Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

Queer, Crip and Here: Meet blind writer Caitlin Hernandez

Author navigates intersecting identities in life, work

Published

on

Caitlin Hernandez

(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ+ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled: Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf/Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson; actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise who played Marvin in the  “Queer as Folk” reboot; and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its monthly, yearlong series, “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these un-heard stories.)

Some creators agonize for years before plunging into their art.

This wasn’t the case with queer, blind writer and teacher Caitlin Hernandez. Hernandez wrote her first “novel,” “Computer Whiz,” she writes in her bio, when she was in the fourth grade. She kept her monitor off so no one would see her “masterpiece.”

Reading and writing have been a part of Hernandez’s life for as long as she can remember. “I was writing, even as a little kid,” Hernandez, who was born in 1990 and grew up in Danville, Calif., said in a telephone interview with the Blade, “In first grade, I wrote stories in braille. They taught me to type. Because people were having to translate.”

As a kid, Hernandez used a tape recorder to tell stories. “That happens so often with blind kids,” said Hernandez, who lives in San Francisco with her partner Martha and Maite their Rottweiler.

Maite was Martha’s dog when the couple got together. “I call her my ‘stepdogter,’” Hernandez said. It’s clear from the get-go that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Maite, her “stepdogter,” is “currently writing a picture book,” Hernandez jokes in her bio.

It’s commonly thought that disabled people lead sad, tragic lives. But Hernandez busts this myth. Martha, her partner, “reads braille with her eyes,” Hernandez whimsically writes in her bio.

Hernandez is committed to teaching and writing. But, she “loves eating coffee ice cream, watching Star Trek Voyager, singing, skipping and using her rainbow cane – sometimes all at once,” Hernandez writes in her bio.

Queerness is an integral part of Hernandez’s life: from her fiction, which tells stories of LGBTQ people, disabled people, and people of color to her rainbow cane.

“Queerness is considered cool now in many places,” Hernandez said, “it’s normalized.”

But that’s not true with disability, she added. “Generally, there’s more fear and misperceptions around disabled people,” Hernandez said.

Because of their discomfort with disabled people, she’s often left alone at social and literary gatherings.

“Because I’m blind, people frequently won’t talk to me,” Hernandez said, “even if I’ve read at an open mic.”

To make people feel more comfortable with her, Hernandez, totally blind since birth, sometimes uses a rainbow cane. “I designed it,” she said, “it has the colors of the rainbow flag. If you’re queer, you’ll get that.” 

But it’s also beautiful because it’s a rainbow, Hernandez said, “It’s a great ice-breaker.”

(Hernandez uses her rainbow cane when she’s out with friends. When traveling by herself, she uses the white cane used by most blind people.)

Once people get to know [disabled people],” Hernandez said, “they’re chill with us.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a landmark civil rights law, despite problems of enforcement and compliance, has done much to change life for disabled people.

The ADA generation (those born when or after the law was passed) has grown up with the expectation that disabled people have rights. They’re not surprised to see curb cuts or braille menus. They expect employers to make accommodations for disabled employees and hospitals to have sign language interpreters for Deaf people.

Yet despite the ADA, ableism persists (even within her own ADA generation), Hernandez said. A key reason why discomfort with and fear of disabled people is still so pervasive is the problem of representation, she said.

Hernandez, a Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow in 2015 and 2018, is acutely aware of how disabled and queer and disabled people are portrayed in fiction and nonfiction.

“Our lives are often represented so badly,” Hernandez said,  “often by nondisabled creators. There’s a lot of fear and inaccuracy.”

Thankfully, there are a few fab books with disabled characters by disabled authors, Hernandez said. She loves “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang, who is autistic. The novel portrays the romance of an autistic econometrician and her biracial male escort.

Hernandez is a fan of “The Silence Between us,” a young adult romance featuring a Deaf character, by hard-of-hearing author Alison Gervais.

 “The Chance to Fly,” co-authored by Ali Stroker, the bisexual, Tony-winning actress who uses a wheelchair, and Stacy Davidowitz, is one of Hernandez’s faves. The book, a novel for middle-schoolers, tells the story of a theater-loving, wheelchair using girl, who defies ableist expectations.

Hernandez began to think she was queer when she was in high school. But, she didn’t come out then to anyone except a few of her friends. “They kinda didn’t believe me,” Hernandez said, “because a friend of ours had already come out as queer and they thought I was trying to copy him.”

After she was in college, Hernandez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2012, came out to her parents.

Her folks, now divorced, were fine with her being queer.

Because nondisabled people frequently don’t see disabled people as datable or sexy, some aspects of coming out are more difficult if you have a disability, Hernandez said. “We often miss one of the rites of passage of coming out,” she said, “of saying ‘I am queer – here with my queer date (or partner).’”

Hernandez’s first relationship was with a woman who was closeted. “We couldn’t be out,” she said.

Hernandez got together with her partner Martha in November 2019. Then there was the pandemic and everything was cancelled. “So we didn’t get to go out as an out queer couple,” Hernandez said.

“Everybody knows I’m partnered with Martha,” she added.

But because of ableism, sometimes people don’t see her as Martha’s romantic partner, Hernandez said.

Like many, Hernandez navigates intersecting identities. “I’m thinking more about my being of mixed race,” Hernandez said, “My Mom is white. My Dad is one-half Mexican and one-half German. I can pass as white,” she added.

She’s grappling with what it means to have a Latinx last name, Hernandez said. 

She wishes she had taken Spanish. “But I took French,” Hernandez said, “I wanted to do what my friends were doing.”

As a writer, Hernandez hopes to help children who live with intersecting identities.

Her work has appeared in “Aromatica Poetica,” “Wordgathering” and in “Barriers and Belonging,” “Firsts: Coming Of Age Stories by People with Disabilities” and other anthologies. 

In 2013, “Dreaming in Color,” a musical written by Hernandez, was produced by CRE Outreach at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, Calif. 

Hernandez’s unpublished young adult novel “Even Touch Has a Tune” is about a queer, blind girl falling in love with another girl and surviving sexual assault, Hernandez said in an email to the Blade. “It’s fiction but has a lot of autobiographical content,” she added.

If you’re disabled, you’re more vulnerable to sexual assault. When she was a freshman, Hernandez became friends with a fully sighted guy who she’d met in her classes. “He seemed nice,” she said, “but then he came over and touched me inappropriately.”

“I froze up,” Hernandez added, “if you’re disabled, you’re vulnerable. You’re taught to be polite – to keep quiet.”

While there’s more representation of disabled people in fiction, Hernandez is still discouraged.

Because of ableism, many literary agents may not want her “disabled and assault novel,” Hernandez said. (Her unpublished YA novel “Even Touch Has a Tune” is represented by Emily Keyes of Keyes Agency.)

Too frequently, representation of disabled people is focused on ableist tropes like “inspiration porn” and “overcoming,” Hernandez said. There isn’t interest in portraying scary, difficult aspects (like sexual assaults) of disabled people’s lives, she added.

But discouragement doesn’t stop Hernandez from writing or from connecting with kids as a teacher.

Hernandez earned a master’s degree in special education and her teaching credentials from San Francisco State University in 2016. Today, she is a resource specialist with the San Francisco Unified School District.

Hernandez enjoys forging a connection with disabled and nondisabled students. “Nondisabled kids come to me for extra help,” she said.

Hernandez has accomplished much. But, “I’ve learned I don’t have to be a role model,” she said, “I don’t have to be perfect.”

Caitlin Hernandez working with BraileNote and BraileSense.
Continue Reading
Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Photos

PHOTOS: Safe Space

New LGBTQ+ party held at Black Cat

Published

on

A scene from the 'Safe Space' party at the Black Cat on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Safe Space 2: A Safer Space party was held at the Black Cat on Saturday, Dec. 3.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Continue Reading

Photos

PHOTOS: Holiday Show

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington perform annual concert at Lincoln Theatre

Published

on

A scene from the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington's 'Holiday Show.' (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington and the GenOUT Youth Chorus performed “The Holiday Show” at a dress rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 2 at Lincoln Theatre. The Chorus has performances scheduled for Dec. 9 and 11. For tickets and showtimes, visit gmcw.org.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Continue Reading

Theater

New Studio Theatre production explores misery of addiction

Slogging through the work of recovery in ‘People, Places & Things’

Published

on

Kristen Bush in ‘People, Places & Things.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘People, Places & Things’
Through Dec. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$65-$95
Studiotheatre.org

Meet Emma, working actor and addict.  

After a lot of hard partying and an onstage collapse, the relapsing heroine of Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things” devises a sort of strategy. She’ll do a short stint in rehab and get back to work as soon as possible, sort of breeze in and breeze out. But things don’t quite pan out as planned.  

In Macmillan’s superbly written and aptly named work (the title references a recovery slogan about triggers and relapse), the English playwright takes a lucid and, at turns, funny and mordantly perceptive look into the misery of addiction and the vicissitudes of recovery. At the center of his work is Emma — dishonest, witty, very toxic, but in spite of everything, likeable.  

At Studio Theatre, director David Muse succeeds in leading an inventive design team and strong cast, particularly Kristen Bush as wily Emma, in bringing this not unfamiliar but compellingly told tale to life. 

After a major professional screw up, (a wasted Emma implodes during a performance of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), she voluntarily checks into a British clinic. At intake she’s still high and in an uncharacteristically honest moment, readily admits to having recently indulged in a panoply of pills, weed, coke, speed, and ibuprofen washed down with gin and a good bottle of Rioja.

Unsold on the 12 steps, she’s resistant. Still the show must go on – loads of therapy (one-on-one and group) and role-playing sessions ensue. The medical professionals, staff, and patients are played effectively by Nathan Whitmer, Lise Bruneau, Tessa Klein, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emily Erickson, Derek Garza, Lynette R. Freeman, and the excellent David Manis. 

Jeanne Paulsen plays Emma’s helpful doctor and later and more startling, her mother. Jahi Kearse adds an inspiring presence as a fellow addict.

Watching an addict slog through the yeoman work of recovery, and in this case an unenthusiastic patient’s passage from detox to therapy to departure, isn’t anything new; but here, the unfolding journey feels fresh despite or maybe due to the protagonist’s dearth of pink cloud elation. There’s also a real true-to-lifeness about it. 

Studio’s new Victor Shargai Theatre has been configured as alley staging (it’s like a catwalk with banked seating on either side), making for an intimate experience. Debra Booth’s institutional grey set changes fairly seamlessly and entertainingly to different spaces, all interconnected in Emma’s recovery – a stage, an after-hours club evoking both allure and dread, offices, therapy rooms, and bedrooms. 

Lighting by Andrew Cissna and Lindsay Jones’s music contribute to a sometimes-unsettling mood. 

Macmillan wrote “People, Places & Things” with a meaty female role in mind. It premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015 and moved to New York a couple of years later. The production proved a great success for everyone involved, including Denise Gough who created the role of Emma. Bush is garnering a similar reaction at Studio. 

As the action moves steadily toward an ending, contributing factors regarding Emma’s dysfunction are revealed – cold family, a brother’s death. Some definite headway is made. Still, there’s no denying that over turbulent years, she’s left some very hurt and disappointed colleagues and family in her frenzied drug fueled wake. 

The actor/addict leaves rehab markedly less messy. Reentering the world as a different Emma, she lands at the home of her unsympathetic parents, not the most cushiony place for a sober re-launch. 

Her future is unclear, and like her sobriety, can’t be taken for granted. 

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular