INDEPENDENTLY GLBT By Bill Burleson
“It’s a great way to bring together the communities,” Jillian says. Ashley agrees: “This is a community within a community.” She’s not referring to the physical place: an Olive Garden in Bloomington. What she is talking about are the eight people having dinner. What’s the group? I’ll give you a hint. They are fighting for the right to have relationships of their choosing. They are fighting for employment rights. They are fighting for equal rights in general. They are fighting for recognition as whole human beings. Does this all sound familiar? Could be any GLBT group, right? In this case it’s the GLBT group from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. MCIL’s mission is to work with people with disabilities in fulfilling their desire to lead productive selfdetermined lives. For about 20 years they have hosted this gathering for people dealing with all sorts of different barriers. In some cases the barrier is transportation or an unshoveled corner, for others it means requiring the services of a sign language interpreter. But what may hurt most are the barriers between people. Before coming to the Olive Garden, I talked with Galen Smith who serves on the “Disability, Oppression, and Access Committee” of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). Smith is also a Metropolitan State University student with a selfdesigned major: “Community Building Through Social Change.” Smith also has a disability.
“There may be physical barriers, but usually the barriers are attitudinal.” According to Smith, groups like MCIL’s are important because “as with all people of multiple marginalized communities,” being in one community space is often difficult because it can be a challenge to “bring your whole self.” Adding, “That can be hard.” I think dinner companions at the Olive Garden would agree. Sheila, one of the two facilitators for the group, said she thinks the group exists because often members feel they are “not able to fit into the GLBT community.” “One of our main goals is to let people know there are disabled people in the GLBT community,” said Corbett, the other facilitator. “People don’t think you have relationships, much less gay relationships.” Some people think of the disabled as having “no sexuality” at all. “Obviously a misconception,” she says to laughter around the table. After all, her partner is sitting next to her. Corbett needs to use a wheelchair. Of course physical accessibility is a real issue, but more to the point is, again, people’s attitude. According to Corbett, people “look at the wheelchair, not the whole person.” And then not everyone’s disability is as obvious as Corbett’s. These “hidden disabilities” brings up a whole host of other issues. Ashley tells the story of a fellow student saying that people with learning disabilities don’t belong in college. She asked the student, “Do you think I belong here?” According to Ashley, “You have to come out twice.” Oppressions do not live in isolation. This dinner party certainly can testify to that. Systems are set up to take people’s issues apart, to look at their GLBT side in isolation to their disabled side. But in fact, “Isms” exist throughout our culture—racism, sexism,
religious bigotry, homophobia—and often times individual’s issues overlap. Not every GLBT person is white. Sometimes being a lesbian in our culture can mean dealing with sexism first. Being gay does not exempt a person from anti-Semitism. And in regard to the disabled community, all this may apply too. And let’s not forget classism. According to Corbett, “Two-thirds [of people in wheelchairs] who can work can’t find work.” This is exactly what Smith is studying for a degree and working with NGLTF on. “It’s about intersecting oppressions.” It’s about “disability as one piece of a larger oppression we need to address.” But while this is so very important, I am doing the group an injustice if I’m implying that this is all there is to talk about tonight. Instead, we talk about relationships. We talk about jobs and schools. We talk about families. There is plenty of good-natured, and loving, kidding across the table. It is just what one might expect from a group of people who know each other well, who lean on each other, who are there for one another. That should not be a surprise. After all, the point is that we are all people, and we are all muddling through as best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. Sometimes the difference comes in who we meet along the way. As Sheila says, “Sometimes people come up and say, should I call you handicapped or disabled? I say, ‘Just call me Sheila.’”
For more information about the GLBT Support Group for People With Disabilities at Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, contact Corbett at 651-6032028, or TTY 651-603-2001. The group meets every Tuesday evening from 6-7:30.
Force (NGLTF). Smith is also a Metropolitan State University student with a self- “Disability, Oppression, and Access Committee” of the Nati...