This year’s Queer History Month wrapped up with a panel about Queerness and Disability on Thursday, October 29. The panel was a collaboration between McGill Queer History Month and DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) Canada and was facilitated by Nelly Bassily, Manager of Youth Initiatives and International Relationships at DAWN Canada. The panel saw approximately 50 participants.
Four panelists were featured: Courage (Natasha) Bacchus, a Black Deaf athlete, artist, and activist, Che Birchwood, a Black multi-disciplinary healer and organizer; Gaitrie Persaud, a Guyanese-Canadian Deaf artist, actress, and director; and jaye simpson, an Oji-Cree Saulteaux Indigiqueer poet. The panel touched on a number of topics at the intersection of queerness, race, and disability.
In the first question, “what does queerness and disability mean to you?” panelists drew on their own experiences of these intersections. simpson spoke on their experience, explaining that “I think for me, queerness and disability has always been so intertwined with me growing up, especially as a kid with chronic pain and neuro divergence. I was always told to hide that in favor of normalcy. I think that’s such an intrinsic relationship with queerness, which was also my experience to work at being cisgender and heterosexual, and especially as an Indigenous person, I was always told to melt myself down to be palatable.” Che added to this, speaking on how they only recently found out they were autistic because they were told growing up – and believed themselves – that they were bullied and isolated from social situations due to their race, class, and queerness.
The panelists also spoke on barriers to inclusion and the lack of resources for queer and disabled communities. Courage stressed the importance of removing barriers and uplifting queer Deaf BIPOC voices in the arts: “It’s so important because we need to have our culture, our religion, our philosophy, our ways of thinking represented.” Gaitrie, who worked with Courage on a show called The Two Natashas, also spoke about barriers, saying that “there’s really not a lot of accessibility. So in the arts world and theater, you don’t actually have that relationship for queer BIPOC deaf people. We don’t have the connections and we’re trying to figure out how to find those connections within a theater environment. There’s not a lot of resources out there to support us as artists.”
Panelists also discussed the racism that occurs in disabled communities. simpson spoke on how space that is often given to white neurodivergent and disabled folks is not given to BIPOC. “When only one group is highlighted, you’re doing a real disservice on some of the discussions and dialogue that needs to happen in the community,” they said. “And I don’t know, I’ve had some really awful experiences in community with white disabled folks. And it’s been a lot of racism at times. I think there needs to be a larger discussion on how that happens.” Che added on to this, speaking about the prevalence of racism in Facebook groups about autism and ADHD. “Sometimes people use their diagnoses as an excuse either for racism or for like not understanding all the labour that people of colour are trying to do to explain to them. […] Saying like, oh, I can’t read that text because I have ADHD and I can’t read long stuff but there are even all the comments that are like breaking down for people that were just ignoring it.”
The panel ended with a question period in which participants asked questions about resources, community, and further reading. Both the panelists and participants suggested that the best way to access resources was to reach out to disability advocacy centres and join community-based Facebook groups like Passion and Disability and This is Autistic Culture.