A few weeks ago I sat down with Kathleen Martinez, a gay, blind, Hispanic woman who was named assistant secretary of labor last year by President Barack Obama. Martinez, who heads the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, was in Dallas to kick off a six-city Disability Listening Tour. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Martinez, which took place at the Westin City Center in downtown Dallas:
DV: You’ve obviously overcome some barriers, being blind, Latino and a woman. How big an obstacle has your sexual orientation been?
KM: Well I haven’t been out a lot. I’ve been out of course in Berkeley, but I’ve been very careful professionally for lots of reason, mostly just fear of more discrimination, because I feel like I face a lot of obstacles as a blind woman who happens to be Latina. I just feel like the time is right and it seems to be that in this administration it’s not a big deal, so I decided that I would just come out. I wouldn’t say I was hiding it, but I didn’t really make an effort to do interviews like this. If somebody asked me, I certainly did not lie, but I was afraid.
DV: So were you out to the Obama administration before you were appointed?
KM: I was very honest with them, because they asked me a direct question, and I said yes. They were fine.
DV: What about the previous administration, under which you served as a member of the National Disability Council?
KM: I think they knew. It was my understanding that they preferred that it was left not discussed. Nobody ever told me not to talk about it. It was my choice not to talk about it. I got the sense that it was probably a better thing.
DV: Have you experienced any backlash yet?
KM: I’m sure I will, but that’s just a part of being out I guess in a society that doesn’t necessarily accept a gay lifestyle.
DV: Do you see this as an opportunity to be an advocate on LGBT issues?
KM: Of course. The thing is that disability transcends all sexual orientations, classes, ethnicity and cultures, and so I feel like a lot of times in the GLBT community, I know there are many folks who are gay and lesbian who are disabled, and maybe it will bring the issue of disability to the GLBT community, and the GLBT issue to the disability community. That’s what I’m hoping. It’s very interesting, because I see a correlation between the GLBT experience and the disability experience, because if you’re gay you’re often the only person who’s gay in your family, and if you’re disabled you’re often the only person who’s disabled in your family. It’s not like race or gender where you have role models, so I guess for that reason I feel it’s important to talk about it, but as a child I didn’t have any really cool or interesting disabled role models, and I certainly didn’t have any gay role models that I knew of.
DV: At the same time, are there key differences between the two experiences?
KM: I think they’re both oppressed people. All I can say is we’ve got to start supporting each other and seeing the similarities in each other rather than the differences. I think there’s just as much fear around disability in the gay community as in any other community. It’s fear of the unknown, and then I think in some parts of the gay community, looks are very important, physical fitness and being commercially perfect, commercially attractive, and sometimes folks with disabilities don’t fall into that particular category, but we all have something that’s a weak point in all of our lives. For some of us it’s evidenced and for some of us it’s not.
DV: Have you experienced discrimination within the LGBT community?
KM: I think people are afraid. I went to a GLBT function and this woman said, “If I ask you to dance, will you crash into other people?” People are afraid to do the wrong thing, and especially in San Francisco, I think, because everyone wants to be politically correct. And you can’t blame them, they’re doing their best, but I think people are afraid to do the wrong thing, so they’re afraid to interact. But for me, I’d rather have people just try, and make a mistake, and usually people are very gentle about telling you what they need.
DV: So does there need to be an advocacy group specifically for LGBT disabled people?
KM: The deal is that we should be in all the organizations … I think at some point it’s a good thing, but then we have to move past it and figure out what we all have in common. Because it’s really easy to stay in our little silos and not talk to other people, and with disability the biggest barrier is still fear. We fear less what we know best, so if we hang out with folks with disabilities, we’re not a big deal anymore, and that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. … I think again, there are a lot of misconceptions about people with disabilities, as there are about gay people. I think there’s a lot of disability within the gay community, and there’s a lot of people who are gay within the disability community. I think that if we can mix it up a little more and come together around similarities, and help each other out, be each other’s allies, I think it would benefit both communities.