Art

CripFag: Robert Andy Coombs Photographs the Intersection of Disability, Queerness, and Sex

Like many of us, Robert Andy Coombs muses about wet dreams. He wonders if his brain is still connected to his genitals because, no matter how hot or steamy the fantasy, he still never comes.

"I have sex dreams. I'll be dreaming, and stuff will be going good, but my mind stops me," Coombs laments. "I can't orgasm in my dreams."

Even though the 34-year-old's brain and genitals are still connected to his body, after experiencing a spinal cord injury in 2009 they became somewhat disconnected: Not only can he can no longer feel his penis, but also the soft caress of a hand across his thigh or an impassioned slap on his butt.

That hasn't stopped Coombs from finding a new way to express his sexuality, even if it transcends his entire body's ability to perceive it.

"It's visual. For me, my whole life is visual," he says. "After my accident, I knew photography was my way of getting out there because I don't think anyone like me has a mind like me when it comes to visualizing."

Robert Andy Coombs is a Miami-based artist exploring the intersection of disability, queerness, and sexuality with his photography. His largely autobiographical work features shirtless men, full-frontal nudity, and touch — lots of touch. While it might sound like soft-core pornography, experientially it is anything but — even if he endured another spree of post takedowns on his Instagram account.

"It's an ongoing thing. [Instagram] pats themselves on the back for being a creative outlet," he says. "But when it comes specifically to queer, disabled, or people of color, we're constantly being banned and silenced, and our content is getting flagged and deleted."

As a disabled gay man, Coombs just wants to know: "How am I supposed to have safe sex if you can't talk about sex with me?"
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Nature is a persistent theme in Coombs' work.
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
Coombs was born in Norway, Michigan, on the Wisconsin border of the Upper Peninsula. The region's forests are cut with rivers and lakes, dark shades of blue-gray that feed into the crystal-clear expanses of Lake Superior. The first 18 years of his life were spent, as he says, "just frolicking around in the woods, sometimes clothed, sometimes not."

Nature is a persistent theme in Coombs' work, and he incorporates the colors of the waters of his youth into his images. After all, it was in these woods where Coombs began experimenting with photography until he eventually moved onto portraiture in high school, where he was a competitive swimmer and gymnast — and gay.

"I learned very quickly as a young kid in a rural town who, like, definitely knew he was gay from a young age, that you kind of have to make it work," he says.

After high school, a scholarship induced Coombs to move to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to pursue a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). He didn't come out until his sophomore year, which he says in hindsight was more challenging than adjusting to his forthcoming paralysis.

After coming out, Coombs lived as a "privileged, cis, white, gay dude in Grand Rapids." His art was queer and about his body. He says it "didn't go beyond the vanity."
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Before his accident, Coombs says, his art was queer and about his body. He says it "didn't go beyond the vanity."
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
But then, roughly two years later, on a beautiful spring day in 2009, the former gymnast set the springs on a familiar outdoor Supertramp rectangular trampoline and started flipping ten feet in midair, weightless and free.

Weeks before, he had been photographing himself on the trampoline with his friends, wearing nothing but underwear to document "the male body flying and falling."

This day was different.

"The hot guys I get to look at every day who're half-naked feed my art."

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Why he landed upside down may never be fully understood, but Coombs was Coombs even as he landed on his head instead of his feet.

"My body bounced. I saw my arms drifting in front of my face with no control," he recalls, "and my body just let out, like, the gayest scream."
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Owing to his condition, Coombs is unable to voluntarily recruit the muscles that would otherwise move his legs, hips, trunk, and arms.
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
Coombs spent a month in an intensive-care unit, and he stayed at the hospital for another six weeks before he could go home. Essentially, his mid-cervical spinal cord had been badly bruised — what's known as a "complete" injury — resulting in a form of paralysis known as tetraplegia.

Owing to his condition, Coombs is unable to voluntarily recruit the muscles that would otherwise move his legs, hips, trunk, and arms. But while most areas of his body became insensitive after the injury, others became amplified, especially near his shoulders and neck.

All people with tetraplegia have some degree of arm paralysis, but the severity of Coombs' tetraplegia requires him to use a "sip-and-puff" power wheelchair, an assistive technology that sends signals to the device when he inhales, exhales, and moves his tongue.

His arms and hands cannot operate a joystick, click the shutter on a camera, or embrace a loved one.

"The chair and all these different apparatuses around me — they're very intrusive. They kind of block people from interacting with you," he says. "That was the hardest part: having to find new ways to interact with people physically. This is why touching and intimacy are so important to my work."

No person's life is the same after a spinal-cord injury, but Coombs set out to make it work with his photography and reimagined how to interact with people.

Coombs' condition affects many bodily functions we take for granted — peeing, pooping, orgasm — and some of the instrumentation apparent in his work might not be readily recognizable: his sip-and-puff straw, his suprapubic catheter, his patient-lift sling.

Coombs returned to KCAD a year after his injury.
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Coombs' condition affects many bodily functions we take for granted — peeing, pooping, orgasm
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
His starting point was a series of black-and-white photographs of himself and two friends, titled, "Disabilities and Sexuality." The three subjects — each of whom experience a different disability — are shot indoors on a neutral background in the same three poses, lit to emphasize their faces. For each subject, two headshots are interposed with a full-body frontal that Coombs displays on his website in a three-by-three grid to dramatize each person's similarities and differences. In his own portrait in this collection, Coombs' pose reveals a clavicular tattoo that reads, "Giving up is the ultimate tragedy."

Coombs completed his BFA in 2013. But he felt that his new art, which documented his new relationship with his body, didn't resonate at KCAD. Even before his injury, Coombs says, he "never fit in at Grand Rapids," so he set his sights elsewhere: Yale's Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) program.

There, he finally found people who got him and his work.

"People want to have a romantic view of what disability and sexuality is, not what it actually is."

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"Finding my equals was an amazing feeling," he says, "people who understood my work, what I was trying to do, and who wanted to be in my work."

"CripFag" is an ongoing series, and Coombs scales the work in two directions: zooming out in a return to nature among the matted green grass and lush conifers reminiscent of his youth while also focusing the camera on himself, inviting the viewer into his home, bedroom, and bathroom. Both approaches explore themes of relationship, caregiving, fetish, and sex in their respective scenes. Coombs' intentional gaze is persistent throughout: sometimes as the focal point of the picture, other times as an off-center reminder that he hasn't forgotten the camera — another instrument between him and others.

Though he has figured out how to release the shutter on both his Hasselblad and polaroid cameras with his mouth, with tetraplegia, the logistics of photography are more complicated, and he often enlists photo assistants to help operate the camera.
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The surrogacies — people and assistive technologies alike — that enable Coombs' work are also its focus.
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
"I'm directing people, using them as a surrogate body," Coombs says of his process. "It makes the work so much more complex."

The surrogacy — people and assistive technologies alike — that enable Coombs' work are also its focus. The photographs display people carrying and supporting Coombs and the sip-and-puff mouth controls that allow Coombs to operate his power wheelchair, bed, and desktop computer. (He does the vast majority of the post-production editing on his photographs.)

In photos, the hand-operated patient lift that appears in his images is stripped down to its bare metal frame and modified to gloriously proclaim his disability and sexuality: with an anal hook.

At Yale, Coombs amassed a body of work that would be displayed on both coasts of the United States in 2019. He graduated in 2020, amid the pandemic, with an online thesis show. Like many others, he moved to Miami.

Though Miami's artistic community is world renowned, he admits it can be "a little underrated." But for Coombs, there's more appeal to Miami than there would be for the average fine-art photographer: Miami is a flat, snowless place with no state income tax and home to world-class medical centers — an ideal location for those with conditions like Coombs' that place barriers on mobility, income, and health.

The eye candy doesn't hurt, either.

"The fucking sun feeds my art. The hot guys I get to look at every day who're half-naked feed my art," he says. "It was a no-brainer for me to move here."
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For Coombs, there is more appeal to Miami than there would be for the average fine art photographer:
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
During Miami Art Week in 2020, Coombs' photography was displayed at the Center for Subtropical Affairs, a live-music venue, garden, and gallery mixed into one property in Miami's Little River neighborhood.

In 2021, Coombs landed his first solo exhibit at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, titled, "Robert Andy Coombs: Notions of Care."

That collection put select works from "CripFag" on display with brilliant inkjet prints on metallic paper. The flagship image displays Coombs shirtless in his chair with a crown of leaves and bouquet of juvenile flowers against a rich backdrop of vegetation, wielding his signature stare at the camera. On either side of him are similarly shirtless and crowned men staring into the camera, one with their arm around Coombs' shoulder and the other with his hand on top of Coombs' hand. (The latter is a subtle nod to the common caregiver practice of pressing down on the wrist to combat shortening of the tendons leading to the hand.)

"That was the hardest part: having to find new ways to interact with people physically."

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The 17 images in the Frost exhibit showcased far less nudity and sex than Coombs’ body of work as a whole. Notably, there was only one exposed penis in the entire show.

"The show is about care, and sex is part of care. Fortunately, we were able to throw a penis in there," Coombs reflects. "The people who control the art world are cis white men with a shit-ton of money. Curators and museums all have to appeal to them, or else they risk losing their jobs and funding."

This phenomenon isn't unique to the Frost Art Museum, and Coombs values its partnership. But as an early-career artist, he has knowingly self-censored his work, not because he wants to, but because he knows it's more important that it gets seen.
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Coombs' work remains inherently autobiographical, but he has been exploring beyond his own journey.
Photo courtesy of Robert Andy Coombs
"If I was a white, cis, heterosexual man dating a woman and we shared pictures of our wedding and date nights, that would be more acceptable. But because I'm queer, and very gay, and body-positive and sex-positive, then it's too much, and people can't handle it," Coombs says. "People want to have a romantic view of what disability and sexuality is, not what it actually is."

Later in 2021, Coombs' work was shown at the Photo Vogue Festival in Milan, and in 2022, he was awarded a $50,000 United States Artists Fellowship, which recognizes "the most compelling artists working and living in the United States," in the Fine Art Photography category.

Coombs is an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, where he teaches photography to undergraduate students in-person on the Coral Gables campus.

His work remains inherently autobiographical, but he has been exploring beyond his own journey, starting with "Disabilities and Sexuality" and more recently with "Bobby's Boys," a series of nude and scantily clothed men in various settings, including condo balconies at sunset, sunflower fields, and the colorful lifeguard towers on Miami Beach.

Miami's disability community is indeed robust, and Coombs intends to take advantage.

"I want to incorporate more queers with disabilities in my work, where we're having intimate moments and fun as well," he says. "Disabled people can still have sex and should be able to have sex. You just need to be creative."

Musing on his vision, Coombs appeals to Andrew Morrison-Gurza, a man with cerebral palsy who — among other feats — instigated a mixed-abilities sex party in Toronto, Canada.

"We're not in competition," Coombs quips. "Like, bitch, get down to Miami! We'll crowdfund you."

See more of Robert Andy Coombs' work at robertandycoombs.com.