In Focus: Robert Andy Coombs, Photographer and Advocate

It’s hard to miss Robert Andy Coombs in a crowd. Aside from his striking blue eyes, there’s also then fact that he’s in a very hard to miss wheelchair.

Back in 2009, Robert got involved in an accident while on a routine gymnastics training session. Something went wrong while he was attempting a double back flip and he ended up breaking his neck, leaving him paralyzed.

But rather than having that injury derail him, Robert has not let it stop him from living his life to the fullest. Now 31 years old, Coombs is working on his Masters of Fine Art, Photography in Yale, after graduating with a degree in Fine Arts at the Kendall College of Art and Design.

He’s been the official photographer and fashion lead for the DisArt Festival and written about the disabled, disabilities, and sexuality for The Huffington Post. He’s also an accomplished photographer, whose work includes photo series like CripFag, LadyBoy, and Idol.

In this interview conducted over email with Adam4Adam, Robert talks about his disability, how it affects his dating and sex life, and what he wants the LGBTQ community to learn from his story.

Adam4Adam (A4A): You talk about the accident that led to your disability in a 2013 Huffington Post essay, and how the adjustment for you was “accepting the worst had happened and deciding I was still going to rock my life out, no matter what.” Have the things you’ve had to adjust to changed over the years?

Robert Andy Coombs (RAC): Everything about my accident was very surreal. It was a beautiful spring day in April, we were on the outdoor trampolines, the sun was shining, and the birds were chirping. I was conscious the whole time, but all I can remember was a sense of calm rush over me and I knew everything was going to be okay. I honestly didn’t care whether or not I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I just wanted to get out of hospital and continue living!

A4A: At what age did you realize you were gay? What was adjusting to that realization like?

RAC: I was very young when I knew that I was attracted to men. I think I was about five or so, when I realized I was more interested in the guys around me then the girls. Middle school was the first time I encountered the word “gay,” and once there was a name to what I was feeling, I knew that was it!

I grew up in a very conservative small town in Michigan’s upper peninsula, so I learned how to act.  Once I was in high school, I started to care less about what people thought of me or if I was gay, so I played off of that by being very ambiguous. I was an athlete, charismatic, musically gifted. So, I was very well-rounded and did whatever I wanted to, despite what was thought of as something a “fag” would do.

A4A: Both coming out and emerging from an accident with a disability require enormous adjustment. Between coming out and surviving your accident, which of the two things forced you to make a bigger adjustment, physically, mentally, and emotionally?

RAC: I’ve always been mentally strong, but the fear of coming out was so much harder than mentally and physically adjusting to my disability. The social stigma of coming out is still something where you can lose your family, friends, job and so on. Although, there is social stigma around “coming out” with a disability, specifically mental or invisible disabilities. When you come out with an invisible disability, people start to treat you different, so there are parallels between the two.

As far as my disability, coming out as gay was harder because I was afraid that I was going to lose my family or disappoint them in some way. I didn’t feel that with my disability, I always knew my family was going to be there and, in some ways, I still feel my parents are prouder of me because of my disability rather than being gay. My parents are quick to tell people about my disability and how I overcome it, but they still shy away from my sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, I have amazing parents and we have the most amazing relationship, but the topic around sexuality still gives them the heebie-jeebies.

I think coming out as gay mentally prepared me for my disability. It made me mentally stronger to handle anything that life can throw at me!

A4A: You were involved in chorus and musical theater in high school, but took photography as your major in college. What was it about photography that drew you to it?

RAC: There were a few factors why I chose visual art instead of performing art. To start, I was always very artistic in many facets of my life. Creativity just came natural to me, whether it was performing or creating artwork. I picked up photography around seventh or eighth grade and just fell in love with composition. I was always photographing my friends at parties or in our adventures.

I was dead set on going into vocal performance until my senior year of high school, I felt neglected by my course teacher and discouraged from a college visit to a school that I was interested in. during that time I was in multimedia classes and fell in love with them! Digital photography, Photoshop, manipulating images, it just came natural to me. When I decided to go into visual art, my teacher, Mrs. Danielson, told me exactly what I needed to do and nurtured my art, unlike how I felt with my course teacher.

A4A: The gay community can be a little harsh when it comes to physical appearance. How did your accident affect your relationship with the gay community?

RAC: I spent a year at home living with my parents after my accident, but quickly realized I needed to go back to school and gain my independence again. When I moved back to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2010, I quickly started getting into the dating scene again! Little did I know, the ignorance around disability was alive and well!

It seems so weird to me that sexual function is such a huge part of the gay community. Guys would specifically ask me if my “dick worked.” Now, erectile dysfunction effects able-bodied men just as much as men with disabilities. I think I know the answer to this, but I wonder if they went around asking every guy if their “dick worked” or if they were asking me specifically because I was disabled.

My physical appearance changed pretty drastically, I had this beautiful well-toned well-muscled body from gymnastics, but now it was very thin. I would get a lot of comments about how I “used to be hot.” Which doesn’t exactly help your self-esteem.

Other things I quickly realized about the gay community was the lack of accessibility especially when it comes to Pride or other gay events. I’ve been to a few pride events where I wasn’t able to access parties or events because they were in inaccessible places. The able-bodied gay community needs to start reaching out to the disabled gay community to help make places accessible for all especially when it comes to planning of events. Other than that, I still love the gay community and trying my best to help make it better for everyone!

A4A: How has having a disability changed your dating life and sex life?

RAC: Having a physical disability such as lying, everything becomes more intimate, which is lacking in the gay community. I need to be fed, I need to be undressed/redressed, I need help going to the bathroom. These are very intimate things that can only make the experience better if looked at in a positive light.

Normally when I go on dates for meet up with guys for the 13th time, I won’t tell them everything that will need to be done. If you are interested in having an intimate encounter with me, you are going to experience it firsthand rather than me tell you every single minute detail. I am very articulate when it comes to dictating my care and can use varying vocabulary depending on the person. This way, the person can experience the moment rather than making up ideas in their head on how they think it would go rather than how it is.

I love the intimacy, I play off of it, I made it sexy, I make it sensual, I make a romantic. If my date is feeding me, you can play up the sensual/sexy/romantic side of it with facial expressions and other reactions. It’s all about attitude and owning your disability, making it work for you and to be unapologetic.

A4A: When you go out or hook up with someone, do you ever worry about being fetishized? How do you deal with this in your dating life and sex life?

RAC: Anything can be fetishized these days, I don’t mind being fetishized at all, sometimes I encourage it. Being that, it depends on who the person is that has the fetish. A lot of the time, people who have finishes towards disabled people often don’t get involved with the community at all. You really need to get involved with disability culture, know the history of disability and the ablest/medical gaze.

Sometimes the people with the fetish can be so focused on their fantasies, wants and needs rather than the person who has the disability. That is the only problem I see when it comes to fetish. We are human beings. A lot of the time, I go out of my way in order to educate people on these topics.  If I can help educate society on disabilities and sexuality so that some other person doesn’t have to deal with the ignorance that I do, then I have done my job.

A4A: Your work — from CripFag to LadyBoy — has a really great focus on the human body. Did this fascination with the body as a subject start after your accident, or was this something you were already interested in beforehand?

RAC: I have always been really interested in my body and other people’s bodies, especially when it comes to being nude. I always loved being naked and love seeing other people naked. I’ve always had really good body image and have always felt comfortable in my body, especially now.

After I broke my neck, I felt very liberated from the expectations of able bodies and having to keep working on them in order to make them good enough for the general public. With my disability, I don’t have the option of working out or changing my physical appearance, so I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to be put in those categories of expectations. Especially with my artwork. I want to celebrate my disabled body by showing my crippled hands, my long thin body, my quad belly, and my little pancake ass.

I want not only other disabled people to enjoy the quirks of their disabled bodies, but have able-bodied people enjoy their body as well, not out of sympathy or pity, but to truly enjoy the body that they are in. I think my work is extremely important because I’m showing disabled bodies from the view of someone that is disabled, and nude disabled bodies need to be seen! Humans are curious, I want to fill people’s curiosities.

A4A: In your Huffington Post essay, you talk about “asking the questions that people don’t like to ask about injuries like mine, and answering them through my art.” Have the questions you ask yourself changed over the years? What questions do you find yourself asking now as opposed to 2013, when you first write the essay?

RAC: When I wrote those series of essays, I was very new to the disabled community. Through these past nine years I have submersed myself within disability culture and disability art.  After writing those essays, I graduated with my bachelor’s in fine art photography.

I got involved with a disability arts initiative called “DisArt.” I helped with the inception of the nonprofit by photographing the making of the festival and also creating a fashion show featuring clothing specifically made for people with disabilities and by people with disabilities with disabled models. DisArt gave me an opportunity of a lifetime! I have met so many brilliant disabled artists, learned about disability history, and gained such an amazing sense of pride when it comes to my disability!

When it comes to inclusivity, the disabled community definitely gets it right! They are extremely accommodating for all and I think a lot of other communities could learn from us! The common theme that I keep emphasizing through my artwork is education and making images that are in-your-face in order to show what disability looks truly like. Disability isn’t something that needs to be cured or fixed, society needs to become less disabling in order to help disabled people live the lives that they want to!

A4A: What do you want LGBTQ people with disabilities to take from your story? What do you want able-bodied LGBTQ people to take from your story?

RAC: I want LGBTQ people, both disabled and non-disabled, to learn disability history, disability rights, and get involved with disability culture!

Often people who acquire disabilities have an ableist view on their own disability, constantly thinking they need to overcome their disability rather than focusing on their life. This comes with the stigma around disability and how society keeps us suppressed financially, medically, and physically.

I also would like the LGBTQ able-bodied community to reach out to the disabled community and ask how they can make queer spaces more accessible and inviting! Also, we don’t bite… Unless you want us to!

Inspired, intrigued, fascinated by Robert’s story? You can actually find him on Adam4Adam with the profile “disbaledartist” or check out his website and Instagram @robertandycoombs. Adam4Adam is a website/app that’s all for diversity and inclusion, and it’s reflected in part by the users that are on the platform — which include both able-bodied and disabled people and all the wonderful colors of the rainbow.

Do you feel like you have an interesting life story, a success story maybe or something you want to share with us here on the Adam4Adam blog? Don’t be afraid to reach out! Send us an email at [email protected] and we just might reach out to you!

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