This past semester, I attended a class on American social movements with the notable Frances Fox Piven at The CUNY Graduate Center. My immediate thought was to compose a research paper examining the American gay and disability rights movements of the 1970s. I had an epiphany: the LGBTQ population often ignores, or forgets, to acknowledge their members who have disabilities. To celebrate National LGBTQ Pride Month in 2013, I would like to shed some light on the struggles that these individuals endured (and continue to endure) by detailing the effects of normality on their lives, and concluding with an imperative for the LGBTQ population to acknowledge its members with disabilities.
Both gay and disabled people have had a lifelong struggle with the hegemony of normality. We assume the word "normal" has been a part of the English language for centuries, but that is not the case. It only arrived in its current sense around 1840, and eventually, it made an impact on the culture after eugenicists used it as a way to demolish the "non-normals," those who were deemed abnormal and deviant: queer/gay/disabled/mentally ill/poor/black. These people were relegated to an existence of imprisonment in the institution, made to feel pathological and sterilized to prevent propagation of their abnormalities.
The current implications of the word "normal" in American life are pervasive, influencing many aspects of an individual's life: schools that one attends, jobs that one is qualified for, events that one is invited to and can participate in, abilities that one is perceived to have, modes of travel that one has access to, and relationships that one is able to engage with. To be normal assumes that a person is heterosexual, able-bodied, white, and capable of performing mental and physical activities deemed worthy in an industrialized society, with European characteristics. Ultimately, policies in our country operate under the guise of the "normal," which enforces social control in the culture, and the production of institutionalized homophobia, racism, cripophobia, misogyny, queerophobia, ableism, and heteronormativity.
Gay and disabled people were compelled by their families, communities, and culture to "pass" or "overcome" their deviant classifications, which is what the dominant, normal culture sought from them. To pass assumed you disguised your pathology. If you were gay, you did not disclose your sexuality and acted according to your assigned gender. If you were disabled, you attempted to pass as able-bodied, such as hiding your hearing aid, and only frequenting settings where your disability was not obvious. In terms of overcoming, if a gay person were participating in homosexual activities, he was considered immoral and sentenced to psychiatric treatment, in order to cure the illness. For people with disabilities, the typical story conveyed in the media, or in literature, was a person who escaped the institution, and created an independent life by becoming employed, getting married, and having children. Overcoming was associated with strength of character, resilience, and being a credit to that community, which presumes that community is unworthy and discreditable. Both passing and overcoming carried a tremendous personal burden emotionally and psychologically for people who were gay and/or disabled. These personal issues were the basis for an attack against the public, and inverted as concerns for the public domain and discourse.
Thus, both the gay and disability communities fought back against the enduring discrimination, marginalization, and oppression, during the "new social movements" in America. The private issues in which the disability and gay rights movements had conceded to in the past were now being interpreted as social constructions instigating social stigma that warranted public attention. These communities waged a war on the "normal" culture, by raising consciousness within their own communities (a tactic borrowed from the feminist movement), making the public aware of their social and political identities, mobilizing protests to gain civil rights, reclaiming symbols and words as an object of power and pride, and executing an agenda replete with their demands. Additionally, their histories would be told by them, not by the normal culture, with an emphasis on their minority status and the residual effects of institutionalized discrimination.
My formal social work education has shaped my commitment to social justice. Social justice is a value and a principle where social workers acknowledge the various identities of people with whom they engage. It is never assumed that one identity takes precedence over another; we allow our clients to educate us on how they identity themselves. I implore the LGBTQ population to listen, understand, explore, accept, and acknowledge your disabled members. They are worthy and deserving of our attention, especially during this historical month. Their struggles are like our struggles, and we need to join forces for one united LGBTQ pride month!