This June, the National Council on Disability joins the world in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month by celebrating our commitment to advancing the rights for all Americans, including LGBT Americans, and LGBT Americans with Disabilities.
The disability community includes all ages, races, and ethnicities, from every socio-economic bracket, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Just as a person can become part of the disability community in an instant, a person can also “come out” at any point in their lifetime. This isn’t necessarily an either/or equation, often both identities beat within the heart of the same person.
There is a considerable paradox in identifying with the label, stigma or identity so often rejected by the families and communities that LGBT and disabled Americans are born into but it is through this process of connection and eventual identification that stories of strength, struggle, and commonality help us discover and, at times, become who we are.
The stigma and fear that accompanied the medicalization of identity has often hindered LGBT Americans from coming out, and in doing so has prevented them from getting needed services, assistance, and opportunities they could benefit from by disclosing. By the same token, fear and criminalization of disability – perhaps most shockingly applied with the passage of “Ugly Laws” many of which were still on the books until the 1970’s – sought to keep Americans with disabilities literally hidden from public view and by extension, left out of civic participation and even history.
At his second inauguration, President Obama mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall and America’s arc towards inclusion. NCD would add San Francisco – the site of the longest sit-in of a federal building in United States history. Close to 120 disability activists occupied the Department of Health, Education and Welfare building and stayed there for 25 days until regulations enacting Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act were signed. This protest was significant for numerous reasons – certainly because its goal was achieved, but also because of the staunch support of allies in the LGBT and the African-American civil rights movements. The 504 actions powerfully illustrate the success that can be achieved when coalitions across communities work together toward the shared goal of justice, but if actions like the 504 sit-ins are ever going to take their proper place in history we have to recognize and celebrate the intersection of diversity and unity.
While it hasn’t always been reported or recognized as such, there have always been times when our movements have come together. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, as the Americans with Disabilities Act was being drafted, the disability community steadfastly vowed not to support any version of the ADA that excluded protections for people living with or perceived as having HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that then and now disproportionately impacts the LGBT community.
In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the existing United States federal hate crime law to include crimes committed because of either actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, again uniting us in the fight against discrimination and harm.
Pride can help break the destructive influence of shaming and isolation. In community we discover the bond of common experience, learn about parallel histories, and have an opportunity to develop shared strength in ways an individual can’t do alone. Pride can be the antidote to stigma and rejection. It can be a beacon of hope, perhaps our best tool in suicide prevention.
While we are privileged to celebrate Pride in many places here in the United States, we must also remember that around the world people with disabilities and the LGBT community are still harassed, attacked, and killed simply for being who they are.
Despite seemingly overwhelming odds both groups now openly celebrate those things that the closed minded among us fear. Whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, inter-sexed or disabled the right to bodily integrity and continued resistance to forced medicalization and attempts to ‘cure’ us of our history and experience connect and make us stronger both individually and as a whole.
NCD applauds the success of the LGBT community in our common quest for marriage equality and family rights. Nearly thirty years after the publication of “Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home?” which chronicled the legal battle of a lesbian college professor to gain legal guardianship of her disabled partner, NCD applauds the increasing support for marriage equality and looks forward to the day when all Americans – including those with disabilities -- enjoy similar recognition without penalty or recrimination.
Similarly, both parents with disabilities and LGBT families continue to face discrimination in custody and adoption decisions. NCD promises to actively seek solutions to parenting and family rights issues that benefit both LGBT families and people with disabilities. NCD’s work on community living and youth services is fortified when it is informed by cultural competencies that are respectful and responsive to LGBT identities. We promise to continue and increase the incorporation of these perspectives in our policy work.
The struggle for inclusiveness continues, but we are increasingly united in both our communities and mutual goals, whether it is the inclusion of LGBT leadership at a disability rights rally, or the visible participation of people with disabilities at an LGBT pride event. This, by any measure, is progress.
While our common histories and experiences of the LGBT community and disabled Americans seem almost obvious in hindsight, we haven’t always taken the time or made the effort to share and learn from them. Forty-four years after the Stonewall riots and four decades after Section 504 was signed into law, the common threads in the tapestry which weave our communities together have never been stronger -- or more undeniable.
On June 14 the Social Security Administration revised its policy allowing transgender individuals to change their gender marker on a Social Security card bringing SSA’s policy in line with similar changes made in the past three years by the U.S. State Department and Veterans Health Administration. In celebration of these victories and those yet to come, NCD is proud to stand alongside our allies, friends, and family members in the LGBT community in celebration of this year's Pride.
Kamilah Oni Martin-Proctor
Chester A. Finn
Albany, New York
Captain Jonathon F. Kuniholm, USMC (Retired)
Durham, North Carolina
Matan Aryeh Koch
New York, New York
San Francisco, California
Silver Spring, Maryland
Albany, New York
Concord, New Hampshire
Dr. Fernando M. Torres-Gil, Ph.D.
Los Angeles, California
San Francisco, California