By: Melanie Ausbrook, Adult Learning Program Manager, Search Inc
Both neurodiversity and queerness/sexual identity are often viewed as spectrums. The Kinsey Scale places sexual identity on a continuum with no person being totally ‘straight’ or ‘gay.’ Similarly, autism is defined as a spectrum disorder with no two people with autism being the same. One study goes further and even suggests that up to 70% of individuals diagnosed with autism also identify as LGBTQIA+. In both communities, safe spaces to tell our stories, to feel less isolated, and to feel a sense of belonging are crucial both to the success of the individual and of the whole
If the above-mentioned study is accurate and 70% of individuals with autism also identify as LGBTQIA+, where are the anthologies that tell the stories of those individuals and of individuals with other disabilities that also identify as other than heterosexual? The roots of the gay rights movement go beyond Marsha P. Johnson throwing the first bottle at the Stonewall Inn. It was her story and all of the stories before and after hers that started a push for change. It wasn’t 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins’ crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capital building. It was her story and the stories before and after hers that furthered the disability rights movement.
It is imperative that we hear not just the stories of LGBTQIA+ people who are typically abled people, but also the stories of people with disabilities. They are our stories. Within every life history, we can find commonality and intersectionality. When we are able to find moments in another’s story where we can see ourselves, it becomes difficult to dislike that person or further policies that reject their personhood. Brene Brown said, “People are hard to hate close up.” Telling our stories forces others to face biases within themselves and either accept or reject those biases. Our stories also act as a mirror for others to begin to find self-acceptance.
“But what if I don’t know what box to check? Am I disabled or am I gay? What if I don’t know which label I am?” I find that who I am and what boxes I check are fluid and changing as I grow and have additional life experiences. Not only do I not feel the need to define who and what I am to others, I have also learned to not need to define that for myself. I have become more comfortable with ambiguity. Unless you are filling out the Census or taking the latest Cosmo personality quiz, leave the box-checking for another day. Box checking rarely changes societal ways of behaving and only serves to deepen shame and blame.
Furthermore, a sense of belonging is integral to personal well-being. That’s why “gay-borhoods” exist, although they are disappearing. Boystown (Lakeview) and Andersonville, Berwyn, and Oak Park – these are the places where the LGBTQIA+ community can feel safe, both physically and emotionally. That is where we can see mirrors of ourselves without judgment based on sexuality or gender expression. My fervent hope is that the disabled community feels welcome in those spaces and feels that same sense of belonging and safety in places such as community day services, CILAs, and special recreation spaces.
All of these safe spaces were predicated upon the stories of the people that make up these places. Blazing new trails isn’t comfortable and feels like a risk. The vulnerability required to tell your story, to lay aside your defenses that serve to protect you from the devaluing of your worth as a person based upon ability or sexuality, is also your greatest strength. That very vulnerability is what will cause another human being with a shared experience to gasp and place their hand over their heart. They see you, and in seeing you, they see themselves. That is where self-acceptance begins, in the togetherness. There is a profound lack of stories that represent the LGBTQIA+ disabled community.
In this celebration of the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, if you choose to stay closeted, that is okay. You are loved and you belong. If you choose to tell your story to yourself and yourself alone, that is okay. You are loved and you belong. If you choose to come bursting out in rainbows and glitter, that is okay. You are loved and you belong. If you need a safe person to tell your story to and you don’t have that in your life, I am here. You are loved and you belong.
In the words of Junior Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.” Be the light and know that you are loved and you belong.
Melanie is a community activist involved in disability rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, Black Lives Matter, and mental health awareness. She has worked to serve adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities for 10 years, wearing various hats over the course of that time. Melanie is currently the Adult Learning Program Manager at Search Inc.’s Mount Prospect site, working to advocate for the supports that individuals need in order to live up to their full potential and lead rich, rewarding lives.