that I have been able to give you a glimpse of what life is like for me as a totally blind and gay man. I also hope that I will make some new friends and meet some people who will accept me for who I am, and who will be able to look beyond my blindness. What is sad to me is that I have met some exceptionally kind gay women, and some straight men, with whom I have become friendly. But I want to have more gay male friends. I want to be able to talk with other gay men, take walks with them, have things described to me, have things read to me that pertain to gay topics, and have a few buddies who I can feel a closeness to.

I ask only that I be accepted for who I am. It is of course important to realize that certain things are a must. First of all, it is imperative that any new friends I make understand that I need help with certain tasks: being guided, having things read to me, and having movies described. Also, it is important that anyone wanting to get to know me understand that my dog comes with me. I will never permit anyone to try to tell me I cannot enter with my dog, whether it be a restaurant, or a taxi. So I ask any new friends to respect my dog and his work and devotion to me.

Once I make a friend, with time and patience, my blindness becomes less of an issue. In fact, a close friend of mine who comes to read my mail every week, has told me that he just takes it as a matter of course. He guides me easily and knows that "No dog, no Bob!"

Remember, whether we can see or not, whether we can hear or not, whether we can walk or not, we are all human beings with the same needs, desires, wants, dreams, and hopes. We are not as different as our outward appearance would make you think at first glance

.

Post Script

A version of this article first appeared in a French Canadaian magazine. I've become less isolated than I was when I wrote that original version, and my thanks goes to Penpal Connection, which reprinted it on their website; thanks also to all of you who have written to me. hope you will continue to do so. I still dream of a special friend who will love me, and accept me and Harley as a team.

©2000 Bob Feinstein

 

BOB FEINSTEIN (harlynn@panix.com) lives with his companion, Harley, in Brooklyn, NY. Bob speaks Spanish, French, "and an obscure Yugoslavian dialect of Yiddish." Harley understands all three. Bob is the current moderator for DisGayTalk, the online discussion group sponsored by BENT. His second BENT article is "Alone in the Crowd."
Bob notes that he has a great long distance program that makes phone friendships practical.