Every year, when LGBTQ+ history month rolls around, I revel in the magnificence of our history and lament the repeated erasure of disabled people’s contributions.
Our work is frequently sidelined in favour of celebrating the broader contributions of the queer community. However, we are far more active in queer history than you may realise.
Queer, disabled people have always existed – yes, even when historic civilisations were determined to stamp us out – yet our achievements and passions are regularly written out of history. Sometimes this takes the form of ignoring us completely and at others, it means excluding a disability or illness when profiling important figures.
Whether this is motivated by ignorance or a willful dismissal of the value of disabled people’s contributions is hard to quantify. To rectify some of these omissions, we’ve gathered a list of LGBTQ+ icons with disabilities history tried to forget about.
An icon for LGBTQ+ people, Byron’s beautiful prose, ambiguous sexuality and flamboyant persona made him a fixture in literary history. Sadly, a key part of his story is often forgotten: his club foot. The condition caused one of his feet to twist inwards but Byron went to great lengths to conceal the disability, wearing special boots that hid it and reportedly becoming very defensive if anyone brought it up. If he were alive today, I hope he would finally see that his disability was not the source of shame, society’s ableism was.
Edith Emma Cooper
A poet and writer who wrote under the pseudonym Michael Field with her lover (as well as her guardian and aunt!) Katherine Harris Bradley, Cooper is a queer literary icon whose work garnered widespread praise. Few remember this queer duo already but even less know that Cooper lived with a long-term chronic illness that became increasingly disabling: rheumatism. Katherine later became her main carer as the condition gradually reduced her mobility.
Probably one of the most famous queer, disabled icons, Kahlo’s disability is still regularly ignored unless it is to discuss how it informed her artwork. Born able-bodied, Kahlo became partially disabled following a traffic accident. She was impaled by an iron handrail that went through her pelvis and she spent months in bed recovering from her injuries. She lived with chronic pain for the rest of her life.
Leonardo Da Vinci
While Da Vinci’s sexuality is still debated, there is clear evidence that Da Vinci was bisexual or homosexual. At aged 24, he was arrested twice for sodomy with a male sex worker. Although most countries had strict punishments for sodomy, such as mutiliation or execution, Da Vinci’s charges were dismissed. He also wrote extensively in his personal notebooks about his disgust when thinking of sex between a man and a woman, and he was rumoured to be involved with many of his male assistants. He also had epilepsy and had seizures from a very young age.
A Black, HIV-positive transgender woman, Collins was a fierce campaigning for people of colour, disabled and LGBTQ+ people in San Francisco. Under the Equality Act, HIV is recognised as a disability from the point of diagnosis so Collins is an important addition to this list. Throughout her life, Collins fought for tenants’ rights, labour rights, transgender rights and disability rights. After her health began to decline, Collins died in 2013 surrounded by friends. She is remembered as a strong activist who fought hard for other marginalised folks’ rights.
A feminist, a lesbian, a suffragist and a poet, Gore-Booth played a key role as a committee member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage and was a member of the British Peace Movement in World War I. Alongside this, she lived with tuberculosis and associated chronic illnesses. Despite being a well-known figure in the suffragist movement, her disability is regularly forgotten in retellings of her work.
Civil Rights leader, lawyer, educator and politician, Jordan’s work is remembered for countless reasons but rarely for being disabled. Born and raised a Texan, she had multiple sclerosis, was the first woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966 and joined the US House of Representatives in 1972. In her work as a Congresswoman, Jordan focused on sponsoring bills that supported services for marginalised groups. Although Jordan never formally “came out”, she was never subtle about her life partner, Nancy Earl, who she lived with happily for many years.
Craig was a renowned theatre director, producer and woman’s suffrage pioneer who had arthritis throughout her life. Her promising career as a concert pianist was cut short by the effects of chronic rheumatism in her finger joints. With a mind before her time, Craig was a lesbian who lived in a successful polyamorous relationship with two women for thirty years.
As the title suggests, these are just a few of the incredible LGBTQ+ disabled people who have existed throughout history. There are many more stories to be told, if you know others tell us about them in the comments.
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