Sex, Dating, and Cerebral Palsy: Ryan J. Haddad Brings Gay Intimacy and Disability to the Stage
Ryan J. Haddad was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 2. His family’s great, but the response to him from gay men has been so bizarre and hurtful he’s written a play about it.
Ryan J. Haddad still doesn’t know why the man in Manhattan’s Industry Bar burst into tears when he saw him.
He asked the man why, but no explanation was forthcoming. Perhaps the man was drunk, but this and a clutch of other strange and telling experiences appear in Haddad’s autobiographical monologue, Hi, Are You Single?
Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, is 24, and the 45-minute show—two performances of which will take place at the Robert Moss Theater at Playwrights Downtown in New York City on Jan. 5 as part of the Public Theater’s 2017 Under the Radar festival—examines his experience of sex, dating, disability, and navigating sexual and romantic intimacy.
As the notes for his play state: “Do you have a high sex drive? Ryan does. He also has cerebral palsy. No, those things are not mutually exclusive.” Audience members are instructed: “Please bring an attractive male friend with you.”
Over a lunch of salads in a New York restaurant, Haddad told a reporter that he wrote the play in his early twenties, just when he started hitting the gay bars in New York City for the first time.
A recent graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, having studied theater and creative writing, Haddad said, “I was under the impression that I couldn’t be an actor because of my disability. I grew up wondering, ‘Did I not get this part in this community-theater show or high-school show because I have a walker, or because I was not right for the part?' You never come out and ask, right?”
He got some parts, but with others he never knew if it was skills being judged or his disability. “I went into college thinking, ‘I have to be a playwright or director, not an actor, because I don’t want to take that rejection all the time.’”
The last piece of community theater he did proved significant. It was a production of Annie, which he had loved seeing on TV and in Cleveland when he was growing up.
The director said she wanted him to play Daddy Warbucks, but Haddad didn’t think Warbucks “could be played by an actor with a walker.” He thought he would be given the part of Franklin D.Roosevelt, as he was in a wheelchair, but he was wrong. He won the Warbucks role.
Next, he played Madame Armfeldt, who uses a wheelchair, in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. He had sung ‘Liaisons,’ her big number, before, and “I was reversing gender and using my disability playing her. That may not be a big deal in New York City, but this was small-town Ohio. It was a great showcase for my talents, and it was nothing to do with the walker.
“When I walked out to do a curtain call the last time, I started crying, because I realized there were not many roles so perfectly suited to my limited ability.
“There are so few roles written for performers with disabilities, or roles featuring characters with disabilities for those performers to play. And film and TV producers always look for a big star who is not disabled for those roles.”
It was the performance artist Tim Miller who told Haddad that he shouldn’t wait for roles that fit, but rather write his own story about disability and sexuality as it was that which distinguished himself from other performers.
This Haddad did first in a workshop, before coming to New York himself in 2013, just as the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed and Proposition 8 overturned.
In crafting his own story, Haddad first recalled some memories from preschool, where, on a floor of rainbow-colored bricks, he played at weddings in which he would always play the bride: “I had no concept that this made me gay, or was strange and different.”
He crawled around everywhere, and his teachers, he recalled, wanted him to use a walker. A teacher also told him if he wanted to play weddings he had to be the groom.
“I was a little kid. I didn’t want to get used to a device that was weird. And I also didn’t want to be the groom,” Haddad said, adding that 21 years later, he was still using the same model of walker if now a larger size. “There are spaces where I am confident without the walker. I use it for security. I use it outside, and in large open spaces. I almost always use it on stage.”
Haddad grew up with two brothers, older by seven and nine years, respectively. “They always normalized it [his disability], so there was nothing strange or different about it.”
When Haddad had a surgery at around 6 that allowed him to take steps, one of his brothers walked him around the house, incentivizing him to move with promises to take him to New York, or build him a Broadway theater.
“He was a teenager, a middle-school jock, an athletic butch, straight guy, but he knew what I needed to hear,” Haddad recalled. “It was wonderful. My father, for better or worse, has spent lot of time not even acknowledging that I am disabled, and in a way that was not harmful. He was always trying to make me feel that everything was normal.”
He paused. “I keep using word ‘normal,’ which is bad and I shouldn’t be.” His family knew Haddad “had the potential mentally, artistically, and academically—and I wasn’t going to let my disability stop anything.”
His mother backed him having that first surgery, aged 6, while his father was against it (“they met in the middle”). He was too young to have any idea what was going on, except the exotic discomfort of wearing a plaster cast.
Haddad was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 2. “It never goes away. Whatever they did to me in the operating room I knew it was still part of me, and there are only so many improvements that can be made until a major medical breakthrough.”
His second major surgery at 20—to rotate his ankle forward—was a procedure the now-adult Haddad decided to have. His father again wanted him not to have it, and to keep living his life and not take months away from it as he recovered; his mother was “on the fence.” But Haddad wanted to “because here is a part of my life that needed to be fixed. I knew I wanted my leg to be straighter.”
In a sense, Haddad said, his father was right: The procedure has slowed him down, and made him less certain of his balance, which he had a lot more confidence in his late teens. “But I had learned to walk in a certain way, and now I have retrained myself to walk in a completely different way.”
So, Haddad is a little more hesitant taking steps, and has had to shift priorities according to where and when he doesn’t use his walker, but he is happy he had the surgery: Now his hip and knee won’t rotate out. “I’ll be better served as an adult later in life.”
He walks around his own home without aid, but uses a cane at his uncle’s and grandmother’s houses where once he did not, just to make sure he is all right. His “adorable” nephew is particularly watchful that “Uncle Ryan” has his cane when he visits.
Growing up in such a positive and supportive familial environment meant Haddad never felt angry—an emotion he felt for the first time walking into gay bars. At school he was smart and funny, always excelling at whatever he did, “and even if people were surprised at the disabled kid doing it they were inspired by it.”
Haddad has mixed feelings about inspiring others. “It’s looked down on in the disability community. You’re just living your life. If I was funny, smart, and fabulous and didn’t have a disability, I’d still be all those things but you wouldn’t find it ‘inspiring.’”
As a teenager he didn't know why this “inspiration” could be seen as a microagression, or patronizing or insulting, but--in recent times--he also had an experience with a middle-aged woman who lived in his block who said she had watched him come and go about his life, and had found it inspiring.
This inspiration was far from patronizingly expressed—it was in the context of her caring for her sister who had a degenerative disease, which she ultimately died from last year. Haddad’s presence had helped her get through a terrible and sad period of her life.
Haddad realized he was gay as a teenager. He had always been attracted to men, and came out at 16 after falling for another guy at musical theater camp. Haddad’s feelings were not reciprocated, but he had decided that the first people he would come out to would be his parents.
“They were miraculously fine,” Haddad said, smiling. “There were hard discussions. It takes being directly connected to somebody gay to be more sensitive about it. My mom’s sister is a lesbian and my dad’s first cousin is gay, but that didn’t mean there weren’t little incidences of homophobic language. I knew that would stop if I came out, and it did.”
They had to get over their ideas about what “gay” meant, said Haddad, and the perception of him having a wife and children. There were three hours of tough conversation, and then ”at three hours one minute everything was fine, and to be honest with you, the first thing my father said was, ‘You’re our son. We will love you no matter what.’”
In his sophomore year he met a couple of guys, but never went “all the way.” New York was to be his big introduction to the scene and men, and his first impression was that many gay men had simply never seen a disabled person in the bars.
In the show he jokes that he first went to Hell's Kitchen bar Therapy, and noticed the venue’s imposing staircase. “And OK, we’re off to a great start.”
He faced questions from guys about his sexual capacity, his ability to sexually function, and sometimes a surprise acknowledgment that he should be out in the world at all. “If my disability is the first thing you say to me I'm not going to take it very well,” Haddad said.
And then, in Industry Bar, that guy burst into tears in seeing Haddad. It didn’t occur to Haddad immediately that people were responding to his disability; his friends noticed it. On Cleveland’s gay scene, the experiences “went from being bizarre to being hurtful.”
Haddad recalled, “One of first questions you get is ‘Can you get hard?’ They just don’t know if you have feeling down there. I’m like, ‘I’m standing up, what do you mean? Of course I do.’ But even apart from my own experience, even if someone is paraplegic or quadriplegic and doesn’t have traditional sensations in those areas, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to pleasure those people or that those people do not have a hungry sexual appetite which needs to be satisfied.”
The goal of his show and writing it “was always to show disabled people in a strongly sexual context. You never see it on TV. If you see us, we are pitied or inspirational. They never just exist. Finally, in (ABC’s sitcom) Speechless, we have a kid who has cerebral palsy who is non-verbal and just wants to go out with a girl in high school. It's revolutionary and exciting, and I want more stories like that.”
Haddad wants to see different characters with different stories—and with different elements of disability, like one leg or arm, or with mental or cognitive disabilities.
Not all Haddad’s experiences have been negative. At Therapy Bar one night he got a lap-dance from a straight go-go boy. “It made me feel very sexy, very alive, very charged, and very aroused. He is called Geronimo and a lovely guy, and made me feel confident and safe. When I came off stage, all these guys suddenly found me desirable because they watched this exhibition of carnal desire, even if it was a staged moment.
“Why is that what it takes? They had to see it first to suddenly show them that I was capable of intimacy. It literally took them to see a person with a disability participate in an act of sex and desire to make them think, ‘Oh I should go and hit on him.’
“It proves to me that if people see it on TV, or they see it in a sex scene in a movie, or if we just show people with disabilities in a range of sexual, romantic, and desirable contexts then I think the stigma of dating a person with a disability will diminish. When people see something in popular culture, it becomes possible and attainable—that’s why I wrote the show.”
His experience of cerebral palsy is singular, Haddad said, and the gamut of disability and sexuality huge, “but art has the power to make those changes.”
Haddad has never had a boyfriend, he said, or consistently dated someone—which seems a shame as he is handsome, intelligent, and incredibly funny. “Believe me, I go out on plenty of dates where I’m the one doing the rejecting, saying ‘This was nice, goodbye,’” he said, smiling.
“I am trying to wait not for a husband, but for someone who isn’t just a hookup. As I say in the first five minutes of the show, I’ve never had anal sex. I would like to properly date someone, but who knows if that is how it’s going to happen? We might be friends who’ve gotten to know each other over years, it might be someone who I’ve gone out with and really connected with.
“I have to know it’s something different, something special. He doesn’t have to say he’s my boyfriend immediately. He may not turn out to be my boyfriend. But I want it to be someone that am I comfortable with and who I’ve established trust with.”
Haddad said he feels more control meeting people online than in bars—not that people can’t be rude via keyboard. “Someone said to me, ‘You’re rejecting me? With all your problems you’re lucky to take whatever you can get.’”
What does Haddad do faced with such assholes (who he said were, thankfully, few in number)?
“You either block them or go at them with anger—neither of which are really productive.”
Someone else “literally made fun of me being disabled. He was muscular and dumb and couldn’t spell. I get angry because I never had to deal with any of this growing up.
“I can deal with men being ignorant, or curious, or just saying things. People being purposefully mean is rare. Mostly people are fine—it's either ‘I’m interested’ or ‘I’m not interested.’ They don't have to explain why, but it's one reason why online is better. I don’t love it, but it’s where I get more dates or hook-ups, and the reason is I am able to control the environment. I can block the asshole. I don’t have to engage. I can respond how I want to respond. I don’t have to be caught off-guard in the moment by implicit or explicit acts of discrimination.”
One added issue is that hot bodies, and the fetishization and marketing of hot bodies, are so much a part of gay life.
“Oh absolutely,” Haddad said. “That’s part of it. I am not the ideal, right? If you took me out of the walker I’d look like any other hairy twink of Middle Eastern descent. I could be very desirable. And I am desirable to a lot of people. I’m just not desirable to people I find desirable. That’s why I am single at almost 25.”
Haddad knows that some people contemplating sex with him might think, for example, he couldn’t make it up their stairs (he could, he would just need their help), or that they could hurt him unintentionally during sex, “but I don’t have pain in my body. If someone asked me that I’d say, ‘Honey, you’re not going to hurt me.’ But I’m rarely given the opportunity to say that.”
“The cross section of disability and sexuality is so porous,” said Haddad. “There is no context for it in society or popular culture. With LGB people, the idea is that you share a sexual or romantic attraction. It depends where I am around how people respond to me. If I’m in a LGBT community center or at an arts or culture event, it’s lovely and I’m very well received.
“But if I’m in a space where I’m really trying to meet guys or pursue romance or sex in any way it becomes odd and strange and boring, as soon as it is intimate, or there is the perception that I could want you, and me wanting you is either something intriguing, or exciting.”
The other person can chase, or put walls up, or Haddad rejects them—which is how the show turns. At the beginning we see Haddad being rejected, and as it progresses we see him rejecting others, and that he isn’t perfect, but “as flawed and guilty of the same kind of discriminations as other people across a different spectrum and for different reasons.”
How is he flawed? "I am afraid of what I don't know. The character in the play tries to protect himself against what he perceives to be danger or loneliness. It becomes an interrogation of me and my own judgments and discriminatory tendencies."
Aging doesn’t bother Haddad: He thinks he may get arthritis at a more rapid rate than people without cerebral palsy, but his condition has been “in the same place” for a long time. There hasn’t been, and won’t be, further deterioration. He lives a full life. He doesn’t take any medication.
Writing the play means Haddad finally has the chance, voicing his 21-year-old self, to give the kinds of zingers to all those guys who were ignorant or worse toward him four years ago. “Now I have something to say to them, and I will call them out,” he said smiling.
By day Haddad is a customer-service representative, but acting and writing are his true passions, and he would love, as well as telling his own stories, to be a series regular on a TV show to provide a platform for disabled people. “The reason this is happening for me is that I created the material for a vehicle in which I would be the star.”
He hopes one of the producers who come to see Incoming! Hi, Are You Single? at the Public Theater scoops it up and gives him a chance to perform it off-Broadway, and then who knows. “I hope we get to the point where disabled performers are given these opportunities, and don’t always have to make them for themselves,” Haddad said. “But I’m happy to make them for myself, and for others as well.”
Hi, Are You Single? is at the Robert Moss Theater at Playwrights Downtown, 440 Lafayette Street, NYC, on Jan. 5, at 5 and 8:30 p.m. Book tickets here.