Cipriani brings disability awareness to Pride parade
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It is the nightmare moment every LGBT person dreads, being physically attacked, which was what occurred to Belo Cipriani.
In 2007, when Cipriani was 26, he was assaulted by a group of former friends in the Castro. He was repeatedly kicked in the head, and blows to his face left him blind.
"I will never know why they did it – only they can answer that – but I assumed it was envy," Cipriani told the Bay Area Reporter. "The San Francisco Police Department dropped the case due to a lack of witnesses. I did win a civil lawsuit against them. I was angry at them for a few years but forgave them the day my memoir Blind was published."
That was in 2011.
This vicious attack was a life-changing event and the transformation in the last eight years has led Cipriani, now 34, to becoming a teacher, writer, and leader in the gay disability movement and being selected as one of this year's San Francisco Pride grand marshals.
He already knows that this honor will be one of the high points of his life.
"As a disabilities advocate, being named a grand marshal means that the disabled are finally being acknowledged and included in the LGBTQ festivities," Cipriani said. "I feel that disabled people are not always a part of anything mainstream and I hope that by being the first blind grand marshal, people begin to add disability to their concept of diversity."
Diversity has been ingrained in Cipriani from the very start. He was born in Guatemala to a Brazilian father and an Italian mother. His first language was Portuguese, but having always attended British schools when he lived in South and Central America, he became fluent in English. His family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1987.
Cipriani came out to his mother when he was 16 and she was super supportive, he said, as is his whole family.
"I feel very lucky to have them and I know it's their love that has been my biggest catalyst," Cipriani said.
After he lost his sight, Cipriani went to graduate school at Notre Dame De Namur University in Belmont, where he began writing his memoir. While a writer at residence at Holy Names University (a continuing position), he authored Midday Dreams, a novella about a 1940s Portuguese family that has financial problems and is debating leaving for the United States, while discovering that one of the uncles is gay. Additionally, Cipriani has published over 300 articles in more than 30 national and international publications. Currently, he is working on a book of essays. He also writes the Seeing in the Dark column for the B.A.R.
Still, there is the challenge of having to cope with a disability daily and its concomitant difficulties.
"The worst thing about being blind is living in a world that's not fully accessible," he said. "The best thing about being blind is that I don't judge things by their appearance."
And then there are the trials of dating for Cipriani, who is single.
"I tend to meet guys through friends," he said. "I think that my disability makes it hard to meet guys because I cannot make eye contact or smile from across the room. Thus, I have to wait for guys to make the first move. Sometimes, I feel that guys focus so much on my disability at the beginning that they don't realize that they are being condescending. At times, I notice it's tough for some people to understand that I live alone and that I am fully independent. One of the biggest misconceptions of a lot of gay guys I have met on dates is that I need to be taken care of."
Belo has been a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind since 2013, representing the organization in various capacities. Most recently, he narrated Guide Dogs' award-winning documentary, Harnessing the Power of Partnership. And if you meet Cipriani, right beside him will be his guide dog, Oslo, a black Labrador retriever. Guide Dogs paired the two together in 2013 and they have become inseparable.
"He is truly a great guide and I am thankful every day for him," Cipriani said. "I refer to him as the dog that could almost talk."
Cipriani used to be the careers blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle and the careers correspondent for Talk 910AM KKSF. In these roles, he received many emails from readers and listeners wanting to hear more about what was happening in his life and more about disability topics.
"With my regular column, Seeing in the Dark, in the B.A.R. , I hope to give a voice to the many disabled people in the LGBT community that often don't get heard," he said. "I think that the LGBT community has a lot of work to do to become more inclusive of people with disabilities. However, I believe some positive changes have been made and that progress is happening. For example, becoming the first blind grand marshal will make the community more aware of people with disabilities on Pride day."
To harness this opportunity at visibility and because the white cane is the national symbol for blindness, Cipriani is asking people in his contingent to wear a white shirt.
"For the parade, I am having a rainbow cane made. Oslo and I will ride in the convertible and I am still working out the other details," Cipriani said. "I want people to know that I am more than my disability. Yes, being blind is a big part of my life but it's not all of me."