We Need to Talk About Ableism in the LGBT+ Community

Like, Months Ago

(C) MJP Photography, 2018. [Image description: Max, a white non-binary person, is pushing their red manual wheelchair through the march at Nottingham Pride. They are wearing a dark green jumper that says GENDER on it in white letters. The letters E, N, and D are hollowed out for effect. There are lots of rainbow flags and happy people in the background.] 

I started to write this on the train home from the National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT+ Conference, a conference where access needs were repeatedly ignored, the catering was sub-par at best, and a motion was submitted that listed disabilities as flaws, and disabled LGBT+ people as “followers” of the cause. I am exhausted, but it’s fresh in my head.

Day one. Conference began already later than planned. An introductory video was played that discussed rules of the conference, how things worked, and access. I can’t comment any more on that because I couldn’t see it. I was sat all the way at the back due to transport timings, behind a big post. I understand the basics of engineering enough to know that the posts are a necessary part of holding the ceiling up, but an extra screen could’ve been provided at the side of the room behind each post so that people with an obstructed view could see, and visually impaired people had at least some chance of reading what was written on the screen.

BSL applause is used at these conferences to facilitate the needs of those with hearing aids, sensory processing differences, and other access needs. As always, there was a barrage of questions in hushed tones about why they should have to conform to all these requests. This is an LGBT conference [sic] after all, not disabled students conference.

The agenda for the day, including all the motions submitted in full, was an online version. No paper copy was being given out to everyone automatically in the interest of being eco-friendly that’s fine. But there were no clear instructions for finding the online copy. I found my copy on the NUS website, but was informed halfway through the first day that that copy had already expired, as motions were scrapped the night before, and it hadn’t been updated. I also had to do a fair amount of digging to find it. I requested a paper copy, and was told I could have one, but they never delivered on their promise. There was a title slide for each motion, along with its progress on screen at the front, but see above.

There were repeated requests to keep the noise down on the conference floor that were ignored. There were repeated requests to keep bags from out of the walkway designed specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, which_you guessed it—were ignored. All these issues so far have been what I would call fairly standard issues, not specific to the LGBT+ community. They just happened at an LGBT+ conference.

What I would term, however, an LGBT+ ableism issue is motion XXX, the motion which termed disabilities as “flaws,” and disabled LGBT+ people as followers. Titled “disabled inclusion in LGBTQI spaces.” I am shocked that nobody stopped the producer and questioned their use of language. Disabilities are not flaws. End of discussion. We are human beings. I have many flaws, but my disabilities (Yes, disabilities. Plural) are not listed among them. A flaw is something that might displease someone, it might put people off, and I can already hear the outcry that disabilities (Yes, disabilities. Plural) can be off putting.

I am going to be honest with you. I don’t even know how or where to start with the idea that disabled people are “followers” of the LGBT+ community. My disabilities (Yes, disabilities. Plural) don’t make me any less trans. They don’t make me any less queer. They shouldn’t, but sadly do, make me less desirable. I would like to state for the record that despite my disabilities (Yes, disabilities. Plural), I can fuck all night and be the best you’ve ever had. I’d do me. Anyway, I digress. People with disabilities are as much a part of the movement as non-disabled people, yet we are left out the most. Equality for all the letters (which is still far far from achieved) does not mean equality for all the people under them. We are not followers. We are one of you. Equally so.

This motion was fortunately amended to remove the offensive language and ideas, and to ensure that we are included in the movement properly, and that the motion in question isn’t just a token gesture.

However the non-disabled LGBT+ people in the room turned around immediately and shot us in the back in one of the biggest “fuck you”s I’ve ever witnessed in person. They voted "no" on a motion to ensure gender neutral toilet blocks contain an accessible stall as to actively and purposefully include disabled non-binary and gender non-conforming people. For clarity, the motion was in reference to that one stall that’s already in every toilet block, with the extra grab rails, a little more space etc. but not large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and no red cord. All we wanted was to have that “accessible” stall become an actual accessible stall. The motion fell.

Why? Because “I’m glad to see that trans people don’t have to compete with disabled people for toilet space.” It’s never called a competition when there’s a long line of drunk non-disabled people all waiting for the toilets.

“Disabled people take longer, so we’d have to wait longer.” The only thing that happens by saying that disabled people can only use the one (or two) toilets on campus that are accessible is exclusion. Anyone can take any amount of time in the toilets for any reason. I won’t be graphic—you know, I know. Stating time taken to use the facilities is a boring, fictional reason to exclude us, and is quite frankly a dangerous stereotype. For the purposes of this article, I actually timed myself using the facilities as a disabled person, and compared it to the time taken by a consenting non-disabled person, and surprise, surprise, I was actually quicker. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it. I’m wondering how many people would change their tune in this argument if they were to suddenly become disabled, which happens, and were suddenly on the receiving end of it.

Actually, I don’t wonder—I know. This year, there were reports of people mocking disabled students, only to then cry ableism when their favourite candidate lost the election, and was pulled up on forgetting the + in LGBT+. Suddenly there was outrage. There had been ableism happening for the entirety of conference, and people only started speaking up when someone they liked was allegedly on the receiving end of it. I would like to add that this candidate consistently forgot the + from LGBT+ and was noted as being transphobic throughout conference, tacking on a token mention of trans issues with no intention of resolving them when it suited them.

Just the mere notion of conference resolving to actively include more disabled LGBT+ people in the movement, only then to snatch the glory away within five minutes, is beyond belief.

Conference, you disgust me.

And this is only one conference. Can we talk about how the majority of LGBT+ venues, particularly nightclubs, are inaccessible? Sitting down for a discussion with the two managers of a local nightclub in my area, I was told “Why would we pay £40 for a custom piece of plywood when our bouncers can just lift you?” Not mentioning that their bouncers have not been trained to lift people in wheelchairs. One time I went and took them up on their offer. They just picked me up by the big wheels and out I fell onto concrete steps. Never pick something up by its moving parts if you want it to stay upright, life advice. This same venue has an unlevel floor throughout, meaning I can’t get 10 metres into the club, and the only part of the bar I can reach is the area they refuse to serve. There’s not even an accessible toilet.

So many of my LGBT+ friends reverted to calling me "she" when I first started using the wheelchair, as if somehow a wheelchair makes me less trans, less non-binary, less queer, and less LGBT+. I am still "they," with or without my wheels. Why does our community assume that disability negates our queerness? There is no part of my disabilities (Yes, disabilities. Plural) that affect my gender or my sexuality, and that’s not just unique to me. We’re all people, after all.

And all this is just scratching the surface. As a community, we need to talk about ableism, and how we can make all aspects of Pride accessible for everyone. We need to start asking the question "Is this place accessible? How can we fix this?" rather than "Will a disabled person even want to come anyway?" We need to stop leaving disabled LGBT+ people behind. 

Max Fisher
Max Fisher

Max is a disability and trans rights activist from Nottingham. They openly identify as non-binary, and work within their students' union to promote the rights of transgender students. They also suffer with multiple chronic pain conditions. 

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We Need to Talk About Ableism in the LGBT+ Community
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