The new season of Netflix’s original series “Queer Eye” has gotten a lot of recent attention from the disability community, as it features a Black disabled man named Wesley Hamilton from Kansas City, Missouri.
Wesley lived a self-described “bad boy” life until he was shot in the abdomen at 24 years old. Throughout the episode, Wesley shares how his life and outlook changed, including how he views his newly disabled body.
Over the course of 7 years, Wesley went from “beating his legs up because they were worthless” to creating the nonprofit Disabled But Not Really, an organization that offers nutrition and fitness programs aimed at empowering disabled people.
As you watch the almost 49-minute episode, you can’t help but appreciate Wesley’s bright personality.
From his smile and laugh to his willingness to try new things, the connections he makes with the Fab Five as they each transform his style and home were refreshing to watch.
We see him experiment with clothing he thought he couldn’t wear because of his wheelchair; we watch him share vulnerable moments with Tan and Karamo, challenging the typical ideas of a stoic, emotionless kind of masculinity.
We also witness the loving support system that surrounds Wesley, from his doting and endlessly proud mother to his daughter who views him as her Superman.
For all these reasons and so many more, the episode is truly moving and challenges many of the stereotypes that Wesley — as a Black, disabled man — is faced with each day.
It can be hard to imagine, then, why this episode evoked so much controversy among non-Black members of the disability community.
There were rumblings that questioned the name of Wesley’s organization, for example, with concern about how this episode could harm the overall view of disability to a nondisabled audience.
These critiques emerged before the episode even aired. Yet they gained traction on social media despite that.
However, as Black disabled members of the community began to watch the episode, many realized the “hot takes” emerging on social media had failed to consider the complexities of being both Black and disabled.
So what, exactly, had been missed? I spoke with four prominent voices in the disability community, who shifted the conversations around “Queer Eye” from misdirected outrage to centering the experiences of Black disabled people.
Their observations remind us of the many ways, even in “progressive” spaces, in which Black disabled people are pushed further to the margins.
As Keah Brown, author and journalist explains, “It’s interesting how quickly the community jumps down the throats of Black disabled folks instead of thinking about… what it must be like to work through your own self-doubt and hatred.”
The result? People outside of Wesley’s own community (and by extension, lived experience) had made judgments about his work and contributions, erasing the complexities that come with his racial identity.
“There were prominent non-Black people of color and white community members excited at the chance to tear him down in threads on Twitter and Facebook,” Keah says. “It made me question how they see the rest of us, you know?”
“People really jumped the gun. They were so quick to villainize this man before they even saw the episode,” Keah says.
Much of that reactivity came from critics who made assumptions about the name of Wesley’s nonprofit, Disabled But Not Really.
“I understand the name of his business is not ideal, but on the surface, he is asking for the same thing that we all are asking for: independence and respect. It really reminded me that the community has so much racism to work through,” Keah says.
I had the opportunity to chat with Wesley about the backlash surrounding his work and episode. What I learned was that Wesley is very aware of the uproar, but he’s not troubled by it.
“I define what Disabled But Not Really is. I am empowering people through fitness and nutrition because it empowered me,” he says.
When Wesley became disabled, he realized he was limiting himself by what he thought a disabled person was — no doubt informed by the lack of visibility of people that looked like him. Fitness and nutrition were how he gained the confidence and courage he now possesses 7 years after that fateful day.
His mission is to create a space for other disabled people to find community through those avenues that afforded him the chance to be more comfortable in his skin — a meaning that was lost when critiques were made well before he could articulate that vision for himself.
Wesley’s framing of disability has been shaped by how he’s learned to love his Black disabled body. Being someone who had acquired his disability later in life, Wesley’s understanding is also evolving, as we witnessed from his own telling in the episode.
Maelee Johnson, founder of ChronicLoaf and a disability rights advocate, remarks on the journey Wesley has been on: “When you see someone like Wesley that became disabled later in life, you really have to think about the implications of that. For example, he started his business while going through internalized ableism and the process of accepting his new disabled identity.”
“The meaning of his business name can evolve and grow with him, and that is perfectly fine and understandable,” Maelee continues. “We in the disabled community should be understanding of that.”
Heather Watkins, a disability rights advocate, echoes similar remarks. “Wesley is also part of advocacy circles which tend to connect/intersect with other marginalized populations, which gives me the impression he will continue to expand self-awareness,” she notes. “None of his language and limited self-doubt gave me any cringeworthy moments because he is in transit on the journey.”
The scenes that stood out to many of us were the ones when Black men expressed their truths with each other.
The interactions between Karamo and Wesley in particular gave a powerful glimpse into Black masculinity and vulnerability. Karamo created a safe space for Wesley to share about his injury, healing, and becoming a better him, and gave him the ability to confront the man who shot him.
The vulnerability displayed is sadly uncommon on television between two Black men, an occurrence we deserve to see more of on the small screen.
For André Daughtry, a Twitch streamer, the exchanges between the Black men on the show were a glimpse into healing. “The interaction between Wesley and Karamo was a revelation,” he says. “[It] was beautiful and touching to see. Their quiet strength and bonding is the blueprint for all Black men to follow.”
Heather echoes this sentiment, too, and its transformative power. “The conversation that Karamo facilitated could be a whole show by itself. That was a sensitive convo, [and it] was quite congenial — and he FORGAVE him,” Heather says. “He [also expressed] awareness about full accountability for his own life and circumstances. This is huge; this is restorative justice. This was healing.”
Wesley’s mother had played an important role in his recovery and wanted to be certain that Wesley had the tools he needed to live independently.
At the end of the episode, Wesley thanked his mother. While some people thought her focus on independence implied that caregiving was a burden — and that Wesley reinforced it by thanking her — these folks missed exactly why those scenes were pivotal for Black families.
Heather explains the gaps: “From my perspective as a mother and caregiver for an elderly parent, and knowing that Black women often go unheralded or get labeled as ‘strong,’ as if we never have breaks or have pain, this felt like sweet gratitude.”
“Sometimes a simple thank you filled with a ‘I know you had my back and gave much of yourself, time, and attention on my behalf’ can be the peace and a pillow to rest on,” she says.
It’s incredibly rare when disability and fatherhood are visible at all, particularly those moments involving Black disabled men.
André opens up about how watching Wesley be a dad gives him hope: “Seeing Wesley with his daughter, Nevaeh, I witnessed nothing but possibilities should I one day be fortunate enough to have children.
“I see that it’s attainable and not far-fetched. Disabled parenthood deserves to be normalized and elevated.”
Heather shares why the father-daughter display being normalized was powerful in its own right. “Being a disabled Black father whose daughter sees him as her hero [was] so heartwarming, [wasn’t] unlike many father-daughter doting depictions.”
In this sense, the episode presents Black disabled fathers like Wesley not as Other, but exactly as they are: incredible and loving parents.
As a Black disabled woman, I saw a lot of the Black disabled men I grew up with in Wesley. Men who were trying to figure themselves out in a world where they may believe that their version of Black masculinity was marred because they were disabled.
Those men lacked the visibility of Black disabled masculinity that could’ve birthed the sense of pride they needed to be confident in the bodies and minds they possess.
André explains why seeing Wesley on “Queer Eye” was important for him at this stage in life: “I related to Wesley’s struggle to find himself in a sea of Black identity and toxic masculinity. I related to his highs and lows and sense of accomplishment when he started finding his voice.”
When asked what he would say to Wesley regarding the backlash, André encourages him to “ignore those who don’t understand his walk of life. He’s doing well in figuring out his relationship to disability and the community, and his Blackness and fatherhood. None of it is easy or comes with a step-by-step guide on what to do.”
When I spoke with Wesley, I asked him what words he had for Black disabled men. His response? “Find yourself in who you are.”
As was evidenced by his appearance on “Queer Eye,” Wesley sees Black disabled people as possessing tremendous strength. From his work, he’s reaching a community of disabled people that many spaces ignore or simply can’t reach.
“I survived that night for a reason,” Wesley says. That outlook has significantly influenced how he views his life, his Black disabled body, and the impact he wants to have on a community that’s overlooked and underrepresented.
This “Queer Eye” episode opened the door for a much-needed conversation to occur about anti-Blackness, intersectionality, and centering Black disabled perspectives.
Let’s hope we wise up and not continue to overtalk or erase segments of our community when it should be their voices — yes, voices exactly like Wesley’s — at the forefront.
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a macro-minded social worker from South Carolina. Ramp Your Voice! is her organization where she discusses the issues that matters to her as a Black disabled woman, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble. Find her on Twitter @VilissaThompson, @RampYourVoice, and @WheelDealPod.