Like many I know, I’ve been on a high since the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court. Hero is a word too often thrown around loosely. Yet, Edith Windsor, 83, who fought against DOMA all the way to the nation’s highest court is a true hero.
Windsor sued the federal government after being told that she owed more than $360,000 in inheritance taxes after Thea Spyer, her spouse of more than 40 years, died. Spyer, a psychologist, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977. As the season of LGBT Pride ends, and July, the month when Disability Pride is celebrated in many cities across the country, Windsor and Spyer’s loving relationship has a particular resonance for those of us who are queer and have disabilities.
Some may think this is a downer. Why, you might ask, bring up disability when we want to bask in the glow of DOMA’s defeat? Perhaps, you’re wondering, what do folks with disabilities have to be proud of? Contrary to these misgivings, I’m not trying to bring you down. I’m telling you this to open your eyes to a vibrant, but largely invisible and uncelebrated, part of the queer community.
The story of Windsor and Spyer, whose love was celebrated when they got married in Canada in 2007 and again when New York recognized their marriage, is a stellar reminder that LGBT people with disabilities not only exist, but love, work, marry, and, even (you might want to sit down while reading this!) have sex.
I don’t want to sugarcoat what it means to have a disability or to love someone with a disability. As Spyer’s MS progressed, she went from walking with a cane to using two crutches to being in a wheelchair. Windsor retired early from her job to care for Spyer. Yet, as the couple discovered, despite these often painful, difficulties, disability and a joyful, loving relationship aren’t mutually exclusive.
The MS didn’t keep Windsor and Spyer from enjoying sex and intimacy. In the documentary “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement,” the couple (Spyer in her wheelchair) is shown dancing. “I had read a lot of books and talked to people at Berkeley about this business of independent living for the disabled,” Windsor said in a “New York Times Magazine” interview, “There were warnings about what not to give up and how to handle it. I read all of that, and I knew what not to give up.”
Often, people believe that folks with disabilities are asexual (or sexual in an exotic, strange way). “I’d like to be broadminded enough to date a woman in a wheelchair,” a queer, well-meaning, able-bodied friend once said to me, “but who knows what she might do.” (She would have watched the movie, sipped her drink or whatever else one does on a date, I wanted to say.)
Sometimes we’re intellectualized. Once, I, legally blind, was in a lesbian bar in New York City. Seeing my white cane, a woman exclaimed, “I love Helen Keller! She did great work! But what are you doing in a place like this?”
At times, disabled people are seen as folks who need to be healed. I respect religion. But faith-healing in the 21 century? Last month, at Whole Foods, a man said to me, “Your eyes make you look bad. Let me pray for you!”
The modern disability rights movement was started in Berkeley, Calif. and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People with disabilities began to insist that we’re fully evolved, loving, sexual, human beings.
Nearly one in five (51.2 million) Americans has a disability and from three to five million people are LGBT and have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As we celebrate the heroism of Edith Windsor, let’s embrace the people with disabilities in our community.
Kathi Wolfe is a poet and writer. She is a regular contributor to The Blade.