LISTEN TO THE TURN ON
Apple Podcasts | Google Play | iHeart Radio | Radio Public | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | YouTube
CONNECT WITH THE TURN ON
Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Patreon
In this episode of The Turn On, Erica and Kenrya interview social worker and disability advocate Vilissa Thompson about having sex while disabled and making good trouble.
The Turn On participates in affiliate programs, which provide a small commission when you purchase products via links on this site. This costs you nothing, but helps support the show. Click here for more information.
Kenrya: Come here. Get off.
Kenrya: Today we're talking to Vilissa Thompson, pronouns she/her. Vilissa is a macro-minded social worker from South Carolina, love that. She founded and runs Ramp Your Voice, an organization where she discusses the issues that mattered to her as a Black disabled woman including intersectionality, racism, politics and why she is unapologetically all about making good trouble. Hey, thanks so much for joining us today, that is dope.
Vilissa: Thank y'all for having me.
Erica: So, Kenrya read your bio but I like to ask our guests, tell us in regular ass terms, what you do.
Vilissa: I'd say for me, I like to say, I cause good trouble. I like to rile people up, especially white folks who don't have their act together when it comes to racism, erasure, whitewashing. As well as calling out our own as Black people who are ableist and exclude us, particularly different perspectives, like the disabled experience. Then our histories, when I started telling of the issues that matter. So, I am an equal opportunity calling outer. And just really want people to take what they're doing seriously, particularly if the activists, organizers, or play some type of role in the betterment of our society, to ensure that everybody is seen, heard, and included in everything that they do. So that's just something that I really am passionate about, coming from my social work background as you all mentioned, it's all about activism, it's all about ensuring that people have what they need. And in my way, that's a charge for me to find different avenues to continue that type of work in this space.
Kenrya: That's awesome. So what is your activist and advocate origin story?How did you come to this work?
Vilissa: Well I got my masters in social work in 2012, I started to write from the social worker lens around that time, for social work online platform, and I started to include the disability experience in that since no one was really doing that at that time. A lot of social work platforms were coming to light around that same era. So they were kind of find a way and I wanted to have that particular niche. A year later in 2013 is when I created Ramp Your Voice as a way for me to dig deeper, not just within social work but also within disability activism, and to really talk about the issues that mattered to me from a broader perspective like education, health care, politics, just what I've seen, the cause of representation. Just really getting my perspectives and thoughts out there, just covering different topics. So I started doing that as a weekly blog post on different issues that matter to me are things I saw folks talking about or that was trending online or in the news cycles.
Vilissa: So that's basically how I got started. And in that same frame, started to do public speaking when it comes to social work, going into social work conferences here in South Carolina. Speaking about the disabled experience because nobody was really doing that at that time and really a lot of people still aren't doing that. And what's unique about it is that I was talking about it from an authoritative experience and not from an acquired knowledge experience, which is what most of my colleagues have. So that was a very different framework to really bring it to these spaces. So I did that within the South Carolina Chapter here, as well as the National Association of Black Social Workers, taking it there with them. So just really learning to how to bridge gaps within the social work community and also fine tuning my public speaking skills to get to where I am today.
Erica: Wow, dope. So what's your favorite thing about what you do?
Vilissa: I always say, connecting with other Black disabled women and femmes. That's always been the highlight for me, is meeting us. I just got an email a couple of weeks ago from one of us, just really glad to find my work. They live in a different country and they just really felt seen. So really getting those type of responses, having those sistergirl moments, really make the work worth it. Particularly when you may get discouraged due to people not acting right or there's a big ... Right. And there's a big setback in the movement or just the news cycle is really depressing. Having that type of engagement really shines a light if there's a darkness.
Erica: That's really cool. So, does being Black impact the way you advocate in a disability rights space?
Vilissa: It does. And honestly for me, being a light-skinned Black woman who some people consider racial ambiguous, impacts how I navigate. I do notice how people engage with me versus Black disabled women and femmes who are darker. And there's colorism there. I know I can be very loud and I am purposefully loud and direct because I know that some of us cannot be.
Kenrya: We stan a loud woman.
Erica: We need loud women! I told you I'm loud!
Vilissa: You know? And that's the stuff that I understand. I understand my light-skinned privilege. It's not something that I'm ashamed of, but it's also not something that I run from or wheel away from. And I am purposeful about uplifting my sisters who are darker than me because I know how colorism works, and people favor those who let me more than them. So being loud and being intentionally loud is my way of using this privilege to get the message out. And because I know that white people, if you look more like them or you have a proximity, they're willing to quote unquote, listen to you better than somebody else. So, that's my way of using this privilege.
Vilissa: And being from the South, coming from a family that has a lot of light-skinned folks, I know how the colorism works. I am one of those light-skinned people who's not with, excuse my language, the shits, when it comes to light-skinned people.
Erica: Never excuse your language on this show.
Vilissa: Not recognizing their privilege, not knowing how, yes there.... Some people do experience trauma and trauma is real no matter what skin tone you are. But there is an imbalance in how that trauma manifests into opportunities and to the way society views you. The way even our community, within our community, views each other. And that's something that's very important to me as a light-skinned Black woman to always be mindful of and to always call out if I see other light-skinned people acting up and not in some ways knowing our place. Because I do feel like we soak up a lot of energy and space in the colorism discussions and not really understanding how, yes, there are things about us that matters too, but let us also examine the imbalance that's going on.
Vilissa: So for me, bringing that into disability spaces, is understanding how that works when you're dealing with a space that is overwhelmingly white, when it comes to representation and leadership and how that manifests differently in the space. But also being willing to call it out and engage accordingly so that it's not just me that's being heard or being respected, but it's all the Black disabled women in the space who have the same opportunities to really be themselves and to be heard and have their messages really resonating with those who need it, particularly those within the Black community.
Kenrya: And that speaks really poignantly to the fact that all of our oppressions intersect, right? And you can't just hit on one of them and not hit on the others. All of those things make up who you are and what you have to face every day. And I love that you're making sure that you're making space for everybody as you're doing your work. That's pretty dope.
Vilissa: Of course, I have no choice. That's my responsibility as somebody who holds certain types of privilege. Not just light skin privilege, but other privileges as well. Being educated and this and that, that's the responsibility and the accountability that I have to hold myself to.
Kenrya: That's awesome. So for me, being a Black, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied woman, as we talk about privilege, influences the way that I show up in relationships. From the ways that I tend to take on lots of emotional labor to the ways that I choose to have sex. I'm interested, because you know what we talk about on this show, how does being a Black disabled woman impact the way that you love?
Vilissa: I think it impacts the way that I love from the example of love that I was raised with. I talk a lot about my grandmother who has now passed away four years ago on Christmas Eve. And she loved me unapologetically, she loved me fiercely. And it's due in part to two reasons. The first being that she always saw me as her, in her words, her gift from God. I was born in '85. In the year of 83, my grandmother lost five people dearest to her, including my grandfather and her mother. So, when you have somebody who's experienced significant loss in a very short amount of time, that really shapes how they view life, how they view love, how they view people. And so my grandmother would say that after all that has transpired, she prayed to God for him to send her somebody, and that was me.
Vilissa: So to really have somebody who just really loves you for just being there, and having someone to really care for and to really put themselves into and to really love, and for them to find love again in a new way, it's important. And also the second piece was the fact that the doctors told my grandmother that I only have four to eight years to live due to my disability. I have osteogenesis imperfecta, which is layman's terms for brittle bones disease. And I think that also influenced the way that she loved. Because if you're given this timeframe, then that means that you're going to pour all your love and that person as long as you can.
Vilissa: So, I think those two factors really impacted the love that I had from her for the 30 years that I had her in my life. And it just really shaped how I view people, love unapologetically. It Doesn't mean you love carelessly, your love should have boundaries. Your love should have common sense. But when it comes to the person, it should be unconditional. You should love people who they are or how they are, you shouldn't try to love people to change them. You should love as fiercely as you can because tomorrow isn't promised. So all of those things that, particularly now that I've been able to reflect since her passing, has really shaped how I view love at 34 years old. And how I've seen how I view love in relationships, particularly in my young adulthood years, that's when I started dating. I've been a late bloomer most of my life. So, I didn't start dating until college and really having flirtations and situations in between.
Vilissa: But, when it comes to love, just really loving, just giving my whole self into it, and just really giving my all. And my love is intense. I'm a Scorpio Moon. There's an intensity there when it comes to love and there's a fierceness there, there's a wholeness there. But I've had to learn that a lot of people cannot handle that. Not because of the intensity, but because they don't know how to love themselves. And as somebody who dates men, which is the ghetto.
Erica: Oh, ghetto!
Vilissa: The ghetto.
Kenrya: We all know it and yet we still live here.
Vilissa: Yes, yes, yes. You learn that a lot of men have blocks when it comes to love. Not knowing what love is, not having an understanding of healthy types of love, healthy engagements. And that's a very key thing, healthy. Coming from somebody who has a psychology background and a social work background, having the study of human behavior. Over the course of my early to mid-twenties, I really started to dissect how I love and how men have loved me or have engaged with me. And just really realized that they don't know a damn thing about love. They don't know how to be vulnerable or to just really realize, "You know what, I'm a little messed up, but I'm a work in progress." Or even admitting that. Or if they realize they're a little messed up and a work in progress, they're not making progress at all. So being at this age, my tolerance for certain things it in the negative right now.
Kenrya: Yes ma'am.
Vilissa: Younger Vilissa put up with a lot of things because I was learning, they were sadly learning too. But 34-year-old Vilissa isn't with the shits right now.
Kenrya: Doesn't it feel good if it gets to that point?
Vilissa: It does. And if it's good to note that if I want to give into some mess, I know how to categorize it in my head, but if I don't want to get into a mess, I know to avoid it and it'd be okay. And I think that's the power too. Because at times, a little mess isn't bad. But it's all in moderation and it's all about how much energy you put into it, but still holding true to what you want at the end of the day, and what matters to you. If you want to have a little fun, and that's kind of what I'm doing right now is having a little fun, just doing me, that's great. But when it's time to settle down, I know what I want. When the right person comes along, or at least the ideal situation comes along.
Erica: That's funny. We had an episode a while back where we talked to a therapist. And we were talking about hotep men. We were like, "How do you avoid them?" And she was like, "I mean, most hotep men got good dicks. So if you want it, do it, you just know what you're jumping into." That's what it is. Just be aware of what you're jumping into and categorize it as such.
Vilissa: Right. And I'd think that's the place where I am right now. It just seeing it for what it is and then engaging accordingly. That's just the truth of it. So I think that's very sage advice that that guest gave. Because as you get older, your ideas of love, based on your experience, based on what you see other people go through, can change and can be fluid. And just moving with the that. But as long as your core values, your deal breakers especially are in intact, then if you want to just have a little fun, then have a little fun.
Kenrya: Yeah. Yeah. So, last episode we read the book, Alyssa Cole's, “Can't Escape Love.” And the disabled protagonist struggled with being vulnerable because, well she was reluctantly embarking on a new, healthy relationship, but she was struggling with being vulnerable in that relationship because she before had dated a string of men that tried to coddle or control or fix her. And both Kenrya and I found that so true in our lives, does that ring true to you?
Vilissa: I think that with me, being somebody who's visibly disabled, I use a wheelchair, I'm a little woman, men don't really care too much about the disability. They see it, they're like, "Eh." I'm like, "Okay." I don't really get coddled or anything like that. On dating sites, guys can kind of give weird responses but I usually ignore them.
Kenrya: Weird responses across the board anyway. We get it.
Erica: Because they're going to find something to be weird about.
Vilissa: Exactly. But for me, at this age, it doesn't really matter. But I think that younger me, in some ways was a little self conscious about, what would they think about me being thick in the right places, or me being in a chair? Would they feel self conscious or whatever, like that. And I would think that I really worried about, in my younger years, my dating years, and not always feeling the most confident in being bold or being flirtatious even though I am a very flirtatious type of person.
Erica: Oh, I see your tweets, you be shooting your shot.
Vilissa: You already know, you already know. But younger me just wasn't there yet. And I think that's okay. But now, being at this age, I'm very intentional about stating my me, stating my pleasures. Just anything that I feel that matters to me romantically or sexually. Because we're not trying just be lying there, being poked endlessly and not feel enjoyment and pleasure from that. Oh, and not speaking our desires and expecting somebody to be a mind reader. At this age, I have more confidence in, if you who like this, you like it, if you don't, you don't. And that just the brakes. My body isn't changing. I'm not changing. So it is what it is with what I have to give.
Vilissa: So for me, I haven't had negative experience when it comes to being disabled and dating men, but my bad experience has been with their one maturity and my understanding of things and being sometimes too giving or too, yeah, too giving. Too giving of many chances or just really hoping for the best. And at this age, just being very intentional, like I said, of what I get myself into or just seeing things for what they are, or just stating my truth. Like, "Hey, either you with this or you're not." So, I think that just the journey of being a disabled woman, feeling more comfortable with your body, knowing that you are attractive and really beginning to own that in your own way, whatever that looks like for you. I think that just takes a lot of time and age and stop caring so much about what men think, or whoever you're attracted to thinks, and about what you think. And realizing that they have to impress you. And that's more of a priority than you having to impress them.
Kenrya: The mid-thirties hit real different.
Vilissa: They do! My zero cares level now is in a negative. And I love it. I wish I had the energy in my twenties of not caring about everything. And I see young disabled women in the spaces that I'm in who care about everything. I'm like, I'm exhausted for y'all because that life is hard.
Vilissa: And I would not want to go back.
Kenrya: No, not for nothing. I mean I remember being a teenager and you're reading in sex ed about women and where we fall in a cycle and when we hit our prime. And I feel like so much of the reason that we hit our prime in our thirties and forties is because we give up the fucks.
Erica: We start shedding expectations.
Kenrya: Yeah, it's really just about making sure that we're getting what we want. And it doesn't mean that we're not being great partners, because it's in us, right? It just means that we're not great partners before we're great partners to ourselves.
Vilissa: Right, right. And that's the great thing about being this age is learning how to prioritize yourself. Like for me, 2019 was about learning how to be selfish. And that's very hard when you're a Black woman, and you know how we give, and then you're somebody who's a nurturer by nature, just innately. And also being in the field that I'm in, being a social worker, that's about giving and supporting people. All these things makes it so hard to really know how to be selfish. And even this, it's not really being selfish, it's just putting you first and saying no to things that you don't want to do, saying no to people you don't want to be around. And I think that's something that the 30's, and I'm looking forward to the 40's as well, really instills in you. Is that you really can't keep being this people pleaser. Whether it is in the bedroom, in relationships, on your jobs, in your friendships, in your family relationships, wherever. And allowing yourself to be sucked dry. That's not cool, that's not sustainable, that's not healthy. So I think that the 30's is really the time where you shed some of that toxic thinking and behavior and really find something new within yourself.
Kenrya: That's real. So is there a myth about disability and sex that you'd like to debunk here on The Turn On?
Vilissa: Oh yes.
Kenrya: You were like, "Oh, I've been waiting on this one."
Vilissa: I would say that the first would be that disabled people are not sexual. And that is beyond. That is completely false, completely false. But people have that myth because they infantalize disabled people, they view as the children, they view us as helpless, they view us as all these things that strips us of our personhood, that puts us in this very innocent box. And that is, in many ways, problematic, grotesque, and just a problematic way of viewing people as a community. That allows us to be very vulnerable to sexual violence, particularly if we do not have an education about our bodies, and consent, and body autonomy. And also being afraid to report and be in fear of not being believed. That really creates an imbalance of us being able to express ourselves and our desires, sensually and sexually, and having those ideals respected by those who know us and by potential partners.
Vilissa: It acts a stumbling block for people who may be interested in us, but who may fear being looked upon as somebody who's preying on the quote unquote disabled. And may be reluctant to approach us for sexual encounters, for dating encounters, or both. It really impacts our ability to see ourselves as sexual beings and really owning that identity. Sex to some people is a luxury for us to have and not a right. And sex is a right, sexuality is a right for us to participate in. And so, all of these things just really impacts our comfortability of being sexual. And also the fact that you don't see disabled people being sexual in the media. It's hard to know that disabled people can have sex if we're not on TV shows or we're not in movies doing these things.
Vilissa: So, there are a number of myths about our sexuality that starts with us being non-sexual. And going from there, that really impacts our ability to, like I said, understand our bodies, to report any acts of violence enacted against us, and to really just feel included in the discussions about sex and about sexuality and sensuality. And then of course you're going to keep it intersectional here. When it comes to being a Black disabled person, particularly a Black disabled femme, a woman, we understand the myths surrounding the sexuality of Black women and we add disability onto that. That's a whole nother bag of myth that you have to endure. The policing of Black women and girls bodies, when it comes to our sexual expression. And then on top of that, as a Black disabled woman, people stripping you of being a sexual being.
Vilissa: I always like to say that at 34 years old, very few people ask me if I'm dating, very few people ask me, do I have children? Very few people asked me do I want to get married. And it's all these things that friends who are my age who are either coupled or not deal with all the time. But because I look a certain way, I present a certain way, people don't think that I have those same type of desires or the same type of wishes as other women do. So, it looks very different when you add the intersectional lens on how people engage with you when it comes to your sexuality, sensuality, and what that means for you and how to combat that.
Vilissa: I was on my stay-cation for the holiday and a sistergirl and I who worked at the hotel was talking and she asked me, do you have kids? And it really struck me because not many people ask me if I have kids. Of course I said, "No I do not," in a very happy tone.
Kenrya: It's the principle.
Vilissa: I just felt so good. It's the principle! It just felt good to be asked that. And it's something so simple. But when you're not used to that type of pressure, it's like, "Wow." It felt good to be asked that. And I understand the flip side of that, people who are bombarded with those questions a lot and how that is. Almost invasive and disturbing. But for those of us who don't get that question a lot, it's like, "Wait, dang, do people not think that I want those things just because I am under four feet tall in a wheelchair?" Because I do, I'm not sure about kids part, but at least the relationship and the partnership part. That's things that I do care about, that I wish that people would explore with me, in the correct context, given the time and space situation and not some random stranger on the street, but would be more engaging if we are having a conversation to really be more mindful of their own ableism and how they approach, particularly disabled women, about our lives and what does that look like?
Erica: So, how can people who don't have disabilities show up for people who do?
Vilissa: The first I would say is to check your own ableism. Like I was giving an example earlier, if you see a disabled person, what first comes to your mind? Do you have a sense of pity, of sorrow for that person just for being disabled? Because if so, that's a major problem. Disabled people are not living pitiful or saddening lives. If our lives have challenges it is because of ableism, due to the societal, structural, systematic barriers that impact our abilities to fully engage with our communities, with our peers, with the goals and dreams that we have. So definitely check your ableism and how you view disability, how you understand disability, and who you see as disabled.
Vilissa: I have a viral hashtag, #DisabilityTooWhite, that came out, it'll be four years this year. And a part of the discussion that surrounds that is, who gets to be disabled, when it comes to the images that we have on our mind? And they're usually white disabled men, white disabled women. Rarely do we think about disabled people of color, being disabled. And if we do, we have certain images of them that we are presented with due to the media. So really just examining your whole connection with disability.
Vilissa: And also, if you're going to keep it real, talking about Black folks, many of us are walking around with disabilities. Particularly if they are not apparent or invisible disabilities like mental illness, chronic illnesses and so on and so forth. So many of us have this internalized ableism, which would be part two of that. That we need to examine about how we view our bodies, how we view those around us. And how we identify or resist identifying. A lot of Black folks don't identify as disabled because we don't want to have quote unquote one more thing added to the list of Blackness to make life hard. And disability isn't something that's shameful, disability isn't another quote unquote, hard identity. It's a part of who you are. We have a rich culture, a rich history. And we really need more Black folks especially, to start examining their internalized ableism and start to really become more comfortable with their disabled minds and bodies, and to really start claiming this identity so that we don't feel so alone in what we do and how we're living, and we start to create a community for ourselves.
Vilissa: I would say, when it comes to more systematic things, learning about disability issues, disability history, disability rights, in the work that you're doing. Whether you're an organizer or you're an activist, teacher, politician, whatever that you're doing, every social issue has a disability lens. So, if you're working in education, there's disability lens. You're doing politics, there's a disability lens. If you're doing environmental studies, there's a disability lens. You need to be very familiar with those lenses so that your work is fully complete, you'll work is inclusive, intersectional, and diverse.
Vilissa: And in that you need to also make an effort to get to know disabled activists and our trailblazers that we continue to uplift and the work that we do. I think that's very important when it comes to the diversity of our work and to ensure that if we're trying to get everybody free, then that means everybody, not just people who just look like you or who have your same sexuality or same gender or same able bodiedness, it means everybody. I always like to say, particularly in Black spaces, you can't get to your Black utopia of liberation of freedom and expect to leave Black disabled behind, that's not going to happen. So be very intentional about learning about disability issues as well as working alongside disabled activists and ensuring that we are all getting to this freedom and liberation and utopia together. And not be unintentionally harmful with that internalized ableism or just ableism in general.
Kenrya: You put your whole foot in that answer. So, to that point and to that end, are there any resources that you recommend for folks who want to learn more and dig in there? Whether they be websites or books or anything?
Vilissa: I'd say, if you're on Twitter, disabled Twitter is where it's at, Black disabled Twitter is where it's at. Of course, follow me. As well as some of the Black disabled women I know, like Keah Brown, who just came out with a book last year called, The Pretty One. I would suggest reading that, it's about her experience as a young Black disabled woman. I love to work with Heather Watkins, who is a gen Xer from the Boston area, she talks a lot about being a caregiver, being a mom, being her unapologetic self. I'd say just really get to know the names of Black disabled women, the feelings in the movement, past and present.
Vilissa: Look up the story of Johnnie Lacy, Joyce Jackson, key Black disabled women women of the seventies and eighties who were a part of the independent living movement of that time and the work that they've had to do to get us where we are today. Just understanding that history. And I think for me that's where it all begins, education, understanding the history of a group of people you may be unfamiliar with. And then going from there and just seeing how you can be supportive or even finding your own voice. If you start to explore and come to terms with your own disability identity and really start to shed some of that internalized ableism and start welcoming an identity that is just as important and impactful as all the other identities that you may have.
Kenrya: So, you your site and we want to let people know that that is rampyourvoice.com. The Patreon is patreon.com/rampyourvoice. On Twitter you're Vilissa Thompson, V-I-L-I-S-S-A. As well as @RampYourVoice and @WheelDealPod, right?
Vilissa: Yes, that's a political podcast that I cohost with Neil Carter, who is a Black disabled man. We hope to bring that back this year during the election cycle. So I'm hoping that we'll get back and running so that we can give you all the shade and tea as we embark on 2020.
Kenrya: Yes, and then on Facebook you're at a Ramp Your Voice, right?
Vilissa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kenrya: Awesome! Thank you so much for joining us this week. I learned a lot. I'm sure our readers did. Or readers, listeners.
Vilissa: I am glad to be on here. I listened to you all's pod and it's really nice to be a guest and to really start the new year off with this interview.
Kenrya: Thank you. Same. It's been a privilege to have you on. We have been, like Erica said, following you on Twitter for a long time. So we already feel like we know you, but to get the time to sit here and kiki together has been pretty dope. Because y'all missed all the stuff became before we hit record.
Erica: Yes, this is the perfect Friday night.
Vilissa: The pre-show is always good.
Erica: We'll hit record and then just keep it going.
Kenrya: This episode was produced by us, Kenrya and Erica, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme song is from Brazy. We want to hear from y'all, send your book recommendations and all your burning sex and related questions that you want us to answer to TheTurnOnPodcast@gmail.com. And please subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, follow us on Twitter @TheTurnOnPod, and Instagram @ TheTurnOnPodcast, and find links to books, transcripts, guest info, and other fun stuff at TheTurnOnPodcast.com. And remember, we're now part of the Frolic Podcast Network and you can find more shows that you'll love and Frolic.media/podcasts. Thanks for joining us and we'll see you soon. Peace!
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.