Monday 26 November 2012

Kathleen Rose Winter - activist, athlete, author, actor

During my research into lgbt participation in the Olympics and Paralympics I recently came across the name of Kathleen Rose Winter. The online obituaries I read revealed not just a multi-sport para-athlete but a woman with an active and diverse life. I have put together this short life story of Kathleen Rose Winter as a celebration in this Paralympic year and Gay Games 30th anniversary.

Kathleen Rose Winter was born in Chicago in 1956 into a mixed-heritage family. Her father Clifford Obanion, a former janitor of an apartment block, was African-American. Her mother Caroline Terzian came from an immigrant family from Armenia. This mixed-race heritage was a valued source of exploration into identity and provided Kathleen with the inspiration for an article in Windy City Times, Chicago’s lgbt newspaper. Kathleen’s cousin also used this heritage in her university dissertation in 2010. Kathleen’s mother seems to have remarried to a Mr. Winter, and Kathleen took his surname.

Kathleen was born with osteogensis inferfecta, a genetic condition usually known as brittle bone disease. Growing up in 1960s America with an ethnic background gave Kathleen an extra challenge, to overcome racial prejudice. Perhaps it is fortunate that she grew up in an era where the Black Rights and Gay Rights movements were becoming more vocal. This probably gave Kathleen the spirit and determination to speak out on racial, disability and sexuality issues throughout her adult life.

Kathleen was also fortunate in being a Chicagoan because that city had the only high school in the state that catered specifically for pupils with disabilities or illness. This was Spalding High School, facing the city’s Union Park where, no doubt, Kathleen would have seen fellow teenagers playing sports.

After graduating from high school Kathleen studied at the University of Illinois and at Roosevelt University, one of the most ethnically diverse universities in America. She earned a Master degree in psychology.

Over the next few years Kathleen had such varied jobs as a supply teacher and cab driver. Her experience as a wheelchair user gave her a commitment to raise awareness of the rights of people with all disabilities. She worked for a time as Access Living, a Chicago centre providing people with disabilities the chance to live as independently as possible, and she even worked in the Major’s Office for People with Disability. Kathleen’s active involvement in fighting for rights is seen in her successful legal action against the Chicago Park District over wheelchair access at Lincoln Park Conservatory.

In the 1990s Kathleen Winter mixed disability awareness with art by becoming president of the Disability Arts and Culture Centre in Chicago. As chairman of the Outreach committee she led efforts to make the Center’s work more well known and accessible to all disability groups.

Kathleen Winter meets Mrs Coretta King.
Photo by Tracy Baim. Courtesy of Windy City Times
Among her other activities was her participation in a musical called “The Plucky and Spunky Show”. This was a revue in which the whole cast was physically disabled and was performed to give the audience a new perspective on disabled people and their own view of them.

Kathleen was herself also a talented writer. She wrote for several lgbt and black publications in Chicago. Some of her work was performed by “A Real Read”, a black lgbt theatre group. Towards the end of her life Kathleen dabbled in the amateur comedy circuit.

Her first appearance in the Paralympics was in Barcelona 1992 competing in discus, javelin and shot put. By 1996 Kathleen had moved to wheelchair fencing and was ranked 4th in the USA. At the Atlanta Paralympics she was knocked out in the first round of the epée finals by the eventual silver medallist.

For the Sydney 2000 Paralympics Kathleen joined the US powerlifting team. She had taken part in the 2nd World Powerlifting Championships in 1998. Unfortunately Kathleen finished last in Sydney. Undeterred she carried on competing and finished her competitive career by winning a powerlifting gold medal at the 2006 Gay Games in her home city Chicago.

A life-long Christian Kathleen spent her childhood going to Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches before deciding that organised religion offered no place for a disabled mixed-race lesbian. For years she didn’t attend church at all but kept her faith. With her partner Elandria Henderson, an activist for African-American lesbian rights since the 1970s, she began attending the Church of the Open Door, the first church for the African-American lgbt community in Chicago. Rev. Karen Hutt, a pastor at the church, co-officiated at Kathleen’s memorial service.

Kathleen Rose Winter died on 4th May 2008 at the age of 51. As her obituary in the Windy City Times said, Kathleen’s spirit was never daunted by her physical restrictions. She used this spirit to educate the community into the reality that people with disabilities can play vital parts.

I am sure that Kathleen would be proud of the achievements of the Paralympians of London 2012 and by the increased recognition that disability is not a barrier to achievement.


  1. I recently receive a wonderful email from Elandria, Kathleen's partner, thanking me for this article. She also passed on more information which will be useful for the future, and some corrections. Kathleen's memorial serivce was conducted by Rev. Vernice Thorn alone - Rev. Hutt was unable to attend.

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