Written by Celestine Fraser, published on 28 June 2023
Image description: A collage of six images – from top left to top right: Chella Man, Jillian Mercado, Ryan O’Connell. Bottom left to right: Rosie Jones, Aaron Rose Philip, Nyle DiMarco.
When it comes to understanding disability, an intersectional approach is essential. The Disability community is not a monolith, and identities such as race, sex, gender identity, class, religion or sexual orientation also shape a person’s lived experience of disability – potentially creating further discrimination or disadvantage. During Pride Month, we explore the intersections between disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, looking at some of the shared experiences of the LGBTQ+ and Disabled communities.
First, there is the fact that a disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ people have a disability. According to Human Rights Campaign, more than a third (35%) of cisgender LGBQ+ adults and more than half (52%) of Transgender adults identify as Disabled, compared to one in four (24%) non-LGBTQ+ adults. Evidence also suggests that LGBTQ+ people experience a higher incidence of poor mental health, likely as a result of ableism, homophobia or transphobia. Meanwhile, recent studies have highlighted a link between Autism and gender diversity – an intersection for which Autistic activist Lydia X. Z. Brown coined the term “gender vague.”
What’s more, LGBTQ+ and Disabled people experience a number of similar challenges: from hate crimes and discrimination, to social isolation or rejection and the experiences of coming out or Disability disclosure. People who are LGBTQ+ and Disabled also experience a double marginalization which can create obstacles in accessing community, healthcare or employment. Often, LGBTQ+ Disabled people do not feel included within the wider LGBTQ+ community, due in part to a lack of accessible Queer spaces.
This Pride Month, we want to amplify some of the brilliant LGBTQ+ Disabled artists and activists who are using their platforms to create a conversation about what it means to be LGBTQ+ and Disabled.
We have had insightful conversations with artist Chella Man, writer, actor, and director Ryan O’Connell as well as comedian Rosie Jones, and we continue to learn from many other LGBTQ+ Disabled activists as well. For example, we think of Jillian Mercado, who became the first Queer Latina wheelchair-user on primetime television when she was cast as Maribel Suarez in The L Word: Generation Q. We think of Aaron Rose Phillip, an Antiguan-American model who in 2018 became the first Black, Transgender and Disabled person to be signed by a major modeling agency. Or we think of Nyle DiMarco, the model, actor and activist who recently published Deaf Utopia, a memoir celebrating Queer Deaf culture.
But we’d also love to learn from you: who are the LGBTQ+ Disabled people who have changed your perspective? Please DM or tag us on social media @TiltingTheLens, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art as a vessel for activism
We asked Ryan, Chella and Rosie how their LGBTQ+ and Disabled identity shapes their work. Ryan replied: “The more accurate question is: “How does it not?” Chella agreed that his LGBTQ+ and Disabled identity is entwined with his creative practice: “It is within all I create, inextricable from who I am! Just as I identify as curious, stubborn, determined – it is impossible to separate the quantity of how these characteristics show up in my work. Political labels are no different.”
Ryan jokes that he has been in his “gay Disabled era” for “a few years now making my show Special, writing a novel and writing and producing the Queer as Folk reboot: all projects that explore the intersection of queerness and disability.” He explains: “I’m always attracted to subjects that have been largely unexplored due to stigma and THANK GOD my identity has been erased by society so I can retrace it back into my work.”
Meanwhile, Rosie agrees that “it is super important to share my experiences with my audience because that is how we change the world.” She explains: “I am a stand-up comedian, which means that I regularly talk about being gay and Disabled in my material… A lot of prejudice comes from a lack of education or a fear of the unknown. So by me coming out on stage confidently and saying, ‘Hello, I’m Rosie, I have Cerebral Palsy and I am a lesbian. I love who I am!’, the audience can see that I am more than a disability, or a sexuality. I am a human being, just like them.”
Accessibility of Queer spaces
So what are currently the biggest challenges facing the LGBTQ+ Disabled community? Ryan believes that “accessibility is always at the forefront.” He asks: “Can Disabled people even access Queer spaces and be included?” Rosie agrees: “I often don’t feel like there isn’t a space for us in the LGBTQ+ community. Firstly, on a physical level. A lot of Queer spaces aren’t accessible, and as a person with a physical disability I find the parades incredibly overwhelming because I worry that I will fall over.”
Clearly, there is a consensus that the LGBTQ+ community needs to better consider the needs of its Disabled members. In a recent interview with Mashable, Nyle DiMarco described his ongoing frustration at a lack of inclusion within the LGBTQ+ community: “Oftentimes when I am invited to LGBTQ events, they are unable to provide interpreters,” he said. “It is a conflicting feeling when I realize LGBTQ is my community where I can finally be myself, but yet, I still get discriminated against at events. How am I — or the 466 million people with hearing loss — going to be actively involved in my own community as well as ending the stigma if we do not have direct access to information in our own language?”
Attitudes to disability within the LGBTQ+ community
Of course, inclusion is not just about access or physical barriers – it is also about attitudes. Rosie describes sometimes feeling uncomfortable within the LGBTQ+ community: “I [have] sometimes felt like I [have] had to justify my queerness to the community, because I deviate from the archaic, ableist notion of what a ‘real lesbian’ looks like. I definitely believe it is getting better, and the LGBTQ+ community is becoming aware of intersectionality, but, in my opinion the change isn’t happening quick enough.”
Misconceptions about LGBTQ+ Disabled people still abound. Ryan jokes – with some sincerity – that the “biggest challenge facing LGBTQ+ Disabled people today” is “being seen as hot.” He insists nonetheless: “We’re viable sexual beings, damnit!”
Actress and model Jillian Mercado echoes Ryan in an interview with Cosmopolitan UK: “People who have ableist mindsets believe that we don’t have relationships, that we don’t have sexual experiences, that anything in the realm of love or relationships […] just doesn’t exist for us… It’s very hurtful for our upbringing and our mental state, to be honest. We don’t feel desired by anybody.”
Lack of authentic media representation
According to Chella, the media’s negligible or inauthentic representation of the community has serious implications on the lives of LGBTQ+ Disabled individuals. He explains: “The lack of representation in mainstream media for Queer, Disabled individuals misses the opportunity to humanize our lived experiences and personhood beyond socio-political labels. Systemic cycles of ableism and transphobia then persist without change, leaving my communities in unsafe environments.”
Visibility is therefore essential. “I think it is super important to talk about my identities in my stand-up, because when I was growing up I never saw any positive Disabled and Queer role models in the media,” says Rosie. “This made me feel disillusioned, and for a long time I questioned whether I could even be disabled AND gay. If you don’t see it, it’s often difficult to be it.”
In a conversation last year with In the Know, Aaron Rose Phillip spoke about the intersection of her identities as a Black, Disabled Transgender woman. She described how most of the time, “[LGBTQ+ Disabled people] won’t be seen, we won’t be heard, our stories won’t be heard, and we won’t be in community with people…” Her message was emphatic: “We are here and we contribute.”
Finding pride in LGBTQ+ Disabled identity
So how does the LGBTQ+ Disabled community find pride, when Queer spaces are still so often inaccessible? For Ryan, the answer is usually found in his work: incorporating his experiences of being a gay Disabled man into his storytelling, or embodying them as an actor. “I was essentially closeted about my disability until my TV show Special came out,” he says. “Seeing the world embrace me with no judgment did more for me than years of therapy ever could.”
For Chella, feeling pride is about feeling safe among community – an idea which brings to mind Mia Mingus’ concept of access intimacy. When Chella recently “attended a screening for Black, Deaf talent”, he found that “the joy, love, and mutual understanding in that room not only created an environment of pride, but permission to unmask and relax into safety.”
Meanwhile, Rosie “tend[s] to avoid events where there will be a load of people” because of her physical disability, but instead she finds solidarity in smaller groups: “Pride for me is celebrating who I am with my closest friends.”
The joy of being Disabled and Queer
As our community testifies, there is joy in being LGBTQ+ and Disabled, despite its challenges. For Ryan, the “best thing” about his identity is belonging to “the community”: “Everyone I’ve met has been a true banger. Accepting, kind, funny. What an honor to be a part of this group.”
Rosie, meanwhile, feels proud to belong to a community with a rich history. She recalls: “A few years ago, in 2019, I got a tattoo on the day of London Pride. My tattooist was a Trans woman, and it felt like a real celebration of my identity and who I am. Although I got it on an important day, as it was the fifty-year anniversary of Stonewall, the tattoo is permanent. I look at it every day, and every day I am proud to be a gay, Disabled woman.”
Across the many conversations we have had with our community, one idea in particular has recurred: that although LGBTQ+ Disabled people face challenges, the identity comes – paradoxically – with a certain freedom. By embracing their LGBTQ+ Disabled identity, people describe feeling free – or at least, freer – from rigid expectations or social norms. For many, being LGBTQ+ and Disabled is liberating, exciting and full of potential. Chella says it best: “Being a Queer, Disabled individual allows me to move through this world expansively, leaning into all the possibilities for a framework that has never existed before.”
To learn more about the work of the activists featured in this story, please engage with their social media profiles:
Aaron Rose Philip: @aaron___philip
Chella Man: @chellaman
Jillian Mercado: @jillianmercado
Nyle DiMarco: @nyledimarco
Rosie Jones: @josierones
Ryan O’Connell: @ryanoconn