When Rooted in Rights first accepted me for their inaugural Rooted in Writing Fellowship program last year, my reaction was one of pure disbelief. For all that I have struggled in my post-grad life to make writing a full-time career, I have been even more shocked to find people who believe in me enough to support my development as a writer. To know organizations exist that are willing to devote resources to building platforms for trans disabled women like me is a blessing I am unbelievably thankful for.
Throughout the past 4 years in which I have come to acknowledge how disability factors into my everyday life, I have longed to connect with spaces where I can feel acknowledged in my entirety. Sure, I have found comfort in spaces with fellow people of color and Queer/Trans circles prior to my disability issues becoming more integral to my life. I’ve bonded with several people over our shared struggles and we continue to support each other whenever we can. But ever since I became aware of just how deeply complicated and diverse disabilities and disability spaces could be, I have felt a sense of belonging I had never experienced before. Whereas before I had attempted fruitlessly to connect conversations about mental health to my experiences as a Queer/Trans person of color, in disability I found a potential space for all of me to exist. More than anything, I found a place where I could create fully as a writer, growing and tending to all parts of me without feeling as though the undesired parts of my identity would have to be tossed aside.
Unfortunately, this has not come without some unpleasant realizations about what it means to be a disabled trans person of color in disability spaces. If I am being honest, the past years connecting with disability spaces have often given me the impression that whiteness reigns supreme when it comes to who gets priority in resource allocation and conversation topics. As grateful as I am to witness conversations about mental health address institutional conditions beyond stigma, the conversations still remain woefully focused on mental health concerns related only to middle-class white folks. When race is introduced into the discussion, may white disabled folks tend to become defensive, wondering why folks of color with mental health issues are being divisive. Many white disabled folks don’t ever consider that we are simply trying to have our issues matter as much as theirs have relative to the history of mainstream disability organizing. And as important as it is for trans folks of color like me to be chosen for positions like this fellowship, I won’t deny a familiar worry creeping into my head that mirrors frustrations Rooted in Rights’ Digital Manager Vilissa Thompson once expressed: that my identity will become a hot button issue to address at one point and time and then be forgotten when the next “woke” topic comes up.
I’ll be frank: I am not unfamiliar with feeling out of place because of my identity. In Queer/Trans spaces I have navigated this same relationship with whiteness in terms of whose voices were prioritized over others. In person-of-color-focused spaces I cherished, my mental health issues made me stand out in often uncomfortable ways, especially when confronting people who only paid lip service to disability concerns.
I know my communities need work and I am patient and pragmatic enough to know that it will take time to accomplish that work. Making truly inclusive spaces and caring communities is like good writing: it takes time, effort, and multiple people giving their input equally. And, with being accepted for this fellowship so many months ago, I know there is capacity for disability spaces to value the work of folks who aren’t just white and cisgender.
However, I also think it has long been time for more white-centric disability organizations recognize the amazing contemporary work many of these same communities have done to add complexity to disability conversations. Whether it is the amazing political organizing done by disabled Queer/Trans voices like Lydia Brown, Mia Mingus, and organizations like the National Coalition for Latinx with Disabilities or the social media work of Alice Wong, I know my communities have much to offer to the amazing disabled futures we are all building.
I can only hope this is represents the start of more chances for people from my communities to grow and delight in the wonderful space of disabled existence. It would be a shame for my place in disability as a writer of color to continue being an anomaly rather than the standard more organizations should strive for.