Honoring Disability Pride Month

Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson

July is Disability Pride Month. Disabled Americans are the largest minority group in the U.S. with 1 in 4 (27%) having some kind of disability — either visible, like mobility, or invisible, as in cognition, hearing or vision. Those disabilities can be physical, sensory, intellectual and mental. 

The disability community intersects with every other minority group, including LGBTQ+ people. The breadth of disability, like the breadth of LGBTQ+ experiences, should include recognition of the intersection of LGBTQ+ history and that disabled people are among those who made that history.

New research shows that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have a disability than the general population. Disability is prominent in the queer and trans community with 30 percent of gay and bisexual men and 36 percent of lesbian and bisexual women also identifying as having a disability. In a survey of more than 26,000 transgender people, 39% reported having a disability.

Disabled people have long been hidden from history, among them disabled LGBTQ+ historical figures. The LGBTQ+ community has been slow to address disability as an issue, as PGN has previously reported. Disability Pride Month allows for the intersection of these histories to be honored and illumined.

While there are many disabled LGBTQ+ people to honor during Disability Pride Month, the fact so little has been written about the intersection between disability and LGBTQ+ identities makes it difficult to limit a story to just a few people. There are many disabled LGBTQ+ people who should be better known for their status as icons of LGBTQ+ history and as disabled people whose disabilities have either been hidden or not represented as part of their identities, so these are just a few.

Prominent disabled LGBTQ+ people PGN has focused on during Black History Month and LGBT History Month include the iconic writers James Baldwin, who suffered from physical as well as mental disabilities; Audre Lorde, who battled metastatic cancer for a decade; bell hooks, who had disabling autoimmune disease; and Adrienne Rich, who had debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that made it difficult for her to be ambulatory. 

World-renowned Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo was also an out bisexual and severely disabled. Born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that affected both her spine and leg development, Kahlo contracted polio as a child, which paralyzed her right leg.

While at university, Kahlo was impaled by a metal bar during a trolley accident and suffered a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis; 11 fractures in her right leg; a crushed and dislocated right foot; and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and uterus. She endured more than two dozen surgeries, mainly on her back, her right leg and her right foot. Eventually, she had her right leg amputated. Kahlo was only 47 when she died of a pulmonary embolism.

Kahlo’s complex work, a retrospective of which was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008, details her disabilities and her experiences of pain and body dysmorphia. In 2018, Mattel debuted a new line of signature Barbie dolls to celebrate International Women’s Day and women’s achievements. The “Inspiring Women Series” Barbies included Kahlo as the first bisexual Barbie, yet many disability rights activists said the representation erased her disability, which is what informed her art.

Disabled Philadelphia AIDS activist and Japanese internment survivor Kiyoshi Kuromiya was a prominent figure in the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ community. The founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the direct action activist organization ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Kuromiya was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, which intensified his activism. 

He repeatedly said, “Information is power,” and founded the Critical Path Project, an HIV/AIDS resource organization that provided information and a 24-hour hotline for the Philadelphia gay community. The Critical Path newsletter, one of the earliest and most comprehensive sources of HIV treatment information, was mailed to thousands of people living with HIV worldwide. Kuromiya also sent newsletters to hundreds of incarcerated individuals to ensure their access to up-to-date treatment information.

Kuromiya was a pioneer of national and international AIDS research advocacy, and his loving and compassionate mentoring and care for hundreds of people living with HIV was world-renowned. Kiyoshi was the editor of the ACT UP Standard of Care, the first standard of care for people living with HIV produced by PWAs.

Marsha P. Johnson, one of the most prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, was an American gay liberation activist who described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen and used she/her pronouns. Johnson was also an outspoken advocate for gay rights and for the rights of psychiatric patients like herself. 

Johnson suffered from both physical and psychiatric disabilities. In the documentary about her life, “Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson,” Johnson said, “I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”

Johnson, along with friend and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), one of the first trans organizations in New York. The rights of disabled people was a focus of STAR, which was comprised of and served trans people who were also disabled.

Among the resistance work STAR did was to call for an end to non-consensual psychiatric incarcerations of gay, lesbian and trans people. Johnson also called for an end to conversion therapy and other forced therapies used to “cure” lesbian, gay and trans people of their sexual and gender identities.

The abuse of disabled LGBTQ+ people is still rampant, and Johnson’s work stands out as an early effort to address that abuse and its impact on people like herself.

Another figure of the Stonewall rebellion, Morty Manford, also had psychiatric disabilities and died at only 41 in 1992 from complications of AIDS. But throughout his activism career, which began at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 when he was only 19, Manford was dedicated to the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights, despite his disability.

With his mother, Jeanne Manford, he co-founded PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in 1973. PFLAG is the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies. It now has more than 400 chapters and 200,000 members. In 1972, after Morty was beaten and attacked during a protest, Jeanne Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post in which she said, “I am the mother of a homosexual son.” Soon after, she began giving interviews with Morty and marched with him in the Gay Pride Parade.

Barbara Jordan has long been an LGBTQ+ icon. She was the first woman to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention in 1976, and she was well-known for delivering the opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee Hearings to impeach Richard Nixon. She also created legislation to broaden the 1965 Voting Rights Act to include and protect Latinx voters.

As the first Black woman elected to Congress from the South and as a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Jordan’s lesbianism was the worst-kept secret during her rise as a Democratic star. It was well-known among her friends and colleagues as they were introduced to her partner of more than 30 years, Nancy Earl, but it was never discussed publicly.

Even more hidden than her lesbianism was her disability, yet Jordan was one of the few disabled members of Congress. Jordan had multiple sclerosis, and she used a wheelchair in her later years to remain ambulatory, including when she spoke at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Kenny Fries is a longtime gay and disability rights activist, world-renowned poet and memoirist, who was born with shortened and twisted legs. He recounted in “Body, Remember: A Memoir,” being born to a fainting father and maternal grandmother screaming, “My daughter gave birth to a freak!”

Fries was the first disabled student admitted to a public school in New York City. He has an MFA from Columbia University and has been awarded two Fulbrights and the National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards. In 2017, he created the Fries Test for disability representation in fiction, TV and film, similar to the Bechdel Test for women.

Fries is the author of many books and scholarly works and has written extensively in literary and other venues on the intersection of gayness and disability in his own life and in the larger community. He is the editor of “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out,” the first multi-genre body of work that exclusively featured disabled writers telling their stories. The majority of Fries’ books and poems were written due to his experiences as a disabled, gay Jewish man

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper broke ground in broadcasting as an out gay man. Cooper also has a disability that impacts 14.5 to 43.5 million children and adults: dyslexia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 10 Americans suffers from a hidden disability like Cooper’s. Other hidden disabilities include traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, psychiatric disabilities and disabling auto-immune diseases.

Lesbian comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer was the first openly lesbian comic to appear on “Late Night with David Letterman” and have her own HBO special in 1994. Westenhoefer revealed in 2018 that four years earlier, she had a fall that knocked her unconscious, put her in a coma and left her with a traumatic brain injury — another hidden disability impacting millions of Americans. She detailed the story of her injury that led to permanent disability in an interview with Christine Blackburn in 2021.

As a deaf gay man, Nyle DiMarco made history in 2015 when he won “America’s Next Top Model.” In 2016 he became the first deaf contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” which he won with professional partner Petra Murgatroyd, making disability and queer history.

An American actor, model and LGBTQ+ deaf/hard-of-hearing activist, DiMarco attended Gallaudet University and graduated in 2013 with a degree in mathematics. He began his career in an independent American Sign Language film production, entitled “In the Can,” and also played a recurring role in Freeform’s “Switched at Birth.” In 2017, he was honored as Deaf Life Magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2016, he founded The Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which provides resources to deaf children and families. DiMarco is currently signed with Wilhelmina Models and CESD Talent Agency.

Disabled gay actor Ryan O’Connell stars in the Netflix series “Special,” about a gay man with cerebral palsy. In a 2020 interview, O’Connell told the New York Times, “I think about this a lot. Why, in this woke-ass culture that we live in, where so much attention is given to marginalized populations, do people with disabilities still largely go ignored?” 

O’Connell said, he is “horny for representation that comes from actual disabled people, because we live in a dark hellscape of a capitalist country. Real power can only be accrued through opportunities, and you need to be given the keys to tell your own story.”

Learn more about LGBTQ+ people with disabilities:

HRC: https://www.hrc.org/resources/understanding-disabled-lgbtq-people

GLAAD: https://glaad.org/disabilities/ 

MAP: https://www.lgbtmap.org/effective-messaging/lgbt-people-disabilities

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