Illustrated by Mieko Tsurumoto/OutWrite
This article was originally published to represent Violet (Spirit) in our Spring 2023 print issue “Color.”
“‘Safe space’ is a cliché, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit.”— Justin Torres, “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”
Queerness is often about survival. While Torres is alluding to a space free from discrimination and violence, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, queer survival is being threatened even more. As much as we want to create a “safe space,” there is no true safe space as long as people are dying and becoming disabled from COVID-19. COVID-19 is being swept under the rug by our government despite clear evidence that repeat infections can leave lasting damage in almost every organ in the body. Currently, there is also a resurgence of anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and anti-free speech rhetoric and legislation. When queer people are denied the chance to exist, we must find a way to live. By critically examining our past, we can shed light on the present.
Mass disabling events are already written into queer history. Take the HIV/AIDS epidemic that emerged in the 1980s in the continental United States and wreaked havoc. The Reagan administration sat on its hands for years, claiming that HIV/AIDS was just a gay disease and a punishment from God. This federal disregard and inaction displays a lack of true concern about the queer community, particularly queer disabled communities of color. According to HIV.gov, disproportionately stigmatized populations, such as gay and bisexual men, sex workers, BIPOC, and trans people, continue to be the most impacted by HIV, leading to health disparities.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), health disparities often stem from health inequities, which are “systematic differences in the health of groups and communities occupying unequal positions in society that are avoidable and unjust.” The LGBTQIA+ community in particular experiences health disparities driven by social determinants of health, which include employment, socioeconomic status, access to quality healthcare, social and community context, and education. Within healthcare, queer people face provider and insurance-based discrimination, and there are bills passing right now to deny queer healthcare and reverse healthcare legislation. Therefore, it is crucial for queer BIPOC to understand how our intersectional identities result in heightened vulnerability to pandemics.
Just as HIV/AIDS is a lifetime illness, the COVID-19 pandemic is also a mass disabling event. In a recent media briefing by the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “An estimated one in ten infections results in post-COVID-19 condition, suggesting that hundreds of millions of people will need longer-term care.” Every time you get infected with COVID-19, you compound your risk of developing long-term health problems, such as extensive organ damage and damage to the immune system like with HIV. Unfortunately, many people resist the idea that they are disabled after suffering from long COVID; this resistance is rooted in deep stigmatization of disabled people and what “disability” means in the context of our society and healthcare system. On top of that, queer disabled people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The latest U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse survey reports that 35.5% of transgender adults, 21.4% of bisexual adults, and 20.9% of gay or lesbian adults are experiencing long COVID symptoms compared to 11.6% of cisgender men, 18.7% of cisgender women, and 14.8% of straight adults. Additionally, 24.7% of adults with disability versus 13.8% without disability report long COVID symptoms.
The lack of accessible healthcare coupled with these troubling statistics results in queer disabled people being made to seem disposable. Queers, disabled people, BIPOC, and intersections of those identities have always been the target of eugenics. After World War I, fascist forces in Italy and Germany used the fallout of the H1N1 influenza pandemic (Spanish flu) to garner public support. In the United States, Black people and Jews were blamed for the Spanish flu. Fascism in America has been on the rise for a long time, and COVID-19 has spurred racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, ableist, and homophobic rhetoric and legislature.
How do we decide who deserves sympathy? At what point is there a cut-off for who gets to exist, who gets to live?
Such cut-offs are ableist; anyone can become disabled at any given moment. The U.S. government is performing mass “cleansings” and “silencings” — by overturning Roe v. Wade, by reversing trans healthcare, by choosing to drop mask mandates and ending the public health emergency despite the science. In the context of COVID-19, including disability justice within our evolving fight for queer and Black liberation becomes more important than ever.
“But I’m anti-fascist!” Yet — choosing not to act, choosing to ignore the most vulnerable members of our community in the face of all these burgeoning threats, is exactly what allows fascism to exist. In this way, fascism and capitalism go hand in hand; capitalism, which demands a fee from every living being, is incompatible with queerness and intersectional identity. Everyone wants to act like they hate capitalism but forget that capitalism requires ableism.
You cannot be ableist and anti-capitalist at the same time; when you engage in ableist practices, you are perpetuating capitalism, thereby perpetuating oppression of all people that don’t fit the white-cishet-wealthy-male archetype. Ability is a factor of intersectionality that is often overlooked by mainstream sociopolitical commentary. While liberation is usually focused on racial or queer identity separately, we must not forget that fighting systemic oppression will not be successful unless we fight for everyone who is structurally oppressed, including disabled people.
Our government has failed us over and over. It has always been clear that we cannot live under these conditions, but it is becoming abundantly clear now with the way we have abandoned each other during this pandemic. Capitalist individualism thrives when queer people isolate themselves; when it gets us alone, it rips us apart and swallows us whole. So how do we find joy amidst all of the suffering?
We choose to live. We choose to use our privilege to advocate for others and demonstrate that we care. Truly, all of queer history past and present is proof of what I’d like to call “the queer indomitable spirit.” Despite generations of systemic violence against queer people and historically minoritized people, we are still here. We can never truly be erased or silenced. Our hope, our joy, our fierce love for life and for each other — this is what makes us so incredibly human. The choice is quite simple: we must harness our queer indomitable spirits to create a better world.
“Simple,” however, does not mean “easy.” History has shown us that when we choose to love and care for all people, we see real change. Unfortunately, the revolution will not always be exciting; high quality masking, demanding cleaner air, demanding affirming healthcare, demanding better of our campus, demanding better of our governments and elected officials, and demanding the right to exist are not very “glamorous” revolutionary aesthetics. But the goal isn’t to make something look effortless or exciting — the goal is to live.
Queerness will never be accepted under capitalism, under fascism. But it is not too late; the pandemic is an opportunity for our healthcare system and society in the United States to change. Collective outrage over our government’s failures has been growing, especially in Gen Z. We must not hesitate to evolve our standpoints and practices: the pandemic is an opportunity to create lasting change amidst the turmoil. Choosing to prioritize the most vulnerable members of our community by protecting each other in any way we can is the path to change, to thriving.
Why must this be a radical goal? Is it really so radical to want to live? I dream of a world where we do not abandon sick, immunocompromised, and disabled people for our own convenience. Our indomitable spirit, our compassion and resilience in the face of adversity is what we must harness. We must work collectively in order to change oppressive behaviors and policies, fiercely choosing to love and care for each other in a society trying to tear us down. We must choose to live and to help others live as well.
“In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.”— Assata Shakur, “Assata: An Autobiography”
Author: Gwendolyn Hill (She/Her)
Artist: Mieko Tsurumoto (They/Them)
Copy Editors: Emma Blakely (They/She/He), Brooke Borders (She/They)