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Greater NW Pride: Separate and Not Equal


Separate and Not Equal: People with Disabilities and the LGBTQ+ Community

There is no secret in the community of people with disabilities that, up to and through 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, life in modern American society has been “complicated,” to say the least. Through the 1950s and 1960s, people with disabilities—which then included the deaf community; people who were visually impaired or blind; people with physical disabilities of various kinds; people with intellectual disabilities (aka, the “mentally retarded”) and people living with a certain mental illness)—life was a series of institutions, a product of the 18thand 19thcentury. In the 18thand 19thcentury, many institutions were created to host people with disabilities because of the atrocious conditions by which people with disabilities were treated in society. By the turn of the 20thcentury, there was a change in mindset: institutions were created to protect society from people with disabilities. They were separated out of society-at-large. Out of sight, out of mind. People with disabilities simply were not considered as part of “normal” society. People outside of the institutions were either scared of people in the institutions from simply ignorance for the reason for a disability, treating those institutionalized as either objects of charity or scorn, with parents and families of those institutionalized wondering what caused the handicapping condition, like a previous sin in the family. Churches, along with other communities of faith, did not welcome people with disabilities. Some people who were disabled were brought to religious services only to be healed, with faith healers calling the “devil” out of people. To get a quick summary of what “normal” looked like, consider the television family sitcom from the 1950s and 60s: white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, straight, cisgender, largely middle class, with few people even wearing eye glasses.  Think “Jackie Gleason Show,” “Donna Reed Show,” “Father Knows Best” and the “Dick Van Dyke” shows, to name a few. Again, people with disabilities were largely institutionalized and not a part of the American “dream” of normality.
As a parallel, people who were LGBTQ , largely known in those days simply by the clinical term as “homosexuals,” were also, like people with disabilities, largely out of sight and out of mind in these family sitcoms of the 50s and 60s. We, too, were not part of the “normal” of American society.  Indeed, like those who were institutionalized because of their disability, being a “homosexual” was a disability, according to the American Psychiatric Association. In the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM), version DSM I and DSM II, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder, in which people could get paid billable hours to diagnose and try to prevent homosexuality. Those of us who are LGBTQ were considered having a psychiatric condition that needed to be cured, up to DSM III, published in 1973, in which homosexuality was dropped as a psychiatric condition. Note: The United Methodist Church adopted the line, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” in 1972, which homosexuality was still considered as a psychiatric condition in the surrounding society. Also, like people who were institutionalized because of one’s disability, those who were labeled as “homosexuals” were also put under psychiatric care, or their parents or family members wondered who sinned that a person was a “homosexual,” and we were either people who would receive charity (though rarely) and largely scorn. We were separated out of society. Churches, along with other communities of faith, did not welcome those who were considered homosexuals. Some people who were homosexuals were brought to religious services only to be healed, with faith healers calling the “devil” out of people. Indeed, to be considered a “homosexual” up to and through the 70s was to be considered one with a disability, or the term of choice in those days, handicapped, and needing to be cured, made whole, to be made “normal” in American society, or institutionalized: out of sight and out of mind.
Do you see the same parallel arguments for the exclusion of people with disabilities and people who were considered “homosexuals”, both in society and the Church? And even though the Bible has Jesus reaching out and showing compassion to people who are disabled, e.g., the man who is blind, John 9, the Church still has an awkward (my assessment) relationship with people who are considered disabled. There is much work to be done in the Church regarding its welcome of people with disabilities. There is even more work to do be done by the Church in relationship with people who are LGBTQ , even though Jesus said nothing about people who are LGBTQ+. 

Many things changed for the community of people with disabilities, such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1976), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), providing civil rights for people with disabilities in the public square, and some churches and denominations began to think about mainstreaming and inclusion programs. The same cannot be said about those of us who are of the LGBTQ+ community and the Church. Next week, the focus will be on welcoming, and the process of showing hospitality to those people who are considered disabled, and those of us who are LGBTQ+.


Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!