April 2018

Friday, September 19, 2014

Coming Out

Today, I presented at an orientation for this year's incoming Masters of Social Work class at the University of Washington's School of Social Work, where I go to school. Earlier this week, I presented to the incoming MSW students who are part-time, like I am (though I'm more part-time than they are, so this group and I will graduate together even though I started two years before they did.) Afterwards, I hung around until the last person had left for lunch, and several students introduced themselves and talked with me about their disabilities and their interests in working with people with disabilities and advocating for Disabilities as a Social Justice Issue. It's been great to meet some of my peeps, and I'm excited about some of the work we may do together to improve the climate at the UW SSW for people with disabilities and to improve among social workers who graduate from the UW the understanding of disability as a social justice issue.

In my talk, I compared coming out as a person with disabilities (I don't have to come out, but people with invisible disabilities do) to coming out as a gay person in the previous decades. My partner Ann and I often talk about the dramatic change in attitudes towards and laws concerning Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (BLGTQ) people in the twenty years since we got to know one another. One of our theories is that change has come (and still has a ways to go, I must acknowledge) because so many people who preceded us came out, even when it wasn't safe to do so. Thus, so many people know someone personally, love someone, who is GLBTQ. The coming out has humanized a life that was too abstract for people who didn't have personal experiences.

I encouraged my classmates with invisible disabilities to come out, so that the people in our world see us and come to know us. I encouraged them, too, to get involved with the work of making this world--starting in this community--more aware of people with disabilities and the issues we face.

The power of coming out has been on my mind since Ann read aloud to me the WNBA basketball phenom Brittney Griner's memoir In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court. Griner is 6'8", athletic, and generously tattooed. When she's interviewed, she's sweet and humble and speaks with an unusually deep voice. Once I saw her signing a fan's life-size poster of a photo of her with a snake wrapped around her body.

I expected the memoir to be an interesting story about an interesting person, but not well-told, like K.D. Lang's memoir from a decade or so ago. It wasn't. It was an in-depth story about an gritty person, beautifully told. (I'm guessing that co-writer Sue Hovey of ESP The Magazine had something to do with the writing's quality.)

The memoir closes:

I have spoken my truth, and most people didn't run away from me. They weren't afraid of my sexuality, or my appearance, or my emotions, or my shortcomings. They weren't afraid of my desire to walk a different path from the one that society tries to choose for us all--the safe path. If I wanted to play it safe, I would never get out of bed in the morning. I stand out in the world, and I love that about myself. I didn't always feel this way, but I've come to discover the more I embrace who I am, the more I connect with other people. And the more I connect with other people, the more I learn about myself. 

We used to say that being gay was the last socially appropriate aspect of one's identity to denigrate. It's not okay to make gay jokes anymore without some awareness of the inappropriateness. I don't think people generally accept making fun of people with disabilities (I've only been mocked twice in the last seven years, both times by teenage boys from a distance), but it does seem that it's okay to discriminate against people with disabilities. For example, pregnant women can decide to test for whether their unborn child may have disabilities and may decide to terminate the pregnancy for that reason. I wonder what would happen if they could test for sexual orientation. 

The discrimination I see now is more subtle than name-calling. It's okay to think that people with disabilities need too many resources. It's okay to serve us with exhausting and long rides to the places we need to go. It's okay to make us explain and prove over and over again the many things we cannot do.

It's really not okay. 

 It's okay to pity us, but as the writer Isabel Allende wrote in House of the Spirits about poor people: "The poor don't need charity. They need justice." Those of us with disabilities need justice. We need to live in a land that sees us as humans with meaningful lives to lead. 

Like the inspirational Brittney Griner, I am speaking my truth. I am connecting with my peeps. As I age, even with these disabilities, I am becoming more myself. 

Maybe one day the world, starting with the UW SSW, will understand how hard it is to live as a person with disabilities in this society. And maybe one day, the world will understand that we have meaningful lives to live and much to give the world. Then, maybe, we will live with greater understanding. 

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