Unseen Queers: Talking issues of queerness and disability with Charles O’ Grady

By Cameron Colwell

Queer representation in media is an issue I’m not sure how I feel about. I feel that investing much political importance on the products of corporations designed to extract profit from consumers is misguided, and that, as powerful and affirming or whatever they may be, maybe a positive vision for representation doesn’t come in the form of tokenism from Disney and Hollywood.

Socio-cultural impact of mega-corporations notwithstanding, what I do understand is the power of a good story, well told, on an individual— whether it’s in a film or a novel or a play. Like many queer people, I’ve gathered a kind of internal talismanic canon of texts that offered hope, solace, and insight. One wants to feel spoken to. If one is a particularly antisocial young queer, like I was, finding queer characters offers relief unlike any other. Hardly world-shattering, but still, necessary. These kinds of thoughts, while maybe negligible to others, are vital for me to consider as a writer — which is why it was enthusiastic when I received an e-mail from Charles O’ Grady a trans, gay, and disabled playwright and activist for disability and queer rights, about his latest play Are We Awake?

Are We Awake?, performed at The Old Fitz Theatre, is a play about the intersection of two identity categories often imagined, wrongly, to be incompatible: queerness and disability. The plot is fairly simple: Hypnos and Endymion (place-holder names that stuck) are a young queer couple in Sydney about to be separated by Endymion’s new job in Melbourne. The morning of the move, Hypnos, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a degenerative bone condition) and narcolepsy, wakes early, and the two begin to have a conversation, pretty amiably until it becomes clear Hypnos is unwilling to let Endymion go, and the fault lines under the surface of their relationship are intimately and passionately brought out, to dazzling effect.

The aim of the piece we discussed I would write (I have been an enthusiastic coverer of Charles’ work before) was not promo, but continuation of the conversation presented by Are We Awake?

According to O’ Grady, “the primary misconceptions I sought to problematise were the portrayal of disabled people as cookie cutter figures who are only ever inspirations or tragedies; the perception of the carer/disabled relationship (particularly when that relationship is also romantic) as being one-sided… At the heart of it, the thing I want people to leave the show knowing is that disabled lives are worth living, as much as any other.” O’Grady’s play is successful in this, demonstrating an intimate, complicated and flawed relationship, with a clear mutual attraction demonstrated. Centering the play on the relationship, to Charles, was “an attempt to highlight something people, both in straight and queer communities, often forget: disabled people can be queer, too. It sounds very simple to say, but the extent to which disability politics and activism gets left out of the broad queer movement shows queer disabled people that, to much of our own community, we are invisible.”

Actor Daniel Monks, who plays Hypnos, was enthusiastic about the role: “What I adore about Hypnos is how unapologetic he is, and how much he fights for himself & his rights. It is so easy as a disabled person to feel burdensome & inconvenient to our abled counterparts, and so my habitual go-to has usually been to be as accommodating & “nice” as possible – and so it’sbeen incredibly thrilling to unleash my rage at the injustice & unfairness of it all each night on stage. None of the specifically disabled parts I had played before had this aspect to them.” He also talked about the constricting narratives of disability: “As with most minorities, there is a very limited perception of who & what we are, which fails to understand & appreciate the vibrant diversity within the disability community alone.”

Somewhat inevitably, considering the timing, Charles and I also discussed Mardi Gras. While Mardi Gras may have a float dedicated to disabled people and its website does contain policy on accessibility, Charles remains unsatisfied: “event organisers often forget to meet any form of accessibility requirement whatsoever… There is also little focus in the LGBTQI community on disability and ableism, and we are being left behind by the broad queer rights movement.”

“Whilst it is never made explicit in the play, by virtue of being performed during Mardi Gras, Are We Awake? makes a comment on the inherent ableism within the gay community. It was important that within the play, there is an emphasis on Hypnos’ sexuality and desirability, to ensure he “desires and is desired.” Much of the early dialogue in the play revolves around Hypnos and Endymion exchanging comments on some of the attractive specialists that take care of Hypnos, keeping his disability and sexuality simultaneously present – on the same point, one of the more memorable episodes in the play is when Hypnos and Endymion, in the middle of an sexual encounter, Hypnos’ hip joint dislocates and the mood shifts to one of anxiety as Endymion struggles to move it back in.

“Too often disabled people are desexualised and we dismiss relationships that include disability as being ‘sexless’ or ‘out of pity’. Particularly within the gay community there is a discomfort and disgust at the idea of disabled bodies, something I imagine stems out of the cis gay male fixation on masculine perfection.” This is a point that resonates strongly with myself, as someone with a continual alertness to the body image struggles of other gay men: In a queer culture that increasingly places much emphasis on visibility, it becomes important to discuss on whose bodies are seen. Works like Charles’ are important in the way that they further nuance and give fresh perspective to queer issues, and it is a continual joy to watch his work bring life and insight to political points scarcely explored elsewhere – whatever his next work may be, I urge you to check it out.

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