Disablism in LGBTIQ+ Spaces

Queer Theory has provided a really useful lens for examining the marginalising effects of existing in ways that deviate from societal norms. As a Queer Crip I found that it not only helped me find new ways to understand my sexuality and gender, but that it helped me think differently about how disablement impacted my life, both personally and systemically. I started noticing that the boundaries between my experience as a queer person and a disabled person were blurry to say the least; sure homophobia feels different to disablism, but the root cause, that deviation from what our society expects a person to be (non-disabled, straight, cisgendered, often white & male too), was the same.

It’s one of the reasons I feel so hurt by the amount of casual and systemic disablism I experience from the LGBTIQ+ community. One of the ways that this community has learned to validate itself is to set itself in opposition to disability; “I’m not crazy, it’s who I am!”, “I’m not deluded, this is my gender”, “I don’t have a mental health condition” said with a sneer, “I’m normal, not broken like them”, “My needs require radical social solutions. Disabled people just need fixing”. The often visceral rejection of disability, of other people with bodies and minds, feelings & desires that either function or are structured in a way that doesn’t meet societal norms, seems strange at best, and cruel at worst. It’s especially hard when you are a disabled queer, expected to denigrate part of your being (being a disabled person) to validate another (being queer).

Before we dive in, I should say that yes, I am well aware that these issues are just expressions of disablism in the wider world, none are completely exclusive to the LGBTIQ+ community (heck, I could write the same about some neurodivergent activists that wish to no longer be seen as disabled because they aren’t broken us crips). LGBTIQ+ spaces are one of the few places I feel like I can be my queer self, and therefore I have a massively vested interest in wanting to do my bit to challenge the way casual and systemic disablism is an accepted part of the way we fight for LGBTIQ+ liberation.

A Quick History

Why is it like this? Well a lot of it has to do with the history of campaigning around queer issues. I’m going to have to do this in a nutshell, because queer history is as vast a topic as the history of humanity. Historically homosexuality was seen as being intrinsically linked with sin; the church condemned such “sodomites” as immoral and unnatural. You see similar in the history of disablism with the notion that we were cursed, possessed, or otherwise deviant beings, suffering in some way for moral failings. Then came the move to understand and naturalise homosexuality, by suggesting it is a biological reality. We were “born this way”, we can’t help who we are, God made us this way. No longer is it the dominant narrative that sin is responsible, it’s now an “individual tragedy” of genetics. Of course, this led to LGBTIQ+ people being increasingly seen in a very similar way to how most see disabled people; as objects of pity that it is morally right for a compassionate society to “fix”. Like it or not, it’s for their own good. Homosexuality & being transgender became psychological & physiological impairments, and intersex bodies became “choices” for parents. Medical attempts at conversion and treatment began, rather than allowing for queer liberation. This had very real, very harmful implications. A friend reminded me that an example of this was clearly seen during the AIDS crisis, when a lot of funding was seen going to organisations that wanted to “cure” homosexuality instead of the disease. From the start of the process of medicalisation, demands grew for society to be the thing that changed, accepting the community, rather than converting the individual. Some groups under the umbrella achieved “official” demedicalisation faster than others; homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, while the World Medical Organisation (WHO) waited until 1990 to remove it from the ICD. The WHO only removed “Transexualism” from the ICD in 2018, and gender dysphoria is still a DSM classification while writing this in 2020.

Because these fights for demedicalisation are very recent (and in the case of things like the gender dysphoria in DSM, and the forced assignment of binary genders to intersex children are still ongoing), the language of those campaigns is still firmly embedded in the community. Given how many still see queer bodies as inherently immoral, it should come as no surprise, given the history, that there remain people who think queer folks have a “treatable” disease no matter what the WHO might say. The issue is not that we LGBTIQ+ people want social support and acceptance and an end to unnecessary and harmful medical interventions, it is that a lot of thelanguage used to argue for this is disablist, and reinforces disablist narratives.

I’m going to look at two of those narratives in a bit more detail now.

Medical Conditions are insults

“Being gay isn’t like being mad, being gay is normal because it doesn’t hurt anyone”

This feels very obvious to me, but I feel I should start with the most basic point: There will never be liberation for the LGBTIQ+ community while its disabled members are still oppressed. Its disabled members will continue to be oppressed while anyone in society, including LGBTIQ+ people, denigrate disabled people because they are still pathologised and medicalised. As a mad crippled queer, the knowledge that many of my queer sibs see the idea of being compared to me as some dire insult is at once infuriating and deeply upsetting. Especially coming from a community that was once seen as being like me until society changed its mind. Instead of showing solidarity with those of us still left behind, contempt is shown instead.

To reinforce the idea that there are “acceptable” bodies and minds is not helpful to either community. It is crucial to challenge the norms which say some bodies/minds aren’t acceptable. The LGBTIQ+ community is still actively trying to challenge this with regards to LGBTIQ+ people, but will keep being held back while it still reinforces this norm by affirming that there are people (some of whom are queer themselves) that should still be deemed unworthy of acceptance. As long as there are socially acceptable ways of calling the functioning of some bodies and minds “wrong”, the LGBTIQ+ community will always be skating on thin ice with regards to their own liberation.

Reinforcing these ideas is a harmful thing.

Social models for us, not you

“We’re not crazy or sick, LGBTIQ+ need social support & acceptance, not to be medically labeled”

Here we look at the notion that LGBTIQ+ marginalisation comes from society not accepting them and making it hard to get things like the appropriate medical support they need, while disabled people’s marginalisation stems from their inherent wrongness.

There is a pervasive notion that, while LGBTIQ+ people won’t be truly liberated until there is wholesale social change so people can accept and affirm the nigh infinite ways an individual’s gender, attraction, and sexuality present (or don’t), disabled people just need “fixing”. This simplistic approach does no one any favours. Of course there are disabled people out there that would like relief from undesirable impairment symptoms (pain, fatigue, frightening visions, high stress etc…), but even if you magically got rid of those, the majority of us would still be seen as impaired. People would still develop impairments and become disabled. We would still require aids and adaptations and access to medical care (which is a social issue in and of itself). The negative stereotypes about disability would still exist. We would still be marginalised, we’d just be in less pain while it happened. Much like LGBTIQ+ people, us crips also need widespread social change to be liberated. I get very frustrated listening to LGBTIQ+ people try to argue that their marginalisation comes from society not accepting them and making it hard to get things like the medical support they need, while disabled people’s marginalisation stems from their inherent wrongness. Disabled people that need medical interventions to help manage impairments are apparent proof of this, while LGBTIQ+ folks that need them to help live their lives are somehow different. I’ve tried to pick into the reasons that one should be considered impaired and the other not; that one should be considered disabled and the other not; and I draw a blank. I struggle to see how the LGBTIQ+ community can suggest that there is a need for a social model of difference/queerness/impairment for a dysphoric trans person undergoing a medical transition to manage a body that causes a degree of emotional/physical suffering & additional marginalisation, but not for a disabled person taking medication, or having prosthesis fit to manage a body that causes a degree of emotional/physical suffering & additional marginalisation. Where is the difference? What answers are there that don’t drip with disablist tropes where we are broken, subhuman, suffering, wrong, unnatural, dull & ugly? If you have one I’d like to know because this genuinely gets to me as a queer (and genderqueer) crip.

In saying all this I want to stress that I do not seek to undo the progress of the Trans community by pointing out the similarities in aspects of our struggles. More I seek to point out that there isn’t a distinct line that can be drawn between our struggles. I’m not trying to deny transphobia and homophobia existing, or argue that they should be re-medicalised. I am suggesting that LGBTIQ+ and disabled peoples’ transgression of societal norms around mental & bodily structure/function/feelings/desire are very similar, and both require those norms to be thoroughly challenged. That disabled people also require social interventions, especially when they have had any medical interventions they personally want to have to help manage/alleviate any symptoms they might find undesirable, and are now simply trying to live their lives as disabled people.

Reproduced Disablism

I want to leave this piece by talking a bit about some of the core disablism that is reproduced by talking about disabled people and queer liberation like this.

  • That disabled LGBTIQ+ people aren’t a part/ aren’t an important part of the LGBTIQ+ community.
  • That to exist with an impairment, as a disabled person, is so widely understood to be a negative thing that to suggest it to someone is to insult them.
  • Disabled People’s bodies/minds are in some way unnatural and abnormal, even though impairments are extremely common, often part of evolution, something that generally develops in us all as we age and so on.
  • To be disabled is to be an aberration that needs either correcting through doctors or spiritual interventions, or if that fails, some sort of tragedy that dooms the individual to the lowest class of existence. Immediately othering and marginalising disabled people.
  • To no longer be seen as a disabled person, to no longer be seen as impaired, to be seen as “normal” is a goal that should be held by all people that are classified as having impairments.
  • That disabled people can be liberated by medicine making them “normal” (where normal is the current capitalist construction of how an ideal worker/commodity’s body should be structured, think and function) or as close to “normal” as possible. Something queer theory explicitly argues against.
    • That this should go beyond helping those who wish to alleviate pain or other individually undesirable symptoms of their impairment, and that medical interventions to make them “normal” should be imposed on all.
    • This never mentions how the people that can’t be medically “normalised” enough to fit within society’s norms then can’t be liberated, leaving them as a perpetual underclass.

I’ve not dedicated any space to talking about disablism in the form of frequently inaccessible spaces, and the additional pressures in many parts of the community to conform to specific bodily standards that are unattainable for many disabled people. This is in part because I think they are a symptom of underlying disablism and living in a neoliberal society. It’s also in part because this post has gotten long and I think it’s time to stop 😉

To try and summarise all of this, I believe that disablism is still rife in LGBTIQ+ spaces & communities. I think one of the ways we can help combat this is to challenge the idea that there is a clear and distinct boundary between disablist oppression and homophobia & transphobia. There is at least a partial overlap because of a common root; both groups are seen to deviate from societal norms around bodily form and function, and expression of thoughts and feelings. As a result both groups experience moral & spiritual judgement for their difference, both experience a conflict between wanting access to any chosen medical interventions and not wanting to have medical interventions forced upon them, both want social change and to challenge norms, both have to deal with difficult stereotypes about their sexuality and attraction. Another way is to ensure that compassion, respect and solidarity arealso built where differences lie.

We are stronger together, compassion is punk AF and smashing social norms is revolutionary 🙂

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