Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team
July is Disability Pride Month! Somehow, about 1 or 2 years ago, the Instagram algorithm led me to disability activist and writer Melissa Blake (@melissablake81), a self-described sassy redhead from Illinois who has been featured in The New York Times. She has Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare disorder that limits a person’s mobility and creates abnormalities in the structure of someone’s hands, feet, and face. Melissa is realistic, funny, and educational as she shares her everyday life as a disability activist, thoughts on dating with a disability, and identity as disabled and proud. Her social media content has helped to amplify disabled voices across the world and educate thousands of people on living with a disability.
In a recent article on healthywomen.org, she talks about 4 truths she wants people to know about disability, highlighting that disabled people deserve dignity and respect, and are the best experts on disability whose voices must be heard. Her view that disabled people are just trying to live their lives in a society that was not built for them reminds me of the policies and procedures, also structures in society, that created centuries of ongoing systemic racism in the United States. It draws comparisons of the ableist setup of society as another form of colonialism. In multiple works and on social media, she stresses the importance of disabled people leading the movement toward more disability-inclusive communities. To me, this echoes the importance of BIPOC-led and inclusive initiatives toward racial justice. A pitfall of some organizations or individuals who just want to help people is that they fail to seek and include the opinions of those they want to help, thus their time and money may be spent on things that do NOT actually help, are culturally conflicting, or even unintentionally create another barrier. It’s like the newer version I’ve heard of the old golden rule – avoiding the old “treat people how you want to be treated” and improving to to “treat people how they want to be treated”.
As a busy person who is trying to become more informed about the world around me and the experiences of others, I’m glad that social media connects me to activists like Melissa for a brief lesson and a laugh a few times a week. Melissa is smart, funny, opinionated, and persistent in her work.
Closer to home, one Wisconsin organization celebrating Disability Pride Month is Disability Pride Madison! The org is hosting an in-person summertime gathering on July 31st (more information available on their website linked below) as well as a virtual/Zoom event Chronically Ill and Dressed to Kill on August 5th.
It feels embarrassing to admit that only a few weeks ago I learned the meaning of intersectional, as in intersectional feminism. If you are still learning too, I will fill you in – intersectionality is the idea that identities of race, gender, and class overlap, thus “intersect”, creating different experiences and inequalities. The experiences of David Archuleta, a white American Idol alum who recently publicly shared that he identifies as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, are much different than RuPaul, a gay black man whose entertainment career has brought gay culture into mainstream pop culture, even though both have faced discrimination because of their sexuality.
It feels more embarrassing to say that I also had to Google the meaning of “LGBTQIA+” to understand “QIA+” as I wrote this blog – questioning/queer, intersex, asexual/ally, and other non-heterosexual individuals.
I also didn’t realize how recently the federal legalization of same-sex marriage was – June 26th, 2015. How the heck did that take so long to happen?
To say that I didn’t know these things because of my privileged white cis-gendered female heterosexual white experience feels like a lame excuse, and it is. But I’m growing. I feel hopeful too that others are growing. Growing toward more inclusivity and embracing people for who they truly are. After recognition of a problem comes action – ideally action more meaningful than social media performative allyship, like businesses changing giving their logo a rainbow coloring on Twitter every June. Action doesn’t have to be hard, time-consuming, or costly. Just doing a quick online search to learn about the words you’ve read but can’t define or describe is a step toward growing.
In honor of Pride Month, I will share a poem that was recently shared with me. Last week, I worked with a palliative care physician who starts the team meetings with a reflection three times a week. He shared the poem “A Poem for Pulse” by Jameson Fitzpatrick in honor of the 5th anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12th. It reminded me of our shared humanity and how fiercely we must honor and protect each other. We, including people who are white, brown, black, or somewhere in between, and LGBTQIA+ or otherwise, have all kissed those we love, and have danced, laughed, drank. And we must embrace and protect those who love differently than us, look differently than us, or intersectionality: both.
“A Poem for Pulse” by Jameson Fitzpatrick
Last night, I went to a gay bar
with a man I love a little.
After dinner, we had a drink.
We sat in the far-back of the big backyard
and he asked, What will we do when this place closes?
I don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon, I said,
though the crowd was slow for a Saturday,
and he said—Yes, but one day. Where will we go?
He walked me the half-block home
and kissed me goodnight on my stoop—
properly: not too quick, close enough
our stomachs pressed together
in a second sort of kiss.
I live next to a bar that’s not a gay bar
—we just call those bars, I guess—
and because it is popular
and because I live on a busy street,
there are always people who aren’t queer people
on the sidewalk on weekend nights.
Just people, I guess.
They were there last night.
As I kissed this man I was aware of them watching
and of myself wondering whether or not they were just.
But I didn’t let myself feel scared, I kissed him
exactly as I wanted to, as I would have without an audience,
because I decided many years ago to refuse this fear—
an act of resistance. I left
the idea of hate out on the stoop and went inside,
to sleep, early and drunk and happy.
While I slept, a man went to a gay club
with two guns and killed forty-nine people.
Today in an interview, his father said he had been disturbed
recently by the sight of two men kissing.
What a strange power to be cursed with:
for the proof of men’s desire to move men to violence.
What’s a single kiss? I’ve had kisses
no one has ever known about, so many
kisses without consequence—
but there is a place you can’t outrun,
whoever you are.
There will be a time when.
It might be a bullet, suddenly.
The sound of it. Many.
One man, two guns, fifty dead—
Two men kissing. Last night
I can’t get away from, imagining it, them,
the people there to dance and laugh and drink,
who didn’t believe they’d die, who couldn’t have.
How else can you have a good time?
How else can you live?
There must have been two men kissing
for the first time last night, and for the last,
and two women, too, and two people who were neither.
Brown people, which cannot be a coincidence in this country
which is a racist country, which is gun country.
Today I’m thinking of the Bernie Boston photograph
Flower Power, of the Vietnam protestor placing carnations
in the rifles of the National Guard,
and wishing for a gesture as queer and simple.
The protester in the photo was gay, you know,
he went by Hibiscus and died of AIDS,
which I am also thinking about today because
(the government’s response to) AIDS was a hate crime.
Now we have a president who names us,
the big and imperfectly lettered us, and here we are
getting kissed on stoops, getting married some of us,
some of us getting killed.
We must love one another whether or not we die.
Love can’t block a bullet
but neither can it be shot down,
and love is, for the most part, what makes us—
in Orlando and in Brooklyn and in Kabul.
We will be everywhere, always;
there’s nowhere else for us, or you, to go.
Anywhere you run in this world, love will be there to greet you.
Around any corner, there might be two men. Kissing.
Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team
- For more on Melissa Blake, visit @melissablake81 on Instagram, Melissa’s website melissablakeblog.com
- Chronically Ill and Dressed to Kill Event: https://fb.me/e/FVJyUaI6
*this post is not affiliated with Disability Pride Madison or Melissa Blake