Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability

Within the trans community, trans activists and authors have discussed the construction of trans (trans/transgender/transsexual/two-spirit/genderqueer) to identify as a disability at length. There are a number of important reasons this issue has been taken up, from theoretical issues about identity construction to access to anti-discrimination protection and medical interventions. This is an ardently debated issue which is often acknowledged as being interlocked with class. With few exceptions, people who identify as disabled in addition to being trans are largely erased from this debate. This paper examines the historical and contemporary construction of trans as a disability. Further, drawing on the writing of trans authors and my own experiences in the trans community, This paper is about what trans people have to say about our construction as disabled and some of the ways that trans movements have adopted liberation discourse for some trans people while actively oppressing others.

About the Trans People I Quote:

This captures a particular moment in this debate and in the lives of those trans people whose writing I examine. Neither those people nor their ideas are fixed – they can and do change. Some of the people I critique here don’t think these things any more or would not articulate them in the way they do here. People and their politics change – my writing certainly has changed over the years and I would be embarrassed and, at times, ashamed if I was viewed to not have changed since some of my writing. Indeed, even before my book came out my ideas about some things had already changed. Those who haven’t adopted anti-disablist positions still can change. This is a critique of people’s ideas and the way they articulated them at a fixed point in time rather than a critique of the people themselves. Indeed some of the people who I argue say disablist things have also had a really positive and important impact on me and my thinking. Most of these people have also worked really hard to make trans people’s lives better, which I respect. Rather than denouncing these folks, I think it is important to have a complex understanding of them, both their strengths and flaws. Also, I wrote this 2 years ago and there has been more writing about this issue since then that isn’t here.

First, here’s how psychiatry has viewed queer and trans people over the years:

Click on charts to enlarge. I can’t figure out how to make these charts make sense to a screen reader (if you know how to do that and want to volunteer, please get in touch) but the important parts are discussed in the long version


Gender Dysphoria/Gender Identity Disorder/Transsexualism/Transgender

Gender Identity Disorder (Gender Dysphoria) in Kids

Gender Identity Disorder (Gender Dysphoria) in Kids

unspecified chart

Unspecified Gender Dysphoria



mental disorders chart  final

Changes in definitions of disability, impairment, mental disorders and number of pages of volumes of the DSM

Click here for the full paper (about 65 pages plus references and appendices)

Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability Summary

This paper is about the ways that trans people are viewed as disabled and how trans people respond to it. I am trans and disabled and I feel we are made invisible when trans people talk about how we are viewed as disabled. I wanted to look at ways of uniting trans people and disabled people to win social justice.

I am also white, queer and poor. Also, I am a grad student which means that I have access to a lot of things other people don’t have. I live in Canada which is built on stolen First Nation’s land. In Canada, lots of our money comes from taking advantage of poor people around the world. These things, plus being disabled and trans impact how I understand the world and this project.

Important Words:

  1. Trans: Trans people are people who society says are one gender (men or women) who feel differently than that. I use the word trans to include transgender people, transsexual people and people who don’t choose between the two.
  2. Transsexual: This group is made up of people who have or want to have surgery or take hormones to change their bodies from men to women or women to men.
  3. Transgender: These are people are people who identify in a way that is different than the sex or gender they have been told they are. They can be people who don’t identify as men or women or people who go back and forth between the two. Some transsexuals call themselves transgender but some transsexuals find being called transgender hurtful.
  4. Cis: This is a word that means the opposite of trans. Cis describes people who have gender identities that match their bodies and how society views their genders.
  5. Two-spirit: Two-spirit is a First Nations word that includes people who are not straight and/or not cis. Two-spirit people also sometimes call themselves trans, transgender or transsexual but sometimes they don’t.
  6. Transvestite: is a medical word that means people who cross-dress. Lots of people find this word out dated and hurtful and use cross-dresser instead.
  7. Genderqueer: These are people who identify as something outer than men or women.
  8. Otherwise-disabled: All trans people are seen as disabled. So, I use the word otherwise-disabled to talk about trans people who are seen as disabled in addition to being trans. Otherwise –disabled trans people includes trans people who have intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and/or psychiatric disabilities.

Radical Model of Disability and Interlocking Oppression

Models are ways of understanding things. I wrote about what the radical model of disability is in my book Disability Politics and Theory. There are four key parts of this model.

1. Disability is a label that is put onto people. It is not about people’s bodies and minds being ‘different.’ Instead, it is about social values that get put on people who are thought of as abnormal. Disability is about society not biology.

2. People are called disabled for political reasons. We tend to make less money or we are seen as too needy. But if our society was set up in different ways, our experiences would be different.

3. Interlocking oppression. This phrase has two parts. The first part, interlocking, means that things can’t be separated – they are locked together. The second part, oppression, means when power is used over people. It includes discrimination, prejudice, unfairness and injustice. Oppression is done to groups of people like women, people of colour, disabled people, queer and trans people, and poor or working class people. Oppressions are interlocked, among other things, because there is cross-over between groups. For example, many women are people of colour. That means that there can’t be justice for women unless there is justice for people of colour and vice versa. All oppressed groups have to have justice for any one group to have it. Using the term interlocking is a way of talking about how oppression is complicated. It is also used to go against the trend to separate different kinds of oppression based on individual groups rather than looking at they are linked.

4. When we talk about accessibility, we need to talk about it accessibility for lots of different kinds   of people. This is called radical access. It is about more than ramps and elevators. It includes working to make sure that lots of different kinds of people are included. It includes things like making events free, having child care and not allowing people to discriminate against other people because of how they look, their background or identity.

Lots of the time, when trans people write about how trans gets viewed as a disability, the fact that many trans people are disabled gets overlooked. This erases otherwise-disabled people. Lots of other groups of people are often left out when trans people write about this issue. This paper is mostly made up of research from things that trans people have written, especially published things. That means that it is looking at the attitudes of those people who have space in the trans community to publically express their opinions rather than trans people in general.


Methodology means the method that I used to reach my conclusions. To understand how trans gets viewed as a disability, I also looked at medical writing, including the American Psychiatric Association’s main book: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In order to understand how trans people get viewed as disabled legally, I looked at court decisions and human rights laws. Mostly, I focus on Canada, but there is a lot of cross-over with the United States. To understand what trans people think about this issue, I looked at what trans people wrote, mostly in books and magazines but also on websites.

Medicine and How Trans is Viewed as a Disability

The medical model is another way of understanding trans. It is the most common model of disability in Canada. This means that doctors have a lot of power over disabled and trans people’s lives. Trans was not always considered a medical issue. During the 1800s, doctors took interest in trans people and homosexuality, or queerness. In 1952 an American woman had sex change surgery in Denmark. Her sex change became famous around the world. After that, doctors paid attention to trans people more. One of these doctors was Harry Benjamin who started writing a lot about trans people.

The American Psychiatric Association published its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952. Most people call it the DSM for short. This book lists all of the conditions that psychiatrists call mental illnesses. Transvestism and homosexuality were both in this book. With these two conditions (most trans folks were thought of as a form of homosexual), trans people officially became mentally ill.

Some people think the DSM is bad. Psychiatric survivor activist Don Weitz (n.d.) says it is used to control people who are different or have different ways of understanding the world. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not lots of people use it. Since it first came out, there have been a number of new editions and changes to the DSM in 1952, 1968, 1980, 1987, 1994, 2000 and 2013.

Transvestism, or certain kinds of transvestism, have always been in the DSM. The names they call it, who qualifies and what is considered transvestism has changed though.

Homosexuality was in the DSM until 1973 when the writers of the book decided it wasn’t a mental disorder anymore. This decision was made after of years of protests against putting homosexuality in the DSM. Once homosexuality was removed, it was a mental disorder to be homosexual and really unhappy or distressed about it. You couldn’t be straight and have this mental disorder.

Also, 1980 was the first time that gender identity disorder (kids) and transsexualism (adults) was put in the DSM. This was also the first edition of the DSM to come out after homosexuality was removed. Lots of people believed that there was a connection between removing homosexuality and inserting transsexuality. The American Psychiatric Association denied this. The definitions of gender identity disorder and transsexualism have changed over the years. The names have changed too. Now, it is called gender dysphoria. Dysphoria basically means extreme unhappiness. If people don’t meet all of the parts on the checklist for gender dysphoria, they can be diagnosed with gender dysphoria unspecified.

The DSM isn’t totally clear if gender dysphoria is thought of as a disability. The word disability is sometimes used differently depending on the edition of the DSM but is never clearly defined. Disability usually means impairment.

The term mental disorder also doesn’t have a full definition. This is the case even though it is the book of mental disorders. The trans conditions have to involve distress or impairment. That means that a lot of the time trans is thought of as a disability.

Trans in the Law

The law is important because it has a lot of impact because it controls legal rights and can sway society. Generally, because trans is a mental disorder in the DSM, trans people are considered disabled under human rights law. But, the only case that addresses rights for transvestites found that it isn’t a disability. There are some other kinds of law that might not view trans as a disability (like social assistance).

Trans Responses

Different trans people have different ideas about whether or not trans should be thought about as a disability. The most common attitude that I found is that trans shouldn’t be thought about as a disability. Some people argue that sex changes hold up the wrongheaded idea that there are only two sexes, male and female, and they are separate. Likewise, some people argue that it works to hold up ideas of what are normal. They say that these ideas are oppressive. Some trans people say that trans is natural, not a disability or a disease.

A few protests have been organized against trans people being put in the DSM. And some trans people say we can never have justice if we are called disabled. Lots of trans people say disabled people are treated badly. This is why they think trans people shouldn’t be called disabled.

I looked at all of the human rights cases in Canada that were put forward by trans people. Only one quarter of those people said they were disabled. This shows that a lot of trans people don’t want to be thought of as disabled.

Class, Income and Access

Other trans people say that it is important to have trans considered a disability in order for trans people to get sex changes. Hormones and sex change surgery can cost a lot, sometimes over $100,000. Lots of trans people don’t have the money to pay for sex changes without insurance or the government paying. In Canada, there are a lot of trans people who want all of the provinces to put sex changes on the list of operations that are covered by health care. But, there are some trans people who think it isn’t worth it to be thought of as disabled or having a disorder in order to get medical care paid for.

Some trans people thing that surgeries should be paid for but that trans should be thought of as a physical disability not a mental disability. They say that they don’t want to be treated like people with mental illnesses. They want to be treated better than that. So, they say trans is a physical issue not a mental one.

Others think that trans surgeries should be treated the same way as nose jobs or face lifts. They say if you have the money and you want it you should be able to get it. This way, trans is about money, not disability.

Looking at it Through the Radical Model of Disability Lens

A lot of the things that trans people say about disability don’t work to change things for everyone, just some trans people. When people assume that trans people are not disabled, they leave out all the people who are otherwise-disabled. They leave out people who are labelled as intellectually or physically disabled and people who are thought of as to having other mental illnesses. When people say that trans is natural they make it seem like disability isn’t natural – it can be.

Looking at intersecting oppression means looking at how we have to fight for disability justice in order to get trans justice. It also means that people shouldn’t have to have lots of money to get what they need from doctors. We have to work together so everyone has what they need, not only rich white trans people.

Some people who say gender is social not biological so trans isn’t a disability. But this erases how disability is a political label. Disability, like gender, is always social. Lots of disabilities are caused by war, trauma and poverty – these are social. But even things like cancer have a social part. If you are exposed to toxic chemicals in the air or on your food and get cancer it is because we, as a society, decided that those chemicals were worth the cost. Who gets labeled disabled comes down to what bodies and brains we decide as a society what is normal and the rest gets called disabled. The label of disability has been used to control lots of groups of people who are thought of as weird or not normal. That is how the label is still used.

When trans people only try to have trans people taken out of the DSM, it is important to ask who gets left behind. Lots of people who aren’t trans are considered mentally ill because they are defiant, don’t fit their gender role or are weird. When we choose only a couple of diagnoses in the DSM to fight, we don’t look at how the whole book is messed up. When trans people say trans is physical not mental because they don’t want to be treated bad, they are suggesting it is o.k. to treat people labeled mentally ill bad. Lots of trans people are labelled mentally ill other than being trans. This means that they get left out. And, of course, not wanting to be treated bad for being labelled mentally ill or mentally disordered doesn’t actually make people treat you well.

Lastly, the radical model calls for radical accessibility – creating space for all of us. When people talk about accessibility, they are often talking about ramps, interpreters, ect. and leaving it there. Radical accessibility means thinking about access in lots of ways, not only ramps, etc. This is about making sure that people feel comfortable talking about the troubles we have with our minds, bodies and identities. It also means that we have to make sure people can tell their stories of what it is like to be trans even if those stories are different than the stories we are used to hearing. It also means thinking lots about ways of different kinds of people including people. This means working to eliminate discrimination and oppression for everyone. It also means making things free and having things like childcare.

Trans is a Disability

Some trans people argue that trans is a disability and should stay that way. Most of the time this is to keep access to healthcare. Others, however, simply see it as a disorder or disability. Others, including me, question what trans people are saying about disabled people when they argue that disability is bad and trans people aren’t disabled. Some trans people think it is useful to call ourselves disabled in order to get human rights protection.

What Do Otherwise-Disabled Trans People Say About This?

There are very few otherwise-disabled trans people who have written about this issue that I have found. Like other trans people, otherwise-disabled trans people have lots of different ideas about this issue. Pat Califia (1997/2003) supports the protests against having trans people be included in the DSM. He thinks that being in the DSM is damaging and leads to being treated badly. But, he thinks that sex changes should be publicly paid for. Eileen is worried that it could lead to trans people being put in institutions. Someone online who goes by the name of Static Nonsense (2010) says that trans isn’t a disorder or disability. They say that trans people shouldn’t try to separate themselves from disabled people too much though. Static Nonsense says disabled people should be included in the trans community.

Riley (2012) says that being trans was easier and they didn’t feel unhappy with their body because they are disabled. For Riley and Static Nonsense, it isn’t a black and white issue. Disability is more complicated for them for many non-otherwise-disabled trans people.

Syrus Marcus Ware (Ejiogu & Ware, 2008) writes about his experiences as a trans person of colour who is a psychiatric survivor. He says that it is important to look at how oppressions are interlocked. Ware (2010) also says he doesn’t like how some trans people talk about disabled people when they say they aren’t disabled. He says otherwise-disabled people shouldn’t be erased or treated badly in this conversation.

Eli Clare (2010; 2007) mostly writes about how some trans people say they are physically disabled, not mentally disabled. Clare says this erases the oppression of physically disabled people. This is especially true when they use the word ‘birth defect’ which lots of disabled people find hurtful and incorrect. Clare says that being trans isn’t about being sick (medical model) but about diversity. He is very critical of the medical model generally.

Clare talks about the shame trans people face about their bodies. A lot of trans people and doctors say trans people are “trapped in the wrong bodies” (Bnjamin, 1966, p. 9). This being in the wrong body is now the broad social view of what it is like to be trans. While it is true for some trans people, it isn’t true for all of us. This means that lots of people get left out or have to fit a view of trans that isn’t how they feel – including me.

While otherwise-disabled trans people do not all say the same things about trans being a disability, there is a great deal of detail and personal experience that we add. For us, disability is a part of who we are. We exist and we should have a meaningful place in the trans community and this debate.

Conclusion: Solidarity and Social Change

When trans people try to get rights or justice by being oppressive to disabled people, nobody wins. Instead of thinking about groups competing, we need to think about all of us working together. Disabled people can offer a lot to the trans movement if we are given a chance. Likewise, trans people can offer a lot to the disability movement if we are given a chance. Together, and with other oppressed groups, we can make the world a better place.


Benjamin, H. (1966). The transsexual phenomenon: A scientific report on transsexualism and sex conversion in the human male and female. New York: Julian Press.

Califia, P. (1997). Sex changes: The politics of transgenderism. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Califia, P. (2003). Sex changes: Transgender politics (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Clare, E. (2007). Excerpt from: “Body shame, body pride: Lessons from the disability rights movement.” keynote address. FORGE forward conference, 2007. Retrieved December 15, 2012, from http://eliclare.com/what-eli-offers/lectures/shame-pride

Clare, E. (2010). Resisting shame: Making our bodies home. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 8(2), 455-465.

Ejiogu, N., & Ware, S. M. (2008). How disability studies stays white, and what kind of white it stays: A call for intersectionality within disability studies. New York: Paper presented at the Society for Disability Studies Conference.

Riley, L. (2012). Being disabled and trans. Retrieved June 16, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFFQ2RllttU

Static Nonsense. (2010). Intersections of disability and transgenderism. Retrieved June 17, 2013, from http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/?p=3273

Weitz, D. (n.d.). 25 good reasons why psychiatry must be abolished. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from http://www.antipsychiatry.org/25reason.htm

How and Why Movements Need to be Inclusive.

I want to start by acknowledging that we are on Indigenous land. I am doing this out of respect, with the understanding social justice can never be achieved without redressing the injustices of colonialism and also because First Nations people are disproportionately disabled both as a consequence of colonialism historically and as a part of the ongoing colonial process.

I also want to start off by expressing my thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and speakers. And to take a second to thank everyone who helped with this book, many of whom are here tonight. Thank you.

Further, I want acknowledge that I have a tremendous amount privilege. And because I am disabled and otherwise marginalized, it doesn’t alleviate me from my responsibility to work against all oppressions. This isn’t to say they are separate and apart from disability issues because they aren’t – oppressions do not come in discrete containers, they interlock and impact upon each other in a variety of ways.

Disabled people protest austerity in Greece.

Disabled people protest austerity in Greece.

I want to be clear about my motives in this post. I am going to be giving examples of some of the things that have occurred recently in this city and I am not doing this as a form of personal attack or out of sectarianism. I want to also be clear that I am speaking only for myself. I am doing so with the hopes that people can learn and make corrections to their behaviours which myself and others experience to be oppressive and because I am committed to these movements and to making them stronger, not out of liberal notions of political correctness but out of the desire for meaningful and lasting victory.

I am going to start with 5 examples of what I find to be problematic and disablist rhetoric – either insidious or overt.

Following the G20 protests in Toronto, one activist wrote: “While the promotion of disability rights may be commendable, having people in wheel-chairs or other physical limitations at the front effectively limited the mobility of the protest. There was no way it could move fast enough to by-pas police lines.”

At that same demonstration a protestor told me “you shouldn’t be here” as I walked with my cane and asked her to slow down and respect the pace of the march.

At a protest against Rob Ford’s planned city cuts hundreds of people carried “stop the crazy train” placards while others attack him for being fat.

At a Toronto Casserole demonstration organizers were attempting to get the march to briefly return to the park to allow physically disabled people, people with children and whoever else wanted to to leave as a group. This was met with a great deal of resistance, with one man saying “there are enough honorable men here to protect the children and the weak” (I want to note that he has since apologized for this comment).

An organization that was involved in this anti-accessibility dispute wrote: “anti-oppression and ‘safe-space’ are deployed in the ‘movement’ to sometimes obscure another political perspective and action” after being critiqued for its members’ sexism and refusal to permit existing accessibility plans to be followed through on.

At a protest attempting to shut down a climate and economic summit involving a of number corporate and government elite, the march broke in half and the back half (of course, containing most of the slow walkers) was told to run up the street. It seemed like the running part was unnecessary for the circumstances but even if it was, it could have been easily communicated to the crowd so those of us who couldn’t run on that day weren’t stranded in the street and yelled at to “run!” and “hurry up!” The demo also went up sidewalks without curb cuts twice. When talking it over with one of the organizers, I learned that an organizer said at a meeting that they decided not to make the demo accessible (ie. that organizer made a choice to be actively disablist). This was particularly disheartening because I have worked with this group for years and they had built up a culture of accessibility which they chose to discard.

I could give many many more examples but instead, I want to talk about how we can create change. I am going address this anti-anti-oppression trend, which, sadly isn’t new but seems to be having a resurgence. I am going to do so through disability not because I think it is more important than anything else but because it has been ignored by social justice movements – with some important exceptions.

But first, who is disabled?

There is no fixed definition of disability, it has shifted over time, through contexts and between cultures. Those of us considered to be disabled are generally constructed as un- or under-productive within the capitalist economic system and are disproportionately also marginalized in other ways. This is because of oppressive diagnostic systems which have a tendency to label marginalized people as defective and because of war and poverty which disproportionately impact marginalized people – especially people in the Global South.

Why is disability important to take up in social justice movements?

Here are some broad key reasons:

  • because disabled people are oppressed and if we want to root out injustice and oppression we cannot at best ignore, and at worst reinforce, this oppression.
  • The current classifications of disability were created with the implementation of industrialization and the consolidation of capitalism. Disabled people are considered disabled because we are deemed to be under or unproductive. Disablism is woven throughout the history of capitalism and capitalism cannot be undone without undoing disablism.
  • Disabled people are a part of every community and we cannot win justice for a community without winning it for its disabled members.

So, it is important to build movements that are inclusive of disabled people, not on superficial or tokenistic grounds. It is unacceptable to leave people out of the equation and, inevitably, reinforce the oppression of others as you win justice for some.

Disabled protestors in Bolivia fighting cops after a 1,000 mile march demanding guaranteed income.

Disabled protestors in Bolivia fighting cops after a 1,000 mile march demanding guaranteed income.

The question is, what kind of social justice do you want and who is it for?

These days, a lot of people are talking about prefigurative organizing. Prefigurative just means that we pre figure the world we want to live in. In these politics, the ends justifies the means is an unacceptable approach; rather, the means can become ends in themselves. I am critical of a lot of the ways that this politic gets used (for another post) but one thing that it has really gotten me thinking about is what kind of world I want to live in and what my organizing in the present says about that world. One easy thing is that if you are a complete asshole, it doesn’t matter how good your politics are – you are alienating people and not helping to make things better (so even if you are right, you are wrong).

Thinking prefiguratively means asking ourselves do we want to live in and fight for a world in which disabled people are excluded, humiliated, put in harm’s way, erased and oppressed? If the answer is “yes” and you have organized something like one of the demos I discussed above – you are good (to be clear, not with me – I have a beef with you and you are totally wrong but you don’t need to think about it anymore from your perspective). But if the answer is “no” (and, really, you can’t legitimately claim to be fighting for social justice and say anything other than “no”) you need to think about accessibility.

One of the ways that I think we can address inclusion is with radical accessibility. Radical accessibility means many things, not just ramps and lifts – things that should, of course always be in place. Radical access also means thinking about interlocked oppressions. It doesn’t matter if an event has a ramp at the door but costs $5 to get in, or, if someone cannot afford transit to get there, that event isn’t accessible. If the event is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or otherwise oppressive, it isn’t accessible to many disabled people. Access doesn’t begin at the front door. Radical access is about thinking about the world we want to live in, not just for ‘them’ the other who we are bestowing inclusion upon – but for us, all of us. We all have something to offer and we all benefit from having diverse, accepting and accessible communities. Radical access also means that accessibility and disability aren’t an afterthought; rather, they are deemed to be important and desirable at each step of the way.

Radical access is a form of inclusion that is very different from the idea of libertarian inclusion that ensures the active exclusion of many marginalized people. It also involves the active and ongoing negotiation of real people’s needs and the acknowledgment of the fact that we are all interdependent. Disabled or not, you probably didn’t grow all of the food you ate today. Our society is constructed to normalize certain dependencies but certain kinds of needs (help getting out of bed, personalized learning plans or ASL interpretation, for example) are considered excessive. I think that this is a real problem and it has negative implications for all of us – at some point in our lives we may not access the help we need because we feel like a burden and that is not the world that I want to live in.

What does all of this have to do with the examples I gave earlier?

They all promote the idea that anti-oppression, at least for some people is excessive, unimportant or burdensome. They overtly or covertly assert that disabled people, at least certain disabled people shouldn’t be in protest spaces.

This perspective erroneously sets disability issues and disabled people as separate and apart from “the movement.” This also mistakenly presents disabled bodies as being incapable of militancy. This shows a tremendous amount of ignorance about both disabled bodies and about disability history. In a quote above, the critic of an inclusive demo says that wheelchairs slowed down the demonstration. In actual fact, electronic wheelchairs can go really fast, while limited by curb cuts, it would be people like him, a non-disabled person, who slowed the march down.

Wheelchair users lead Raise the Rates demo, leaving the rest behind.

Wheelchair users lead Raise the Rates demo, leaving the rest behind.

Disabled people have marched, locked down, occupied and fought back. For example, in San Francisco in 1977 disabled activists occupied a federal building for 25 days, not leaving until they won what they were demanding. This was a huge victory and people never would have been able to hold the building – the longest occupation of a US federal building in history – if not for their disabled bodies.

With increasing austerity, attacks on disabled people’s basic necessities have been taking place all over the world and disabled people have been fighting back.

I think it is important to ask why is militancy defined in one particular way, which by design, excludes many disabled people, along with others who cannot, for a number of reasons (immigration status, kids in tow, probation/parole, etc.), run through the streets avoiding police?

There is also an increasing argument that accessibility has to be sidestepped because it inhibits spontaneity and spontaneity is synonymous with militancy. This is the same argument that is made against condom usage. However, as we have also learned about condoms, putting measures in place that may impede spontaneity are worth it in order to avoid potential serious consequences down the road.

However, it is true that no matter how accessible we make a demonstration, we cannot control the police.

So what can we do?

  • we can build in an accessibility plan from outreach to meetings to protests.
  • at demos we can do our best ensure that there are safe exit routes for people – disabled or not.
  • at demos, and everywhere, if disabled people or our allies are articulating the need for accommodations or adaptations, we listen and we implement them.
  • we recognize that a strong culture of accessibility makes a strong movement and we work to constantly push ourselves to be more and more accessible.
  • we can recognize that there are a number of factors that influence what roles people take on and ensure that there are meaningful roles beyond being in the streets. From legal support to cooking to layout to writing to childcare, there are a lot of things that need done. And, this isn’t just about disability but about people’s immigration status, family status and a myriad of other factors.
  • In doing this, however, it is also important that we collectively work to combat the glamorization of certain roles – roles that, not coincidentally, are most often occupied by cis, non-disabled, straight, white men.
  • We also need to think about how political movements often equate people’s worth with their productivity. This is a capitalist value that we replicate onto ourselves. People’s value is not in how much they produce and celebrating only this further marginalizes many disabled people as well as parents, the working class and many others. And, maybe some people should be less productive. Some of the activists I know who are the most productive on paper are often really hard to work with, undemocratic and destructive. Maybe if they took a breath or a break they would be more valuable to the movement because they wouldn’t be burnt out and alienating people.

I think it is also important for us to think about how in the end, it doesn’t matter if you marched to Bloor Street or to Queen Street or couldn’t march at all, what matters is where you are the next day and the day after that. Those protests that appear to be spontaneous whether in Tahrir Square or at a University in Montreal, were built up over years and, here – like everywhere we have to keep building.

Further, being in solidarity doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be critical or replicate others’ mistakes. People are looking to the Quebec student movement – which is awesome in so many ways and truly exciting and inspirational. But that doesn’t mean we should simply replicate what is going on there without seeing what fits here and without working to included people that that movement may have marginalized.

These are really exciting times. Some of why so much political mobilization is happening is,
no doubt, because these are terrible and unjust times. The world’s 12 hundred billionaires own more than half of what the poorest 3 billion people own, the vast majority of these people live in the
Global South. For too long, we have fought among ourselves for our little piece of the pie but that has to stop – we need to bake a new pie. And as Beric German says, “it can’t just be pie in the sky, it has to be pie you can eat.” What we have is each other, we have numbers. If we fight together, if we ensure we have an inclusive movement and if we fight to win we can win. And we will win.

I updated this panel speech I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t say everything here now the way I did then but I think it gets the point across.



Pinkwashing Exposed, LGBTQ Complicity in Apartheid

ADAPT Celebrate People's History Poster

Celebrate People’s History ADAPT poster 
[Red silhouette of a man in a wheelchair with his fist raised and “free our people!” and the ADAPT logo on his chest.]

In the film Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back, Stefanie Fox, Co-Director of Organizing for Jewish Voice for Peace, has the ADAPT Celebrate People’s History poster on the wall behind her. ADAPT is a direct action disability rights organization that has fought for accessibility for disabled people for decades in the United States. This poster is one of a number of posters on the wall of what looks like Fox’s office and it is, likely, coincidental that it is in the film at all. But, it isn’t coincidental that a queer organizer against Israeli apartheid has a disability organizing poster on her wall because these struggles are connected. Israel produces tremendous suffering and misery because of its occupation, apartheid system and ongoing attacks on Palestinians. If you are concerned about disability justice, you need to be concerned about Palestine; if you are concerned about justice for Palestine, you need to be concerned about disabled people. 

Pinkwashing is the practice of using LGBT (and sometimes Q) people and rights discourse to erase injustices. This happens in lots of different ways but is most common during gentrification and with respect to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and apartheid system. Israel markets itself as a haven for LGBT people and uses this to conceal its other human rights abuses. One of the things that the film Pinkwashing Exposed talks about a lot is how Israel is only welcoming to certain LGBT people while actively oppressing LGBTQ Palestinians. A central message is that you can’t pretend to separate queers from Palestinians because this erases Palestinian queers. 

Pinkwashing Exposed image - drawing of the Apartheid wall and Palestine under attack.

Pinkwashing Exposed
[drawing of the Apartheid wall and Palestine under attack.]

The film largely centres around Queers Against Israeli Apartheid’s campaign to get the City of Seattle’s LGBT Commission to cancel a meeting about LGBT rights in Israel. The meeting, which was funded by the Israeli Consulate, was part of a propaganda tour for Israel. There was a massive backlash against the QAIA organizers in the mainstream LGBT community in Seattle. The gaygeoisie (gay ruling class) worked to separate ‘politics’ from LGBT issues – erasing the experiences of Palestinians. While it focuses on Israel’s injustices and the queer fight against it, the film also raises important questions about the depoliticization of LGBTQ issues and communities, which I think is both wrong and dangerous.

I also think it is important for everyone, queer, trans or not, to question how the rights of the groups you are a part of are being used to legitimize unjust states and erase oppression. For disabled communities, this means thinking about how things like the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are used to erase the injustices that lie at the foundation of the governments that passed them (especially colonialism and capitalism which these laws actively work to gloss over). Does it really make things okay if some disabled people in Canada and the United States can get in the front door of a building on stolen land?

I really recommend you watch Pinkwashing Exposed. It is now free online (56 minutes, English captions available). More than just watching it, it is important that each of us actively work to fight pinkwashing, disability washing (some people call this cripwashing – which is a better sounding word but I hate the word crip) and all of the attempts to pit oppressed communities against one another.

For more on disability issues and Palestine, read my post: Gaza: Why Care; Why Act.