Disability rights activists fight for access to cities’ Pride events
People with disabilities who face barriers accessing Pride events and LGBTQ+ spaces say they’re made to feel like a ‘double minority.’
By Giovanna Coi and
Illustration by Joan Alturo for POLITICO
Cobblestones, steep inclines, gravel — for members of the LGBTQ+ community with disabilities, seemingly small obstacles on the route a Pride march takes through a city can mean they are left out and forced to watch from the sidelines.
That’s something Pride march organizers are only slowly starting to address.
“Pride is the main event of the year for queer people,” said Ingrid Thunem, a paralympic swimmer and activist who leads the Norwegian Association of Youth with Disabilities. “It’s an event for partying, for protest, for making social contact … but we [have been] contacted by queer disabled people who told us, ‘Why can we not go to the parade? ‘We feel excluded.’”
Steve Taylor, board member of the European Pride Organisers Association (EPOA) and secretary-general of Copenhagen Pride, said city infrastructure is a key part of the problem.
“By virtue of their history, [Europe’s] capital cities are not accessible places,” he said. “Pride [organizers] can take steps to make events as accessible as possible … When the city infrastructure works against you, that presents a challenge.”
Beyond physical barriers, people with disabilities can face additional obstacles, like a lack of sign language interpretation or an overload of sensory stimulation, that require special attention to allow them to take part in such large-scale events.
Although local authorities have a legal obligation to ensure accessibility to events like Pride, they often delegate the issue to event organizers themselves, for whom the issue hasn’t been a top priority.
It’s only in the past 10 years that Pride organizers have started taking the question of accessibility seriously, said Taylor. “It is [still] seen as something that we do, rather than it being something that’s integral to what we are.”
With Pride marches now returning after a long hiatus post pandemic, campaigners are determined “to highlight issues like the lack of accessibility” so that LGBTQ+ people with disabilities “feel accepted and like they’re not alone,” said Thunem.
The spirit of Pride
Activists have been making inroads in many cities over the past several years — but say they continue to meet resistance.
In the Italian city of Bologna, a local organization for LGBTQ+ people with disabilities, Jump, pulled out of the city’s 2017 Pride celebrations after the organizers refused to alter the route.
“The parade’s starting point was in Cavaticcio Park, which is located at the bottom of a steep slope,” said Fabio Mantovani, an activist with Jump. “If you’re in a wheelchair you need to have someone help you down because the risk of injury is quite high: Even when you reach the bottom the cobblestone pavement makes it virtually impossible to move.”
Jump’s decision to boycott the event caused a rift in the local LGBTQ+ community: “They accused us of betraying the spirit of Pride … but that year’s march slogan was ‘Space to be Proud,’ and it seemed really contradictory to us that people with disabilities couldn’t be in that space,” said Mantovani.
But it also made an impact. In 2018, organizers moved the march’s start point to the Margherita Gardens — a larger, more accessible park.
Change has been harder to come by when dealing directly with Bologna’s local administration, which has failed to renovate the city’s LGBTQ+ center to make it accessible for people with disabilities.
“A community that makes inclusion one of its core values can’t have its headquarters in a space that excludes some people or puts them in a humiliating situation,” said a Jump activist who sued the administration in 2017 and asked to remain anonymous.
A local court in 2020 ordered the city to make the building more accessible. But renovation work has been slow and it appears likely a June 2022 completion deadline will be missed.
“LGBTQ+ spaces are already a minority in cities, and they’re very important for people who are already discriminated against. If you can’t even access those spaces, then you’re completely excluded … you’re a double minority,” the activist said.
POLITICO reached out to Bologna’s city hall for comment but did not receive any response.
Thinking outside the box
Not all Pride organizers have been reticent to address the needs of LGBTQ+ people with disabilities.
EPOA’s Taylor said that Pride events like London’s had introduced stewards to help and guide people with limited mobility and created designated quiet spaces for people with autism and sensory issues.
At this year’s Belgian Pride, which took place in Brussels on May 21, there were sign language interpreters for all announcements and speeches.
In Cremona, Italy, organizers handed out free earplugs for people who experience sensory overload or noise sensitivity and offered a volunteer stewardship service to assist people with limited sight.
“Cities and organizations sometimes write off the need to do something on the basis that, ‘Oh, it’s too difficult,’’ said Taylor. “But actually, you just need to think creatively about how you ensure something’s accessible.”
“People say they don’t have the money, but that’s also a political choice where you invest your money,” said Mher Hakobyan, accessibility officer at the European Disability Forum. “Often it’s not the lack of resources, but about what you prioritize to invest in.”
Making these adjustments is key to acknowledging the existence — and the needs — of a minority within the LGBTQ+ community, say activists.
The community “has struggled for so long to prove that being queer is not an illness,” said Thunem, referring to the fear and stigma attached to the AIDS epidemic.
Because LGBTQ+ groups have typically worked hard to project an image of health and fitness, “it’s hard to remember that there are people that can be both queer and in a wheelchair or blind,” said Thunem.
Hakobyan stressed that “there is a lot of work to be done” to ensure people with disabilities feel welcome at Pride events.
“The Stonewall riots — which kicked off the Pride movement — were led by people whose bodies didn’t fit with the norm,” said Jump’s Mantovani. “At Pride, everyone should be able to show up with their body and find their space.”
“And if I can’t show up with the body I have, what’s the point in coming out as gay?”
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