We decided to take our Unmistakable Characters Series outside the capital to see what amazing things people are doing further afield. This month, El Roberts-Wright, founder of the The Rainbow Cards Project, tells us how her identity enables her to run such an incredible project - and why everyone else could too.
What's your name and what do you do? (feel free to include any side hustles)
My name is El Roberts-Wright and I run The Rainbow Cards Project - a nonprofit that sends birthday, holiday, and special occasion cards to LGBTQ+ people with unaccepting families.
How does your identity affect your work and your life in general?
I’m queer and disabled, and without being those two things I wouldn’t have set up this project. Because of my chronic illnesses I’m bedridden, which means I can’t do much, which in turn means I have the time to run such a time-consuming project. Without being queer I wouldn’t have seen the need for a project like this one, because while cisgender heterosexual people can appreciate the struggles of LGBTQ+ people, they rarely see the depths of the harsh realities many people in this community face.
Being queer also means I can relate to the people I’m sending cards to, and I think that’s very important in order for recipients to be able to trust me with such personal situations as they do. I set up this project because unlike many LGBTQ+ people, I have a very supportive family - and I wanted to do my part to help others feel the love and support I have been lucky enough to receive.
Who have been your role models and why?
My biggest role models are probably the activists of ACT UP and the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. Rather than singling out one or two people as role models, the whole movement and everyone involved is an inspiration to me, because while individuals can do amazing things, I think the most powerful thing we can do is come together as a community, and groups like ACT UP proved just how effective that could be.
ACT UP is a particular inspiration to me because they were so disruptive; they weren’t interested in selling a puritanical image of LGBTQ+ people - they were unapologetically angry and unrepentantly themselves. One thing that really stuck with me from what I’ve learnt about the AIDS epidemic was the passivity of the general public; there were plenty of people who didn’t vehemently hate people with AIDS, but they did nothing to help because it wasn’t affecting them.
I think passivity is incredibly demoralising, and it’s definitely something I’ve seen with regards to the suffering of LGBTQ+ people nowadays. Most people recognise that there are many LGBTQ+ people who don’t have familial support, but they do nothing to help those people. So I wanted to actually do something and provide others who want to stop being passive with a way to do something.
Do you think other people see you differently to how you see yourself?
I’m sure plenty of people have misconceptions about me and my life. I know a lot of abled people see a wheelchair user and immediately assume they must be miserable and their life must be tragic, which certainly isn’t true for me. Some people assume that being disabled means you’re the one that needs help and you can’t help anyone else, and yeah I need help with some things, but who in the world doesn’t need help with something? And it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t help other people. I know my project is helping people - I’ve heard back from enough recipients to be sure of that.
But, I also think some people see what I do and assume that I must be some kind of pure, amazing person, I’ve even had people call me saint. I’m just a regular person, someone who got drunk at a family wedding as a teenager and vomited everywhere, who has said mean things about people, who has sworn at their parents and made terrible decisions. I think all too often people assume that people who set up charities and community projects must be exceptionally good people, which in turns makes people believe that if they aren’t exceptionally good they can’t set up something that will help people. This is limiting. If we recognise that regular people can do amazing things, then regular people will stop believing they need to become exceptional, before they can do something amazing.
How would you like to see The Rainbow Cards Project develop?
I’d just like to offer love and support to as many people as they can, whilst still maintaining the feel of a close-knit international family, and do so for as long as possible.
But ultimately I’d like to see a world where my project isn’t necessary because people are no longer dealing with unaccepting families; a world where sexuality and gender are no longer something anyone has to be worried about or attacked for.
What one thing would you say to your younger self?
Be unapologetically yourself, always.
Click here to find out more about The Rainbow Cards Project.