Celebrating My LGBTQ+ Pride Helped Me Find Disability Pride
My first display of public LGBTQ+ pride was the rainbow pin that I attached to my purse in middle school: In the center, a pink triangle with text that read “Out Loud” and rainbow stripes that radiated outward from the triangle. When she saw me at a family function, my grandmother asked, “What’s that about?” We didn’t have a great relationship and I wasn’t aware of her opinions on queer people so I shrugged and said, “My friend gave it to me.”
I developed a strong identity of LGBTQ+ pride over the next few years, as I came out as queer to most of my friends and family. I wore many queer pins, donned rainbow socks, and participated in the Day of Silence at school. I posted photos with my girlfriends on MySpace and Facebook, and wrote blog posts about why I was proud to be queer. I was so active in an online LGBTQ+ youth forum that I became a moderator for the space.
For me, queer pride was about showing up in the fullest expression of myself in every interaction. But sometimes it felt safer to hide who I was, like when bullies started following me home from school and threatening to beat me up or tell my dad that I was gay before I’d had a chance to come out to him.
Yet even through these acts of violence and the smaller moments of queer antagonism (like my grandmother referring to my girlfriend as my ‘friend’ after I came out, or my friend saying she thought intimacy between two women wasn’t ‘the same’), I wanted to be honest about who I was. I felt more authentic when I was open about being queer, knowing that it could cost me relationships and other opportunities and opened me up to harassment. My queer pride was just as much a celebration of how far the LGBTQ+ community has come in terms of equality and acceptance as it was a declaration that I wasn’t interested in being a false version of myself.
It took me a lot longer to embrace my disability pride. By the time I was in college, everyone knew that I was queer, although coming out to new friends on campus was still awkward. I joined my college’s Queer Straight Alliance and went to my first Pride parade. But although I’d been disabled my entire life—I was diagnosed with autism as a child and had a variety of other symptoms that were later recognized as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—I had no idea where to start with disability pride.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. “I wouldn’t have disability pride without embracing my queer identities,” says Dom Chatterjee, the editor-in-chief of Rest for Resistance. “Even though I have multiple chronic health issues, I didn’t begin to identify as ‘disabled’ until I built community with other disabled trans people of color who taught me how the word can be empowering. These friends reflect my humanity back to me and validate that my whole self is valuable.”
I knew a handful of other disabled people as a kid, but we didn’t stay friends outside of our interaction in special education classrooms or occupational therapy waiting rooms. I didn’t make any close disabled friends until college, when my group of friends just happened to be majority disabled. We didn’t all share the same diagnosis but we co-created accessibility in our friendship spaces together, whether that meant supporting a friend who had a panic attack or calling campus security to get a path made in the snow for wheelchair users.
Other LGBTQ+ disabled people find they have the opposite experience: They develop a sense of disability pride early on that makes them more comfortable exploring their gender or sexuality later.
“Being immersed in these communities provides me with the comfort to be myself and find others who are fully their selves,” says Marlena Chertock, a digital storyteller, journalist, writer, and editor “Gaining disability pride helped me express my bisexual pride. I’m grateful to the amazing disabled and queer writers and people who came before me, who enable me to live my truest self.”
Queer pride probably came easier to me because I had LGBTQ+ role models, but very few disabled role models. My first disabled role model was my mom, who passed away when I was 11. I didn’t know many LGBTQ+ people when I was young, and many of them I only knew from online, but I at least had a roadmap of what my future might look like—I had Ellen Degeneres, the cast of The L Word, my older bi friend Casey from MySpace.
Whether it was intentional or not, I’d been taught from a very young age that my disabilities made me a burden, and they were something to fix, hide, or make easier on others. I’m privileged that my close family didn’t treat me this way, and my parents advocated against therapies like applied behavioral analysis (ABA). But teachers still forced me to sit on my hands instead of flapping them excitedly while I answered questions about my favorite subjects in school, and discouraged me from telling fiction stories out loud to my classmates. Educators and counselors in and outside of the classroom. They taught me that asking too many questions is ‘annoying,’ and that access isn’t a right and I should change my body and mind instead of asking for adaptations that made my life easier.
Finding disability community on and offline radically shifted my worldview. Planning accessible events with my college friends and talking to them about the accommodations we had to request in class (moving classrooms to an accessible building, longer time on tests, extensions on papers) showed me that it isn’t shameful to be disabled and that there’s nothing wrong with asking my professors to take my tests in a different room.
I found online activists like Lydia X. Z. Brown and Neurowonderful that shaped my understanding of what it means to be autistic—and the reality that I could have autistic pride, that I didn’t have to constantly change who I was for the benefit of non-autistic people. Advocates like Annie Segarra and Denarii Grace taught me that I didn’t have to be ashamed when I started using a cane, and that a mobility aid can be a symbol of disability pride and visibility.
“A factor in understanding myself and feeling empowered to be visible has been finding support through LGBTQ+ communities, both physical and digital,” agrees Eli, a nonbinary and bi educator with a connective tissue disorder. “These communities have been very intersectionality-minded, with special attention to the struggles of QTPOC and disabled folks. These communal values and experience opened spaces for me to talk to and hear from other folks with similar experiences of queerness and disability. in turn exposing me to more current, radical ideas and activists than I’d been aware of before.”
Being part of radical, inclusive spaces was also powerful for me. My disability community was made up of people with multiply marginalized identities from the start. Over the years, more of my disabled friends have come out as LGBTQ+ and more of my LGBTQ+ friends have explored their relationship to disability. Through this radically inclusive disability community and pride, I’ve embraced who I am, my full self: Someone who is flapping their hands as they march in an all-rainbow outfit for Pride.
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