A personal account of homophobia within the disabled community

Disabled. Gay? Whatever.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and wonder — why do I do this job? There must be easier jobs than being a diversity and inclusion consultant. Who am I to reduce inequalities in the world and at work? Can I ever make a difference? But then there are occasions and incidents in my work that remind me to keep going, no matter what. And that this work does matter. I meet clients sometimes whose employees say that working for them has changed their lives — to have been given a break, to feel like they belong somewhere. For example, someone who struggled to find employment and is now able to provide for their family. Or someone who tells me they feel disrespected by their line manager — just for being themselves — and that they’d like to leave the company. Then there are times when I am personally confronted with inequalities and discrimination, and I am reminded how inequitable parts of our society can still be. That happened the other day.

Intersectionality is key

I attended an awards ceremony for disability access. Several reasons made me eager to attend. First of all, since the event was in Manchester (just ten minutes’ walk from where I recently moved to), I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to meet new people and expand my local network. Secondly, it was a face-to-face evening — something I hadn’t done for at least a couple of years due to the pandemic and was looking forward to meeting people in person! Thirdly, I was looking forward to going to a particularly accessible/inclusive venue (a recently refurbished hotel in Manchester) and to what I hoped would be an inclusive environment where I would not be the only person with a visible disability (as a wheelchair user myself).

As soon as I arrived at the awards ceremony, I heard both homophobic and transphobic remarks from the event organiser and MC which made me feel uncomfortable (and later I learned I wasn’t the only one feeling like this). Being born with a rare neuromuscular disability, I use a wheelchair and require 24-hour care/support. I am also gay. Whenever I work with clients, I discuss this intersectionality — that when developing diversity and inclusion strategies, we cannot compartmentalise our thinking. It made me realise that even within communities and events that “should” be more accepting and inclusive (i.e., an awards ceremony for disability access), there is still more equality and inclusion work to be done! This is even more of a reason why I need to continue working as a diversity and inclusion professional.

While I had originally changed names in the account below to protect the anonymity of the event, when contacted for comment the organiser requested that her name was used in full. Their response is included in full at the end of this article. All named individuals below have asked for their real names to be used.

“LBG… — or whatever”

When I entered the main room, I saw the event organiser (who I’ve met several times before) talking to another man in a wheelchair. I decided to say hello to her since she was the only familiar face in the room. We exchanged pleasantries. Hey Fiona, how are you? It has been a while! Great venue! Nice to catch up. She then introduced me to Alex Vasquez (he was the other guy in a wheelchair, who I hadn’t met before. “This is Alex, he is a disability advocate, well-known on TikTok, and a campaigner for LBG… (as she rolled her eyes) — whatever the letters are these days”. I was really stunned. I felt slighted by the “whatever” comment, and concerned for how Alex could have felt sitting right next to us wearing an LGBTQIA+ flag on his jacket.

As part of my conscious inclusion training, I often discuss “calling out” and “calling in” non-inclusive remarks and behaviours with my clients. This is so much easier said than done! The environment was very loud, and everyone was excitedly talking about the upcoming awards. I was unsure how to react at the time. While I did say “it is LGBT+” in an attempt to help her remember the letters, it didn’t seem to register with her. I even kept it short for her — I should have said LGBTQIA+.

I was further shocked to hear the same remarks, almost verbatim, as she announced the nominees of an award category, oblivious of how this micro-inequity may be perceived by LGBTQIA+ individuals in the audience and especially by Alex. You see, Alex was nominated for the Access Champion of the Year award, and when she read the list with all 9 nominees in alphabetical order, she referred to the organisations or job titles of each and then added “LBG… whatever” to Alex’s name. No comments were made about other nominees’ gender, ethnicity, or other characteristics and correctly stated their job titles and roles. The ill-advised remark on sexuality is unnecessary and felt belittling.

…but I’ll call you ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind

As if the “LBG… whatever” comment wasn’t shocking enough, just 10 minutes earlier the presenter opening the award ceremony made what can only be described as transphobic remarks and openly mocked people and organisations making a conscious effort to actively include others. He may have been unaware of the impact of his remarks, but opened the evening by saying “good evening, ladies and gentlemen” before continuing “but if we were British Airways I wouldn’t be allowed to say ladies and gentlemen, would I!” followed with “but since we are not British Airways I will address you as ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind”.

Perhaps the presenter wasn’t cognizant of his remarks or why BA made the decision to stop addressing customers as ladies and gentlemen on their flights in order to modernise their customer experience. British Airways is not the only business to update how they greet customers and are following in the contrails (excuse the pun) of Air Canada, Lufthansa, Japanese Air Lines and even railway operators like Transport for London and LNER. These organisations are taking a conscious, positive step to actively include people that experience being the butt of lazy jokes and microaggressions every day. They should be commended — not mocked — for doing so.

This second ‘gaffe’ left me with the realisation that even within minority communities (for example people with disabilities), where there should be more awareness of equality and inclusive behaviours, there is still much work to be done. The disabled community is diverse, and one can have a disability or long-term health condition and be LGBTQIA+, identify as non-binary, or from an ethnic minority background. Every aspect of their identity and culture must be understood and respected.

Organised inclusion

I can’t fault the choice of hotel for the awards event due to its fantastic accessibility and the venue was a smart choice. It occurred to me that other aspects of inclusion were not considered. While every table had a bottle of red or white wine (I was quite pleased), there were no non-alcoholic drinks, and my Personal Care Assistant (who does not drink on duty) had to buy non-alcoholic beverages from the bar. In addition to my PA, there will have been others who did not drink due to health or religious reasons (one of my former PA’s is Muslim and doesn’t drink alcohol or eat pork, for instance). Despite the fact that the food was pretty tasty, a vegan option wasn’t provided. This brings to mind intersectionality once more. Yes, wheelchair users like me and Alex need physical access into the venue, but there are other needs that need to be met as well, such as dietary requirements and LGBTQIA+ safe spaces.

Am I being a snowflake?

In my work, I’m commonly told by people experiencing microaggressions as a result of their gender, race or any other aspect of who they are that they can leave the scene with confused feelings, unsure whether they should speak up, or whether they will be dismissed for being oversensitive or trying to cause trouble.

I felt this first hand, and it’s not a comfortable experience. I really wasn’t sure if I was over reacting and just not in the right frame of mind for the event. After a conversation with my partner, he agreed that the above experience did indeed include homophobic and transphobic aggressions, that he would have felt upset and angry, and has regretted not speaking out about similar experiences in the past. But I wanted to hear from the “other guy in the wheelchair” who was also gay (and not just my blinkered view on things). I sent a WhatsApp message to Alex after the event and said “At the awards ceremony there were a couple of remarks made that I thought were a bit homophobic and transphobic. Did you pick up on that?”. To which he replied:

Thank you for acknowledging this. I also took this week as a way to leave that night behind and process those comments. I would have normally easily ignored them but I was putting a lot of weight on the night, not really in terms of winning the award, but on terms of getting my goals on disability advocacy on track in the UK. I did feel a lot of resistance from Fiona since I met her that night. And while I understand her background is not intersectional, it did make me feel bad and that is why I quickly left after.

What to take away

Whenever you organise an event for a particular community (like an awards evening for people with disabilities), you should think much more broadly and intersectionally and consider other dimensions of inclusion, such as creating LGBTQIA+ safe spaces or catering for the beliefs and religions of different people. Several of my clients sponsor and support events like the one Alex and I attended by providing facilities, sponsorship, funding, subject matter expertise, etc. There are times when it is simply a box to tick or window dressing (which I am not a fan of) and other times it is done for the right reasons like raising awareness on important issues or recognising the great work being done by individuals and organisations to reduce inequality. However, when you partner with certain key people or organisations, make sure that the breadth of diversity and inclusion is truly taken into account and that your values are aligned. This event was sponsored and supported by organisations such as Conran+ Partners, Dyson, HEWI, RIBA, Institute of Hospitality, Historic England, Leonard Cheshire, the AA, Design Council, Taittinger, Marshall and Microsoft. As an employee of one of these organisations, how would you feel about supporting an event whose organiser and MC made remarks that cause LGBTQIA+ individuals in the audience to feel uncomfortable and leave early? Yeah

Though I felt strongly about this experience, I debated whether or not to write this article. I realised that if I do not “speak up” and “call out” these kinds of experiences, I am not doing a very good job as a diversity and inclusion architect — trying to reduce inequality in working and corporate the world. I have not named the event itself or the other presenter but the event co-founder has asked to be named (please see response below). I honestly believed that her comments and that of the other presenter were from a place of ignorance, not malice. In fact, I shared this article with Fiona before publishing it. My goal was to share my experience and give her feedback so that she can keep it in mind for the next awards ceremony. I invited her to comment on this article before publishing it to you, and she offered the below response (published in full and without edits):

‘I’m surprised, depressed and upset to hear that my comments were taken to be homophobic. I didn’t mean to cause offence by what was said in jest… I would consider myself an ally to all groups who feel excluded, particularly as a woman who is disabled and considered too old to be employable yet never have I wanted to be a ‘victim’.

The ‘whatever’ referred to is LGBTQIA+, which I can never remember exactly. In fact, a member of the audience took it to be a humorous reference to ‘how the term has changed so much it’s hard to keep up’.

I apologise wholeheartedly for any offence caused, which was not intended or due to ‘my ignorance’ but merely an attempt at humour. The focus for the Blue Badge Access Awards is to raise awareness of accessibility for disabled people and celebrate those who have created imaginative and thoughtful approaches to this subject. I would not want this to detract from our objectives as the response from the disabled and able community has been overwhelmingly positive. I really wish someone had corrected me when offence was encountered.

If you wish to publish your article please use my given name, Fiona Jarvis, rather than ‘she’.

Please note that the selection of the hotel with it’s [sic] site on the edge of the gay village was a deliberate one as is the employment of their staff from diverse backgrounds. Many of the team are gay, several have issues across the spectrum and their photographer is a drag queen!

As a result of your words we will be re-evaluating the existence of the Awards and it should be noted that as a voluntary organisation it involves a tremendous amount of expense and unpaid work. I must advise you that n [sic] the spirit of ‘cancel culture’ we have had to accept subsequent resignations from our BBAA team, dispirited by your words.

Please note this is a personal response and should not be associated with our sponsors in any way.

When I wrote this article I tried to keep it emotionally neutral — factual if you like — and use this as an opportunity to share with my followers, network and clients the importance of running events that are inclusive of everybody and recognise the intersectionality of our human experience. After reaching out to Alex and learning of his experience and feelings of the night (which validated my thoughts and feelings too) I was particularly compelled to write this article and to be an ally to his experience (as well as my own) and that of other LGBTQIA+ and disabled people in the country. The intention is not to ‘cancel’ anyone or anything — however, since privilege is ingrained in our culture, equality can feel oppressive (as coined by the feminist movement). My intention, as always, in the work that I do is to inform, educate and inspire more equality in the world.

The organisers’ response above has been pasted verbatim and has not been fact checked. With regards to the awards description as being a voluntary organisation its governance structure is not made clear on its website and they do not provide a registered charity number or registered company number on their website (which I last checked on 16 May 2022).

When I wrote this article I reached out to Alex and consulted with him to ensure that he was happy with what I had wrote. Alex (pictured) is a queer TikTok content creator with a disability and you can contact him through his social media handle: @TheWheelsBlog. If you want to reach out to me you can do so through my website

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Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon

Diversity & Inclusion Architect. I like psychology, tech, ideas, design and food (esp. curry). Live with SMA.