Welcome to the 15th installment of our 2020 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s spotlight will focus on Ali Stroker, the Tony-winning actress known for her stage work in Oklahoma! and Spring Awakening as well as her television roles on Glee, Ten Days in the Valley, and Faking It.
Ali Stroker first came to prominence back in 2012, when she was a finalist on season two of The Glee Project. The show was meant to find the next star of the show Glee, with the winner receiving an arc on the series. While Stroker did not win the competition, she did end up appearing on Glee in a role the creators wrote for her in the episode “I Do.” This period was also notable because Stroker came out as bisexual as a result of her then-relationship with fellow contestant Dani Shay, appearing in the music video for Shay’s song “One.” At the time on her website, Stroker explained why she was hesitant to make her relationship with Shay public:
I’ll be very honest, when Dani had the idea to make the video I was nervous. I worried that this was another way for someone to put me in a box. Then I realized I felt even stronger knowing this is another way to help people see beyond the box! We are so much more than the categories we place ourselves in. I have never just wanted to be labeled “the girl in the wheelchair” so I was scared that this would be another opportunity for someone to label me. I know that I am more than that. I’ve never let labels define who I am.
It was after her appearance on Glee that her career took off, with Stroker achieving her first major breakthrough in 2015’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. The show, produced by Deaf West, was widely hailed for its inclusion and celebration of those with disabilities, with the main roles going to Deaf cast members and all the actors using ASL onstage. This role made her the first person who uses a wheelchair ever to perform on Broadway. Stroker was proud of the fact that her inclusion in the cast meant that the theater the show was performed in had to be made accessible backstage, telling Mashable that “It’s exciting to think that now there is an accessible dressing room backstage on Broadway. It’s really cool to think that this is sort of paving the way.”
Stroker continued to break barriers in 2018 when she returned to Broadway in the re-imagined, modern revival of the classic musical Oklahoma! as Ado Annie. Ado Annie is a character known for her sexual openness, with her signature song “I Cain’t Say No” revolving around her love of kissing and romance. Stroker felt that this gave her an opportunity to show that people with disabilities can be sexual like anyone else, which is rarely portrayed in popular culture. She told Vulture that
I think that this role has come at such an important time in my life both as an actress and as a person. Because I feel like I have arrived in my sexual power, meaning that I feel the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life. Especially growing up and as a teenager, I was always looking for role models who were in chairs. I always felt like a sexual person — I just didn’t know how to always portray that, and I never really was sure, as a kid, if being in a wheelchair could be sexy. So, to arrive at this point is so exciting — more than exciting, it’s like a relief in many ways. Because finally we get to see someone who is so real.
This role showed off both her dramatic and comedic skills, and her performance was critically acclaimed. She stayed with Oklahoma! until its closing in January 2020. The show was nominated for several Tony Awards in 2019, with Stroker again making history when she was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, a limitation, a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are.
Expanding further on her win backstage, Stroker told reporters that
It makes me feel amazing to be able to be that for them [other children with disabilities], because I did not have that. As an 11 year-old girl pursuing this dream, I was looking to see who is there and who is working and has disabilities or is in a wheelchair and there was nobody. So it’s a really, amazing, amazing feeling … The theaters, the house where all the audience comes in, that is all made accessible to the patrons, but the backstage isn’t at all. I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible, so that performers with disabilities can get around.
Stroker isn’t just an accomplished and talented actress. She’s also an advocate. Stroker co-founded the Be More Heroic anti-bullying campaign with other theater artists that travels the country and has clubs in individual schools. Stroker also tells her story through speaking events and in interviews. She was also selected as an ambassador for the brand Aerie as their 2020 #AerieReal Role Model, with her signature message for her campaign being “turning limitations into opportunities.” Her frankness when discussing the challenges she has faced as an actress with a disability is refreshing, and her refusal to let discrimination and ableism stand in the way of her career demonstrates just what a powerhouse she is.
Stroker also advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. In an interview with First Person on PBS, Stroker elaborated on the connections she sees between the LGBTQ+ and disability communities, saying, “I see similarities between the LGBTQ community and the disability community because I think that we’ve had to overcome obstacles and fight for equality. In overcoming something, there is a strength that is built within that community, and I’m proud to be a part of both.” Stroker is clearly a great choice for our Pride Month Spotlight due to her talent, advocacy work, and dedication to breaking barriers.
Be sure to check back here for more Pride Month spotlights!