by J. Quinn Brisben

Erik von Schmetterling and Jimmy Schrode decided to get married the day they were jailed in San Francisco for taking part in a disability rights demonstration shortly before the 1992 general election. They are a Philadelphia couple, and the idea of solemnizing their relationship in the midst of the nation's most notorious nest of gays appealed to them.

They were with hundreds of comrades from ADAPT, a militant disability rights organization whose acronym stands for Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs today and before 1990 stood for Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation. The founder of ADAPT, Wade Blank, who occupies approximately the same place in the struggle for disability rights as Martin Luther King does in the struggle for African American civil rights, was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was happy to perform the ceremony.

ADAPT had a ballroom reserved for its convention doings in the Market St. hotel where Dashiell Hammett had once placed Casper Gutman and his gunsel in The Maltese Falcon. Erik rented a dinner jacket, and Jimmy found some white satin from which he could improvise a gown and head dress. I told him that he looked like Maria Montez, and he was pleased. All of us were pleased that we had been released from custody in time for a good party.

Earlier that day we had blocked traffic at the entrance to a hotel where the American Health Care Association (AHCA) was holding its convention. AHCA is a lobbying group for the nation's nursing home chains. ADAPT wants 25% of the money for long-term care, which now goes directly from the states to nursing homes, to be re-directed to home attendant care. Home attendant care is much cheaper than incarceration in nursing homes, and much more to the liking of the vast majority of disabled people. The nursing home industry, however, has grown enormously rich on taxpayer money in recent decades and has great influence with its political and media friends.
J. Quinn Brisben, ADAPTing)

Jimmy Schrode is an in-your-face kind of person, an immense man who dyes his hair a magenta shade which does not occur in nature. His taunts to the police as we were arrested that day were so sharp that I feared for his safety. Erik von Schmetterling is quieter, a gentle person who was a physician until his disabilities forced him to discontinue practice. He is deaf but an excellent lip reader and alert and active despite increasing immobility. Erik and Jimmy are a great team as well as a devoted couple, a great asset on the eleven ADAPT actions I have shared with them so far.

Our arrests were not bad, as arrests go. The police were thoroughly ashamed of themselves, full of stories of their own about friends and relatives they had had to commit to nursing homes when home attendant care would have been a better option. We were confined for a few hours on a pier with nothing taken from us, not even my cane, which arresting officers sometimes fear as a potentially dangerous weapon. I had no trouble making telephone calls to my wife, children, and grandchildren. We were issued citations for trespass charges that were later dropped and released on our own recognizance in plenty of time for the evening celebration highlighted by Erik and Jimmy's wedding.

As the 1992 presidential nominee of the Socialist Party, I was the warm-up act for the wedding. I reminded those present of the common struggles of all oppressed groups and ended by recommending that they regard the major political parties as Tallulah Bankhead regarded the bride and groom when she remarked "I've had them both, and they're awful." Then I took my place to witness the wedding.

A disability rights group is a good wedding audience. Many persons confined to nursing homes are not allowed to marry, one of the reasons ADAPT fights for home attendant care. Abled persons are nearly always discouraged by their friends and relatives from marrying disabled persons, and disabled persons are discouraged from marrying each other and from having children, even when there is every expectation that such children will not share the disabilities of their parents. A wedding is a triumph in the disability community. Every disability is unique, and the disabled have developed an awesome variety of techniques for satisfying their sexual needs. Some disabled people share cultural prejudices with the abled, including homophobia, but this ADAPT group was clearly enjoying watching Erik and Jimmy declare their commitment to each other before friends.

My guest that evening, a San Francisco Socialist with AIDS, greatly enjoyed the ceremony. So did a friend seated near us, Irene Norwood. Irene is an African American from Chicago, a formidable woman who usually brings one of her nearly four dozen grandchildren to push her wheelchair during ADAPT actions. She is a pillar of a West Side church not noted for its tolerance of lesbians and gays, in the heart of a community where gay-bashing is common. Yet she was clearly enjoying both the camp and the serious aspects of the ceremony.

Wade Blank knew why that was so and explained it to me later that evening: "Disabled people and gay people have something in common that they share with almost no other oppressed group: they are often rejected by their own families. Groups like ours become families."

That was the last conversation I ever had with Wade. He died in Mexico the next February while unsuccessfully trying to save his son from drowning. ADAPT goes on. In November, 1996, Erik, Jimmy, Irene, and I were together again at an ADAPT action in Atlanta, and over 100 of us were arrested. A pioneering group of gay disabled activists attended that action. Irene died a few years later, but our ranks are always filled with good Baptist church-women who know how to shout and love.

Erik and Jimmy are still a happy couple. Both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich double-crossed us on the bill now known as MiCASSA, which would fund home attendant care instead of nursing homes, but the bill has been re-introduced into Congress by Senators Harkin and Spector and stands a good chance of becoming law. More than ever our struggle involves a community of interest between lesbians and gays and the disabled. All of us will be part of that struggle for economic justice that I have always called socialism. The latest national ADAPT action took place in San Francisco again, October 20-25, 2001. There will continue to be local and national actions until we win. I hope to see you on many of them.

2001 J. Quinn Brisben


J. Quinn Brisben, a retired Chicago high school teacher, has been active in various progressive causes since the 1950s. His recent Atlanta arrest was his eighth with ADAPT, his fifteenth in a social cause. In 1990 his wife and he took 3,000 condoms from ACT/UP Chicago to the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Union.


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2001