An Open Letter

BENT's continuing coverage of the
First International
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 &3, 2002

aims to provoke, delight, amaze and offend you


To the Editor:

It was with great dismay and concern that I read the feature "A Conversation about the Conference" between yourself and David J. O'Connor. As a committed anti-racist Irish/English/German/Spanish "white" activist, I found your comments about the conference's closing plenary quite disturbing.

First, I'm worried and saddened by your referral to a "hijacked plenary." This is loaded, wounding language in a post 9-11 world. Referring to folks of color demanding the space they deserved and psychologically (dis)abled/crazy folks demanding the space they deserved but did not receive at the conference as a "hijacking" inexcusably perpetuates the utterly abominable racist and ableist images of "crazy Arabs" that currently saturate all forms of media in this country.

The definition of "hijack," according to Random House Webster's College Dictionary, is "to seize by threat or force." It means violently occupying a place the "hijackers" have no right to be. Does this mean that people of color and/or crazy folks, when there was not a single workshop session addressing their vital struggles and concerns, had no right to occupy the only space that was belatedly relinquished to them after concerted negotiation with the conference organizers (not taken by force)? Does this mean that people of color and/or crazy folks had no right to be at the conference at all unless they docilely went along with an agenda that completely excluded them, and afterward had only positive things to say about how hard the organizers had worked?

Far from "hijacking" the closing plenary, and "unfairly putting the organizers on the spot," psychologically (dis)abled folks and folks of color were the ones "unfairly put on the spot." They had to work to organize ad-hoc meeting spaces, then demand that privileged white and/or non-psychologically (dis)abled folks listen to the painful effects of our racism and psychological ableism.

You refer to the "wisdom" of Samuel Lurie observing that the "magic of the conference" made it possible for the keynote space to be given to these communities. After acknowledging the grievous error of an all-white, non-psychologically (dis)abled organizing committee, Eli Clare and the rest of the organizers did the only thing they could rightfully do to begin reparations for blatantly racist and psychologically ableist behavior. I do not think that acknowledging that they "knew better than to organize with an all-white committee" but "did it anyway," is particularly "magic," nor do I see Lurie as particularly "wise" for congratulating white folks for being generous enough to give up space that had to be demanded of us.

Despite the painful reality that white supremacist thinking shaped the entire content of the conference, you claim white privilege is "already recognized" by (dis)abled people who benefit from it, reducing the vital concerns of non-white and psychologically (dis)abled folks to "merely guilt-tripping the converted." If this were true, where was the collective outcry at the beginning of the conference by every single white and/or non-psychologically (dis)abled individual attending the conference when we realized the inexcusable gaps in the conference program? You also state that you wished to "shake the program in [these communities'] faces," referring to the paragraph-long explanation in the program excusing conferences' shortcomings. Why should non-white and psychologically (dis)abled/crazy folks be expected to be content with this token acknowledgement of the intense pain privileges cause? The same paragraph challenged attendees to "learn and stretch" beyond these shortcomings. Yet, in your conversation, you minimize the critical concerns of these communities, accuse them of emotionally manipulative behavior, and label them "hijackers." Somehow, your contention that folks of color and psychologically disabled folks were speaking to an audience that was ready and willing to deal with their racism and psychological ableism doesn't ring true.

Many questions remain: what are we as relatively (but not minimally) privileged white and non-psychologically (dis)abled individuals going to do to make sure the wounds of the first Queer Disability Conference are not re-inflicted? How are we going to move beyond "outreach" to specific communities (which implies that they join an already set agenda and power structure, instead of shaping the agenda and taking power for themselves)? We must use our privileges to self-educate and support the work already being done by (dis)abled communities of color and psychologically (dis)abled folks (as well as other communities that were missing from the conference), so we can begin to rebuild broken trust. We must let go of defensiveness, and open ourselves to the honest appraisal of our failures provided by the people we have hurt. We must let go of defensiveness and open ourselves to change. We must let go of defensiveness to become responsible, accountable people. Our survival as a viable movement is at stake.

Colin K. Donovan
Seattle, WA.


BENT replies

Any writer who equates my use of a common English idiom with racism is making a linguistic connection that would not have occurred to me, or, I believe, to most people. The definition of "hijack" makes no reference to Arabs, nor did I make any effort, subtle or explicit, to stretch it in that direction.

The writer's anger and pain are evident. I regret having contributed to those feelings, however inadvertently. In discussing politically correct language in the September-October 2002 issue of "The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide," Stan Farwig writes, "I also believe a great deal of energy would be put to more productive use and emotional drain avoided if an old precept were followed: 'To take offense only when offense is intended.'"

For a different view of the closing plenary, readers may want to consult An Open Letter to the Organizers, by a nonwhite participant.

-Bob Guter


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2002