You’ve been politically active for a few decades now, including bids for Dane County Board and Democratic National Committee representative, and you founded the Disability Caucus through the Wisconsin Democratic Party (WDP) last June. What are your current political goals, and what do you hope to see in 2020?
A great goal for the Democratic Party would be to elect more people with disabilities and diverse backgrounds to reflect the reality of the population in Wisconsin and throughout the U.S. About 25 percent of us are people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. Relatively few are in public office. I would say that we want more disabled voices heard everywhere, and to see the policies of ADA, the American Disabilities Act, fully implemented. As for myself, I would love to run for political office again so I could be a voice for disabled LGBTQ people who might also want to run. I would model my campaign and goals after Senator Tammy Baldwin and Danica Roem, Virginia state representative, who I consider among my role models. Rep. Anderson, a state representative from Wisconsin, would be one of these people, too.
What are your identities, and what does representation of those identities mean to you—both in grassroots political organizing and within different grassroots groups that advocate for folks who share your identities?
I identify as a gay man with a mental illness, autism, and an undefined genetic disorder. I don’t find many people organizing specifically to all my identities. I can name a few organizations that advocate for different identities, including the Victory Fund Institute, which advocates for people in the LGBTQ community to run for public office. The Yahara House, a Madison clubhouse for people with mental illness, advocates to the Wisconsin legislature to reduce the stigma of mental illness. The Autism Society of Wisconsin helps advocate for people on the spectrum, and UW-Whitewater is well known for helping people with disabilities who want to earn a college degree and better their lives.
Can you share some of the ideas or projects the Disability Caucus has been working on in terms of access and inclusion?
Because this is the first-ever Disability Caucus for the State of Wisconsin, we are still under construction. However, our leaders and members work actively to make access and inclusion bigger parts of every community discussion. Our team consists of advocates who have been fighting for access and inclusion in their daily lives and careers for most of their lives. We are all disabled, which makes it easy to recruit people who are passionate. We have been working hard to assist voters to register, get to the polls, and have a voice in their community. We are also working hard with committees of the Democratic National Committee to make sure the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee is as inclusive as we can make it.
You’ve talked about how aspects of your identity have made you “invisible” or have made people treat you differently in a way that minimized your lived experiences. Can you talk more about that and about your journey to visibility?
By invisible disabilities, I mean illnesses such as autism, bipolar, and schizophrenia that are not readily visible to other people. We’re not using a white cane, a special walker, or a wheelchair like those with visible disabilities. Just to look at us you probably would not know that we are disabled, so it is easy to overlook us because our disabilities are not obvious. I am one of those with invisible disabilities because I have autism and a mental illness. I think that people with invisible disabilities have to fight and advocate harder for their accommodations and services, which is what I have been doing by forming this caucus and by encouraging others to fight for their rights, too.
And in recognizing the aspects of your identity that have given you access to more visibility, being white and a man, how have you used your visibility to give voice to those who are still fighting for visibility (e.g., disabled people of color, disabled LGBTQ+ people of color)?
I know I’m a white cis male; however, with invisible disabilities I understand what it is like to feel disenfranchised and disposable, which is why I advocate. It is what drives me to amplify the voices of all people who face adversity every day of their lives.
We put an article in our constitution for a Diversity Officer when we were creating our caucus. Our Diversity Officer is a woman of color, single mother, daughter of an immigrant parent, disabled woman who works very hard to bring intersectionality education to her local schools and community, as well as to the Democratic Party. I have tried to be an ally to the Diversity Officer in as many ways as I can since we have been working together. I have also used my position to lift up her voice and others on the executive committee. We truly have a special team ready to make the changes we want to see.
In what other ways have you incorporated intersectionality in your organizing?
Our caucus and its members reflect such a wide group of “invisible people” that even in our unity we make a statement about diversity. Our goal is to be seen, heard, and united.
What advice do you have for someone like you who wants to get involved and be more visible?
Never give up fighting for what you believe. You have to fight for yourself because no one else is going to do your fighting for you. Our caucus is giving us each group support so we don’t have to fight alone.
What would you tell/did you tell your younger self who was told that they couldn’t accomplish what you have and are accomplishing?
Professionals told me when I was young that I would not be able to live on my own and that I would not amount to anything. But my parents did not give up on me. They advocated for me every step of the way. And, I never gave up on myself and kept making progress. I soon realized that I was very independent, resourceful, and resilient. I’ve progressed much farther than anyone thought I would, including myself. I just get up every day and keep plugging away, one day at a time. That’s all anyone can do.
What else would you like to share with readers?
It is difficult for me daily to live with my disabilities, and I realize it will be difficult the rest of my life. I still dream about having a partner, a family, a house, and a great job, but I also realize that may not come true because of my disabilities.