Anecdotes of a disabled gay

Fullers Bookshop, Hobart - 18th August, 2017

The evening was wet and cold, which may have deterred some punters, when author Wayne Herbert - 'I still struggle to call myself an author' - fronted a Hobart audience to speak about his recent book, Anecdotes of a Disabled Gay. Some of the questions and answers arising from that meeting are recorded here.

Thank you so much for coming out on such an inclement day, it’s a bit like Canberra where I reside most of my days.

The particular reason I wrote my book is that I often think people have difficulty in engaging with someone with disability. And then when I say, I’m also gay, it’s almost like they think, what? Both at the same time? And I say, yep, I’m a great multi-tasker, it’s a great example to give at job interviews, that you can be gay and have a disability….

I work in the disability employment services sector as a senior leader in the field. In working with employers and people with disability, one of the things I’ve noticed is that we tend to desexualise people with disability, as if they don’t have the same sexual needs and desires that we all do, (I just happen to like men), and so I thought what better way to showcase that but to write a book and look at ways of raising the profile of people with disability in the community as well as members of the LGBTIQ community. I think it’s going to be a trying and testing time for the gay and lesbian community as we go to an unprecedented postal survey, plebescite, opinion poll - whatever you’d like to call it - that we all know is going to cost the country $122 million dollars. For me, what’s most concerning personally and what is yet to be measured is the impact on the health and well-being of the community in the long term, so I’m very interested and keen to continue my speaking duties around the country and promote a strong yes vote, and I have no doubt that Hobart will be second to Canberra in the highest proportion of yes votes.

There are two things that regularly occur for me as someone with disability - my disability’s cerebral palsy – and as a result of that, I walk … slightly differently … uniquely, if you like. And often I’m mistaken for being intoxicated. I was in Brisbane at a speaking event and coming back into my hotel - I’d been next door and had had an iced chocolate. There was a gentleman in the hotel lift who was clearly inebriated and using the wall to hold himself up, saying to the other guests that he’d drunk twenty-seven bourbon and cokes. And as I walked towards the lift he said, you look as drunk as I feel and I thought … aaahaaa? ... I’ve had an iced chocolate! Funny! And I said to him, no it’s cerebral palsy. And you could hear this hush of silence as people were like, where do I look? What do I say?

The other is that I’m regularly mistaken for a footballer, and often in the workplace people will say to me, what did you do on the weekend Wayne, hurt yourself playing football? And I’m like, no - the extent of my physical ability is … maybe running the water out to the men?

bookshop talk with Wayne HerbertIt’s quite funny that people’s use of what could be considered to be inappropriate or offensive allows you to have a conversation about disability. I decided to write down all the things people have said to me, and I call my book my own personal collection of the shit people say to a thirty-something-year-old disabled gay man, and hope in a way that it promotes discussion. You be the judge of that - you’re the readers, you can be the critics – but I think it uniquely touches on what are serious social and policy issues across the country and how we value members of the disability community and LGBTIQ community.

It also touches on some of the things people have said - that have been quite significant and troubling in my life - in a way that uses humour, in the hope that it reaches as many people as possible. I want to reach out to all members of the community, even those who may not agree with my perspectives of view. In doing that I think you can make a difference for somebody else who might be struggling.

I hope that everyone’s come today with some really dificult hard-hitting questions because I’m happy to answer anything about me or about my views on particular issues, very happy to be here and take your questions.

Along the lines of you looking drunk at times, according to people - have you ever just gone along with it and told people you’re totally smashed?

I do consider myself Australia’s cheapest and most convincing drunk, it’s a real talent. There are times where it’s quite funny: I will be with a group of friends who have been drinking all night, who will arrive at a venue and they’ll get in without a question; and I’ve also been on work conferences with my work colleagues where they’ll have been drinking – and I haven’t – and I’m the one that’s stopped. And sometimes I think it’s funny. But it’s also sometimes highly embarrassing. Sometimes I’m ejected from different venues without having had even one drink, and when I go to explain, 'actually no the way that I walk is because I’ve got cerebral palsy', they just say look you’re a smart arse, get out! So yes, sometimes I can be the cheapest, most convincing drunk without even having to drink.

Just on the illustrations in this book, I think it’s a wonderful idea to put those together, because they work pretty well.

Thank you for that. I worked with a Canberra-based digital artist, Lexi Keelan, who illustrated some of the anecdotes in the book - some more provocative than others, under my instruction!

Wayne Herbert's book 'Anecdotes of a disabled gay'As I mentioned, the book touches on things that people have said as well as on social issues. Something you may not be aware of is that thousands of people with disability in Australia work for less than $3 an hour, and recently there was a High Court decision that found that to be discriminatory - of course - but we still see examples around the country where that is occurring. There are significant social issues where we can look at how we as a country really value people with disability. I’m sure if I asked you - would you do your job for $3 an hour? - the answer would be no. But yet we see people with disability doing it every day. I don’t, but I know thousands of people do.

Just on your point about being called out for being drunk, I work for a guy who has a brain injury and the same thing happens to him, he slurs his statements…. He had a card made up that he can show and say, this is why I’m like this. Maybe that’s something to look into?

It actually points me to one of the anecdotes in my book. Often people will either ask me, Wayne what was your disability, we didn’t see it – or make comments around, you can’t come in, you look drunk. One of the anecdotes in the book is, you know, my fucking neon sign is constantly failing me!

I think disability is as diverse as we are human beings. A card is a great idea, certainly if someone wants to do that. I wouldn’t carry a card, because I’d probably lose it – like I’ve lost several things on this trip, but let’s not go there! Yeah, I’m not sure. Each person does what they do. I don’t carry a card.

I’ve a question around language, I’ve heard different opinions about whether to refer to people as people living with disabilities, or disabled people…. Do you have any thoughts or preferences?

I don’t. I like people to say what they’re thinking, because – yes it gives me new material for books, but it also provides an opportunity for us to start a conversation. If you don’t know what to say, I’m not concerned if you say the wrong thing, it doesn’t bother me. The great Stella Young, who sadly is no longer with us, was very clear in that she used the term ‘disabled person’ because she fundamentally believed that it was the environment that disabled her. She was a very high profile contributing citizen, and it was her view that it was society that disabled her the most rather than her perceived disability. I still see examples of that today, some of our buildings are still not disability accessible, some of our national institutions in Canberra are still not fully disability accessible. But I have no qualms on terms, and in fact, I’m happy for people to say whatever they like.

In terms of the intersection of being disabled and gay, do you find that the gay community is more open and accepting and inclusive of your disability, or that the disabled community is more inclusive of your sexuality?

That’s not a question I’ve had before! I think the gay community, particularly, is somewhat known – particularly when you’re younger, or even body conscious - for having to look or appear a certain way. It’s never come up; except that somebody did on one occasion remark, was the way that I walked because I engaged in sex with men?

That then prompted me to have a discussion about, well you know … maybe if I had it more frequently it might put me back together again! People say these things…. But I think - and particularly at this point in time - that the gay and lesbian community are a compassionate and caring community and we look after ourselves and we look after each other, and that’s never been more important than now. I’ve always felt included and accepted, it’s never come up as an issue.

Two questions: are you going to be making a second book, and two, what are your thoughts on Pauline Hanson, both on her burqua stunt as well as on her previous remarks about autism?

People have asked me whether I’d write another book, and I’m not sure I will … having said that, you know, never say never!

Wayne HerbertIn terms of Pauline Hanson, I struggle to say her name, personally. I don’t endorse anything that Senator Hanson stands for, I think that what she did in the Senate a couple of days ago was deeply hurtful and offensive to many members of the community, and I personally believe that in our multicultural society we should show mutual respect for multiculturalism across this country, I think that was nothing more than a stunt, a hurtful stunt. Senator George Brandis was given a standing ovation for his remarks in relation to that.

In terms of Senator’s Hanson’s comments, and I recall them – very much so – during Senate proceedings in June when Senator Hanson suggested that students with autism should be segregated in the Australian education system into specific classrooms, I personally wrote to Senator Birmingham who is the Minister for Education. I also then sent a copy of my book to Senator Hanson after those comments, because not only are they offensive, they’re outdated views, our education system is an inclusive one and it’s important that people with disability interact and learn in the society in which they live; and that includes interacting with people with and without disability and not being segregated because of an attribute about themselves. Her comments have been widely disputed, and rightly so.

Before I retired, I worked in workplace rehabilitation; you were talking about terms before, and one of the terms I used was ‘differently abled’ because I didn’t like the term ‘disabled’, that always seemed like a minus, that you were 'less than'. So I’ve always used that term, I thought that was more fitting, to encourage people in active workplace rehabilitation.

I think that’s a really interesting point because if I asked my partner what my biggest disability was, he would say, not putting your clothes into the wardrobe. Or he would say, you’re messy, that you’re disorganised.

Although I’ve got a book entitled Anecdotes of a Disabled Gay, I do describe them as only two attributes of me as a gay and disabled person, and perhaps I draw too much attention to those attributes with a book written about them. But there are other things about me: I’m a university graduate, I’m a leader in the work that I do…. I don’t necessarily have a view on the language people use other than to recognise that we probably all have some type of disability. I only have a disability as far as I’m concerned because society tells me I do. Whether I see it as one is another question. But I would always encourage people to see people first, and that people have all different types of ability and skills in different areas, so that whilst I struggle to put my clothes in the wardroom I can do other things that perhaps my partner can’t do…. Maybe that’s not true!

I think language is really interesting, and I think one of the things that’s happened in my lifetime, is claiming it. And it’s not about why other people choose or choose not to use it…. When I was a kid, the D word was never mentioned in my family. But through politicisation, I've learned to claim that word and use it. But I use it in my inner circles, because the world at the moment hasn’t really got its head around how to use it.

One of the things I’m interested about is that the gay and lesbian movement has had a really powerful structure and conversation around identity, about language and claiming language around culture; and my question to you is what do you think about disability culture? We don’t have much of it here. In fact, the greatest celebration we have in Hobart is a Festival of Smiles - and I sometimes feel like setting up a Festival of Frowns, because it’s built on the asumption that disabled people should all be happy and smiley and grateful. Often when I talk about disability and culture people think that you’re people who need services, you’re people who need help rather than people who are contributors.

Let me see if I can capture your question…. You’re right, the reason I sit here today is that people long before me have advocated for the rights of the LGBTIQ community, and in fact without them I wouldn’t be sitting here. That’s been well established, and we’re now at a point where what we’re asking our country is whether the LGBTIQ community can exercise the same right as every other citizen. Not a different right, not an extra right, but the same right.

And I think the same can be said of being a person with disability … I was involved with the establishment of NDIS Canberra office, so I hope that the NDIS particularly has taken people with disability away from that sense of ‘we’re just people who need help’ to more one of ‘we’re going to be empowered to make decisions and choices about our own lives: because we can!’ Where I think the disability services may also have questions to answer, may be around … well probably, historically, we may have over time deskilled people with disability. So the example I give you is this: you might have had someone with disability who can catch the bus, but then through access and disability services got picked up from home, and over years of not having to catch the bus has actually lost that skill. So they couldn’t access their community outside of their service's care. I hope that the NDIS over time reshapes that and gets rid of that view that people with disability are just service users. I don’t want to see anything tokenistic. One thing I call out is this idea that we do token things ... to help our social conscience - when really it’s tokenistic, it’s not a lasting difference.

And I get grumpy too. If I’ve had Botox you can never tell, but it’s worn off at the moment: I don’t smile every day. The slogans that surround disability sometimes are, I think, a bit … interesting … ‘don’t diss my disability’, well sometimes I do, sometimes I get up and it bloody hurts, you know. But all of those things are just attributes of who we are. I think we’ve got to take the focus off what it is society thinks that we can’t do and actually engage in proving them wrong. Cos we can do just the same as everybody else if given the opportunity, and what we’re not given is the same opportunity and that’s what I’d like to change.

One of the things I've taken from our discussions is that I’m constantly impressed by how lucky you are in having such great parents....

Thanks … in the interests of transparency, I should point out that that comment comes from a good friend of mine.

I grew up in a really small country town with two younger brothers, I was the oldest in my family. I never had to come out to my parents. This notion of being a member of the LGBTIQ community and having to come out is in fact a question I’ve never had to answer. My parents talked very openly about who we were - not only to me but to my brothers as well - so yes, my parents are a significant reason that I do what I do.

My parents always said - and I'll remember it for as long as I live - that if I’m to compromise who I am for the bigotry and ignorance of others then I'm doing myself a disservice, and not to do it. Now I premise that by saying I did a lot of things in the country to raise the profile of, particularly, the gay and lesbian community without thinking of my parents in a small country town. So I made the front page of the paper Monday through to Friday just because I said 'Hello I’m here, I’m gay.' That was big news. I didn't think of my family at that time, of how they might feel about it. But then I saw a letter to the editor from my Mum, around her being immensely proud that I actually listened to her - because, most of the time I don't :) - around being who I am. About not being apologetic and hiding from that. I mean, I have faults and flaws and imperfections just like everybody else but the one thing my parents have steadfastly supported me in is being exactly who I am.

I'm interested in whether the NDIS cares about sexuality, and enables or supports or has actually thought about the whole question of sexuality....

It's a good question, and the agency put out a survey - which I don't know whether was nationally or was ACT-based - around the question of how do we engage appropriately with members of the LGBTIQ community. And I took two views on that. One, I thought ... well, I could answer it in one question rather than ten, I could tell you to do it with respect. Full stop. In the NDIS, in other states, it's different, they're doing a more staged approach. I guess the ACT is much smaller, so I guess we have that benefit. But I think that as the market grows and as partication in the NDIS grows, it will have to look at ways with which to engage all members of the community.