Queer, Old and Crippled: One Person’s Life

Queer, Old and Crippled: One Person’s Life

From Beth Finke, a regular contributor for Easterseals:

When I’m not writing posts for the Easterseals blog, I keep busy leading three different memoir-writing classes every week for older adults here in Chicago. 

Writers in those classes tell me that writing a story at home to bring to class each week keeps their brains working. And for me, leading those classes is a pleasure: I get to know each writer very well simply by listening to the stories read out loud in class each week.  

June is Pride Month, so I assigned “Pride” as a prompt for class this week. Bill Gordon, an 86-year-old in one of my classes, came back with a very personal essay about what it’s like to be growing older now as a gay and disabled American. He has generously agreed to let us publish it here on the Easterseals blog. 

Editor’s Note: At Easterseals, we believe in giving disabled and LGBTQ+ people the space to share their stories authentically, with the language of their choosing to describe their identities and experiences. While the author uses “crippled” to describe his disability identity, Easterseals does not use this word to describe disabled people. 

Queer, Old and Crippled: One Person’s Life

By Bill Gordon 


Being queer is one thing. Being old is another, and being crippled is yet another. I’ll start here by describing my disability. 


I was born with spina bifida but had the mildest form of it there is. Spina Bifida didn’t begin to cripple me until my late fifties, and even then, my limp was barely noticeable. 

But by 65, I was walking with a cane, and from then on it got progressively worse: I went from one cane to two canes, then two canes and a leg brace, then crutches and two leg braces and orthotics. In my eighties now, I use a wheelchair to get around. 

I haven’t always been old or crippled, but I have always, always, been queer. 


When I was 3 or 4 years old, a snowstorm closed the highway that ran through our small farming community. My parents invited the young driver of a cattle truck stranded by the storm to stay in our home. 

Everyone thought I was asleep that night, but I saw the man naked when he was bathing in our round, metal tub. The feeling that swept through my 3- or 4-year-old self remains with me to this day. Even though I didn’t have the words to express what I felt, I intuitively understood that I was different and that I had a secret I had to keep. 

With my secret intact, I moved through grammar school and junior high unscathed. Popularity did not elude me. Each year, I was elected to the Student Council. Other students and teachers seemed to like me. What saved me from humiliation and bullying? I was tall, smart, a good student, articulate, pleasant looking, and, thanks to my mother and father’s parenting methods, I grew up kind and thoughtful. At that age, that was enough to get by. 

And yes, a few of my male friends and I “played” around. They understood it to be an innocent exploration, but I did not think of it as simply “what kids did” as part of growing up. In the secret recesses of my being, I was thrilled by our exploring and never let an opportunity pass me by. When I was 13, I discovered the word “homosexual.” I went to the library’s card catalog to look it up, and a “see reference” directed me to the words “mental illness” and “criminal behavior.” I cringed at the thought of being either of those things — mentally ill or a criminal because I was gay. I knew I wasn’t either of them, but this discovery convinced me that my secret needed to be buried even further. 

And things really changed when I started high school. 

The athletes moved to the front of the line, and I wasn’t athletic. Boys like me became the butt of jokes with the words “queer” and “fairy” in them. 

When a bunch of guys called me a “turd” once and told me I was too smart for my own good, I didn’t care. I was just relieved they didn’t call me “queer” or say I was a fairy. No one wanted to be called either one of those words. 

I told myself the way I looked and carried myself would protect me from torment and help keep my secret firmly in place. I always had a girlfriend (a “beard”) in high school, and I went to all the school dances, including those where girls invited the boys. A crowd waving pride flags

On the side, I started an affair with a neighbor boy. Our passion outweighed our fear of getting caught, so it was disappointing when he suddenly decided he didn’t want to do “it” anymore. No surprise, really: in my early teens I had already concluded that a life as a homosexual would be one of furtive sexual encounters, loneliness, and a constant effort to hide one’s true feelings. What a sad way to lurch into adulthood. 

Then came college. Through my college years, I continued to have casual, furtive sex wherever I could find it. And finding it wasn’t difficult. I seemed to have been a “commodity” that lots of people wanted. This was back in the day, long before social media. We all had some form of “gaydar” (rhymes with radar) that helped us recognize others looking for the same thing. Most of us were still in the closet so deep that caution governed our activities. 

Throughout my working life, I remained closeted. Even when I suspected people knew I was gay, I could not — would not  confirm it. A lifetime of hiding who I really was could not be given up easily. 

When I was 50, I met a man 20 years my junior. We connected on several levels — sexually, intellectually, spiritually. We became partners and remained so until his death at 52 years old. We were devoted to each other, but we were both residing deep in closets to protect our professional lives, and, in his case, information from his deeply religious family. We often joked that we moved from separate closets to one of those large walk-ins where we could reside together. 

Getting Older 

As the years pass and I grow older, it has become clear that I have become less and less desirable. The gay community seems to define acceptable attractiveness as young, lean, fit, good looking, and wearing the right clothes and going to the right places. We all age out of that description, and the gay community can be cruel. Bars that catered to older men are often referred to as wrinkle rooms. Men, trying to retain a youthful appearance, often become the victims of ridicule. 

Growing old can be hard, and in the ageist gay community, it can be especially difficult.  Gay men need to be secure about the inevitability of aging, and willing to accept growing old with grace and a sense of humor. I believe I have done that, celebrating each year with gratitude, adjusting to the inevitable dismissive attitude of some younger men, and reveling in the amazing peace and some comfort old age can bring. 

Tall, lean and fit can no longer be used to describe me. So, now what? First of all, I’m still gay. Disability does not alter that fact for any gay person. Being less than what the gay community describes as perfect is burdensome. Each disabled gay person has had to traverse a difficult field of prejudice to enjoy the benefits of a gay life. 

I was old before I became disabled. My gratitude is boundless that my disability, which has been a part of my life for twenty-five years, has progressed slowly, giving me the opportunity to adjust my lifestyle as my mobility decreases. I found room in my protective closet for my crutches and wheelchair. 

Finally, in my mid-seventies (I am now 86 years old), I came out. In a small group of people in a memoir writing class, I said, while reading an essay I had written, that I was gay. Even then, I was nervous with sweaty palms, but, alas, the earth continued to swirl on its axis, and Beth Finke, the teacher of the class, simply called on the next class member to read their essay. We all moved on. 


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