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It’s Time to Expand the Narrative About Queer and Disabled Communities

As marketers, we are also storytellers. And the story we are telling is incomplete.

LGBTQ+ people remain underrepresented in the media, and what representation there is centers on white, cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied people. According to GLAAD’s yearly report on inclusivity in mainstream media, there was only one disabled LGBTQ+ character in all major studio releases in 2020, which was the first year that GLAAD even counted disabled LGBTQ+ characters in their roundup.

Fifty-two years after the Stonewall riots, America still does not have federal protections for LGBTQ+ people, and 29 states don’t have laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the first major legislation to provide federal protections for people with disabilities, was passed 31 years ago, but people with disabilities still face prejudice, bias, and blatant systematic inequity. The queer disabled community feels the repercussions of both issues, while having been dismissed by the general public and even within the LGBTQ+ community itself. Some of the most celebrated LGBTQ+ activists were disabled—Marsha P. Johnson, Morty Manford and Barbara Jordan, among others—yet we rarely recognize this as an integral part of these activists’ identities and as a part of the LGBTQ+ lived experience, despite more than one third of LGBTQ+ people identifying as having a disability.

In the wake of Pride Month in June and Disability Pride Month in July, we spoke with two creators from the queer and disabled community about the road ahead. Andrea Lausell (she/her) is a queer, disabled Boricua and Cubana, based in Los Angeles, who creates digital content about disability, sex ed, fashion and her own disability, Spina Bifida. She is also an actor, writer, editor, producer and Twitch streamer. JD Aragón (he/they) is an Indigenous (Hopi) two-spirit advocate and artist with albinism. They began their presence in online activism with a YouTube channel. In 2013, JD began uploading content about living with albinism and also connected with the visually impaired community.

Ad Council: Andrea, how do you typically see queer and disabled narratives portrayed in media? How can we actively expand these narratives in a way that feels authentic?

Andrea Lausell: I typically see queerness in the media focused on cis, abled, thin, white people. And the disabled narrative portrayed in media is often similar: cis, thin, white, disabled people—this time straight. A way we could help is to get writers who are Black Indigenous POC disabled queer people. Get them in the rooms. Hire actors of the same identities, hire sensitivity readers of the same identities, hire influencers with the same identities to promote such things. And it can’t just be getting these people in the room to make things more diverse—they also need to be paid.

AC: How have you brought your experience with DEI into brand conversations? How do you take this into the work that you do and the partners you work with?

Andrea: When I work with brands, I make it a point to also refer them to other creators who are Black indigenous POC, disabled or queer, and I let them know that they should only reach out if they offer payment for working with these creators.

Also, when working with brands, I make it a point that no matter what we do in the way of promoting, if my face is on anything of theirs, there needs to be image descriptions and closed captioning to make the posts as accessible as possible.

AC: You self-identify as a queer, disabled Boricua/Cubana. How has your identity affected your experiences and how you move through the world?

Andrea: My experience around my identities as being a queer, disabled Boricua/Cubana has always been complex. If we start with my queer identity, that is relatively new in the way I navigate the world. Honestly, I find that my queer identity gets ignored because my disability identity overshadows it, which could be a result of the infantilization of disabled people and society not seeing disabled people as people who could be in relationships. But I find that I rarely navigate the world as queer as much as I navigate the world as disabled.

For me, my disabled identity and the way I navigate the world is very political. I am a colonized person under the imperial United States, being a Boricua, and the nature of how I got my disability through my father’s military service. Because of this and how the United States treats Puerto Ricans, and the generational trauma Boricuas continue to face as the United States still holds onto us, I can’t separate my disabled identity from the political sphere. My disabled existence is quite literally a result of war; I am a product of war and a reminder of the atrocities, down to my dad who was forced into a war because he was seen as a disposable brown body.

AC: What about in the context of the queer community? How has your identity impacted the way you experience Pride?

Andrea: My disabled identity and being queer is very complex as the disability world is often run by abled people. Conversations around relationships are often ignored or put down, let alone around being queer. I find my queer identity in the disabled sphere is often erased, and then within the queer community I see the same—my disabled identity gets erased. Ableism is a big issue.

I have never attended any Pride events because of the lack of accessibility that these events have. For example, overstimulation of the senses with noise, smells and lights, and most events are held outside with no accommodations for sitting. The times I felt seen in Pride events has been through events held online by queer disabled people. In general, if a Pride event is run by abled people, I never feel welcomed.

AC: JD, how about you? Have you found that your experiences and identity have influenced how you approach your work? And has your work in turn influenced how you approach your identity?

JD: Not too long after I started my channel, I began the process of coming out to my friends and family members. I then started to engage more fellow LGBT creators in the YouTube community and would begin to create content either responding to their videos or adding my own content relating to being Indigenous and gay. It would be later that I would also find the importance of representing my Indigenous identity on the platform.

I was a featured creator at VidCon’s first ever disabilities panel in 2016 and I’ve been involved in various summits and conferences regarding accessibility and LGBT representation within the Indigenous community. I now make content on TikTok (@samivaya), where I actively discuss various topics regarding Indigenous identity, history, and disability representation and accessibility.

My YouTube content has been primarily focused on Indigenous representation and language preservation. I came to the realization that there are numerous LGBT creators, although they all tend to mostly be from the mainstream white, Christian background and experience. I felt it mattered that I speak to other Indigenous queer people, other disabled queer people. While I am thankful for the queer community embracing and supporting me on my sexuality, there is also a sense of ignored privilege, and lack of cultural diversity when it comes to the white gay image. Most typical mannerisms that would be considered gay are based in white culture.

AC: What would be your vision for Pride moving forward? How can we celebrate more inclusively?

JD: My whole life experience revolves around coming out. Not only in the sense of my sexual orientation, but also my cultural identity, as well as my disability. Because of my Albinism I constantly have to justify my Indigenous identity to others when I speak on matters concerning Native topics and culture. Because I am not fully blind, I find myself always having to explain my visual impairment to other people, especially in the work environment. Every time a person discovers my condition, disability, or ethnicity, I then have to explain my life story because their perceived notion of me being this white person who doesn’t look disabled is completely shattered.

My vision for Pride is that we highlight stories that are unique rather than mainstream. We already know what we have in common. But what can we learn from somebody that represents an alternative perspective for us to learn and grow from?

AC: It sounds like both of you have a shared experience of not being viewed as a full person—that people aren’t taking the time to understand your full story. Would you like to share any final thoughts? What is it that you want people to know?

Andrea: Queer and disabled people often don’t get to explore their sexuality when they’re young the way abled queer people get to. Young queer disabled people are told that relationships are not something they should strive for and, depending on their disability, they may have to focus on surviving. So disabled people end up realizing they’re queer later in life. And I think there needs to be more awareness brought to this.

JD: The one thing I would like people to take away from my content and experience is that you should always proceed with caution when making an assumption about other people. What you see on the surface isn’t always the full picture. Differences won’t always be visible. And even though we may find similarities within our own communities, there is still diversity even within our very own groups.