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Gainesville author speaks on disability, queerness and activism in a changing world

Sandra Gail Lambert is a prominent author living in Gainesville who has written fiction, a memoir and many personal essays about her experience as a disabled lesbian activist. Her new book, “My Withered Legs,” released on March 1, is a collection of some of these essays. WUFT’s Kristin Moorehead spoke with Lambert about the collection, and about her life.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert
Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert

Kristin Moorehead: As you were collecting these personal essays into your book, did you notice any themes start to emerge between the essays that you were picking?

Sandra Gail Lambert: A huge theme, beside disability, was getting old with a disability. I've been disabled since I was a baby. I had polio when I was a baby, but I've never been old and disabled before, and that's a whole new world.

I got the things that old people sometimes get like breast cancer or a heart attack. I'd always thought of myself, of disability being really separate from illness or fragility, that those two had nothing to do with each other. And now I'm understanding that illness is also not a fragile state.

It's, it's strength as well.

KM: I noticed throughout the book, you draw on these themes of autonomy and independence versus, you know, asking for help or maybe needing help. Why does that dichotomy speak to you so much?

Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert
Lambert as a child. (Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert.)

SGL: When you grow up visibly disabled, physically disabled, starting in the fifties, there's an assumption that you will never be married, you will never have children, you're not a sexual person, you know, your parents will have to take care of you the rest of their lives.

And I am an obstinate person and I wanted to just reject that, vehemently. From a little kid, I can remember my father going, "They have a wheelchair here." And I was like, "Ugh, are you kidding? No way." So that was important to me and I kept it throughout. And I still have it strongly, but it is much more tempered these days.

If you're disabled, and I, I think this is still true, if you need help, people take it over from you. I can be very specific. "Will you move that to that? Will you get that down from that shelf there?" All of a sudden, they're just, they've taken over the arrangement of my shelves.

Somehow, people can feel like they're giving you, you've given them permission to take over your life and that you need for them to do that. So it's fraught. It's fraught to ask for help. And it's not just me being overly independent. It's a real thing.

KM: And I noticed that theme specifically in the last chapter of the book where you're going through some of these health crises, as it were, as you age, and as you try to compartmentalize these different experiences, where you really need to ask for help.

Can you speak more on that?

Lambert (right) with her wife Pam. (Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert.)
Lambert (right) with her wife Pam. (Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert.)

SGL: I have an essay out in The Millions, which is about my, and my wife's, Pam's relationship. It's about, of course, a lot of things, as essays are, but it's about us figuring that out a lot, and at the end, I talk about everyone, when you read about caretaking. And in this case, I'm talking about caretaking Pam and being resentful of it when she was at her old age stuff.

And vice versa. And I said, they talk about how you, for caretakers, we have to be so careful. We have to make sure that we don't build up resentments because we definitely are going to build up resentments. And I've been thinking about how that's not true and that caretaking, we just fell in love more with each other during that time.

And that caretaking became a source of joy, not of negotiation, that enhances my life on both sides of that equation, which I don't even know how to call it something besides an equation.

KM: A lot of the essays dive into your personal relationships. The one with your mother, the one with your partner, your relationship with the world at large.

How has your individual experience as a disabled lesbian woman affected the way that you interact with other people and with the world around you?

SGL: There's something about being...other, if that's the term people use, othered or other, but being not fitting quite, that worked with disability, that worked with feminism in the '70s, that worked with coming out, worked with being an out lesbian in the '80s.

All of that works together. All of that came from the same source. When I first came out, I sort of ignored I was disabled, you know, here I am with double leg braces and crutches. But I managed to, you know, focus more on the lesbian feminism about, I worked in a feminist bookstore. I did activism.

It wasn't until a little bit later in life that I started doing disability activism, but always around me were friends or people I knew that were doing that sort of activism, and I learned a lot from them.

Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert
Courtesy of Sandra Gail Lambert

KM: When you think of your experience, growing up with a disability versus the experience of someone growing up with a disability today, how do you feel about the progress that has been made and maybe the progress that still needs to be made?

SGL: There's been incredible progress made. I mean, both the activists that got the legal protections and the ones that have come afterwards, and there's a way the young activists today are, not beyond the legal protections, but they've taken those and built on them to move even farther forward and say "This this needs to change and this needs to change" in ways, you know, I just couldn't imagine ever. I grew up in a time when the solutions to ableism for me were individual solutions.

I figured out what the heck I wanted to do. I just made it happen, best I could. And if anyone got in my way, I just ignored them best I could. And today I feel like people In similar situations, they have a whole community they can turn to, if they choose, to support them in resisting it. They have a whole legal structure they can do that with.

They have a whole activist structure that they can do that with, which is just wonderful. I do think it's important to change, to be open to ideas, to read about them. And one of the ways I do it is I work through it in my writing. But, I also think that those of us that grew up under different circumstances with different ideas have a lot of value.

We have a lot of skills. We have a lot of ways of figuring out how to survive in situations. And I mean, the problem, especially if you're an old lesbian, is you're loud, you're bossy, and you know you're right. But you often aren't, but often you are, you know, we have that dichotomy going on. I think I have value in those areas of just experience. But at the same time, I've had to learn how to just keep my mouth shut, this is not quite my time to be at the front. If someone wants to ask me something, fine. But, meanwhile, I will just write my way through the changes and see what happens at the end of the essay.

Kristin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing