“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, which happens to be an Olive Garden in Bloomington, but the eight people having dinner together.
What’s the group? I’ll give you a hint. They are fighting for the right to have relationships of their own 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 Support Group for People With Disabilities from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL). The mission of MCIL is to work with people with disabilities to enable them to fulfill their desire to lead productive, self-determined lives.
For about 20 years, MCIL has hosted this gathering for people dealing with all sorts of different barriers. In some cases, it’s transportation or an unshoveled street corner. For others, it means requiring the services of a sign-language interpreter. But what often hurts most are the barriers that can exist between people.
Before going 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). She is a Metropolitan State University student with a major she designed herself: Community Building Through Social Change. She also has a disability.
“There may be physical barriers, but usually, the barriers are attitudinal,” Smith shares.
According to Smith, groups like MCIL’s are important: “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. That can be hard.”
I think the dinner companions at the Olive Garden would concur.
Sheila, one of the two facilitators for the group, thinks it 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,” Corbett, the other facilitator, explains. “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,” Corbett states 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.
As Corbett relates, people “look at the wheelchair, not the whole person.”
And then, not everyone’s disability is as obvious as Corbett’s. These “hidden disabilities” bring up a whole host of other issues.
Ashley tells the story of a fellow student who claimed that people with learning disabilities don’t belong in college. She asked the student, “Do you think I belong here?” Ashley emphasizes, “You have to come out twice.”
Oppression does 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 from their disabled side. But, in fact, “-isms” exist throughout our culture: racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia. Oftentimes, an 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. In regard to the disabled community, all this may apply, too. And let’s not forget classism.
Corbett notes, “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 on with NGLTF: “It’s about intersecting oppressions—disability as one piece of a larger oppression we need to adress.”
But while this is very important, I am doing the group an injustice if I’m implying that it’s all there is to talk about tonight. Instead, we talk about relationships. We talk about jobs and schools. We talk about families. Plenty of good-natured—and loving—kidding takes place 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 all are muddling through as best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. Sometimes, the difference comes from whom we meet along the way.
As Sheila puts it, “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) 603-2028, or TTY (651) 603-2001. It meets every Tuesday, from 6-7:30 PM.