Soni Thompson talks about the importance of identity and why Billion Strong is focused on creating an identity movement.
I had a recent conversation with Debra Ruh, the Chairwoman of Billion Strong, and we were talking about this path that we’re all walking called LIFE. At a very young age, we develop our beliefs. We learn them through our experiences and education – that is, the things we were told from the people closest to us, like our parents and teachers. Those messages that we received when we were growing up helped define who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we view and interact with the world around us.
Having said that, let’s take a look at some of the messages that people with disabilities and people at the intersection of other marginalized groups typically receive at a very early age:
“You can’t do that.”
“You’re not like other people.”
“The world is unfair.”
“Some people will make fun of you.”
“You won’t have the same opportunities as other people.”
“You will have to overcome a lot of discrimination.”
“I wish you were [fill in the blank – normal/heterosexual/white] so that this life wasn’t as hard for you.”
As a parent myself, I understand the sentiment behind some of those messages. In fact, most of them seem to come from a place of love and protection. We want the best for our children, and we want them to be prepared for potential hardships, even though we would prefer that they didn’t have to struggle.
My mom, who is one of my biggest advocates and a super positive person overall, once told me that I would likely have a lot of obstacles to overcome because of my sexuality, and she wished only happiness for me in this life. I knew what she meant, and she said it because she loves and cares about me. I also knew that she would support me no matter what.
My dad wasn’t as supportive. When I was 17, a counselor asked him if he could just love me for who I am, regardless of my sexuality, because I’m his daughter. After a very long (and uncomfortable) silence, he said that he didn’t know. I do think that he learned how to love me over the years, before he passed away, but that moment and those words were forever burned into my spirit.
When we internalize the messages that we receive, even when they come from a place of love and protection, they become our beliefs. And sometimes, when we get older, those beliefs no longer serve us – if they ever did at all. For example, how many people with mobility disabilities grew up thinking that they can’t physically do [fill in the blank]? How many people with cognitive disabilities grew up thinking that they’re not smart enough for [fill in the blank]? Am I broken? Limited? Capable? Worthy? Valuable? Loveable? Safe? Am I enough, just as I am?
Some people say that homosexuality is a choice. Sure, I could have pretended to be heterosexual and dated guys. At the very least, I would have looked mainstream or “normal” on the outside and not been judged because of my sexuality. But pretending to be someone I’m not and hiding away my true identity to avoid discrimination wouldn’t have made me happy. So, ultimately, yeah… I did have a choice. I chose happiness. And while it may not always be easy, I continue to choose happiness every day.
But some other minority groups, like people with visible disabilities and people of color, don’t have a choice. They are often stigmatized, excluded, exploited, and more vulnerable to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, which can result in developmental delays, behavior problems, and low self-esteem. Discrimination even happens within the different marginalized communities, like some gays and lesbians ostracize bisexuals, some people of color have negative feelings towards other people of color with a different pigment of skin, and some people with disabilities think they’re better than other people with different disabilities.
One of the primary reasons that we created Billion Strong is because we recognize the need of an identity movement for people with disabilities and people at the intersection of other underserved, undervalued, and overlooked groups. When you’ve grown up being told, feeling, and believing that you’re “less than,” how do you change that narrative?
This is what we want to accomplish around the world with Billion Strong – to come together, share our stories and lived experiences, and learn to let go of the beliefs that no longer serve us. We want to show the world, and ourselves, that we are complete, worthy, and important. No matter how we identify, or how many ways we identify, that doesn’t change our intrinsic value. We are strong individuals, but we are stronger together. Please join this identity movement by going to www.billion-strong.org.