Back in the day, a celebrity coming out was a showstopper. Today, so many glam folk reveal they’re queer, that these revelations are like snowflakes: lovely, but hard to distinguish from one another. You know it’s good for the LGBTQ community when celebrities are open about their sexuality; yet, you almost stop noticing.
But last weekend, when actress and comedienne Geri Jewell, 54, the first person with a visible disability to appear in a recurring role on prime time TV, came out as a lesbian, I was as excited as I was when Ellen rocked the world by saying “I’m gay.”
Why was I so riveted by Jewell’s reveal of her sexual orientation? Because I’m legally blind and lesbian, and like many of us who are crip and queer, I’ve found that people with disabilities are often invisible in the LGBTQ community. (Some of us, reclaiming pejorative terms, refer to ourselves as queer and crip.) Most of us don’t desire invisibility. Yet, exclusion from inaccessible bars and meeting places to employment discrimination keep us off the radar screen.
Like many of my disabled friends, when I was growing up, I thought I’d die before adulthood because I rarely saw anyone like myself on TV. Nobody used a wheelchair or had a seeing-eye dog on “Leave It To Beaver,” “I Love Lucy “ or any of my favorite programs. From the boob tube, you’d have no idea that folks with disabilities went to school, held jobs or (heaven forbid!) had sex.
When I came out, I didn’t meet other LGBTQ people with disabilities. I had no role models.
Now, queer crips are gradually becoming more visible, according to Bethany Stevens, a faculty member and policy analyst with the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University.
“There’s a sense of exclusion from the larger queer movement,” added Stevens, who is a queer sexologist and wheelchair user, “there’s the pervasive notion of the ‘body beautiful’ — and we don’t live up to those standards.”
But in “hotbeds” of urban culture, “there are moments of visibility,” Stevens said, “[for example] wheelchair users start the San Francisco Pride parade. But, we’re still not experiencing social inclusion. We’re not seen as desirable.”
Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, has achieved fame and critical acclaim over her more than 30-year career. In 1980, she broke new ground as cousin Geri on the NBC sitcom “The Facts of Life.” During four seasons of the show, Jewell portrayed a character who was attractive, performed comedy gigs, and dated, and who happened to have a disability. Sure, Geri’s “experiences” were with men. But this was a watershed moment for crips — hetero and queer. Geri wasn’t pitiable. She was a strong woman and funny as hell. When she joked, “I don’t have cerebral palsy, I’m drunk. When I’m drunk, I walk perfectly straight,” people with disabilities were freed from their “heroic” halo.
“Jewell showed that people with disabilities exist and not in an ‘after school special,’ framework,” said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in a telephone interview. “She wasn’t ‘inspiration’ – the character was from her point of view.”
Jewell’s work in the HBO western “Deadwood” (set in the 19th century during the Gold Rush) was important, said Beth A. Haller, author of “Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media,” in an e-mail. “Her character had sass and complexity and was an integral part of the Deadwood community.”
Jewell, whose memoir “I’m Walking as Straight as I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond” will be out in April, is likely coming out partly to reinvigorate her career, which due to disability based discrimination, has lagged between “Facts” and “Deadwood.” The climate is more open now, but it’s still brave to come out.
Jewell is the Ellen of queer crips. Barbara Walters take note: Jewell would be a great addition to your “most fascinating people” of 2011 special. I only hope that Geri will use her celebrity not only to increase her fame, but to help make queer crips more visible and welcome in the LGBTQ community.