Ableism in the LGBT community
Please note: Identifying details have been altered here, because I believed, and continue to believe, that ‘Millet’ does good work. They do important work. They fought a good fight and I am glad that they won. Many of my friends had positive experiences volunteering with them. I am certain that they accommodated other disabilities better than they did mine. I am certain that, were I legally allowed to contact them, we could probably have worked it all out. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. This happened instead.
If you know me in real life you are welcome to ask me the name of the organization. Otherwise, I believe that LGBT groups get enough hate in this country, and I truly don’t want to add to it. I just want to raise awareness.
I want to tell this story.
I want to tell this story because it is important that disabled people know, and are prepared, for discrimination to happen to them.
I want to tell this story because the LGBT community should be welcoming to all people. It should be comfortable to all people. It should be home for all people who identify as LGBT. And yet, for many disabled or otherwise marginalized people, it isn’t. Yes, overall, the LGBT community is wonderful, colorful, accepting, awesome – except when it isn’t, and it fails hard, very hard. LGBT people and communities have shown me radical acceptance, but they have also shown me radical exclusion. They have been my saviors, and they have also been the destroyers of my dreams.
I want to tell this story so that people know what ableism is, and how they can avoid it. I want to tell this story so that people realize their own prejudices, and think a little harder next time they encounter a marginalized person within the LGBT community.
I want to tell this story so I can stop telling myself that it was, after all, all my fault.
Sometime last winter, I attended a community meeting about an important topic run by a local LGBT nonprofit– let’s call it Millet. Millet was working on a trans-rights issue that my county would be voting on in the fall. Having known and loved numerous trans people in my life, I was passionate about making sure that the law didn’t pass. They were looking for volunteers to canvass and to work in their office. Since I had a fair bit of free time and my touch typing skills from sixth grade have held up, I volunteered to come in once a week and do whatever needed to be done. The campaign workers were happy to have me, even after I said that my significant developmental disabilities had caused frictions with people in the past.
My first day there, I sat down with the office manager (maybe? I don’t know. There were many different titles and I could never figure out who did what exactly.) and explained to her that I was autistic, had non-verbal learning disabilities, and mental health disabilities including PTSD. I told her that I was eager and happy to work, but that I needed clear communication and direction, for people to be kind, and above all, to understand that I would never do anything to offend them. If I did do something inappropriate, they needed to tell me clearly and calmly, because I would never, ever do anything to hurt people on purpose. The manager, Buffy, assured me that of course they were welcoming of neurodiversity. Of course they understood autism. They would be happy to accommodate me.
The first few weeks went fine. I noticed quickly that I was an oddity in the office as my work style is always to come in, sit down, and work with a minimal of socializing. This is not, however, the way that all offices do things. It was not the way that this office did things, instead, these people seemed to spend as much time talking to each other as they did doing actual work. This puzzled me, but I put it on my never-ending list of ‘ways neuro-typicals are weird’ and continued doing data entry.
The office, one of a few spread across my county, was in an older, shabbier city to the northwest of me. It wasn’t the best of neighborhoods or the best of buildings, to say the least, which was probably why the organization could afford it. I was scared to go to the bathroom because of the mice that ran across the floor in broad daylight, but I figured that it could have been worse – it could have been rats.
The mice did, however, bring my attention to problems such as the many piles of paper scattered across the office. Those piles of paper brought my attention to the fact that there were very few outlets, and most of the computers were connected with a daisy-chain of electrical cords, surge protectors and those multi-prong outlets called ‘spiders’. It was winter, the heat was on, and I thought about the fires that displace people too easily in my city.
“Where’s the fire extinguisher?” I asked. Buffy didn’t know. “Where’s the fire exit?”
Someone gestured to a door in the back wall. “We think that’s it,” they told me, “but since it goes into another person’s office that we don’t want to disturb, we don’t use it.”
In other words, there was no fire exit. They had never had a fire drill. There were no sprinklers, though they assumed that the alarms worked because the building was owned by a lawyer.
“I know about fire safety!” I happily spoke up, in that oblivious, obnoxious way that I do. “Let’s talk to the people next door! Let’s have a fire drill! Let’s clean up the papers!”
It’s true – I do know about fire safety. I know about fire safety because a few years before I was born, my parents house burned down due to faulty electrical wiring, and almost took them with it. I grew up hearing stories of that fire, and being taught from an early age to be aware of exits, to keep my smoke and carbon monoxide alarms up to date, to dash out the door at the slightest whiff of smoke or beep of a detector. Within a mile of me, a grocery store and a large boarding house burned to the ground by the time I was in the eighth grade. When I was in college, my mother called 911 because her carbon monoxide detector was going off, and the firefighters told her that if she hadn’t, she would have definitely died in her sleep that night as the deadly gas filled her home due to a furnace problem.
So yes – if I’m a little bit obsessive about fire safety, it is with both good reason and with the eagerness and moral righteousness of autism, which I understand can easily translate to being annoying. However, I knew that I wasn’t being too annoying, because if I had been, Millet would have told me. After all, they’d agreed when we talked about my disabilities……right? They understood that I had a hard time letting go of a subject, especially one that was about safety, because their whole organization was devoted to the safety of LGBT people……right?
A few weeks of bad health led me to not go volunteering, but in those few weeks, I continued to email Buffy and talk about fire safety. I consulted with a minister, some friends, and a fire safety expert that I knew about what the office should do. My eye for detail left nothing out, and they were all in agreement that something must be done. In total, I sent 3 emails. In the last one, I mentioned that the fire department could probably help them to make their office safer, and if it was too much for them to do so, I could, because I was all! About! Fire safety!
It was then that I got the email, which was short and to the point. I was harassing them, I was being inappropriate and rude, and I was not welcome in any way at the organization again. If I ever communicated with them further, it would go to their lawyer.
Oh my god.
I knew about lawyers. My favorite uncle was a big-city, big-crimes lawyer for decades. He put away serial killers, mafia dons, rapists. He put them in jail for life. (He also brought photos of headless bodies in alleyways to career day at my high school once and was a big hit.) I also thought that I knew what harassment was – it was when you annoyed people so much that they put you in jail. It was basically like being a sex offender. Or something.
I didn’t want to get arrested.
I didn’t want to go to jail.
I went to the hospital instead. My friend Suzi came, and drove me through the darkening night to the busy city ER where I’ve, unfortunately, spent way too many hours.
“Why are you here?” the receptionist asked.
“I’m going to be arrested,” I tried to explain, but I was crying too hard.
“Take a seat,” she replied laconically. I’m fairly certain that an earthquake wouldn’t shake the receptionist at Saint Anthony’s.
It was a weeknight. The ER waiting room was crowded. People were moaning, groaning, grimacing. Ambulances unloaded in the bay. In a corner of the room, my friend Suzi and I sat, huddled together. I was sobbing, shaking and dry heaving from the worst panic attack I’d had in months. I kept an eye on the security guard in the corner, wondering when they would come and arrest me.
Suzi read the emails Millet had sent me. She attempted to explain that I was not, in fact, going to be arrested. I attempted to explain that yes, I would be, because only bad people broke laws, only bad people did harassment, only bad people were involved with lawyers.
It is, if you’ve ever noticed, very hard to think rationally in the middle of a panic attack.
Thoughts swirled around my head, faster and faster. I felt dizzy. If I had broken a law, I would go to jail. If I went to jail I wouldn’t be able to eat anything because my sensory processing disorder is so bad. I would lose my apartment. I would lose my friends. LGBT people were a minority, so they would not make idle threats. Right? Right? Right? I was going to jail. I was going to jail. What was the point of even living if I was going to jail? I was in a hospital. If I killed myself in the right way, then the hospital could take my organs and use them to save the lives of people who deserved to live more than I did, people who didn’t…..harass……others. People who didn’t go to jail.
Four hours, one shift change, numerous nurses and doctors and one hefty dose of sedatives later, I was able to leave the hospital. Someone in a uniform had read the email Millet sent me and assured me that no, I was not going to jail. In order to go to jail, you have to actually hurt someone or break a law. I had broken no law. The sure, heavy voice in the uniform meant a lot to me. I asked them at least a dozen times if they were certain I would not be arrested, because Suzi said I wouldn’t but Suzi was a civilian and what did she know? Uniform Lady – probably a charge nurse, in retrospect – assured me over and over that I wouldn’t be.
Naia, my therapist, read the email too, a day or two later, when I had slept off the sedatives and sat in her office, crying yet again.
“You annoyed them,” she explained. “When people want others to stop being annoying, they threaten legal action, because it is an easy and fast way to get people to stop bothering them. They are not going to arrest you.”
Naia’s words made sense, as did her reminder that there were many types of lawyers, and just because my uncle had been the type to deal with murderers who cut their victims heads off, it did not mean that every, or even most, lawyers did. I had done nothing remotely like a murderer or a sex offender. I had…..annoyed some people. And they had reacted badly.
“But why didn’t they ask me first?” I questioned Naia. “They said that they understood my disabilities. I prepared them for misunderstandings. They promised that they would come to me first!”
Sometimes I think that it must really suck to be a therapist because you have to do things like explain, over and over, that people lie. They say things that they think you want to hear, but they don’t really mean it. They choose the easiest path, whatever it is. They don’t have experience but they say that they do. They say that they welcome everybody but they don’t really mean it.
“So they were ableist,” I concluded. Naia agreed that yes, they were really very ableist indeed. If they had bothered to speak to me as an equal, to assume that I truly had their best intentions at heart, they would never have told me I was harassing them or threatened me with a lawyer. Suzi agreed. So did many of my other friends. Knowing that they were being ableist, however, did not do much to calm my utter certainty that I was, in fact, the one who had messed up.
A few weeks later, Suzi and I visited my city’s police station so that I could learn more about breaking laws and become less terrified that I would be arrested at any moment for talking to or emailing people. The police officer was the first female detective in my city; she was older, kinder, and overall more patient than I’d ever imagined a police officer could be. She listened to the story. She, too, assured me that I could not be arrested. Although I technically had met the definition of ‘harassment’, which is 3 or more unwanted communication, since I had not communicated with Millet since, I was fine. And even if they had filed a complaint, the worst that could happen was that I would be asked to not contact them in the future, which I was already doing. There would be no arrests, no lawyers, no trials, no jails.
“You don’t break laws, after all,” she explained.
This actually confused the heck out of me because I know of an awful lot of cases where not breaking the law didn’t mean anything and people got arrested and shot by the police for much more minor things, but I had the good sense for once in my life to not bring up Black Lives Matter or anything else controversial like that. I assured her that, as an autistic who follows laws, I don’t even speed. The fact that I’m a white woman probably has much more to do with the fact that I’m not in danger from the police than the fact that I don’t break the laws, but the officer’s words comforted me nonetheless.
I got myself off the mailing list. I did not donate to the campaign. I watched as my friends supported Millet, volunteered with them. I also stopped going to all LGBT events. I drew in on myself. I only socialized with people that I knew very well, and who knew me. I was scared. If Millet had treated me so badly, then anyone could. I did not go to Pride, because I feared seeing them. At a parade, when they came by, I closed my eyes and turned my back, wondering if they would see me, and hate me as much as I hated myself.
As I drove home from church one summer Sunday, I saw Millet canvassing on a street corner. Instinctually, I started to duck so that they wouldn’t see me, but I was driving so I couldn’t do that. I stopped at a red light, my heart hammering in my chest, terrified of the innocent, happy, young people out proselytizing for a cause that meant so much to them. I wondered if driving past them meant that I could be arrested.
Logically, I know that Buffy and the volunteers at Millet have, if not forgotten the incident, then long since put it past. Non autistic people lack autistic memory, and so the way that they remember events is probably different from how I remember them. But the thing is is that emotionally, I am just as raw and upset as I ever was. Spring and summer have passed and there are pumpkins on doorsteps. Carving them with friends, two people made jack o lanterns expressing support for the ballot question. I had fun eating candy and carving my own pumpkin, but those pumpkins scared me. They were reminders to me that the LGBT community does not see me as one of their own. I am other. I am bad, wrong, an annoyance, a harasser. People there do not like me. They do not want me there.
I want to tell this story because despite it all, some small part of me does want to be there, but…..
I won’t be.
Maybe not ever.
Because much to my sadness and despair, it turns out that ableism is a rainbow as much as anything else.