Dominick Evans is a friend and frequent collaborator with the Disability Visibility Project. Activist Arjun Sethi reached out to me last year about a book on hate in America featuring people from diverse communities in the United States, American Hate: Survivors Speak Out (available August 7, 2018). I am grateful that Dominick agreed to share his story with the world. Follow Dominick on Twitter and check out his website!
For more, you can read my interview with Arjun Sethi.
CW: discussion of suicidal thoughts, abuse, ableism
Tell me a little about yourself!
Dominick: I first and foremost see myself as a creative person. My heart and soul belongs to film, television, gaming, and other forms of media. I would say that being a father and partner is equally as important, to me. My family has supported all of my creative endeavors, including going to film school and getting my film degree. Whatever I do creatively speaking, be it directing films, streaming video games, or creating podcasts, my son and girlfriend are with me!
I am multiply disabled. I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and I’ve used a wheelchair since I was 16, to get around. I also have chronic health disabilities including asthma, chronic pain, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis. I’m a CODA. My dad was Deaf, and I’ve always failed hearing tests. My hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, and I am now also HoH. Beyond that, I’ve struggled with my mental health. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and a yet to be identified trauma based psychological disability.
I identify as queer, which to me means that I find attraction to people not with binary ideas of gender. I’ve dated people who identify as women, as men, or as somewhere in between binary genders. I am also nonbinary and trans. To me, that means I don’t have to limit my gender expression to the type of constraints society has set of what is acceptable to be a man or a woman.
I am trans masculine, but I was socialized as a female for almost 30 years. I can’t ignore that history, and so many people try to do that for me. I was raised being expected to think of myself as a physically disabled female, and what that means is that this affected my self-worth, my body image, how I move in the world, and how I see myself. It’s all a part of my story.
Though I always wish I was working on my latest film (financing is hard!), I do love the work I am doing. I work with businesses and nonprofits to consider diversity in all their work. That means including disabled people but not just white, cisgender, straight disabled people. The disability community is so diverse, but only certain voices tend to get heard, so through consulting, social media, and writing I work with these businesses to ensure they are not leaving anyone out. I also enjoy public speaking on topics including media representation of disability and trans folks, sex/sexuality, marriage equality for disabled people, reproductive health, and disability in gaming.
As someone who is featured in American Hate, can you tell me how you got involved with this project and what the interview process was like with you and Arjun?
Dominick: You actually introduced me to Arjun! I know that as my friend you knew that I’ve experienced hate throughout much of my life. I’ve experienced it with my family, in school, riding the bus to college, in my college programs, when I used to be an actor – pretty much everywhere. That has intensified in the last two years in many non-surprising ways.
Arjun was supposed to come see me, but we soon realized it would be easier for me to talk with him over video conference software. It was emotionally draining for me to revisit some of the most painful memories of my past, but I think it’s important to share these experiences. If they can prevent another disabled and/or transgender child especially from experiencing the pain I did, I definitely think it was worth it. I don’t want anyone to go through what I have. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely recover from some of the things I’ve experienced in my life, things that were preventable because they were done to me by others who could’ve chosen not to do these things.
You say how your rarely identify as trans now, especially after the 2016 election. Can you tell me about the tensions between keeping yourself safe, feeling vulnerable, and the visibility you have as an activist and filmmaker?
Dominick: It’s hard, because there’s two different Dominicks, if that makes sense?! Being someone who primarily works on the computer whose involved in advocacy who is known as someone who is trans through my work is different from who I am in my community. I’m so very open about who I am online, but I’m not well-known enough for people where I live to know this. There is always this fear that someone will figure it out.
You know, as violent as people were in the 1990s towards queer and trans people, a lot of them would ignore me because of my wheelchair. I often was the one they assumed was not queer or trans, which says a lot about how we as a society think about disabled people as genderless or loveless individuals. I was often the one physically putting my body and my wheelchair between the queer bashers and my gay male or trans female friends, because I knew I was less likely to get hit. I walked my friends home so many times at night to protect them, when we lived on campus in the late 90s and early 2000s.
That’s all changed with Donald Trump. I live in a place that’s incredibly conservative, and I worry about my safety. I worry about the safety of my family. I worry about the safety of my sister who is Black, queer, and disabled.
I don’t see that messed up sense of honor where some people, people who are otherwise strangers, seem to believe disabled people are off limits. Most of the abuse I received growing up was from people who actually knew me. Now, I fear strangers, as well. It has limited where I go and how I interact with people in my community. I honestly don’t know what would happen if someone where I live found out I was trans.
There are people in my community we saw marching in Charlottesville, spewing racism, anti-gay sentiment, transphobia, anti-Semitism. These people are violent, and it’s scary to think I could encounter them on the street at any time. It’s scary to think they could harm my family.
It can be painful and scary to tell your story, especially when recounting acts of violence and hate. Why did you decide to participate in this book? What do you want readers to understand after learning more about you?
Dominick: I’ve been working in creative and activist circles for over 18 years. My activism began in 1998. I was 17 when Matthew Shepard died, and the impact of that on the college campus I was attending as a senior in high school had a dramatic effect on me. I remember when we were threatened with baseball bats for having an LGBTQIA dance, and campus police threatened to join the hecklers in beating us. It was not hard to want to fight for freedom of expression and self, after witnessing that. It took me longer to find disability pride and acceptance in myself.
Hating myself has been a struggle throughout most of my life. It’s painful, and it took a long time to start to care about myself. I don’t want other disabled kids to go through that. I don’t want other trans kids to go through that. I want young people to know it’s okay who you are no matter what that means for you. We, as a society, have rigid expectations of how people are supposed to be, and if you don’t fit within that you are often treated like an outcast.
If I’m experiencing these things, there is someone else who might not have the platform or the access and ability to communicate the harm that is being caused to them. Ultimately, I’ve always shared my story to try to help others. I have felt alone. I’ve been suicidal. I thought I could be the only one going through this, and the more I share the more I realize I’m not alone. Disabled people are often already so isolated, I want other disabled people to know they aren’t. That they can get through these things. Their life is worth living and worth fighting for, whatever that means to them.
That being said, I was hesitant, at first, to participate. It can be incredibly hard being vulnerable and open, and though I’m not someone who cries very much, I broke down more than once during our interview. It was surprisingly very cleansing to talk about things I haven’t spoken about in years.
What are your thoughts on the hate crimes that currently occur related to disability and the root causes of them?
Dominick: I think that a lot of people don’t realize that hate crimes have been occurring against disabled people for years. This is not new to many of us, but it also really reflects what we as a society think about disability. There is still so much pervasive fear around becoming disabled, and disabled people are still treated as though we are not human beings, as a result. I definitely think we are a living reminder of what some people may experience as they age, and we really need to work as a society change that perception that this is horrible. Our lives ARE worth living.
Disability is a natural part of aging. It’s a natural part of the human experience, but we treat it as something so “special” and so different so nondisabled people don’t have to consider they could be like us. There have always been disabled people in the world, and there always will be. I think the sooner we start to accept that the more we will start considering inclusion and equitable treatment.
I really hate talking about how Donald Trump has treated disabled people, but the one thing I can agree with is that when someone holds a position of power and they act a certain way, those following them do seem to believe it’s okay to act that way as well. Once you start acting that way, you dehumanize the people you are treating that way. Donald Trump doesn’t care about how we treat disabled people. He’s never going to have to worry about fighting for home and community based services, balancing a budget on a disability check to ensure you can pay your rent and other bills, or lack of access to buildings and businesses you need to get into. It’s really easy to act the way you do when something is not affecting you personally.
I’ve seen hatred and abuse occur for no reason against disabled people. I’ve also seen targeted attacks in relation to healthcare, especially home and community-based services, which allow me to live in my home independently. The threat of a nursing home is always there, and I couldn’t have the career I have if I was trapped in a nursing home. I’ve also seen hatred around access to education and other services. Social Security disability is a frequent thing that’s attacked, as is SSI. Disabled people are considered lazy or non-contributors if they get this assistance, when really it’s cheaper than putting us in a nursing home, and allows us more potential to contribute to society.
Even something like needing a plastic straw has become controversial, and many disabled people, including myself have been attacked for defending our use of a tool we require to drink liquids. I think it’s interesting, because these attacks are not just coming from the right. Those who see themselves as progressive are often blissfully ignorant to disable people and what we need. When we express this, they tend not to listen to us any more than those on the right. I see the difference between the two as progressives don’t really seem to care about disabled people, while conservatives will do everything to take away the things that keep us alive. At the end of the day, a lot of us end up choosing staying alive, but that doesn’t mean we are treated equally or fairly. That means we are still fighting every day for basic access to the things we need to survive.
The best thing progressives can do to help us is listen to disabled people and support us in what we say we need. Period.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?
Dominick: I’m not trying to represent the entire disability community with what I shared in this book. I am one person, telling my story in the hope others who may be experiencing something similar know they are not alone.
The disability community is incredibly diverse. There are so many disabled people experiencing something similar, who are not being heard.
I am a white, disabled, trans, queer person, and we need to see even more diverse disabled voices having access to share their stories and their work. The story of the disability community is not complete without these voices. I just hope the rest of the world is willing to listen.