Disability and LGBTQ+ History

Daisy Holder

Queer history and disability history are usually considered very different subjects

Last year, as part of my work on disability history, I shared this image of Connie Panzarino at a Pride march in Boston. The photo, a blend of disabled and queer history, was so pearl-clutchingly unexpected that I got mass reported and briefly put on the Instagram naughty step. Queer history and disability history are usually considered very different subjects, studied by very different people. Looking back at LGBTQ+ history, it's not too hard to see why. Up until 1990, the World Health Organisation still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Most of the fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people has been in opposing the assertion that queerness in itself is a disability. High profile protests against the medicalisation of sexual orientation, such as the 1979 story of Swedish protestors calling into work sick claiming they "felt too gay", means that we can all too easily forget the people who fit into both of these boxes. If you've ever been to Italy, or heard of Italy, you're probably familiar with Michelangelo. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who joins the club of People Better Known By Just One Name (also attended by Pele and Shakira), is best known for his ceilings, his Davids and being the most documented artist of the 16th Century. After growing up in a down-on-their-luck noble family, his two most famous sculptures were both completed before he turned 30. Even at this stage though, painful hands made sculpting both exhausting and arduous, which were themes reflected so significantly in his work that some recent critics have deemed him "a drama queen". He was also staunchly Catholic from childhood; so Catholic in fact that he allegedly had an affair with the Pope. And although he saw painting as the lesser of the arts, he was commissioned to paint the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Despite his apparent inability to maintain any kind of personal relationships, he had a long lasting (as far as we can tell, completely platonic) friendship with a widow called Vittoria and an endless (as far as we can tell, completely not platonic) love with a young nobleman called Tommaso. By this point Michelangelo had turned to poetry, partly due to his hand pain, and the series of poems he wrote to Tommaso remain the first love poems written by one man to another man in modern language. A good long while after his death, one of his descendents was going through his papers and found that these poems had been changed to make the object of the lustful prose a woman. Naturally that wouldn't do and so with a harumph he changed them back, but this habit of repressing someone's sexuality after they died continued to be relatively common with noteworthy figures from history.
Disability and LGBTQ+ History
Connie Panzarino at a Pride march in Boston

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Disability and LGBTQ+ History
Lord Byron

The personal lives of many notable figures within their lifetimes could cause stirs

Lord Byron, the "mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet, who had to squeeze in writing his poetry around the regular postal deliveries of pubic hair from adoring poetry fans, is now considered very blatantly bisexual. After a former lover started spreading (very accurate) rumours that he had sex with other men, he left England under a cloud. His friends maintained that his sudden departure had been completely voluntary, but the people hissing at him in the theatre probably didn't help. His numerous affairs with both men and women were well documented, and widely known about within his social circle, as were his demands that the deformed foot he was born with be constantly covered up so no-one could see it, even in bed which must have been curious for those accompanying him to his chambers. After he died, many of his close friends got together, and burned all of his papers in an attempt to protect his reputation. But some years later a poem was published called Don Leon. It was attributed to Byron, although it probably wasn't him at all, and was supposedly rescued from The Big Paper Burning. It was a manifesto of sorts, calling for an end to the death penalty for homosexual sex. While it didn't prompt any immediate changes of the law or public opinion, it certainly caused a stir amongst the great and good of England at the time. The personal lives of many notable figures within their lifetimes could cause similar stirs. Frida Kahlo was used to it, but still struggled with it. These days, she's best known for her art, her eyebrows and her widely documented affairs with both men and women. During her lifetime though, she was a part of an incredibly influential group of friends known as 'The Children of the Revolution' at a time of huge political upheaval in Mexico, as well as being one half of the on-again off-again power couple known as 'Diego and Frida'. Much of her art focussed around her experiences of both physical and psychological pain. While she has the status of a cult icon, a phenomenon deemed 'Fridamania' (which is why at this moment you can buy salt shakers, makeup brushes and door stops with her face on), in her home country she is primarily celebrated for her use of Mexican and indigenous culture in her art. Her queer icon status though transcends just her known sexuality. In many family photographs and in her own art, Frida shows her experimentation with gender non-conformity. While Frida's influence has only really been solidified much more recently, Barbara Jordan's has always been clear, at least to those around her. Her list of achievements and firsts after her shift from law into politics is longer than this entire article. She was the first woman elected to represent Texas in the House of Representatives, the first LGBTQ+ woman in Congress, the first African American to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery and first African American woman to serve as a governor of a state (it was acting governor and only for a day but it still counts). Barbara was seen as such a talented politician that at the Democratic National Convention she somehow managed to receive votes to be their presidential candidate, despite not actually putting her hat into the ring for it. She never publicly acknowledged her Multiple Sclerosis but also didn't hide it, frequently teaching and doing speeches with a cane or later on, in a wheelchair. This privacy also stretched to other areas of her life and identity, those that she didn't want to be defined by. That included Nancy, her life partner of 30 years, criptically referred to as her 'longtime companion' in her obituary, which really is only one step away from 'gal pals'. Neither ever stated they were in a romantic relationship, but Barbara regularly introduced Nancy to people as her partner so it didn't take a lot of work to figure out.
Ancestry UK

Many others were quiet and subtle in their activism and representation of disabled and queer people, others were really, really not.

While Jordan and many others like her were quiet and subtle in their activism and representation of disabled and queer people, others were really, really not. Marsha P Johnson has become a widely celebrated figure online in the last few years, for very good reasons, but many of the things you've heard about her may not be exactly right. She identified not as transgender but intemittently, as either a gay man, a transvestite or a drag queen. It is worth noting though that the term transgender wasn't in wide use at this point, and so she might have been merely unfamiliar with the term. She definitely had a flexible view of her gender, telling anyone who asked whether she was a man or a woman that the P in her name stood for "pay it no mind". While many have credited her with throwing the first brick at the Stonewall Riots, she denies that she was even there at the beginning. She was however a major figure in the uprisings, as one of the first drag queens to start going to the Stonewall Inn once they stopped restricting their clientele to only gay men. Although she denied being there right at the start, she sure as hell was there later on. Many sources agree that on the second night, she shimmied up a lamppost and dropped a brick onto the windshield of a police car, smashing it into pieces. The riots were the culmination of growing tension between the LGBTQ+ community and the police, after a rapidly increasing numbers of violent raids of gay bars, supposedly to combat the mafia. This time though, the community had decided that enough was enough. The Stonewall Riots resulted in protests and marches for weeks afterwards, demanding the freedom for queer people to live openly and without fear. One year later, in commemoration of the riots, the first gay pride marches were held in cities across the USA. The influence of members of the queer disabled community simply being visible can't be underestimated though, particularly given the historical tradition where many people had to distance themselves from these identities. An exception to this though was Bobbie Lea Bennet. For many transgender people in the US, having gender affirming surgery meant either funding expensive treatment and rehabilitation themselves out of their own pockets. Either that, or using a near impossible argument to prove that their gender identity was a disability, to get the government to agree to cover the cost with social security benefits. However for transgender people who were already disabled and already had their costs covered by social security, that step could theoretically be skipped. Or at least that was what Bobbie had originally been told. However, after having jumped through all the hoops required of her by the medical team and the government, she was informed that Medicare had suddenly changed their mind about paying the cost, and decided they didn't fancy funding the whole thing anymore. So she did what any stubborn person would do, drove from California to Washington DC and refused to leave the office until the director had agreed to meet with her. Soon after Bobbie's meeting with the director of Medicare, (which I'm sure was very polite and didn't involve her verbally ripping this man a new orifice), she received a mysterious cheque in the post that just so happened to cover the entire cost of the surgery that they had previously refused to cover. And just a few months later, the director announced a new policy (which was definitely entirely his own idea) that meant that Medicare coverage would now be extended to include gender affirming surgery. This intersection of queer history and disability history hasn't just always existed, but has always been instrumental in the progression of our rights. By not seeking out these stories, and ignoring how intersectional communities have contributed, we risk missing out on all the lessons that those before us have taught.
Disability and LGBTQ+ History
Marsha P Johnson
Disability and LGBTQ+ History

Daisy Holder

Daisy Holder wrote for Edition 6, LGBTQ+ History.
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