If you listen to some people nowadays, to be anything other than heterosexual is a new phenomenon. “Back in the day”, they’ll say “People weren’t gay. They didn’t have same-sex partners, or come out as trans. It’s all just the modern world going mad”.
If you do listen to those people, I bet you’d also believe that all disabled people were abandoned at birth, that we never survived infancy, that we were locked away and spent most of our years in institutions. Well, sadly, that was sometimes the case, but just as there were women who loved women, men who loved men, and members of the trans community all throughout history, so, too, were there successful disabled women.
Sometimes (whisper it), these identities even overlapped. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the badass queer, trans, and pioneering disabled women the history books forgot.
Edith Cooper (1862–1913)
Edith Cooper was a disabled lesbian writer who co-wrote with her partner, Katharine Bradley, under the pseudonym Michael Field. The two women lived together for over 40 years, and when Edith became severely disabled by rheumatism, Katherine was her main carer.
Writing under one name became their way of declaring their ‘inseparable oneness’, and together they produced over 40 works, made up of poetry collections and a long journal, entitled Works and Days. They were both aesthetes, and had financial independence which enabled them to buy their own home, and live their lives the way they wanted — a rarity for women of the time.
As such, they developed a large circle of literary friends, including Oscar Wilde and Robert Browning, who were both supporters of their work. Browning is often credited with being the one who revealed that Michael Field was, in fact, the disguise for two women. Sadly, this led to a downturn in the popularity of their later works, which were critically well-received when published under their shared pseudonym.
After 40 years together, the two women died within a year of each other, Edith in 1913, and Katharine the following year.
Edith Craig (1869–1947)
Edith Craig, working around the same time as her namesake, was a prolific theatre director, producer, actress, costume designer, and pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement. She lived with arthritis all her life, which prevented her from becoming a professional musician, although in her early years she attended the Royal Academy of Music.
As a costume designer and actress, she toured America, appearing on-stage with Henry Irving, and having a number of roles written for her by the playwright George Bernard Shaw. As a director, she founded the Pioneer Players theatre society, which ran from 1911–1925, and was known for producing formerly banned plays, plays on social humanism, and performances on women’s suffrage and feminism.
She became an active suffragist after meeting a woman from the Women’s Freedom group selling newspapers on the street. She joined the cause immediately, stating:
“[I] grew up quite firmly certain that no self-respecting woman could be other than a suffragist.”
From then on, she produced various suffrage plays, including A Pageant of Great Women, which she was instrumental in devising. The play was performed to large audiences across the UK, and followed the concept of a Morality Play, in which the main character, Woman, is confronted by Prejudice, who believes that men and women aren’t equal.
A third character, Justice, presides over the debate between the two, while groups of women parade about the stage, as evidence of women’s achievements in art, government, education and battle.
From 1916 until her death, despite disapproval from her family and society at large, Edith lived as part of a ménage à trois, with the dramatist Christabel Marshall and the artist Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood.
Eva Gore-Booth (1870–1926)
Eva Gore-Booth was an Irish lesbian poet, dramatist, suffragist and activist, who was disabled by TB as a young woman and lived with its associated chronic conditions all her life. In her twenties, she travelled with her father around North America and the West Indies, keeping journals and documenting their progression around the world.
When she returned to Ireland, she met W.B. Yeats, who was taken with her poetry and began to correspond with her as a mentor. He’d hoped she would stand with his cause of writing Irish tales to enchant and amuse, but instead, Eva took Irish folklore and emphasised the role of women in the stories.
A year after she met Yeats for the first time, she fell ill in Venice with the respiratory illness that would follow her all her life. It was while recuperating, and believing herself to be close to death, that she met Esther Roper, the English activist she would spend the rest of her life with.
The two women dedicated most of their lives to women’s fight for suffrage, and were prominent leaders in the north of England. As a member of the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, as well as the Women’s Trade Union Council, Eva was instrumental in linking the struggle for women’s rights in industry, with the campaign for their right to vote.
Together, Eva and Esther also worked with a team of professionals to launch and edit Urania, a sexual politics journal that was published between 1916 and 1940. The journal was radical for the times, and aimed to document and enhance the progress of the first wave feminist movement, eliminate the glorification of heterosexual marriage, and ridding the world of sex and gender distinctions altogether.
Barbara Jordan (1936–1996)
Barbara Jordan was a lawyer, educator, politician, and Civil Rights leader who made history in multiple ways. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she became the first woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and the first black woman from the Deep South to win a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1972.
As a Congresswoman, she sponsored or co-sponsored over 70 bills, most to support services for minorities and the underprivileged. She was an award-winning debater and celebrated orator, beginning her career as a campaigner for John F. Kennedy’s presidential ticket.
One of her most well-known political moments was her 15-minute televised speech, which was presented at the opening hearing of the Nixon impeachment process. She is famous for having said:
“If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority”.
Although Barbara was never openly ‘out’ in her lifetime, she made no secret of her life companion, Nancy Earl, who she met on a camping trip in the late 1960s. After her initial successful state-wide races, her advisers warned her to be more discreet, and not to bring any female companions on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, as she became increasingly disabled by MS, Nancy Earl was her main caregiver, and co-owner of her house and estate.
When President Clinton spoke at Barbara’s funeral in 1996, he remarked:
“Whenever she stood to speak, she jolted the nation’s attention with her artful and articulate defence of the Constitution, the American Dream, and the common heritage and destiny we share, whether we like it or not”.
Pat Parker (1944–1989)
Pat Parker was a lesbian feminist poet and activist who had breast cancer. She moved from her hometown of Houston to LA, where she graduated with a degree from LA City College, and achieved a graduate degree from San Francisco State College.
She was married twice to men, the first of which she said was physically violent, and scared her to death. Later in life, she began to identify as a lesbian, and in a 1975 interview famously said:
“After my first relationship with a woman, I knew where I was going”.
She worked for a decade as the executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Centre, and was heavily involved in the Black Panther Movement. In 1979, she toured as a poet with the Varied Voices of Black Women group, and in 1980 founded the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council, as well as helping to form the Women’s Press Collective, and campaigning for a variety of gay and lesbian groups.
One of her most famous poems, entitled Womanslaughter, she wrote after her elder sister, Shirley Jones, was shot and killed by her husband. He was convicted of womanslaughter, not murder, and served only a year for the crime. In her poem, Pat noted:
Her things were his
including her life
Men cannot kill their wives
They passion them to death
Jazzie Collins (1958–2013)
Jazzie Collins was an HIV Positive trans woman who campaigned on behalf of People of Colour, disabled people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco. She ran the food pantry “6th Street Agenda”, and was one of the original members of Queers for Economic Equality Now (QUEEN).
With QUEEN, she organised a number of protests, as well as being an organiser for the city’s annual Trans March, Vice Chair of the LGBT Ageing Policy Task Force, Vice Chair of the LGBT Senior Disabled Housing Task Force, and playing an instrumental role in the election of fellow activist Chris Daly as the neighbourhood’s district supervisor.
In 2015, fellow activists opened Jazzie’s Place in her honour, the very first shelter in the US for the adult LGBTQ+ community.
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