you get proud by practising: vale, stella young
Yesterday I awoke to the unexpected news that activist, writer and comedian Stella Young had passed away. I then, almost as unexpectedly, spent the morning in tears.
I had never realised how much I would mourn were Stella no longer around. I never had to think about it because Stella had more love for life than most people have in their little finger. She absolutely shone with a desire to wreak havoc on a world not built for her, and she did it all with a wicked grin while flipping the bird to anyone who stood in her way or told her she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, achieve what she needed to.
Stella’s letter to her 80 year old self has been doing the social media rounds since yesterday’s news – and with good reason. If you’ve never encountered her work – and trust me, it is always an encounter as Stella never lets the reader be a passive thinker – then this is a good place to begin. Read the letter first and then come back to finish this. You’ll thank me later, I’m sure of it.
Although I felt devastated all morning, re-reading Stella’s letter actually dried my tears. Because Stella didn’t have regrets, and she damned well didn’t sit around expecting the world to suddenly accept her for who she was without a big fight on her hands. She went out into an often indifferent world armed with a tongue so sharp she could cut any argument in half, and she forced us to sit up and take notice – not only of herself, but of all those with disabilities who are sidelined and marginalised.
Through the performance and public speaking community, I know that it was Stella personally who promoted that we all needed to boycott venues that didn’t provide equal access to their bandrooms, bars or toilets. Stella loved to party, and she tirelessly and lovingly kicked Melbourne event managers’ arses for being so thoughtless if they had. Every event booker, manager and performer I know worth their salt in this town has never, and will never, make the same mistake again.
So Stella gave us all the gift of insight into problems that might not have been so obvious to the able bodied, and to those who she lovingly referred to as her crip community, she gave the gift of visibility. Through her writing, there was a chance for people to vent rage and frustration, to grieve and reflect, but also to understand the power of sharing a laugh. Gallows humour was Stella’s specialty, and her particular way of getting to the complex and problematic heart of many issues while still making you snort drinks out of your nose is a gift not many possess.
It is a special sort of thinker who makes you ashamed of how you sometimes let injustices slide because of selfish inconvenience or embarrassment whilst still encouraging you to be who you are, by acknowledging that we are all on a journey and some people are just further ahead than others. Stella was a leader in the pack of social progressives who are leagues ahead of most of the rest of us. She could run rings in her chair around those loping painfully slowly from the proverbial starting line of forward thinking, while managing to pour herself a drink, do her lippy, take over the dancefloor and still screech off while they coughed on her dust.
The outpouring of grief displayed around the world as news broke yesterday has been incredible. I’m not certain if Stella would have been surprised, but I know she would have been so damned proud of herself, as she always was. Stella’s tattoo, ‘you get proud by practising,’ was a reminder that she wasn’t perfect, but that she was always going to keep on keeping on.
I had the immense privilege of being the individual who got to tattoo this mantra onto Stella’s tiny forearm. I was nervous before I arrived because I didn’t know what to expect. Stella was the first person I had tattooed who had a visible disability, and I was conscious of not wanting to be insensitive in some accidental way by saying or doing the “wrong” thing. Well, I learnt so much in two hours of tattooing Stella and her crip friend Allie about thresholds of strength and pain and learning when it is and isn’t right to accept the pain inflicted on you by others, and also your own body. To Stella, the sting of being tattooed was nothing compared to the time she rolled over in bed and because of her brittle bones, broke her hip. Or the countless other breaks and pains she’d suffered through her body being a really crappily constructed container for her spirit.
But you know what? Stella smiled and took the piss out of all of it. She laughed through every anecdote, and even though she occasionally grimaced while I worked, when we finished up she had a huge smile on her face. She was proud she finally went through with it, and by proxy, I got to be proud. That is the gift Stella gave to those close to her.
Stella, I’m going to miss your ridiculous status updates that included jokes about fisting, and accidentally having your underwear publicly flap in the breeze precariously from behind your wheelchair. You always made us laugh in an endless social media feed that is so often boring self-promotion. Around the world, you will be missed for your ability to take the piss, firstly out of yourself, and then everyone and everything else.
What I’ll miss even more is feeling like there was a strong voice for the rights of those with disabilities in Australia. In our present-day backwards society, when each new government that comes in gives less funding and support to those with disabilities, both mental and physical, we need Stella more than anything. That we don’t have her now is, to put it how she might, absolute fucking bullshit.
Stella, you taught both me and, just casually, more than 1.5 million people all over the world what crip love is. And we will keep fighting the good fight the way you taught us to: with a drink in one hand, pen in the other, a devilish grin and fire in our bellies.