The gift of Chai

This month’s issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide features an interview with Chai Feldblum, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Feldblum was appointed in March 2010 by President Obama as the first out lesbian commissioner on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Feldblum, in my opinion, is a rock star when it comes to LGBTQ activism. Although her activist efforts have fanned out in various directions, she’s probably best known for her role in drafting and advocating for an inclusive form of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which, if passed, would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. This – the topic of ENDA – was the major focus of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide article.

But there’s much more to Chai Feldblum than ENDA. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (her father was a Holocaust survivor), Feldblum’s social justice work began early in her career. She clerked for Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade majority opinion (and who also wrote the dissenting opinion in the Bowers v. Hardwick anti-sodomy case). She served as Legislative Counsel to the AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was the legal director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group which lobbied to overturn policies forbidding gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the U.S. military. And just five years after she graduated from law school, she was the lead attorney on the team that drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Of course, Feldblum herself, who is an avid tweeter, provides the most concise biographical sketch (in 140 characters or less):

First out lesbian EEOC Commissioner (and with a disability); Georgetown law prof (on leave); tweets on civil rights; discrimination buster.

In Feldblum’s Twitter profile, her disability status is included as a parethetical. In the Gay and Lesbian Review article, it isn’t mentioned at all. If you Google “Chai Feldblum” along with “disability,” you’ll find lots of information about her role in developing the Americans with Disabilities Act – and you’ll learn about other ways she’s been active in disability rights. However, the only place you’ll find anything about Feldblum’s own disability status is – you guessed it – in her Twitter profile. It’s not mentioned on her EEOC page (which isn’t surprising, since personal information like that isn’t typically included on federal government websites). But it’s also not mentioned in most LGBTQ publications that have written stories about her.

In the political sphere, keeping visible disabilities on the down-low certainbly isn’t a new thing. During his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public appearances were carefully choreographed in order to conceal any evidence of his disability. But this disability down-low isn’t unique to the political arena – in my opinion, the LGBTQ community is not particularly disability-inclusive. Few LGBTQ disability organizations exist – some have fizzled out entirely (such as BFLAG, for blind LGBTQs), others are entirely volunteer-run (such as the Deaf Queer Resource Center [DQRC]). And yet, disability is something that the LGBTQ community needs to be paying attention to.

For one thing, LGBTQ people are certainly not immune to disabilities. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, Hyun-Jun Kim, and Susan Barkan of the University of Washington found that, in a large-scale population-based sample, the prevalence of disability is higher among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults than among their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, according to Debra Harley of the University of Kentucky, it’s estimated that 11% of LGB individuals – about 4 million people – have a disability. In more than a few cases, homophobia may have a direct causal link to one’s disability. Being victimized by a violent hate crime can result in a temporary or permanent disability. Being subjected to the chronic and ongoing stresses of homophobia is thought by several researchers to be associated with various autoimmune conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Disability status and sexual minority status, it seems, share some common ground.

Even though the rates of disability are high in the LGBTQ community, there isn’t really a climate of inclusiveness for these identities. The fact is, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia exist in the disability community, and stigmatization against people with disabilities occurs in the LGBTQ community. Because of this, LGBTQ people with disabilities might face an allegiance dilemma: should I identify as “disabled,” align with the disability community, and get involved in disability rights – or should I identify as queer and fight for LGBTQ rights? There is great pressure for people with multiple minority statuses to reduce themselves to a single identity – a dehumanizing force that contributes powerfully to social isolation.

The irony in all of this is that disability politics probably aren’t all that different from LGBTQ politics. People with invisible disabilities face the dilemma of whether to “come out” about their disability status. The disability community, like the LGBTQ community, debates whether the disability rights movement is best served through assimilating into mainstream, able-bodied culture, or by demanding acceptance of differences. The disability rights movement – just like the LGBTQ rights movement – has relied on both legislative actions and various forms of radicalism and civil disobedience. And, even with these striking similarities, the LGBTQ community has done little to align itself with disability rights.

In Hebrew, “chai” means “life” – a word and symbol that is a cornerstone of Jewish culture. I think Chai Feldblum has lived up to her name – her activism continues to breathe life into both the LGBTQ rights and disability rights movements. And if anyone understands the lived experience and challenges of intersectionality, it would be her. If I get lucky enough to secure an interview with her, you’ll be hearing more about this lived experience in my upcoming book.

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Filed under biphobia, disability, health, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, psychological research, transphobia

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