How two Toronto-based activists and educators are expanding the intersection between "sexy" and "disabled."
Each month, Sex-ist looks at topics relating to sex and sexuality in and around the GTA
First of all: it wasn’t an orgy. Despite what you might have read in the Sun, the Star, and Vice, the party that went down at Buddies in Bad Times on August 14 is more correctly referred to as a “play party.” The 125 people who sold out the event could flirt, dance, laugh, be in various stages of undress, make out—and they could have sex, too, if they were all consenting adults.
Why was this a big deal? Those 125 people were attending Deliciously Disabled, the first fully accessible play party in Canada, if not the world. The party was different from the usual hook-up club scene in a number of ways. There were attendants onsite, to help operate Hoyer lifts and move people from wheelchairs to couches or beds and back again. There were volunteers who provided ASL translation. The bathrooms and entryways could accommodate 300-pound motorized wheelchairs. And, for the first time, people living with disabilities were at the centre of a sexual event designed to include them right from the beginning. “This event and space was for me. I was not an afterthought,” says Andrew Morrison-Gurza.
Morrison-Gurza is a Richmond Hill-based consultant who focuses on sexuality and disability. Earlier this year, he created Deliciously Disabled to further his work, which includes blogging and speaking about his lived experience as a queer man with cerebral palsy. “The brand started back in January, when I did a shoot for Now Magazine’s Love Your Body issue. They didn’t have anyone with a disability and I approached them.” After the shoot, the magazine asked Morrison-Gurza how he wanted to be described in his bio. At first, he went with his usual “queer and disabled” explainer. “And then I said, nope, you know what? I’m going to say I’m deliciously disabled.” A brand was born.
Stella Palikarova, who works on experiences and expressions of disability, came up with the idea for the play party. Last fall, she partnered with Oasis Aqualounge and began searching for venues that could accommodate disabled guests. (Oasis, with its narrow doorways and many stairs, wasn’t going to work.) “I did some poking around in terms of what, if any, accessible sex clubs exist in Toronto. I came up short.” The theatre-slash-event space Buddies in Bad Times was finally chosen after months of searching.
“There’s been a lot of criticism because Buddies is a charitable organization,” Palikarova says, but “people’s tax dollars weren’t going towards this event. We just rented out the space.” Oasis brought in furniture, and Morrison-Gurza was approached to lend his brand and his media savvy to the publicity blitz.
The night of the event was a raucous mix of good old fashioned public sex party—one of the entertainers was a man who painted with his penis while dressed as Wolverine—and activism work. “There were educational workshops, and a few DJs, one of whom played naked the whole night,” says Chandler Borland, who was part of the volunteer team. Borland was tasked with ensuring guests followed the rules around consent (“Oasis has a very strict ‘only ask once’ policy, which we stuck to throughout the night,” explains Palikarova), as well helping guests move around the space. “From the volunteer’s perspective, we wanted to make sure people had a good time, that they were able to fully engage with other guests and the entertainment, and they were able to engage with themselves and the others around them,” says Borland. “For many of the guests, this was their first sexual encounter with another disabled person.”
The event, which welcomed both disabled and able-bodied people, wasn’t designed to create either a frenzy of sexual behaviour or a wheelchair-only atmosphere. “People tried to hype the event beforehand like you would walk in and people would be naked on the floor having sex, but that really wasn’t what was happening,” laughs Morrison-Gurza. Instead, both organizers described the evening as relaxed, and welcoming to both able-bodied and disabled people.
(Of course, the barriers to a fully accessible sexual experience don’t just hinge on wheelchair ramps and speech synthesizers. Even getting dressed up for a play party can be a challenge. “I would speculate that a lot of the more conservative-dressed people came that way because they don’t have someone at home who they would feel comfortable asking to help them dress [more flamboyantly],” says Palikarova. Morrison-Gurza laughs when he says that he got a hand putting on his leather harness ahead of time. “For the whole day, I had my sex costume on under my shirt.”)
Deliciously Disabled is committed to sustaining a dialogue between the able-bodied community and people living with disabilities, even when that dialogue can be face-palmingly stupid. In the run-up to the event, the organizers did a media blitz, talking to outlets around the world about their brainchild. “I remember talking to someone in the States and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to let them play with your big joystick?’ And you play along with them, but inside you’re like, Are you ridiculous? Why are you asking me this?” He also mentions the radio hosts in New Zealand who asked him and Palikarova point-blank how they had sex. “It was so obvious that they wanted to created controversy, and we were like, ‘Nope, we’re not doing this.’ I’ll never be out of a job, because these continual mishaps and missteps happen.”
Morrison-Gurza thinks these some of these missteps originate from a place of fear. “This party was important because it tore the lid off how people feel about disability, and they are fucking scared. Able-bodied people have been taught not to offend anybody, so instead of asking politely, they’ll either ask you bluntly and say the worst things, or they won’t ask you anything and they’ll just make assumptions.” Part of the point of the Deliciously Disabled event was to create a safe space for questions. Able-bodied people were encouraged to approach disabled guests and start a dialogue with them. He says getting asked in a respectful way about living with his disability can be a turn-on, while potential partners who skate around the issue are decidedly not. “I had a guy flirt with me in a club last year, and he touched my leg. Then he said, ‘I was just feeling around to see if you were paralyzed.’ I was so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say.”
The conversation around sex and disability—and where they intersect—is an important one, and not just for people living with a disability. Both Morrison-Gurza and Palikarova see Deliciously Disabled’s larger mission as reinventing what it means to be disabled. “Often these communities are quite insular, and we band together to discuss our issues. What Deliciously Disabled does is say that these are issues that affect the greater society, and we want everyone to join us. You can be fun and sexy, and have all of those qualities as a person with a disability,” says Palikarova.
“It’s about so much more than sex and disability. It’s about creating a language around disability that is positive and different, provocative and fun,” expands Morrison-Gurza. “The language we have around disability is so boring. We’re pathologized—the medical model says I’m not able to walk, so I am othered—or it’s politicized, which is all about rights and access. That’s important, but neither of those models make thinks it’s fun. I really wanted to do something that brought the concepts of disability into real time, and into pop culture in a way that’s accessible to everybody.” An active Twitter user, he recently launched the #DeliciouslyDisabledAlly hashtag on social media, encouraging able-bodied people to post sexy pictures of themselves. “It’s to show that everybody supports everybody,” he says.
The event may have been the first of its kind, but Deliciously Disabled will continue: more events both in Toronto and further afield, more speaking gigs, and most importantly, a deeper understanding of what it means be sexy and disabled at the same time. “The doors have been swung open, quite forcefully, by us saying that we want this kind of event in our community. People with disabilities are valuable sexual and romantic partners,” says Palikarova. Maybe their next play party will end up as an orgy after all.