“All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” was a wry statement I overheard as a child, once, while eavesdropping on a juicy grown-folk conversation about who and what makes a family. Growing older, life experiences have led me to define and redefine kinship.
In 2004, I developed a spinal cord injury and had a baby. Forever changed, my frustration and depression grew as I began experiencing society’s inability to understand the impact disability has on life. I went from having the ability to easily walk anywhere to chronic pain and the inability to climb stairs, for instance. But a few years post-injury, seeking and finding the disability advocacy community was a game changer. Advocacy and activism led me to form a kinship with others in the community, especially with my sister-friend, Bethany (Queen B!).
I met Bethany through my kid at a 2009 ADAPT disability protest after-party in Atlanta. He was four years old at the time and excited, pulling back the handlebars of this woman’s wheelchair to dance with her and her (now) wife. I rushed over to intervene. Upon introductions, I instantly recognized this beautiful woman’s name. (I’d become interested in grassroots speaking about disability and reproductive health. An advocacy mentor suggested I read Bethany’s work in disability and sexual health scholarship and “pleasure activism.”) Like recognizing like, we bonded from the jump.
Eleven years have flown by since that day. Bethany and other folks with disabilities introduced me to the concept of reclaiming the word “crip,” from the rude term “cripple.” And we’ve created what we call a “crip sisterhood.” As a community phrase, it’s used to express cross-disability solidarity in resisting oppression from ableism (discrimination against disability). Although the word “crip” is often negatively associated with a notorious street gang, disabled people can use it to display proud resistance.
This relationship helped me discover joy in being proudly disabled and living life out loud.
Finding empowerment in my intersecting identities of disability, Blackness and being a woman has been a journey. As a crip sister, Bethany encouraged me to seek and navigate a path in embracing myself as whole. This relationship helped me discover joy in being proudly disabled and living life out loud.
For example, in 2011, following the recession, Bethany connected me with an advocacy position where she worked, so we were coworkers for a time. In 2013, Bethany recommended I volunteer at a sex-ed conference, which led me to pursue a career in sexuality education. Embodying the motto “Each One, Teach One,” Bethany shared information, resources, connections, encouragement and advice that was crucial as I decided to switch careers in 2013 from disability advocacy coordination to disability and sexuality education.
Our kinship also runs deep. As partners in chronic pain commiseration, we shared relief advice, like soaking in hot Epsom salt baths. Happily chilling together at her place, sitting on the couch, we’d watch reality trash TV, indulge in hilarious petty commentary and have the best conversations.
And there’s more. Bethany was present during my 2013 separation and eventual dissolution of a 17-year marriage, and she and her wife offered love, space and bourbon to grieve that day in 2015 when it became finalized. She gave me straight, unvarnished truths on the trashtastic men I dated during that time, too. She encouraged me to believe in my worth, find someone compatible and avoid dating just anyone out of fear of being alone.
About six years ago, my mother decided she and my siblings were cutting me completely out of their lives. (It’s … complicated.) This unexpected rejection and loss occurring in my 40s alongside my separation and divorce was a painful and confusing shock. Fortunately, our crip sisterhood meant Bethany was kinfolk, and she and her wife became members of my family of choice.
As time rolls on, so does the body. In 2015, we became peers in adjusting to new mobility devices due to our aging disabled bodies. I went from using a cane to a walker, and Bethany went from a manual wheelchair to a powerchair. Having someone to understand the mental acceptance and adjustments of using new equipment as we age made this transition much easier.
The year 2015 was also when she encouraged me in my move to California, even though it meant our physical separation. This was a difficult choice, but in 2016, I loaded up my SUV and drove out West from Atlanta to study sexuality education for my career, get legal medicinal cannabis for pain relief and find love. It was the right decision. In 2017, as the maid of honor in my second wedding, she started her hilarious toast right off the bat by saying how my new husband “seemed OK.”
My biggest fear was that leaving would irreparably damage the unique dynamic and relationship between Bethany and me, and I would lose having a disability sisterhood and supportive community. Fortunately, I found other crip sisters in the Bay Area — also disability and sexuality educators. But there is only one Bethany. As a result, my husband understands our budget includes my frequent Atlanta trips (well, pre-pandemic). However, COVID-19’s normalization of video communication has been a bonus in reestablishing our familiar soul connection. On Saturdays, Bethany hosts an afternoon crip sister family chat with other awesome women. It’s a sacred part of my week.
Our sisterhood is a blessed gift that continues to be a powerful force and support in my life, for which I am truly grateful.