In the spring of 2007, a young gay man living in San Francisco, was beaten and robbed of his sight at the hands of his gay friends. At the age of twenty-six, Belo Cipriani, was forced to relearn how to walk, cook, and date – in the dark.
In his first book, Blind: A Memoir, he chronicles the two years immediately following his assault. He narrates the recondite world of the blind, where microwaves, watches, and computers talk, and guide dogs guard as well as lead.
Why was it important for you to tell your story?
When I became blind, I realised that everything I knew about blindness was inaccurate. Many of my erroneous assumptions about blindness had been created by Hollywood and novels and I wanted to put something out that properly portrayed what it’s like to lose your sight in the twenty-first century.
What do you hope people will learn from reading the book?
I hope people learn that disability doesn’t mean the end of someone’s life. Most importantly, I hope readers become more open to befriending a person with a disability.
How do your disabilities impact your life as a gay man?
Blindness makes it tough to flirt with guys in public. It also takes me a bit longer to warm up to a crowd of guys in a bar.
And there’s no app for that?
Although there are apps that can describe colours, decode money, and allow me to text a message, there are no apps that make dating easier.
Does Oslo (Belo’s service dog) ever guide you to Mr. Right?
Absolutely, Oslo has brought some great guys into my life! Whether he sat me next to them on the bus or in a bar, he seems to know my type. Oslo is very important to me and I only date guys who like dogs.
Can you go anywhere with Oslo?
International travel is very challenging as some countries still do not permit me to enter with Oslo. Once, in New York City, I had a cab driver refuse to allow me in the car with him. I have also been denied service at restaurants and coffee shops.
Is that your biggest pet peeve?
It’s one of them. Another one is I think people with disabilities are often de-eroticised and romanticised. We are often seen as saints, inspirational figures, and not as regular people. We are never portrayed as beautiful, sexy, or funny. Disabled people, first and foremost, are people. We crave the same things everyone else does no matter how we get around.
Being gay and disabled, do you find yourself fighting two fronts – the gay agenda and the disabilities agenda?
As a Hispanic, I actually find myself fighting three fronts! I was the keynote speaker at University of San Francisco for National Disability Awareness Month. I spoke to students about the dos and don’ts of speaking to a person with a disability. At Yale, I was the keynote speaker for Hispanic Heritage Month. I talked to students about my journey of becoming a writer and how my Latino culture helped that happen.
How did you become a spokesperson for Guide Dogs For the Blind?
Oslo has brought some great guys into my life! Whether he sat me next to them on the bus or in a bar, he
seems to know my type. Oslo is very important to me and I only date guys who like dogs. The organisation asked me if they could feature my story in their documentary. I have since spoken at many of their fundraising events and represented the organisation on TV, radio, and print media in both English and Spanish.
You’re also featured on the cover of their 2015 calendar!
(Laughing) Isn’t that remarkable? It’s also proof there is a silver lining to everything! I would never have been the cover of a calendar had I not lost my sight!
Hilarious! But in all seriousness, if you could regain your sight, would you?
I meet a lot of people, at signings and on the street, who tell me that they are praying I get my vision back. I always tell them to pray for my health instead. Sometimes people wish or pray that the disabled would become able-bodied again. Yet, this is often not possible. Currently, there are no medical procedures that would help me regain my sight and that’s ok. I am happy with who I am.
Interview by Shane Gallagher
This interview first appeared in issue 6 of TheGayUK.