Queer Crip Love Fest: Love Sounds Like Purrs

Last time on Queer Crip Love Fest, we revealed my personal biases and came down firmly on the side of Team Dog. But because I know my audience, I concede that cats, too, must have their day. Leah* is a 43-year-old software engineer and cat mom, and she reached out to me with one of the most powerful stories we’ve featured yet.

I was raised in a very abusive household. I survived incest by both my father and mother, and at 17, I escaped by going to college 600 miles away. I got fibromyalgia the spring of my freshman year. I struggled to keep up with classes because the alternative was moving back in with my parents, which I ended up doing after sophomore year anyway. A few months later I met the man I ended up marrying. He was abusive but he supported me when I was unable to work or go to school. After almost 20 years with him, I managed to escape and I’ve lived on my own since. It’s a constant struggle to support myself but I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel like for the first time in my life, I can finally be my true self. I consider myself a baby queer because I’ve only recently come to grips with my asexuality.

I couldn’t have made it through the years of therapy and coming to terms with the incest without my cat, Mr. Pants. I adopted him when I first moved in with my ex. He wasn’t the world’s smartest cat but he was incredibly sensitive. He could be sound asleep in another room but if I started crying he’d come get in my lap and purr until I felt better. The year he died, I adopted Sweetie Pie, another big, beautiful tomcat. He’s not quite as empathic as Mr. Pants, but he earns his name every day.

This was most expansive QCLF interview to date, and we covered so much more than I was able to include here: navigating the workforce while disabled, the relief of a correct diagnosis, internet friends, service animals, and more. Because this is Autostraddle, I’ve condensed our conversation to focus on queerness, disability, and cat stories.


I love that you consider yourself a “baby queer.” What’s it been like to come out as asexual later in life?

I’m not sure what it’s like to come out at the “usual” time of adolescence or early adulthood; not that there’s a typical journey, but mine’s certainly unusual. One thing that’s difficult to understand about sexual assault and abuse, like what I’ve been through, is that humans are wired to respond to certain touch no matter how we may feel emotionally. All too often perpetrators use that against us. It’s a painful and difficult thing for victims to cope with, this feeling that our own bodies have betrayed us.

For a long time I didn’t even know asexuality existed. Then I thought that I couldn’t be asexual because for me it’s not all asexual, all the time. I still masturbate now and then. I can imagine having sex but if given the opportunity I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm. I’d rather have a deep, thoughtful conversation or tell dirty jokes until sunrise.

I haven’t come out to many people. Most people assume I’m straight, especially if I mention past hetero relationships. I have a lot of straight privilege, and I know it. On the other hand, asexuality comes with its own set of stereotypes. People assume that we’re missing a precious piece of our humanity. I’ve heard people say that if they lost the ability or desire for sex they’d want to kill themselves. There’s a lot of crossover with disability there, too. Like somehow our lives are less than or not worth living, when we know there’s so much more to life.

I get that a lot with disability, too. My disabilities – fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety – are invisible. When I tell people I get a lot of “but you look so healthy!” or “but you seem so normal!” First off, what the hell is normal and why do I need to be it? Second, how am I supposed to look? Do I have to be in a wheelchair? Do I need a cane? What will it take to convince you I’m not making shit up?

Oh yes, been there. So many times!

My therapists have always come at my sexuality like it’s something I needed to work on and heal from. To some extent that was true — I had a huge amount of guilt and shame I was carrying around that actually belonged to the people who hurt me. I remember one therapist saying “It’s enough that you want to want to have sex.” I’m sure that’s very useful and reassuring for most victims, but it messed me up. Even now, I want to want to have sex. Every movie, TV show, or romance novel is telling me I want to want to have sex. Of course I want to be like everyone else. Of course I want to please my (hypothetical) partner. And yes, even an asexual person can enjoy sex now and then.

“People assume that we’re missing a precious piece of our humanity… There’s a lot of crossover with disability there, too. Like somehow our lives are less than or not worth living, when we know there’s so much more to life.”

My sexuality isn’t something I need to overcome. It’s not something that’s broken or missing or was stolen from me. As far as asexuality goes, the psychology community is still stuck in their old attitudes about queerness being a mental illness.

Even in disability communities, people can throw “asexual” around like a slur — as if it’s only a negative stereotype, and not something we could actually be.

I have a lot of the gold-star asexual traits that keep most people from questioning my sexuality: I’m cis, socially adept, I’m attractive, I’m sex-positive, I’ve had hetero sex, and I look under forty. On the other hand, I’m a disabled victim of sexual abuse — but people don’t know that unless I tell them. For years, therapists and psychiatrists told me that that when I got better I’d feel sexual again. When that didn’t happen I felt like I must have done something wrong. It wasn’t until I felt like I’d healed from most of the abuse and I still didn’t want sex that those feelings were valid.

“I could be ace as fuck one day and attracted to someone the next; it doesn’t change who I am.”

It’s kind of like when I first got sick and everyone told me I was making it up or just lazy and I started to believe it. There’s so much societal pressure to be straight and to want sex, of course we feel like rejects or losers when we don’t fit that mold. I think non-cishet people are better at thinking outside the box because from the get go we’re forced to question society’s idea of what love means. I could be ace as fuck one day and attracted to someone the next; it doesn’t change who I am.

I want to talk a little bit about dating. As a disabled person the thought of dating, especially dating cishet men, is exhausting. Disabled people are twice as likely to be victims of interpersonal violence and I never want to go through that again. I believe my ex targeted me because of my disability. Intimate partner violence is all about power and control, and it’s easier to control someone who’s disabled.

For most of our relationship my ex didn’t want me to work. Over the years I learned to cope with my disabilities, healed from my trauma, and was better able to function. A few years ago my ex decided that I should work and he should stay home. I don’t entirely know why but he seemed to think that it was something I owed him, since he’d done it for me. In a healthy relationship people don’t keep score. We don’t look after our partner because we expect to be compensated down the road.

In a way that was the last straw. I decided that if I was going to work that hard, it would be for me.

I don’t think I’m in much danger of becoming a victim again. For one thing, I know what to look for. More importantly, for the first time in my life I have self-esteem and I don’t take shit from anyone. But it’s still exhausting to be on guard and be ready to fight back if someone crosses my boundaries.

“I decided that if I was going to work that hard, it would be for me.”

Does disability affect how you experience love also?

Being disabled, especially becoming disabled as a young adult, has taught me things that most people don’t learn until later, if at all. When I first got sick I used to make plans for all the wonderful things I’d do once I got better. It took some time, but I realized that life is too short to wait to do wonderful things. Maybe I can’t go skilling or backpacking the way I used to but I still love the outdoors. Instead of backpacking I’ll go for road trips, long drives through the mountains or the prairie or the desert and see the beauty of this country. I love to garden and bake and I even make berry jam. My garden is pretty accessible, too. I grow tomatoes and other crops in a self-watering planter.

An orange and white cat walks through the background of a photo of a small fig tree.

Fig tree with cat cameo

At least with friendships, I find that being disabled forces you to find out who really cares and who doesn’t. I can’t predict when I’m going to feel good and when I need to stay home and rest. That makes planning ahead, even for the weekend, tricky. The friendships that lasted are with people who listened when I said, “Even though I keep canceling at the last minute, please don’t stop inviting me.” Even though it’s hard for abled people to understand what my life is like, the ones who try are the ones I keep around. They don’t say stuff like, “Well you made jam all day last weekend. I can’t see why you can’t come to my party.” They figure out that disability isn’t black and white; it’s a continuum.

Even though it’s hard for abled people to understand what my life is like, the ones who try are the ones I keep around.”

What kind of support did you have in recovering from trauma?

I’ve been in therapy for about 20 years, so I have a lot to say about that. When I first started to recover my memories, I was very suicidal. I didn’t want to die but the pain was so bad I felt I couldn’t go on. Plus I had become disabled only two years before, had to drop out of school, was stuck living with my abusive parents—it was a mess.

I spent eight weeks, first inpatient and then outpatient, in a unit for victims of sexual trauma. The program was amazing. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t had some kind of help. There’s something so powerful and healing about sitting around with other victims, swapping stories, making the darkest of jokes about it, and laughing your asses off.

I’m glad you had a positive experience; I know a lot of disabled people (including me) have complicated relationships with hospitals and that kind of thing.

Overall, yes. Day by day, it was difficult. That hospital was excellent but there were issues. A friend of mine got her hands on a plastic knife and scraped the hell out of her shin. The nurse decided she wasn’t going to treat it because it was self-inflicted and it got infected. The very first morning I was there, the nurse came in while I was sleeping and took blood. Can you imagine doing that to a victim of violence? I woke up with a needle in my arm and freaked the fuck out.

What? Ugh. Although truthfully, I can’t say I’m surprised.

That’s one thing I’ve learned as a disabled person. Even when I was on Medicaid I could find good health care providers, but I had to go look for them. I don’t think most people get that—how it’s a full time job just to get and keep public services when you’re disabled.

That gets overlooked so often.

The best therapists I’ve had are the ones who push me. Any good therapist will be supportive but the best ones really pay attention to what you’re saying — and not saying — and challenge your assumptions. They get you to think about how you think. It’s the reason I’ve been able to heal from so much trauma, to learn to really love myself and have healthy relationships with other people.

I wish I could bring a pet to therapy. For years I brought a stuffed tiger with me instead. I’d take that tiger with me when I had to get well woman exams, too. To hell with what people thought of a grown person carrying around a stuffed animal. Mr. Pants was jealous of that tiger.

An orange and white cat curled up on a blanket and facing the camera.

Meet Sweetie Pie

I love that animal companionship has been so powerful for you. Tell me about Sweetie Pie!

He has his own origin story. Back in 2008, I moved from Colorado to Iowa. The day after my ex and I moved in, Mr. Pants got sick. He was only 13, but he died of cancer two weeks later. I was devastated. He helped me get through the worst of the healing from my childhood trauma. He was super special.

I started volunteering at my local animal shelter in Iowa. (They’re awesome and deserve a shout out: the Animal Rescue League of Iowa in Des Moines.) One day I was visiting with the cats and spotted this big, beautiful guy. I opened the cage and started to pet him. He immediately turned upside down and licked my nose. It was like he’d decided I was going to be his mom now.

He’d had a rough time of it, too. I don’t think he’d ever been inside a house before — he was fascinated by the toilet! He was really scared of dogs and thunder. So I was gentle with him and he was gentle with me and the rest is history.

Oh gosh, that’s wonderful. What is it about animals that feels so comforting and healing?

I learned from an early age that it was dangerous to trust people. Because of severe allergies, I couldn’t have a pet until I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to be able to take riding lessons and I loved being around the horses. I’d spend hours in the barn, brushing the horses and talking to them. Touch is such a powerful and underrated thing, especially for victims of abuse and people with disabilities. Animals are one way for us to find the love and affection we so desperately need in a safe way.

There’s something so satisfying about having a limp, drooling cat asleep in your lap. It’s such a powerful sign of absolute trust and love.”

Cats have been elemental to me learning about healthy boundaries. They tell you where the line is and enforce it. It’s a beautiful thing. I think animals teach us humility. If we want to communicate, we have to learn their language. Like with Sweetie: I approached him slowly, let him sniff me, and said hello in a cat-friendly way. That’s why it took him all of 30 seconds to decide he wanted me to rub his belly!

I’m glad that people seem to be getting better at accepting the deep bond between people and pets. Some people have more superficial relationships to their pets and that’s fine, but for me it’s always been a deep, mutual friendship. Yes, sometimes Sweetie just wants me to feed him, but he loves me for more than food. There’s something so satisfying about having a limp, drooling cat asleep in your lap. It’s such a powerful sign of absolute trust and love. Maybe I’m like a cat because I don’t trust easily and I can appreciate what a gift that trust is.

“You can’t tell me animals don’t get sarcasm.”

For years my ex felt safe to me because at least he never hurt me sexually. The abuse made me feel unlovable, but my cats have proven to me every day that’s not true. And cats aren’t like dogs; they’re a little more conditional with their love. Even if they love you, they don’t pass out in your lap unless they trust you. To me, love feels like a warm, limp, happy body in my lap and sounds like purrs.

My cat likes to tell me he loves me by acting like I’m the worst cat mom in the world. I think it’s a cat thing. Like when we were driving a thousand miles in the U-Haul and he hated every minute of it. I knew he was okay because of the way he’d glare at me. You can’t tell me animals don’t get sarcasm.

Classic cat.

Yup! Now that I’m older, I get the Crazy Cat Lady label sometimes. But because of my experiences, it’s easier for me to think outside of “normal.” I’ve lived such a difficult, challenging life. I see people my age giving in to societal or family pressure and doing what’s expected of them, whether that means going to college, picking a career, getting married, or having children. My experiences pushing myself to my limit in college showed me that there’s so much more to life than work. I learned early that if you don’t feel good, nothing else matters much.

*Leah is her chosen pseudonym.

Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in DC by way of Los Angeles and has a conflicted relationship with social media, but you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram anyway.

Carrie has written 82 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Wow. Thank you.

    I have so many feelings.

    I’m a 47 yo survivor of CSA – I started treatment 25ish years ago. The details of your journey are completely different from mine but the emotions resonate a lot.

    I remember that “want to want sex” idea – it was kind of maybe useful to me, but I see how it’d be completely unhelpful / damaging to someone who’s ace. That sucks.

    I’ve noticed a lot of changes and improvements in how sexual abuse is treated since I started this – some of it is improvements in the field (thank you trauma-informed therapy!) and honestly I think some of it is me getting better at choosing therapists and treatment. I’ve had much better luck finding queer and queer friendly support recently and I’ve been surprised at what a difference it’s made.

    I started treatment around the same time I started realizing that I’m bi (in college). I went through this long period where I thought I needed to get over my fear of men and fear of sex with men before I could date women.

    I was recently in a trauma survivor support group run by my local LGBT center – I joined it because it was free and I’d been laid off and I was desperately in need of affordable services. One cycle just happened to be all incest survivors – and we’d all been abused by our fathers or grandfathers. It was so healing for me to listen to the cis and trans men in the group talk about how they thought being abused did or didn’t impact their orientation and identity.

  2. I love this series. Everyone featured has different experiences from mine but there’s always stuff that resonates with my understanding of my own disability, framed in ways I hadn’t previously articulated. Like Leah’s idea that cats can teach us about good boundaries. Cats are autonomous, that’s what makes their affection feel earned and meaningful.
    Plus, when they purr they heal themselves; when I am having a terrible day and my cat purrs in my lap I feel like she is sharing that power with me.

  3. Thank you for this and for opening up about all this. I agree that cats can be great company and healers in times of trauma and have bonds with humans that are deep (I wonder what it is about humans that some of us are scared/too arrogant to admit this? We’re both mammal animals who’ve lived together as family for over 100 years so of course we can bond).
    I haven’t been through such a horrible trauma as you have but my cat was there by my side (literally) when I was healing from my social anxiety so she’ll always have a special place for me. And not to minimise human trauma but I think that’s because I was there for her too – we got burgled when she was two and she was aggressive as a defence mechanism ever after ’til I learnt cat body language and how to be around her to calm her down rather than over stimulate her.
    As an aspie I love how cats feel the same way we (some aspies) do about direct eye contact. Rather they prefer to blink slowly at the people (human and cat) they’re bonding with. And their body language is clear once you learn it and accept its different to dog body language w things like wagged tails.
    Anyway that’s just my silly response to your amazing and open interview. Again thank you for being so brave and open about this and I hope life keeps getting better for you.

  4. I’ve had a cat that was the same way and was a huge comfort (like seriously he had a sixth sense and knew whenever I was crying, so i know what you’re talking about). He was delightful and lovely and I miss him a lot sometimes.

    One of my current cats is…actually kind of challenging to deal with as someone with a disability. He likes to lay on people, and won’t get up (like. literally. won’t move unless you physically pick him up and move him. while he tries to scratch bite you for moving him. like dude. i know you’re probably upset because you’re old and your bones ache but you’re literally causing me pain too.). It’s especially been an issue after surgeries when I’ve had a limit to what weight I can pick up because it’s generally less than his weight, and I’ve been trapped under him until I find someone who can come over and get him off me so I can go to the bathroom. Not a good time.

    My other cat is great about things though, and after surgeries has pretty easily understood what body part is sort and a no-go for sitting on, and also happens to get that a lot of the time, laying on me would make things worse (and she’s not a big cuddler anyway), but she’ll still lay next to me on bad days most of the time, and she likes to watch my PT exercises.

    My pupper is the animal that is The Most Chill about disability/chronic illness though…probably because she’s got a couple of chronic illnesses too, and as she’s aged she’s gone very hard of hearing and lost a lot of her vision, which is compounded by her dry eye. She wants to go (when I can go), but if it’s a day I can’t do a lot, she’s also perfectly happy to just veg out. And also like me, she tends does better when she gets exercise. And I feel like I do a better job of understanding HER needs too because of my disability and needing to think about accessibility needs I had, and then take that and think about what other accessibility needs someone else might have–I was the first person to really notice her hearing loss and realize that we had to change the way we communicated with her because she couldn’t understand verbal commands most of the time (my parents were getting very frustrated and just kept trying to TALK LOUDER AT HER which…yeah, that doesn’t do anything except stress her out), and worked with her to find hand signals that had a big enough motion that she could see them, and I’m her Anxiety Human at the vet (I don’t know what exactly I do that’s comforting, but she’s less anxious with me than with either of my parents or just the vet staff, so if by being the person that brings her to the vet I make it less stressful for her then I am now the designated vet interface person whenever I can be).

  5. Asexual representation!!! YAAAAAAAAY!!!

    I, too, am a mostly-ace queer lady who was rescued by a cat. My cat, Batman, showed up at my front door and decided to adopt me about two and a half weeks before my favorite cousin died very unexpectedly. I don’t know how I would have survived the ensuing hurricane of grief without him. Every time I look at his little furry face, I’m so immensely grateful.

  6. I can’t believe I missed this article! I love the ace representation. I find the association between asexuality and abuse or disability a bit problematic (understatement of the year). I still think my therapist, who has been amazing for me, still harbors some suspicion that I am hiding some past abuse. For someone who has been abused, getting people to understand that correlation is not causation must be so difficult and painful.

    I too am a cat person and my kitty is basically the only creature I get physical affection from, mostly because I trust him not to hurt me. Also the fluff. I have found, however, that my horse has been the most amazing creature in terms of his ability to read my pain on a day to day basis and change his behavior accordingly. I am so hopeful that you continue to find healing through our amazing four legged friends.

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