Part one of a three-part series on disability in the LGBTQ community.
While LGBTQ people celebrated Pride and Stonewall 50 this month, many community members couldn’t join the party.
On social media, disabled LGBTQ people declared their frustration, anger and feelings of exclusion that many Pride celebrations were inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities, as well as to people who are Deaf, blind or have sensory sensitivities.
Elle Sloan, a lesbian disability rights activist who uses a wheelchair, said LGBTQ events in Philadelphia “are hit and miss with accessibility. Events coordinators rarely have a disabled person consulting so they don’t know that an interpreter is needed, that a venue has steps or there’s nowhere for people to sit who might have illnesses that mean they can’t stand or walk for long periods.”
The Black Disability Collective, spoke for many when it tweeted, “It’s not only frustrating but infuriating to hear the ways Pride festivals have been inaccessible for disabled LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ movements and spaces cannot forget those of us with disabilities. They cannot get away with leaving us out.”
In June 2018, Lynn Zelvin (they/them) said along with their friends Maxine Kalish and Elena Gibbs, they were denied entry to the Stonewall Inn because Zelvin, who is blind, had their service dog.
Service dogs are allowed in any area of a business where the public is allowed, but the bouncer at the Stonewall refused to admit Zelvin and their dog.
The owner of the bar later explained to Zelvin that it was a miscommunication, but Zelvin said they asked several times to talk to the manager that day to no avail. Zelvin left feeling that they had kept their friends from the experience of seeing the historic bar.
Disability has been called the last acceptable bias. Even though the historic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, violations occur daily in workplaces, schools, businesses and entertainment venues.
Sloan said she finds it ironic that certain venues that welcome her as a lesbian exclude her as someone with a disability.
“The first time I went to the Kimmel Center, I discovered it wasn’t wheelchair friendly and most of it was inaccessible,” said Sloan. “A brand new building. My partner had bought tickets for us and had specifically asked about accessibility. She wanted to see the area where she was buying tickets, but they wouldn’t let her see it. They insisted it would be fully accessible for a wheelchair.”
When Sloan and her partner arrived at the venue, they discovered there was no way for her to access their seats.
“A couple of guys carried me in my chair up several steps to our seats,” she said. “It was terrifying. I was so afraid they would drop me, and I would be injured.”
Then, during intermission, Sloan discovered the doorway to the bathroom was too narrow to accommodate her wheelchair.
“I know there are areas that are more accessible at the Kimmel — as well as much more expensive — but I’ve never gone back.”
PGN spoke with Leslie Patterson-Tyler, Director of Media Relations and Communications at the Kimmel Center. Patterson-Tyler expressed her concern over Sloan’s experience. She explained the Kimmel’s accessibility policy.
“The diversity of our region is our strength, and the Kimmel Center is dedicated to creating a diverse and inclusive cultural campus that reflects our commitment to an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued both onstage and off,” Patterson-Tyler said.
She added, “We make it a priority to accommodate the needs of individuals with disabilities. All theaters have wheelchair-accessible locations including stair-free access and either open space to accommodate a variety of mobility devices, or an upholstered, loose chair can be provided.”
The issue of accessibility is one all people interviewed for this series found the most pressing in their daily lives. Tom Baxter was partially paralyzed in a motorcycle accident several years ago and uses a motorized wheelchair.
He said, “Lack of accessibility denies me entre to my own community. My nondisabled friends will suggest a bar or club, only to have me say there’s no way for me to get into the place. Or if I can get in, that there’s no access to the restrooms because they are up or down some stairs or in a passageway that doesn’t accommodate my wheelchair.”
At 28, Baxter said he feels “excluded from the social fabric of gay community. It’s incredibly frustrating and not a little hurtful.”
Sloan noted that when the William Way Community Center first moved to its current location on Spruce Street, “it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Imagine. How is it a community center if all the community literally can’t get in the door? And of course I have never been able to attend an event at Giovanni’s Room because of the steps.”
William Way told PGN the center is accessible now with a wheelchair lift in front, a ramp in back, and people with disabilities can “call ahead” if they need help getting in.
Giovanni’s Room acknowledged the access problem and said they have a temporary ramp that can be put down for wheelchairs to enter. But the narrowness of the store, steps throughout the downstairs and a long staircase to the second floor make complete accessibility impossible to anyone with mobility issues in the building that dates to the 19th century.
Sloan said she’s often made to feel that she is asking too much when she queries if a venue is accessible. “This is what happens to LGBTQ disabled people all the time. We are shut out of so much. Like you, we just want to be in our own community.”
This lack of access nearly 30 years after passage of the ADA often comes as an unpleasant surprise to newly disabled people, as well as to those who have lived with disabilities since birth.
When New Jersey native Ali Stroker, paralyzed since she was a toddler, became the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award, she couldn’t reach the honor: The stage at the June 9 event wasn’t wheelchair-accessible.
“Quite the metaphor for our inclusion,” Sloan said: “Here’s an award for being the best in your field, but sorry — we don’t welcome your kind here.”
Not everyone is excluding folks living with disabilities during Pride month. Mega-makeup chain Sephora launched a trans-inclusive ad campaign that won plaudits from both LGBTQ and those living with disabilities for its inclusive beauty statements.
The Sephora Pride ad, opening to Shirley Bassey singing “This Is My Life,” features black transfeminine model Aaron Philip in a shiny gold bandeau top and red mini skirt. With her shiny red lips, long bangs and shoulder-length blond hair, and a pair of dangling gold waterfall earrings that almost brush her collarbone, viewers hardly notice that she’s in a motorized wheelchair.
Philip, 18, was recently signed to the legendary Elite NYC modeling agency. In an essay she wrote a few months ago, the Bronx native and recent high-school graduate explained what she wanted out of her new job: “I enter the fashion world with intentions of making the industry more diverse, inclusive and accessible. I have never seen a physically disabled supermodel or a Black transfeminine model heralded, celebrated or even working in the way other models are.”
Philip said she hopes to change that.
“This lack of representation and visibility in fashion has deeply affected me throughout my life, and has driven me to take matters into my own hands to carve a space and try to provide opportunity for members of my community in this field.”
Next week: According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four Americans has a disability, making disabled people the nation’s largest minority. But a National Institutes of Health study shows there are higher rates of disability among LGBTQ people.
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.