April is the cruelest month, wrote poet T.S. Eliot. Some students and their parents in Mississippi recently did their best to prove it. The dust-up highlights an alliance that has deepened in the past two decades while changing American politics.
Earlier this month in Itawamba County, a lesbian teen sought to bring her date to the senior prom; the local school board called off the event. A federal judge rebuked the board for violating the student's rights with the cancellation. So several families planned a private prom at a local country club. Guess who wasn't invited? The lesbian and two classmates with disabilities.
The episode isn't the first to flag common discrimination against people with disabilities and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Solidarity between both communities has grown, reflected in a recent appointment to the federal panel on fair employment practices and the signing last fall by President Obama of a landmark hate-crimes law.
Some laws mark the culmination of social movements; others, the cresting of their moral and political power. The new hate-crime law, which for the first time makes attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well as disability status subject to federal aid for investigating and prosecuting, reunites two coalition partners with a parallel history.
Twenty years ago support from both groups helped pass the bipartisan bill that drew people with disabilities into the mainstream of American life. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, set standards for fully accommodating the blind and sight-impaired, deaf and hard-of-hearing, and those with limited speech and mobility into workplaces, schools, union halls, hotels, restaurants, and government buildings.
One author of the ADA was professor Chai Feldblum, a leading scholar of disability and gay rights with a deep understanding of the struggles and goals of both communities. In early April, Feldblum became a member of the five-person U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Passage of the ADA had lasting ripple effects. In the past two decades, people with disabilities have overcome exclusion and shame to close the gap in nearly every area by which we measure social progress, from poverty and employment to health, education, housing, and computer access.
Many Americans forget that the ADA provided timely recourse against discrimination for people living with or perceived as having HIV or AIDS. Fresh in the minds of lawmakers who approved it was the much-publicized ostracism of Indiana schoolboy Ryan White. He contracted the virus from a blood transfusion and died just months before the law's signing.
At the time of White's death, following his expulsion from a public school, hundreds of gay men faced an adult version of such hysteria and rejection. Their ouster from jobs and apartments upon the emergence of AIDS-related symptoms actually gained the blessing of some religious conservatives of the day. Some opposed protection from anti-HIV bias in the ADA.
But betrayals of the Golden Rule and the rule of law weren't limited to the right wing. In 1995, a federal court found that a Michigan Democrat with a progressive voting record had discriminated against an aide she fired amid fear that he had HIV.
More recently, people with disabilities and LGBT voters have faced challenges and registered important victories in the realm of ballot measures and electoral politics.
In 2006, Rush Limbaugh ridiculed Michael J. Fox for quaking visibly during a filmed advertisement in favor of a hotly contested Missouri referendum to allow stem-cell research. Fox hoped such research might lead to cures for the Parkinson's disease he manifested. In response, votes from people with disabilities and LGBT allies for whom Limbaugh's insults had a familiar bite helped give the referendum its narrow statewide margin of approval.
LGBT equality and disability rights also became flashpoints of a 2006 race for governor in Ohio. Then secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who antagonized gays by backing an earlier measure to ban access to marriage, put forward rules that discouraged advocates for the disabled and others from registering people to vote. Facing a legal challenge that united civil-rights forces, Blackwell lost in federal court and later lost his own race.
The 2008 election was a turning point for people with disabilities and the LGBT community. Both groups took visible roles in the campaigns and voted in unprecedented numbers. With more than 6 million ballots cast in 2008, LGBT voters ranked as a formidable constituency. Totaling 14.7 million, or nearly 12 percent of overall votes, people with disabilities rivaled both union members and African Americans in sheer strength.
Both communities share with religious minorities the fact that identity is not always clearly in evidence, even with fellow members of the group. Being open, or identifying with the minority, is often based on individual choice and shaped by perceived accommodation and welcome.
In this way, the hate-crime measure and efforts to counteract violent hostility are a vital step in the emergence of both communities. Advocating such measures has kindled collaboration. Joint support for other drives, such as the pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act aimed at barring job bias against LGBT people and nominations like Feldblum's, has deepened familiarity and cooperation and caused fear and wedge-issue appeals to intolerance to lose traction.
We have not heard the last of incidents like the Mississippi prom. As past civil-rights struggles reveal, inhumanity triggers insults, but it also deepens resolve, courage, and coalition. The coming years will show how well both communities leverage their growth, build on breakthroughs, and continue to join forces for mutual advancement.