ANSWERING OUR QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR ACTIVISM AND THE ABLEISM WITHIN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY
Walela Nehanda is a Black, non-binary, queer, leukemia warrior, poet, and community organizer committed to societal change.
Kelly: On your website, you mentioned that you felt writing and poetry weren’t enough to help move us forward. How did you go about becoming more active? What was that journey like?
Walela: That journey was an interesting one because many “creatives” are consumed with “making it” and it can get very individualistic very quickly. There’s a difference between needing to pay the bills and rightfully being paid for your work vs. being willing to sacrifice your virtues, your politics, your community for the sake of personal gain. I was watching that happen around me, I was in a situation with music where it could’ve easily gone in that direction and it made me uneasy. I was like “ok, I can possibly have the stability I’ve always wanted but at what cost?” I was experiencing housing insecurity at the time too where I was bouncing between friends’ homes and still I felt something was off. Around this time, which was 2016, I started getting involved in organizing and I met my fiance, Akili. Akili and a piece by Devyn Springer were very helpful in getting me to see the difference in being a creative vs. a cultural worker. How can my art be of service to the movement, how can it be a form of popular education, agitation propaganda, what am I doing to actively shift the hearts and minds of our people to see a future where liberation is possible.
Kelly: What advice do you have for people who want to start being more active in order to create true change?
Walela: The advice I would give is to have an honest conversation with oneself about where you can contribute. Not everyone is meant to be frontlines, not everyone is meant to be a cultural worker, not everyone is meant to be a movement intellectual, but finding what and where you’re able to contribute is important. And also knowing, your contribution can change – it’s changed for me over the years and that is okay because the real question is: how can I contribute in this moment with where I am at. I believe it’s critical to build relationships with grassroots organizations in your community. Lastly, I would say engaging in political education – you gotta know what you are fighting against and why. Political education is starting a reading group with your friends or joining a reading group in an organization, it’s watching documentaries, it’s learning from movement elders, it’s engaging critically with theory, and that’s essential and never-ending – we are always learning – so being willing to learn and put in that work is crucial.
Kelly: In what ways do you think the Queer Community can be ableist?
Walela: Every community is ableist. There are so many intersections within the queer community, it’s hard to say “this is how THIS specific community is ableist.” It’s easier to speak on how able-bodied people as a whole can be ableist, how it’s a subtle indoctrination where many of us don’t even realize “oh shit this is ableist, this is problematic” (for me it didn’t happen until after I became disabled, which is fucked). It’s easier to speak to the ways in which society discriminates against disabled people, the ways in which capitalism literally disposes of disabled people because our labor is not of value. I think the biggest issue in every community is that disabled people are an afterthought, the needs of ALL different types of disabled people are not considered, we are invisibilized in society and that’s done intentionally. Someone once said something along the lines of disability justice being the final pillar of social justice that’s just constantly neglected or ignored – and that is nothing short from the truth.
Kelly: How can we go about changing the ableism within our community?
Walela: I think how we can go about changing that is making an active effort to include disabled people in what we do, to make our work accessible in every way possible – and that’s an extra effort, right? But it’s an important length to go to. If you’re an organization or non-profit or business or college club or whatever, consulting disabled people on HOW can you do better (with compensation). Realizing that what an immunocompromised person would need will be different from what a deaf person needs or a neurodivergent person needs and so on and so forth. Realizing the contributions of disabled people may be different from able-bodied people and that doesn’t make their work any less valuable – for instance, many people have called the online activism disabled folks engage in as “slacktivism” but what if that’s the most and best someone can contribute? How is that not of value then? There is just so much work to be done to make the things we do accessible and it may seem overwhelming but it has to start somewhere. I believe there’s an active effort happening and so for that effort to continue will be pivotal.
Kelly: What’s it like being living in a space where so much of your identity constantly means standing up for your identity and others like you? How do you cope with it?
Walela: I mean it’s exhausting. I think having a platform online really contributes to my exhaustion because I am scrutinized constantly whether by racists, ableists, transphobes, whoever the fuck that has something to say to invalidate me – it’s tiresome, it’s frustrating, it’s disturbing, it’s many things. So, dealing with that on top of all the shit I’ve had to confront in person for simply being who I am. Some examples, I often have to pick and choose my battles with doctors about them assuming my sexuality, my gender, deadnaming me because it becomes “I need medical care but I don’t want to piss off this doctor who can give me the care I need.” Often, I’m ashamed of how I fold and just silence myself out of the need to survive. Additionally, many doctors I’ve come into contact with have been racist, fatphobic, transphobic, classist, etc. ON TOP of being ableist and queerphobic – it’s almost like navigating a field of landmines hoping you can just get to the other side without something about you impacting your damn care. And it’s a fucking shame. I was literally just speaking with my love this morning about how bullshit it is that I constantly say how “lucky” I am to be at my current cancer center because I receive quality care. I should never describe quality health care as lucky – that shit should be the fucking standard.
Over the years, there have been many times I’ve wanted to give up and I couldn’t because my life depended on it and so it’s this needing to keep pushing but being too overwhelmed. I did that for years and I remember when I finally got home from transplant I cried because I was like “oh my god, I can relax some now, I can acknowledge I finally got into the right-center that takes care of me, I can finally take a breath after all these years.”
I cope by limiting my time on social media, setting boundaries online and in real-time. I don’t know if this qualifies as coping but I’ve really had to step into being no bullshit and that has improved so many aspects of my life. I was in therapy at one point, I’ve been in support groups, I journal, I write prose or poetry, I take naps (that’s a huge one especially if I’m overwhelmed), I talk to my friends, I cuddle with my fiancee, I try to eat something I like, I do what feels right in the moment with what I have available to me — and I’ve stopped apologizing for it especially post my stem cell transplant.
Kelly: What’s something you need the queer community as a whole to understand?
Walela: Ableism is something that we cannot and have not escaped from. We each have been taught ableist shit and have been affected by a fucked up settler-colonial society that indoctrinates us into beliefs that are not just limited to ableism. But ultimately, there is no queer liberation without the liberation of disabled people. There is no queer liberation without the liberation of especially colonized disabled people. There is no queer liberation without disability justice and the destruction of capitalism.
Kelly: Lastly, what’s one piece of advice that has been given to you that you live by?
Walela: I don’t know if it’s advice but it’s a phrase, “strong of mind, pure of heart,” that’s how I try to live my life and have been trying to since I heard that phrase 6 years ago.