Seeing with Your Voice
Blind LGBT people jump over hurdles.
by Jed Ocot
Blind and vision-impaired people who also identify with the LGBT community face issues like everyone else—issues related to healthcare, marriage equality, and unemployment, to name a few. Houstonian Will Burley describes blindness as “such a rare occurrence that based on the whole, people tend to be afraid of it because it causes them to think about their limits as humans. One of the most feared things when you survey people is the fear of being blind.”
A few years ago, Burley lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited eye disease that causes retinal degeneration. After intially losing his sight, Burley was convinced that his life had come to a halt. The idea of going to work or even accomplishing mundane tasks seemed to be no longer an option. On top of everything else, Burley felt like he was the only one who was blind and gay. “The gay community is sometimes a very visual segment of society,” he says. “We show interest by giving ‘the look.’ How do you show interest in someone who can’t know that you’re giving them the eye? People don’t want to be offensive by nature. Rather than be placed in an uncomfortable situation, we ignore it.”
A Google search led him to Blind LGBT Pride International (BPI), where he now serves as vice president. BPI started as Blind Friends of Lesbians and Gays (BFLAG), a group within the American Council of the Blind that wanted to discuss issues faced by LGBT individuals who also happened to be blind or vision-impaired. BFLAG’s first informal meetings were held at the American Council of the Blind’s 1996 national convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The name was changed in 2009 to better reflect their mission of improving visibility for LGBT blind and vision-impaired individuals within the larger queer community, Burley says.
BPI raises awareness about issues affecting its members by holding seminars, partnering with various disability groups, and communicating with newspapers, magazines, and other media about the importance of producing materials accessible to everyone, including those with impaired vision.
The national organization expanded its focus to Houston in 2007 under the name BFLAG
Houston. When the Texas affiliate was reconstituted last year, the group was renamed the Blind LGBT Pride of Texas. One of the organization’s first courses of action was participating in Lobby Day in Austin, which Burley describes as being “a powerful experience.” The group was able to meet with Texas legislators and advocate for issues affecting their community.
The response to BPI, Burley says, is “what most of us deal with when people begin discussing LGBT topics. There are those that have a religious opposition and there are those that are very accepting. We’ve all been reading the gains in LGBT equality. We’ve seen the more horrific laws that have been passed in some countries. In all of those places, there are blind folks who are LGBT. We are contacted by some, and we hear the pain that our LGBT brothers and sisters are experiencing just for being who they are.”
Burley feels that they have given voice to a largely overlooked segment of society. “It’s always going to be a work in progress that is only going to be needed much more as baby boomers retire and as we live longer,” he explains. As vice president, heis responsible for the public relations of the organization, as well as being the link between BPI and other LGBT and disability groups. “Public relations in a formal setting is a new creature for the organization,” Burley says. “Since we’re the only organization dedicated to the issues faced by blind LGBT individuals, we thought it was necessary to be a voice in a streamlined way.”
There are currently over 100 BPI members, 15 of which reside in Houston. BPI continues to reach out and gain new members and supporters by taking part in various forums as well as through working with other LGBT community-based groups. Through word of mouth, they have been able to attract the interest of the public, Burley says. Individuals who join the group not only gain membership with the local affiliate but with BPI and the ACB as well.
In looking to the future, Burley says that “BPI will be reaching out to organizations such as Equality Texas and others to see how we can pool our resources to make Texas a state where LGBT equality is the norm. We’ll be hosting our annual convention in Dallas in 2015, so you will be seeing us much more very soon.”
For more information, visit blindlgbtpride.org.