I really thought I was done with new coming-out experiences. I’ve done my fair share of working my way slowly through the LGBTQ acronym across my life—having lived for a time as a femme lesbian, as a bi femme, and now as a queer trans man. But this Pride Month, I’m coming out again: I’m disabled and proud of it.
The last time I was going through a major life transition—opening up about being a trans man—I met Allie Cannington, a person who has my entire heart and a longtime disabled, queer activist. To this day, I credit Allie as the first person to radicalize me around disability, even though, at the time, I didn’t have or claim disabilities of my own. When we first met, I remember that Allie shared that they “came out” as disabled. I had never heard of anyone applying a coming-out framework to their disabilities.
Looking back now, having transitioned into disability myself, I credit that moment for enabling me to see my disability as a point of pride, rather than something to hide or relegate to just a medical diagnosis.
What It Means to Be Disabled and Proud
Allie is one of many disabled people who loved me into existence and who made my transition into disability feel like a time of revelatory change. Countless disabled, ill, Mad, D/deaf, crip, and neurodivergent people introduced me to the idea of the social and medical models of disability—where the world and its disabling environment are the problem, not the bodies of disabled people. It changed my perspective around what it meant to live, organize, and connect as a disabled person. As part of reducing shame, it has been critical for me.
Every June, Pride reminds us that as queer and trans people, we not only belong, but we are essential in creating our just worlds. This year, I’ve wondered what it means to be disabled and proud.
First and foremost, I’ve learned from how I’ve gone through life transitions, like into my gender, and I’m applying those lessons to now transitioning into chronic illness and disability. Allie and I would often describe commonalities of trans and disabled oppressions and fights that we wanted to be part of—among them, accessible and safe bathrooms, affirming health care providers and health care at no cost, being “out” or “openly” or “read as” trans or disabled, parenting and family creation rights, to be desired and desire others freely, and to be everything all at once on our own terms.
Disability became a politicized identity right before my eyes, with Allie gently reminding me that one day, through age, illness, or accident, I would become disabled, too. I didn’t expect that day to come in the middle of a pandemic. I transitioned into disability abruptly on Valentine’s Day in 2020 after being diagnosed with both ankylosing spondylitis and hypermobility disorder, both autoimmune diseases that affect my spine and joints. In a matter of weeks, I began receiving injections of an immunosuppressant and began using a forearm crutch to walk. Overnight, I became high risk for death from COVID-19, and I didn’t know how to cope with that news. Often, I still don’t.
Centering Disability Within Queerness
During this pandemic, I have frequently distanced myself from my disabilities. I blamed myself for causing them—even though we don’t know what causes my particular chronic illnesses. Even if we did, I’ve had to learn that disability is not a punishment or a pejorative or a fault. As isolation became a reality for non-disabled people for the first time, I further retreated into isolation, where I remain to this day—wanting to not be seen by the people who love me. One year later, as masks are shed and protective policies that allowed me to have access to basic needs are tossed aside, that shame creeps in again.
My way of pushing against this shame is centering my disabilities and illnesses within my queerness. It’s identifying as disabled and communicating how that impacts my place in the world with other queer people—and realizing that the pandemic has led me to completely rethink how I connect with other queer people.
While I used to bend over backward to meet up with hookups who didn’t always have my best interests in mind, I’m now choosing and communicating more deeply about my desires and my COVID boundaries—like mask-wearing, open windows, and sometimes taking in more “scenic” opportunities. Disability has also opened up a world of kink and impact play I would not have been open to had I not begun experiencing chronic pain.
But I have an incredible amount of work to do as I continue to evolve my understanding of who I am as a disabled person during a time in which disabled people experience the brunt of drastic COVID-19 outcomes, isolation, financial instability, and threats ranging from the police to the climate and punitive state legislation.
On a recent call, I broke down the shame and overwhelming burden I felt with Allie. Because I felt horrible and ashamed of my chronic illness, I told them I felt like I wasn’t staying true to what I believe. I somehow felt I was above being proud of my disabilities, and that made me feel like a fraud. Allie said something that absolutely stopped me in my tracks: “If you have the compassion and honor others in how they claim disability, then that same compassion and honor is somewhere inside of you, waiting for you.”
Disability pride is not an endpoint. It is not relentlessly optimistic. It is neither static nor final. Moment to moment, I face a barrage of symptoms. Am I proud of pain? Am I proud of falling? Not really. But just because those are ways that my body moves and feels doesn’t make them something to be ashamed of. You can acknowledge that disability or illness is difficult without disparaging the complexity of power that comes with claiming disability as core to who you are.
Disability pride for me is liberatory, intentional, and sacred. It’s learning from disability justice leadership, listening and seeing in different ways, flexibility, understanding, radical acceptance of both self and community. It’s fervently claiming disability as I do my queerness and as I do with my experiences of being queer and trans. Holding not only the identities but their resulting experiences close to my heart. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.