Living in the Slimelight

Eugene’s new SLUG queen raises awareness for the rights of the disabled

Mark Roberts
Mark RobertsPhoto by Athena Delene

Decked in sequins, wearing deep shades of purple and draped in iridescent green fabric, Mark Roberts is so radiant he might be faintly visible from Earth’s moon. Peering out from under the wide brim of his battered leopard-print fedora through a pair of wide, silvery lenses, he says: “I’ve always been kind of a shy person.”

Roberts’ life took a peculiar turn Friday, Aug. 14, when members of the Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod (SLUG) crowned him Eugene’s 33rd SLUG queen.

Shy and SLUG queen are practically antonyms, but Roberts hopes the “slimelight” glamour and monarchic access help to exalt the Lane Independent Living Alliance, the nonprofit agency for which he is board president. Last year, LILA connected more than 1,000 disabled people with the support and resources they need to live independently.

Roberts’ reasons for wanting to raise LILA’s profile are personal.

When he was 3, his older brother Ed contracted polio. At 14, the bright young athlete was crushed to find himself almost completely paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own. Despite his disabilities, Ed Roberts went on to become one of the most visible and effective advocates for disabled rights. At LILA, Mark Roberts feels like he’s carrying the banner for his late brother’s crusade.

Earlier this summer, Mark Roberts finally caved under years of gently applied pressured from longtime dance partner and “very old queen” Scarlett O’Slimera (Joan Gold Cypress).

“I called him up and I said: ‘It’s not about you. You’re doing it for the community, and you’re doing it for LILA,’” O’Slimera recalls.

Some queens spend years preparing; Roberts threw his hat into the ring two weeks before the August pageant.

Retired after 32 years running his own flooring business, Roberts — now known across the city as “her majesty Markalo Parkalo, your queen and mine” — is a volunteer mediator with the Lane County small claims court. On weekends, the soft-spoken Bay Area transplant opens his Empathy Tent at the Saturday Market downtown.

O’Slimera’s pep talk renewed Roberts’ sense of purpose. He hurriedly convened a group of back-up dancers — the Radar Angels — for moral support and curb appeal, and threw together the loudest outfit he could carry off.

The rest, Roberts says, is history.

A Few Good SLUGs

SLUG’s slime trail extends back to 1983, when the Eugene City Council nixed cartoonist Paul Ollswang’s suggestion to name the now-defunct Eugene Celebration “Slugfest.” Fearing the celebration would too much reflect the City Council’s humorless temper, a handful of unrepentant mischief-makers staged their own inverted beauty pageant.

“And it spiraled out of control from there,” says SLUG first lady in waiting Kim Still.

Still, who has produced the pageant for more than 20 years, says, “It’s funny and irreverent, big-hearted, sweet and wacky. It’s Eugene’s best side.”

O’Slimera agrees.

In 2004, O’Slimera launched the (mostly) annual Queen’s Ball. The cost of admission was a can of food. She says she raked in more than 2,000 pounds of food that went directly to FOOD for Lane County. “As God is my witness,” O’Slimera declared, “there will never be hunger for food, frolic or fun.”

All SLUG queens, both female- and male-identified, don the green lamé sash and crown for a cause. Queen Holly GoSlugly (Debbie Williamson Smith) fights cancer. Queen Professor Doctor Mildred Slugwak Dresselhaus (Brandy Todd) amasses an army of girl scientists, or “scientistas.” Queen Glorious Gastropause (comedienne Leigh Anne Jasheway, Queen Glo for short) champions Greenhill Humane Society.

The day we met, Queen Glo seemed distracted thinking about all the poor dogs cooked to death in sweltering cars on hot summer days. She wondered aloud about the legality of breaking car windows in order to free the doomed mutts and tried to determine the handiest tool for shattering tempered glass.

As the saying goes: Once a queen, always a queen.

O’Slimera says Roberts “will be an outstanding queen because he realizes it’s not about him. It’s all for the community.”

Fresh off the plane after visiting family in Tennessee, her Southern drawl carries longer and sounds more musical than normal. “As queen, Marko will lead us all in a dance that will keep the peace,” she adds, saying: “He can help save the world, our little world here in Eugene, anyway.”

In light of Roberts’ penchant for volunteer gigs, the man does seem hell-bent on saving the world — or some small part of it, anyway.

Resting on a lawn chair outside his Empathy Tent at the Festival of Eugene, Robert says, “I think the human spirit is naturally generous. It’s a human need to contribute.”

He glows strangely under the hazy golden sunlight that beams through a dense blanket of smoke blown in from area forest fires. The queen struggles to define it in plain words, but serving on LILA’s board of directors seems to renew his connection to his late brother, Ed Roberts.

‘Helpless Cripple’ Starts a Revolution

In 1952, paralytic poliomyelitis left Mark’s brother, Ed Roberts, immobilized in an iron lung. Depressed, the boy set out to starve himself to death.

“You have to be pretty creative when you’re paralyzed from the neck down,” Ed Roberts told Harry Reasoner on an episode of 60 Minutes from 1989.

The emaciated teen weighed less than most golden retrievers when an epiphany turned his life around. Ed Roberts described it to Reasoner like this: “We make such fundamental errors in taking care of people all the time. Think about your own life. If you have people taking care of you, making all your decisions, what is there to life, really?”

In a flash, Ed Roberts abandoned his drawn-out suicide and set his mind to defying the limits set for him by his doctors.

“There are very few people, even with the most severe disabilities, who can’t take control of their own lives,” he said. “The problem is, the people around us don’t expect us to.”

Ed Roberts graduated high school and attended junior college at San Mateo. He made headlines in the early ’60s after leaving his home in Burlingame, California, to study political science at Berkeley. The Berkeley Gazette went with: “Helpless cripple attends classes at UC.”

Today, curb cuts, ramps, designated parking spaces and accessible public transit are the norm in cities around the world. Not long ago, however, doctors regularly institutionalized people with severe disabilities and kept them out of sight.

Ed Roberts wanted to change that. Between classes, he and other disabled students hatched plans for the Physically Disabled Students Program and opened the first Center for Independent Living, which paved the way for organizations like LILA.

Mark Roberts smiles thinking about the time he visited his brother at Berkeley. The two dropped acid together and blasted Bee Gees records in Ed’s room.

“It was sometimes raucous,” Mark remembers, “like a frat.”

Ed Roberts left Berkeley in 1975 to helm the California State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, the same bureaucracy that refused him help as a college freshman on the basis that he was too severely disabled. Seven years later, he left the DOR to co-found the World Institute on Disability, an influential think tank that promotes “full social integration” for people with disabilities.

“What we are is not Super Cripples,” Ed Roberts told Reasoner, “but we are role models. We are examples of people who, even with the most severe disabilities, have been able to lead fulfilling lives in the community and work, have families and overall play significant roles.”

Ed Roberts died in 1995, but his legacy continues through the work of his brother Mark and others like him.

The Slime Also Rises

Ed Roberts built the model on which LILA is based, says LILA Executive Director Sheila Thomas. And the independent living movement he helped start has brought about huge attitudinal and public policy changes, largely by bringing millions of people with disabilities out of specialized care facilities and into the mainstream.

Sometimes, though, success cuts like a double-edged sword. “It can lend the impression that the hard work’s already been done,” Thomas says.

Thomas pulls up a seat behind a folding table in the sparsely decorated Ed Roberts Room deep inside LILA’s new headquarters at 13th and Oak. She says LILA’s Eugene office is one of more than 500 independent living centers in the U.S.

Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the books, the fight for access and inclusion is ongoing, she says. “Apart from barriers to access and inclusion, people experiencing a disability face a lack of affordable housing, a lack of job opportunities and consequently are very often living below the poverty line.”

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that people with disabilities are still prevented from getting jobs, but that’s the kind of change LILA seeks to make.

With the right accommodation, the disability vanishes, Mark Roberts says. In other words, the more effective groups like LILA are at their work, the need becomes less apparent. Which is why public outreach and education remain central to the solution.

Almost entirely staffed by people with disabilities, LILA offers life skills seminars, one-on-one mental health counseling, peer support and ADA consultations.

“When Mark told me he was going out for SLUG queen, I knew he’d get it,” Thomas says. “I’m thrilled he won; having more visibility is perfect. We hear from people coming in off the street all the time who say, ‘I didn’t know you were here!’”

For Roberts, stepping out of his comfort zone and into the slimelight is, in a small way, following in his big brother’s footsteps.

“I feel like I’m carrying on the family work,” he says.

On a smoky day in Skinner Butte Park, commoners wander out of the haze and genuflect to their new queen. Some snap photos. Others stare in bemused wonder, mesmerized by the friendly man dressed like a shining kaleidoscopic space pimp who salutes them with a dainty wave of his hand.

“It’s not easy being queen,” Roberts says.

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