(Un)safe RefugeThe Built-In Ableism in Queer Spaces

Annie Segarra, a Latinx American YouTuber, artist, and activist for LGBTQ and disability rights, sits in a wheelchair wearing a rainbow skirt next to a doorstep and door that reads “Make Pride Accessible.” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Annie Segarra)

This article was published in Sick Issue #86 | Spring 2020

In June 2018, then-58-year-old Lynn Zelvin was refused entry at the Stonewall Inn, an iconic gay bar in Manhattan that was the site of the 1969 riots against police that sparked the modern LGBTQ-rights movement. Zelvin, a queer, blind New Yorker, spent 20 minutes waiting for Stonewall’s manager to speak to them after a bouncer illegally demanded that they present papers for their service dog. Aside from their friends, no one in line spoke up in their defense. Ultimately, Zelvin and their friends were turned away. “I’d told [my friends] about being kicked out of lesbian bars before, but I’d been in Stonewall without any problems,” Zelvin says. It’s a familiar experience for many disabled people, myself included: As a wheelchair user, I’ve faced rampant inaccessibility in bars, concerts, airports, and beyond.

Queers have always needed safe places where we wouldn’t be harassed, abused, or murdered for being “different” and where we wouldn’t have to worry about separating our public and private selves. Hell, these are often the places where we discovered ourselves—the now-defunct Lexington Club in San Francisco will always be the place where my queer heart burst into butterfly bloom. More than 50 years after the Stonewall uprising, the need for such spaces feels even more acute, especially because the number of people who identify as LGBTQ is rising, while the establishments that cater specifically to us are closing in record numbers. Safe spaces have become scarce for several reasons, including dating apps, which turn any bar into a gay bar, and the consequences of gentrification, which makes drinks in establishments more expensive and increases leasing costs for bar owners.

But though we live in a world where identifying as queer can get you killed, safety within a queer space is about more than avoiding violence. Pride, the yearly series of nationwide events, has come to represent inclusivity for the LGBTQ community and our supporters, but there’s still a huge chunk of the population who have trouble accessing Pride events and LGBTQ safe spaces: disabled queer people. “Queer spaces tout this ideology of equality for everyone,” says Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant and creator of the Disability After Dark podcast, which focuses on the intersections of disability and sexuality. “It is more vitally important [for them] to become accessible first than anywhere else. If they showed some effort in this area, disabled people would feel like they had a place to go to be safe.”

Gurza experienced discrimination similar to Zelvin’s when a camera crew filmed him outside a gay bar for Picture This, a 2018 documentary about disability and sexuality. Footage not used in the film’s final cut shows Gurza sitting in his powerchair, looking longingly at the flight of stairs—the only way in. The bar owner reprimanded Gurza and the crew for filming, saying it “reflected poorly on the bar.” “If you press [organizers] hard enough, they get mad at you. ‘Why are you harassing a queer space?’ They get upset that you’re being a bully,” Gurza says. For Zelvin, demanding access to the Stonewall Inn wasn’t easy because pointing out ableism within safe spaces can be uncomfortable, especially if the repercussions negatively impact the establishment. “Am I going against the community? Will I [be labeled] as the person who ruined the community?” Zelvin asks.

All too often, those of us who are disabled have to decide if demanding our right to access will be viewed as a reasonable call for equity or as an entitled request for privileges that nondisabled people consider beyond necessity. Sometimes it feels easier to go along to get along, particularly if you’re already the center of attention by virtue of being disabled and therefore perceived as “different.” When that guilt mixes with conventional wisdom that focusing on accessibility draws attention away from LGBTQ issues, silence feels like the best solution. When Zelvin was denied entry, many of the Stonewall Inn’s frontline staff were not aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 civil-rights law that prohibits discrimination against disabled people in all areas of public life. The ADA also grants disabled patrons the ability to enter a bar with their service animal.

Zelvin’s experience ultimately led Stonewall’s staff to hold a service-animal and disability-access training event. “The lack of knowledge many businesses have about ADA laws and, in particular, guide and service dogs, was brought to our attention when members of our own staff made an error in judgment,” says Stonewall Inn co-owner Stacy Lentz. “We wanted to bring attention to the concerns of accessibility that disabled members of the LGBTQ community face in attending events, bars, and in general, feeling welcomed and a part of our community.” Kevin McGuire, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since 1968, created McGuire Associates Inc. in 1991 to focus on ensuring that venue owners are aware of ADA requirements and that the venues themselves are accessible for disabled patrons like himself. McGuire was 7 when a drunk driver careened onto the lawn where he was playing baseball. Over time, he regained the use of his upper body, but says he was “injured in the dark ages, [when there was] no ADA.”

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In a summer 2017 interview with SiriusXM’s E Street Radio, McGuire said he often consults for venues either “reactively, where things have hit the fan and they [want me] to make the problem go away” or proactively “by owners to make sure the interior designers and the architects are complying with the ADA.” He says designing an ADA-compliant venue is the first hurdle for business owners; instituting best practices, such as ticketing policies and emergency evacuation plans that include disabled patrons, is the next step. “The third [hurdle] is training of the frontline staff,” he stressed in the interview. “All you need is one insensitive comment made by one person and then suddenly, everything you did before with best practices and designs just gets flushed down the toilet.… You’ve got these nondisabled people making decisions about us. It gnaws at me.”

Gurza agrees that creating best practices and attending sensitivity training can help businesses become more ADA compliant, but also notes that onetime instructional meetings don’t guarantee that LGBTQ safe spaces will become more accessible. “It’s not just physical accessibility—it’s emotional accessibility,” he says. “If you enter a space and nobody talks to you, nobody looks at you, nobody comes by you to say hello, nobody offers you assistance if you need it, if you’re physically in the space as a disabled person but no one is engaging with you or they’re giving you dirty looks—all these things have happened to me in places I could technically get into.” Disabled people regularly contend with built-in ableism that can make getting into—or even just to—safe spaces nearly impossible.

Nearly 80 percent of New York City subway stations, for instance, are not ADA compliant. Calling for a wheelchair-accessible Lyft or Uber can take two to six times longer when you’re disabled, since only a few dozen of the more than 58,000 ride-share-ready vehicles are accessible. A 2018 study by Advocates for Children of New York found that more than 80 percent of elementary schools in New York City public schools are inaccessible, and even a district created for students with severe disabilities lacked wheelchair ramps and elevators. It’s impossible to move on to middle school, high school, and college if you can’t even access elementary school. Even if disabled students manage to make it to college, they’re more likely than their nondisabled counterparts to drop out: Only 34 percent of disabled college students complete a four-year program, compared with 51 percent of nondisabled students.

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At least 37 schools have been accused of noncompliance with disability law, including Harvard, M.I.T., and the University of California, Berkeley. Is it therefore any wonder that the unemployment rate for disabled workers is double that of nondisabled workers? That disabled people are twice as likely to be poor as nondisabled people? Inaccessibility impacts every single aspect of our lives, from school to work and beyond. Even healthcare is affected: A study published in 2012 of 2,389 primary-care facilities in California found that a mere 8.4 percent were equipped with a height-adjustable exam table, and less than 4 percent had an accessible weight scale. A survey published in 2013 of 256 medical-specialty offices across four U.S. cities found that 22 percent of practices reported they would not be able to accommodate a patient using a wheelchair.

And what happens when you can’t access the doctor? Disabled people are at least three times as likely to die as other people their age. Lobbying for accessibility isn’t just about being able to drink beer in a bar with your queer friends: It’s literally a matter of life or death. How can queer disabled people be integrated into spaces where we belong if we don’t have the perceived cachet of education and experience required for those positions? Regardless of degrees or even the perception of experience, spaces focused specifically on queer safety have to treat accessibility as a core principle for inclusion. Queerness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. LGBTQ people span the gamut of identities and issues, so excluding any portion of the community is an inclusivity failure.

Stacey Milbern, a disability-justice activist with muscular dystrophy and a full-time wheelchair user, tried this year to create a fully accessible space for disabled queer folks in Oakland, California. The Bay Area is often referred to as the birthplace of disability rights, due largely to Ed Roberts’s insistence on the inclusion of curb cuts and to the Black Panther Party–supported 504 Sit-in, but many of its cities remain inaccessible. After organizing meetings in her apartment, Milbern and a friend began thinking about buying a house and transforming it into a community organizing and living space that everyone could access. Milbern and her friend visited 84 houses before finally settling on one that fit their price point and could be modified to be fully accessible. Milbern acknowledges that accessibility is part of a “larger political context around gentrification in Oakland.”

Marchers holding a sign for disabled Gay Rights at the San Francisco Gay Day Parade, alongside a marcher with a cane and marchers in wheelchairs in 1977. (Photo credit: Marie Ueda Collection, 2006–12, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society)

Black residents made up nearly half of Oakland’s population in 1980; that figure dropped to 28 percent by 2010, and could fall to just 16 percent over the next decade, according to the Guardian. The average monthly rent for an apartment in Oakland is $2,624; in San Francisco, the cost jumps to $3,609. But Milbern had to put the project on hold in early 2019 after losing a significant amount of money to contractors, who she said took advantage of her being disabled, damaged the property, and stole from her. In the Bay Area, “most contractors have four- or five-month waiting lists,” Milbern says. “The people [who] are [immediately] available aren’t very honest.” She found herself nearly declaring bankruptcy and moving back to North Carolina. “For all the work that needs to be done, [it will cost] $150,000, but the contractor’s asking me to come up with $50,000,” Milbern says.

The new contractor has “been asking his friends—electricians, plumbers—not necessarily to make a profit but to essentially volunteer.” (She’s raised around $36,500 on her GoFundMe campaign, but she needs approximately $20,000 more to finish the project.) “Access is not just architectural, it’s attitudinal,” Milbern says. “So much of access starts with relationships. Do [nondisabled people] have disabled people in their lives? If they’re in queer communities and queer movements, are they working alongside disabled people? Are they uplifting disabled leadership? Disabled queer people, disabled people of color, disabled trans and nonbinary people—it’s too easy to make whiteness or straightness or cisness the norm. We have to actively challenge that because it’s not the reality of our communities.”

The increased popularity of Pride events and the support of queerness as a way of life are worth applauding, but finding a “guardian angel,” in Milbern’s words—someone willing to rally their friends to help with creating an accessible home for a social-justice organization at one-fifth the cost of the service —shouldn’t be worthy of applause. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four adults in the United States have some type of disability. In the LGBTQ community, more than one-third of adults identify as having a disability. Disabled queers shouldn’t have to rely on the unexpected kindness of strangers to ensure access.

We should be included from the get-go, and the expertise of our lived experience should be enough to encourage our nondisabled counterparts to live and learn from us, without blowing us off as a minor speed bump on the way into the Pride celebrations we’re likely going to miss. “[Disabled people] are part of the community,” Milbern says. “We’re not ‘the other.’ We’re their family member, their comrade, their neighbor, their friend. I think people get really afraid of us because society has made us up as outside of the box.” More than a year after their experience and despite full staff training at the bar, Zelvin doesn’t spend time at Stonewall. “I don’t go back to [Stonewall] because I don’t want to relive that,” they said. To avoid these problems, Zelvin’s advice is straightforward: “They should be hiring disabled people.”

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Ace Tilton Ratcliff, a nonbinary, queer, white person with short, hair poses in front of a purple background
by Ace Tilton Ratcliff
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Ace Tilton Ratcliff lives and works in sunny South Florida with a pack of wild beastlings. They’re a nonbinary, queer, disabled writer, artist, and accessibility consultant. They’re also a former mortician who co-owns Harper’s Promise, an in-home veterinary practice, with their husband. If they’re not reading, they’re probably tweeting @mortuaryreport.