This week’s interview is probably my most favourite yet. The queer community includes so many underrepresented people and to be able to hear some of their stories first-hand, is heart-breaking. Introducing the wonderful Stephen Thomas Smith, also known as on social media as ‘Life of a Palsy’. Stephen is a comedic, fashionable and positive queer man who has cerebral palsy. I first stumbled across Stephen only last week and the video I came across is one that ordinarily people would avoid laughing at (or would do so subtly), but Stephen’s outlook encourages humour and embracing who he is.
“It’s not an inside joke if everyone knows about it. So, it becomes more accepted and less stigmatised”.
This is one of my favourite things he said. This means that by creating general humour about who he is, it encourages people to be at ease. Like anyone that is underrepresented in society, unfortunately people seem to forget all of their social skills in fear of saying the wrong thing, leading to said individual feeling ostracised and misunderstood. So, the aim of this interview was to better understand Stephen’s experiences as a gay man and within the queer community.
As always, let’s start with the 3 icebreakers, shall we?
1. What’s the one thing that never fails to make you smile?
2. What animal best represents your personality?
“A Chameleon” he said. I asked why and Stephen stated that he feels he can adapt to any situation.
3. On a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling today?
“A 5” - this wasn’t for any particular reason, Stephen simply replied “Life”.
Stephen’s profile has grown to a humble 75,000 people (lol, humble). I wanted to give him a little insight into how large of a following he’s amassed, and this is a comparison I often to use to help me remain grateful for the platform I have. I asked if Stephen had ever visited Wembley, to which he responded no. Wembley stadium has the capacity of 90,000 individuals, which is not far off of his following. I sent him a video of when I was there watching a pink concert just to help him see quite how large a following, he truly has online. I was keen to know what Stephen’s rapid TikTok fame had done to his confidence, which he stated had “definitely helped a lot”. He noted how he never used to post videos of himself, only photos. When using Instagram, he said that posting photos allowed him to “hide his disability” as videos made his disability “evident”.
“A lot of people try to raise awareness for disabilities by going down the serious route, which I don’t think is effective. I’m trying to educate people whilst making them laugh along the way”.
Like most people, Stephen started his TikTok profile out of, well, boredom. Because honestly same. With lockdown, we all just wanted something to do, so Stephen took to TikTok, not expecting anything to come from it. This first started by creating the Instagram account ‘Life of a Palsy’ with the aim of raising awareness. One day him and his carer had all of his clothes out on the bed, and they recorded him in lots of different outfits to music, which he posted to TikTok. But the support he soon received was not what he expected. Realising that people were comfortable laughing along with his jokes, seeing his sense of humour and accepting him for him has helped Stephen to accept himself too. He then got his thinking cap on and wanted to find a way of creating content on TikTok that could help other people with disabilities feel “less like an outcast, more empowered and not give a fuck what people think about them”. Creating the content that he does has also led to him meeting other queer people with disabilities, leading to Stephen almost having his own community of people.
“I felt like I’d finally found my people and I was making people laugh which is all I want to do. It’s definitely helped my confidence especially in public when people come up to me and say, ‘oh you're that guy from TikTok!’”
Whilst a lot of Stephen’s content centres around his disability (whilst being humorous) the growth in his profile means that people are now seeing him as more than just a person with a disability, but as a funny, queer and incredibly stylish man. I mentioned to Stephen how I’ve been inspired by some of his fashion looks as he really knows how to put an outfit together! Stephens interest in passion comes from a place you wouldn’t expect. Rather than me explaining his analogy, he put it together perfectly himself:
“When I think about fashion and what fashion means, I think about a superhero. When a superhero puts on a cape, they become a superhero. Superman is just Clark Kent until he puts on the cape, and for me, my fashion and my clothes are like my superhero cape because I feel like I become invincible and empowered”.
Stephen’s love of fashion isn’t empty, it comes from a place of empowerment. His fashion helps him to be fearless and to feel like they can take on anything. We all like to dress nice and we all like the confidence boost that a nice outfit can give us. But, to have such a strong emotional connection to fashion and the strength that it can bring, is inspirational. One message that I would take from this is that this can apply to most people. If you’re feeling unconfident about your body, about the way you look about the way you’re going to be perceived, wear something you’re going to feel fearless in, you’ll be your own superhero. This was only 10 minutes into the interview by the way, and I was already blown away as to how powerful this man’s message is.
His interest in fashion grew from his studies in photography, as prior to this he admitted to buying ‘fashion’ from HMV and not caring what he wore. During this period, he also developed a love for creativity and producing images with emotional messages behind them. His teachers didn’t believe he was going to pass his GCSE’s, whom he soon proved wrong by getting B’s and C’s (which are actually really good grades) so he was like “fuck them”. As he proved his teachers wrong, he was keen to achieve something out that many thought he couldn’t, photography. Once he’d managed to adapt the camera to his needs, he found that photography was a great way to express himself.
Whilst his expressionism and creativity focus heavily on disability awareness, this also incorporates his queer identity, so I wanted to hear more about his coming out experience. Interestingly, both of Stephen’s sisters are also gay and their mum is very accepting. This conversation soon took an interesting turn. Stephen admitted that “coming out of the queer closet was easier than coming out of the disabled closet”, which had me puzzled, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. When Stephen was first at uni, he was determined to be independent. He’d refuse any help that was offered to him, insisting that he could do things on his own. On reflection and looking back on his previous decisions, he recognises his clear denial of his disability, and how his refusal to accept help was only making things harder. So, Stephen’s definition of ‘coming out of the disabled closet’ is accepting himself for who he is and admitting help where he needs it. The analogy fits perfectly. Coming to terms with our sexuality often means that we have internal battles and struggle to accept who we are, which in Stephens case, he had to do both. Now Stephen has a wheelchair and carers, which 3 years ago he refused. He admits that now he isn’t afraid to ask about it. The message that can be taken away from this, which can apply to anyone reading this, is that there is no shame in admitting you need help. No matter how much help you need, accepting help is completely ok.
“Coming out of the disabled closet takes time and it’s hard to get to that point. But now I even disclose it on dating apps which I never used to do that, and now I’m not afraid to do that. Yeah, I’m disabled but it doesn’t really change anything!”
Speaking of dating apps, Stephen and I soon started discussing the dark place that is Grindr. Many people experience internalised ableism without realising it, but this becomes prevalent and almost unavoidable in the dating scene. Stephen admitted to his dating experiences being highly varied; he’s met some great people that simply see past his disability but has met some equally shallow arseholes that have turned around as soon as they’ve gotten to his door and realised that he’s disabled. One instance even led to his date saying, “this is like an episode of Undatable’s isn’t it”, to which Stephen promptly left. One of the reasons for people’s ableism when it comes to dating, is that people with disabilities are not at all seen as people with sexualities. But Stephen’s growth in confidence and openness with his disability has made this easier for him, as he’s now started to realise that “it’s a them problem not a me problem, and they don’t like that then bye felicia”. Knowing that Stephen is a place of being so confident in who he and embracing life as much as he can, should be provide inspiration to so many.
“Disabled people are seen as these vulnerable people, with no sexuality. I’m seen as an innocent sexless being, which just isn’t the case”
Whilst Stephen promotes positivity and acceptance online, he has been on quite a turbulent mental health journey. Like previously mentioned, Stephen was quite proud in his earlier years and was refuse any help that was offered to him for his disability, this was the same for his mental health. His previous coping mechanisms included simply resorting to sexual gratification, which is something else that is quite
common within the queer community. Sexual gratification is a very bad cycle for anyone to get into as it is short-lived and not at all sustainable. Now, Stephen is starting to accept the help he needs, speaking to professionals and taking the relevant medications to help his mental health.
To an extent, Stephen sometimes feels like his online persona is a slight facade. He presents being happy and positive, but he doesn’t always feel it. This something that many people go through, but his openness and honestly about his mental health, disability and sexuality, to me means that his online profile is almost the opposite to being a facade. Stephen noted the importance of speaking on mental health online, especially for men. As many men do not feel comfortable speaking on the subject, he wants to help be a voice.
As a community of queer people, we claim to be a place of inclusivity and self-acceptance, but this isn’t completely true. I asked Stephen what he felt we could do as a community, to help make the community a more accepting and welcoming place for queer people with disabilities. He stated that people need to learn that disability isn’t a preference. He feels the labels we set ourselves today are not helping our cause. I was curious as to what labels he was referring to, thankfully it wasn’t identity, he was referring to the physical labels that are often used to dating apps and porn searches (Twink, bear, otter, etc), which he finds completely degrading and unnecessary. Labels like this put us all into boxes based on our physical attributes, and someone with a physical disability isn’t likely to fit into them, they’re ostracised. He feels that there is also a lack of education around disability as well, to the point he was actually refused service in a bar due to the bartender mistaking his disability for him being intoxicated.
“There is this perfect ideal of a body that almost every gay guy aspires to. The chiselled cheeks, a sixpack etc, and it just isn’t real. We need to remove the idea of the ‘perfect gay’”.
The final sign off of the interview was as asking what advice Stephen would give to someone that was struggling with being an outsider, and this was his articulate and poetic response:
“Stop giving a fuck. You become consumed by it. Once you start not giving a fuck, you’ll find the right path. So simply stop giving a fuck, you do you”.
I hope this interview has been informative for you. The queer community has a lot of work to do to be accepted by society, but we equally have work to do internally to help us to accept each other. I wanted to personally thank Stephen for taking the time to speak to me and for sharing his story with me. I also wanted to thank him for his positive message and for all he is doing online. Let’s work together to make our community a more inclusive environment.
Please feel free to connect with his via his social links below!