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By Melinda Haus
LYONS Mich. – Twenty activists, representing the LGBT and disability rights communities, gathered in December at the Leaven Center, in Lyons Michigan, to participate in a weekend dialogue that focused on becoming allies. The retreat was organized by the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, a statewide non-profit agency based in Lansing and was underwritten by The Arcus Gay and Lesbian Fund.
“As a lesbian who has worked in the disability rights community for more than 25 years, bringing my two beloved communities together was my dream,” said Carolyn Lejuste, program manager at MDRC.
At the end of the retreat, participant Kristin Durell of Grand Rapids summarized her experience of the weekend by stating; “we are deconstructing the box and refusing to create another one!”
Participants at the retreat identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, able-bodied, as having a visible disability, having an invisible disability, acquiring a disability at birth, as a youth, and in aging. They also identified as people of faith, as parents, as adult sons and daughters of aging parents with disabilities, as bi-racial, as white, as civil rights activists, and many other categories.
The weekend agenda offered structured and unstructured dialogue and conversations where participants identified political issues shared by both the LGBT community and the disability community – marriage, adoption rights, and access to health care.
At the close, members of the disability rights community made commitments to assure that disability organizations had language in their by-laws that welcomed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and also included gender identity and perceived gender identity clauses. Members of the LGBT community made commitments to use person first language and to assure that their meetings were fully accessible and were advertised as such.
Jan Walsh of Newaygo promised “to verbalize when I see lack of accessibility, improper or offensive language used, non-inclusion etc. In other words, I refuse to be silent!”
Powerful personal transformation was reported. Maria Smith from the Kalamazoo area wrote, “Despite my initial apathy, it was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I was ambivalent in part due to my own not-nearly-so-obvious introversion, but also because I didn’t expect to meet people who would inspire and shake me up. It was also the first time I had met with disabled activists as a person with a disability myself. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
Stephen Jukuri, LGBT activist from St. Joseph Michigan, told of his experience, “I have, at least for the time being, decided that I see abilities and disabilities very much like I do sexual and gender orientation: wherever our particular characteristics might be in any schema or framework for such things, we are part of the natural and normal variation that is always present in life. Homosexuality is part of the natural and normal variation of human sexual orientation, just as being transgender is part of the natural and normal range of human gender identity, just as the range of abilities [and disabilities] that we find among persons is, simply, part of the natural and normal variation of ability that will be found within any living system. The differences matter greatly, of course, to the individuals who experience and embody them, but they are no more and no less than part of the whole picture.”
The retreat expanded Jukuri’s idea of personal acceptance. “I have long felt strongly that despite what others might think, I do not wish that I was born heterosexual and would not choose to be anyone other than the gay man who I am. I think it is fabulous to be gay and feel fully human as the person who I am. Before the retreat I might not have felt that people with disabilities might feel the same way, but now I do. Our lives are our lives; whatever they are, they are inherently meaningful, and they are not to be wished away if we are to be fully self-actualized. Our lives are as valid as any others, and the degree to which they are rewarding is about how we live them, not how they measure against any real or imagined standards.”