I’m a chronically ill, nonbinary lesbian in my late twenties who is a relationship anarchist/non-monogamous but hasn’t had an in-person romantic and sexual relationship since 2019, and that relationship ended in ableist violence. I dated a bit in 2020 but wasn’t able to see anyone in person due to the pandemic, and the one serious relationship I had in that time also ended on a sour note. I thought I’d have better luck in 2021, but I only went on a few dates and ended up being cyber-stalked by one of them.
In 2022, I’ve gone on a few dates that I thought went well where I mentioned my disability, only to be ghosted. All of this hurt and trauma over the past few years and the fact that I haven’t really had sex since 2019 is starting to make me feel hopeless. I worry I won’t be able to have a healthy, committed, sexual relationship with anyone ever because of my disability or that I’ll never have sex again. I know this is probably catastrophic thinking, but I’ve been chronically ill my whole adult life, and even though I’ve mostly only dated other queer and trans/nonbinary people in that time, it’s mostly been a lot of ableism and disappointment. I have a few lovely queer platonic partnerships, but they are all long-distance, and I miss in-person companionship and sexual intimacy. I worry that this is simply inaccessible to me. I’ve looked at articles about dating with my illnesses, but they are very cisheteronormative. I know you can’t fix my conundrum, but any tips to cope with dating while queer and disabled or being mostly single while disabled would be appreciated.
I’m so sorry you’ve had such horrific dating experiences over the past few years. You deserve to be treated with kindness, and you deserve to date people who respect your boundaries and your access needs.
Of course you’re stuck in a loop of catastrophic thinking — you’ve been disappointed by partners over and over again, and traumas like intimate partner violence and cyber-stalking can have a long-term effect on your nervous system. Your brain and body are going to need some time to recover. I hope you’re already working through that trauma with a therapist, and if not, I strongly encourage you to seek out professional support. It’s okay to take a break from dating while you process your recent experiences if that sounds healing to you. When you’re ready to date again, whether that’s right now or far into the future, keep this in mind: reentering spaces and situations where you’ve previously experienced trauma can bring big, scary feelings to the surface. A therapist can help you stay grounded if and when those feelings arise. Plus, when you’re a chronically ill person living in an ableist world, it doesn’t hurt to have a little extra mental health support. That’s a lesson I’m learning right now.
Ableism is everywhere — even in supposedly “welcoming” queer communities — and you’re definitely not alone in your experiences. I only recently started calling myself “chronically ill,” but I’ve dealt with what I used to call “weird body things” for most of my life — and those “weird body things” have frustrated some of my friends and former partners. When my symptoms worsened in 2020, I finally received a diagnosis (sort of), and that’s been validating. I mostly know what causes my symptoms, I know my symptoms are real and I know how to manage them. Still, coming to terms with being chronically ill and knowing I’ll have to explain parts of my illness to other people forever has been hard. All of this is to say: I don’t know what your specific illnesses are or how the affect your life, but I understand how self-advocacy can be exhausting. And it’s extra draining when non-disabled people refuse to educate themselves on chronic illness, even when it affects people they love.
Let’s address your big fear: “I worry I won’t be able to have a healthy, committed, sexual relationship with anyone ever because of my disability or maybe even never have sex again.” Yes, dating is hard for disabled and chronically ill folks, especially in the context of a global pandemic, but you can absolutely date and fuck and find meaningful relationships — you just have to strategize in order find the right people. And that sucks! It’s shitty and unfair that disabled and chronically ill people have to put extra effort into vetting potential partners, but for now, this is the world we’re working with.
Here’s one dating strategy: Disclose your disability and/or your access needs before you go on an actual, in-person date. Of course, no stranger is entitled to your medical history, BUT if you feel safe sharing some relevant information about your disability, I think some degree of disclosure might help you weed out the non-disabled folks who would most likely ghost you and/or engage in ableism. In other words, your dates would have an opportunity to show their true colors before you get too invested.
Before you disclose, ask yourself what kind(s) of reaction(s) you’re looking for. If you’re only willing to date people who are well-versed in disability justice and perhaps already have some disabled folks in their lives, that’s 100% valid. If you’re open to dating non-disabled people who aren’t particularly informed about disability but are willing to ask questions and learn, that’s okay, too. Make a list of your red flags and steer clear of them. If you’re not sure what your red flags are, ask you potential dates about their COVID practices — their answer will probably show you how much (or how little) they value the lives of disabled folks.
Now let’s say you’re on a first (or second or tenth) date with a non-disabled person, you trust their intentions and their COVID practices and you’re ready to tear each other’s clothes off. If your disability affects the ways you can comfortably have sex, share what works and what doesn’t work for your body before the sex starts happening. Even if your disability doesn’t affect your sex life, have this conversation anyway! I firmly believe that everyone should check in with partners and hook-ups about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good to them before anyone gets naked. Share your kinks, your favorite forms of stimulation and your safer sex practices, and ask your partner about theirs. The more you and your partner know about each other’s needs and desires, the better the sex will be.
Here’s another dating strategy: Date other disabled and chronically ill people.
If you specifically seek out people who share this part of your lived experience, you’ll be more likely to meet folks who are willing to be flexible with plans when you’re in a flare, who will ask you about your access needs before you even have to voice them, who will appreciate your dark chronic illness humor and who will understand what it’s like to confront ableism in the dating world and in other parts of life. Sure, you might encounter disabled and chronically ill folks who lack self-awareness or who don’t understand your specific illnesses or who just don’t click with you, but overall, we’re pretty rad.
I have firsthand knowledge in this area because like me, my girlfriend is chronically ill. While I hate knowing that she lives with debilitating symptoms and has to stare ableism in the face every day, I deeply appreciate how we’ve been able to understand and support each other. Being in what I lovingly call a “sick4sick” relationship certainly has its challenges. Sometimes my access needs and my girlfriend’s access needs are at odds with one another. Sometimes we’re both dealing with flares at the same time, or one of us is in a flare while the other is feeling good and wants to plan an outing. But despite those occasional struggles, I feel incredibly privileged to date someone who understands my illness (she even diagnosed my medical mystery before my doctors did, but that’s another tale for another time), and since living with chronic illness has taught us both how to appreciate life’s smallest joys, we know how to have fun — like, a ridiculous amount of fun — even in the bleakest personal and global circumstances.
The benefits of dating within the disability community go beyond just having someone to relate to — disabled and chronically ill people have a lot to offer! We’re smart, because we’ve had to do our own medical research and advocate for ourselves. We’re tough, because we’ve had to confront medical gaslighting and ableist employers. We’re loyal, because we know what it’s like to have friends fade away. And we’re fucking hilarious. Also, remember the early stages of the pandemic when no one knew how to do virtual community organizing and disabled folks were like, “Hold my beer?” Or when millions of formerly healthy people started developing long COVID symptoms, and chronically ill people were like, “Here, take our symptom-tracking Excel templates?”
If you want more proof that disabled and chronically ill people are hot, cool, dateable people who have sex and have long-term relationships and generally do great things, consider these facts: Disabled Autostraddle contributor A. Andrews wrote a whole book about sex and disability. Heather, Autostraddle’s Senior Writer and Editor, wrote about living with long COVID on our website and in The Long Covid Survival Guide, AND she recently got married in a truly enviable bowtie. Riese has written about her experience with fibromyalgia and happens to be the founder of this very website.
Disabled and chronically ill people are powerful and sexy and worthy of love, and that means you’re all of those things, too. I highly recommend reading Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong, to pump yourself up.
If you’re feeling ready to swoon over some disabled babes, using dating apps can be a low-stress way to meet people in specific communities. You can signal your disability in your profile in a way that other disabled and chronically ill folks will recognize (maybe by adding emojis to your profile that reference your disability or including a photo that subtly or not-so-subtly features a medical device or mobility aid) and/or you can keep an eye out for other folks on the apps who are signaling their own disabilities. There are also a handful of dating apps and websites specifically designed for for chronically ill people. While I haven’t used any of those apps for myself, it looks like Glimmer, a dating and friend-making website for people with disabilities, and Gutsy, a dating app for people with chronic digestive conditions, both allow users to identify their gender in their own words and offer multiple sexual orientation options.
While it’s clear from your question that you’re interested in in-person dating (at least eventually), I should acknowledge that many people — especially immunocompromised folks and people with immunocompromised loved ones — aren’t comfortable with in-person dates right now. Virtual dates can still be hot and fun, and they’re a safe way to get to know someone and discuss their COVID practices before meeting up IRL. Outdoor dates are also a great way to mitigate COVID risks. And don’t forget that phone sex is hot.
Maybe you’ll put yourself out there and date lots of people and won’t find yourself in a sexual and/or romantic relationship for a long time. That’s okay — finding a partner isn’t the only path to a happy, fulfilling, sexy life, and embracing singlehood can be pretty damn liberating and fun. Channel energy into your local and long-distance friendships. Take yourself on dates. Practice elaborate masturbation. Learn new skills. Take thirst traps just for you. Read all of the comments on this open thread from queer people who are thrilled to be single. Read Dani’s essay about dealing with rejection. Read Vanessa’s essays, “How I Claimed Being Thirsty as a Personal Lifestyle and Learned to Live My Dreams” and “Assume Everyone Thinks You’re Hot, I’m Serious.” And remember that whether you have five partners or no partners at all, you deserve to have people in your life who value your physical and emotional safety and who appreciate all that you have to offer.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.
As someone who is autistic and gay, I will say this:
Don’t expect happiness. Because people will always let you down, no matter how nice they seem.
And it will only get worse as you get older.
Expect disappointment and you will never be disappointed.
This is sad. I have some chronic mental health issues that I prefer to not talk about to partners (or anyone non-anonymously for that matter), and I haven’t had sex for 5 years. Not for lack of trying!
My expectation bar is very, very low at this point. But you can tell from the OPs question that the low expectations are actually causing more distress than comfort. It’s ok if you haven’t found a person you click with in three years. But the thought that it could go on? Forever? That’s really hard to bear. And I definitely relate to that. I don’t think expecting disappointment means you will never be disappointed – it just means you’re ALWAYS disappointed.
Ro, as always, love this piece! Counterpoint to the above comment: I’m an autistic, multiply-disabled person, and I’m in a healthy, happy relationship with another neurodivergent, multiply-disabled person. We’re also very close to my neurodivergent, multiply-disabled best friend of 6 years. Our house contains not one single neurotypical brain or fully-abled body and we love it and make it work. Therapy helps a lot, as does forming close relationships with people who understand disability and disability justice. I wish LW and Emma the very best.
(also the sex is really good. consistently.)
ro thank you for the excellent advice! letter writer, i empathize so deeply with your dating burnout/fatigue because sometimes the concept of explaining The Syndromes to a completely unaware person is so exhausting that i just don’t date. so i would add the piece of advice that it’s totally ok to ask dates to do their own research. “i have xyz and here’s some of my favorite resources for people unfamiliar” is a completely acceptable statement. you’re looking for love/romance/sex, not a disability studies seminar! (a joke i can make as a DS grad student)
Caitlin, thank you so much for writing this – it’s great advice! <3
For better or worse, I’ve never been in any relationship (probably partly because my severe visual impairment prevents non-verbal communication of interest). But I relate to the LW’s fears.
I am disabled. Honestly – I don’t want to date someone that I could significantly fail if my own symptoms are flaring up. I don’t think I make a good emergency contact – how can I ask someone else to be my emergency contact who actually might need said emergency contact? I’d rather burden a “healthy” person.
And, I suppose I don’t want to be significantly failed either, in a serious time of need. (And “healthy” people will fail you too, but maybe it’s more expected.)
I use “healthy” because most of them are just kicking their issues down the road and are just in more plausible denial about it.
I’m bitter. A few years ago my ex best friend/roommate stomped all over my trauma/neurodivergent boundaries. Her two month girlfriend also had trauma/was neurodivergent but was a lot louder about it.
Fuck I didn’t mean to post this on your post, mods pls delete
Hello! I live with chronic pain and fatigue and use a wheelchair most of the time I am out of the house. And I have two partners, and two people I am dating long distance. Two of those also have chronic illnesses! This is less advice (I met my partners all in person pre pandemic) and more just sharing some hope that this is a possible thing! As I use a wheelchair it is always obvious to people I am disabled when they meet me, and I definitely believe in the ‘weeding out’ theory in regards to that. I also took a conscious year out of pursuing romantic relationships in 2019 which I think was really positive in changing my approach and allowed me to meet new people (in February 2020 which was bad timing but worked out for me!)
I think that from my experience, dating queer people is easier for disabled people, because as queers, we already fall out of the norm sexually, and are generally more open about the ways sexuality can exist or not (at least that’s my experience). Also, lots of queers are disabled and/or neurodivergent! I have ADHD and am a wheelchair user with CP. I have only really experienced real ableism in my last dating experience with a heterosexual cis man, and I was not used to this kind of open verbal ableist violence. I am not saying women and nonbinary babes can’t be ableist and maybe I was just lucky but I definitely feel like there was a patriarchal element to his ableism that doesn’t play that much of a role in lesbian relationships. It has definitely taken a toll and probably explains why I haven’t dated anyone since then. But yes, my best dating experiences so far have been with other disabled people! There’s just such a comfort in knowing the other person understands your struggles, and it creates what disabled activist Mia Mingus calls ‘access intimacy’. We can emotionally bond over these things, and when someone gets overwhelmed with a certain (sexual or otherwise) situation, we can be there for each other in ways other people rarely can. We know bodies are not always supposed to look or act a certain way, and tbh radical disability theory is also just a very interesting topic of conversation, and people who are unapologetically themselves and fight for others to be able to do so are hot!
I’m neurodivergent with unvisible disability and I just want to say I love my disabled partner so much! They are just the best! Ten years together and still very much in love.
Just want to second Ro’s advice about seeking out other disabled people. Even if you don’t end up dating them just having more disabled people in your life is great!
This article and comment thread made me feel warm, fuzzy, self-loving, and hopeful. Thank you everyone. <3
I am very impressed with the details of your article. Thank you for taking the time to share this article. This was really helpful and insightful. You shared a great and informative post and thank you for your work in sharing the information. I appreciate your efforts and wish you all the best.
Also hope you can download latest version yowhatsapp, it is a very good chat tool
I am disabled. I’ve seen a lot of shit in the queer disabled community. (Very tldr but a close ex friend/roommate prioritized her 2 month girlfriend over me, because she was a lot louder than me about being traumatized)
I no longer tell people my triggers, or tell them when I’m having bad days, or really trust anyone at all with my medical needs. I don’t want anyone to know these things.
I am probably scarred for life, and won’t be dating anyone any time soon. I wouldn’t want to let down a fellow disabled person, it would hurt worse if they let me down. I’m sure I have some weird internalized ableism, but that is very low on therapy queue to work out.
OP, I hope you find someone, just… stay safe. Don’t date anyone who wants to get all gatekeeper/girlboss/gaslight all over your medical history.