On ableism and loneliness in the LGBTQIA+ community
I’m just asking for inclusion, and for disabled queer people to be able to feel welcome and considered in the queer community and at queer events.
Content Warnings: Ableism.
By Chloe Smith
One day I told my therapist something I’d never admitted to anyone before - that when I was younger, I thought disabled people couldn’t also be queer. They were surprised, I’m guessing because given the year I told her it would seem preposterous that a disabled person couldn’t also be queer. When I was very young, and especially as an autistic person, I built my understanding of the world through media, mainly books and TV. So growing up during Section 28 times, I barely saw queer characters on the TV, let alone any disabled characters, and certainly not any characters who belonged to both communities. If there ever were any disabled characters, they were straight; and if there ever were any queer characters, they were all abled people. And from there, my young brain assumed that since no one who was both disabled and queer people existed in my life or in anything I watched or read, they couldn’t possibly exist in the big wide world. I know it sounds ridiculous, but again, I was very young and the media I consumed played a big part in my life.
As a result, I felt like I couldn’t be my whole, authentic self for a long time. This meant that I felt very lonely growing up for a long time. I had friends, but could never keep them for as long as my peers did (some of them for decades), and none of them could fully understand me beyond a certain point, as I was both a disabled person and (unbeknownst to me at the time) also a closeted lesbian. Thankfully I’ve figured myself out by now, and representation across all media, but particularly in books and TV has definitely got better, although not by an incredible amount. I’m grateful for the disabled and queer people who are putting the work in and trying to get their creative work out there into the world. Long may it continue and for the list of characters who are both disabled and queer grow. This has definitely made me feel less alone.
I now also feel a new type of loneliness as a disabled member of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s namely due to the ableism that exists in the LGBTQIA+ community. Ableism is a term for discrimination against disabled people, and it certainly exists within the LGBTQIA+ community, alongside racism, fatphobia, sexism, transphobia and I’m sure other discriminatory behaviour. Just because the queer community embraces queerness doesn’t mean every member will embrace other minorities, and so unfortunately as a result, ableism does exist in the LGBTQIA+ community.
It exists in different ways, but most notably when LGBTQIA+ events like Pride, and in venues like gay bars, aren’t accessible to queer people who are also disabled. I remember reading when I was younger (and questioning) about a gay man who was also a wheelchair user. He tried to get into a gay bar but you had to climb a flight of stairs to get to it, and there was no other way to access the place. The man understandably didn’t want to be carried up the stairs by strangers, and he was told that the establishment didn’t get people like him there often. It’s that statement that sticks out to me most, years after I read the article. What could they have meant - people like him? Not a gay person - it’s a gay bar. Of course, they meant a disabled person.
Disability is often an afterthought if not forgotten completely, and accessibility - the bare minimum and a human right - is often never even considered, allowing an entire sub-community and subset of queer people to feel isolated and lonely amongst others like them, and in places where they’re meant to be able to be themselves. When even within the LGBTQIA+ community, disabled people can be viewed as something other, how can we be ourselves if we can’t even get in to places that are meant to be our safe space? I think the queer community, as wonderful and accepting as it is, can certainly do better in terms of educating and calling out some of its members on ableism and discriminatory behaviour so every queer person feels welcome.
In terms of accessibility in the queer community, for a wheelchair user like me, the physical access barriers (like stairways at gay bars, and inadequate wheelchair access at Pride events) are concerning, but as an autistic person, the sensory aspects of a bar and Pride events also leave me isolated. I’d struggle in those environments without a quiet place to go if needed. I’m not asking for special treatment - that’s not what accessibility is. I’m just asking for inclusion, and for disabled queer people to be able to feel welcome and considered in the queer community and at queer events.
I just wish that there were more opportunities for the queer community to connect - disabled and abled alike - in a way that is safe and comfortable to everyone, For example, more events over Zoom if they have closed captioning available, alongside what is already available would be wonderful, and a way for all of us to feel that little bit less lonely. I think young me, reading that article not yet realising I’m gay and feeling an indescribable fear and sense of injustice for that gay disabled man, would appreciate it most of all - because I would have known that not only can disabled people be queer and considered in the queer community, but they can be embraced in that community too. And that would honestly mean the world. It still does.
Chloe Smith is a physically disabled and autistic writer and poet from the UK. She is in her
twenties and a lesbian, and she's a fan of Doctor Who and murder mysteries (like Columbo, or Poirot). She loves to write stories that centre disabled and LGBT+ characters (typically both) because representation is important. If you'd like to read more of her writing, please visit her website: https://chloesmithwrites.wordpress.com