David J. O'Connor talks to BENT Editor Bob Guter

BENT covers the
First International
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002


David J. O'Connor has worked in the field of education for fifteen years. He is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. His main interests lie in the intersections of dis/ability, race, class, and gender. David participated in a conference panel titled "The Disability Closet: Teachers with Learning Disabilities Evaluate the Risks and Benefits of Coming Out."

David: The Queer Disability conference was quite possibly the most emotionally draining conference I've been to, though that is neither a good nor bad thing. Twenty years have elapsed since I came out with a vengeance (in the UK, my birthplace). Some of the early meetings I attended and the organizations I belonged to were a bit radical—but nothing like this conference.

Bob: I agree. I've been comfortable with being gay for longer that I can remember, but I'm still grappling with the "meaning" of my crip self. The conference forced me to face myself all over again—two days of concentrated confrontation, confrontation with ideas, with other people, and with my self. So there were times when I felt pretty ambivalent about being among so many queer crips.

David: I felt humbled. I felt privileged to be able to see, to talk with, but above all, to listen to so many stories, points of view, ideas, and theories. As a white male TAB, I have a lot of "cultural capital" that I am aware of. Suddenly to have the world inverted, to be, in that conference environment, part of the 10% of people without a disability, that was an amazing and disturbing experience.

Bob: Discomfort can be stimulating, if you can get far enough past the initial bad feeling it induces. To be honest, I guess I felt emotionally threatened sometimes. That was something I've had to work on since the conference concluded.

David: Don't get me wrong. I was comfortable at the conference most of the time, but when I wasn't 100% comfortable, I took the opportunity to reflect on "why?" I also will venture to say that, like you, most people were not entirely comfortable the whole time, regardless of their ability or disability, but I think that new, original, fresh thoughts and connections grow from being in an area of discomfort.

Bob: It felt to me that among the participants, despite enormous differences, there was, at least sometimes, a striving for consensus, some effort to understand shared goals. Did you feel that that got translated into an overall emotional temper for the conference?

David: I was amazed by the sense of joy, affirmation, community. People seemed to take pleasure in meeting and seeing others who were similar in disability, sexuality, views, interests, etc. Also, the sheer diversity of human form and experience was staggering. I don't think I've ever been in a space with as much human variation.

Bob: It was precisely that variation that prompted me to speculate a lot about the "Big Tent" metaphor we used to hear about so much in political discourse. Can we pitch a tent big enough to accommodate people with different and possibly conflicting interests and still find a way to meet everybody's needs and protect their rights at the same time? I don't know the answer, but the conference showed what a daunting task it can be.

David: Part of the problem results from our Utopian outlook. We want to accommodate everyone simultaneously, all of the time. This poses difficulties, because "groups" may consciously or unconsciously compete with each other.

Just look at the challenges we saw at the conference:

  • Some blind people had dogs, but there were hyper-allergic people present;
  • some deaf people need sign language interpreters, but to people with ADD/ADHD, signers are a total distraction;
  • people with LD and/or stutterers may be marginalized because they are often perceived as not having "severe" disabilities;
  • blind people wanted no furniture moved (as they got used to the space), but sometimes it had to be rearranged to allow people using wheelchairs more options.

So, the conference to me was, among other things, an exercise in how to be fair and equal to everyone at the same time. I was impressed by the extent to which that aim was achieved.

Bob: I've perhaps not attached enough significance to that effort, which took enormous foresight and planning on the part of the organizers. Maybe we should see that practical accomplishment as a step on the way to resolving the more difficult political, personal, and philosophical issues that the conference raised.

David: Yes, a challenge complicated by something else I noticed. When you look closely, you find that there were many "competing" agendas, though I think people feared to recognize them as such, because that implies lack of unity, another threat to the Utopian vision.

Bob: Talk of agenda leads us to substantive content questions. What did you think of the panels, presentations, and performances?

David: Generally speaking, there was not one bad one. What I had some reservations about (and I e-mailed the organizers with a few suggestions) was that the event was billed as a mixture of arts, activism and academics. But, roughly speaking, it was about 5% academics, 10% arts, and 85% activism. This is not bad, but it made things a little tricky at times.

Academic language alienates many people, but lends "clout." Artistic expression is amazing, but highly subjective. Activism is compelling, but by nature self-serving. They are all odd bedfellows, yet I believe they can coexist successfully.

Bob: Your analysis of the mixture is something I hadn't thought of, and a useful tool for evaluating the conference as a whole. I have to disagree with you about quality, however (though of course there's no way of knowing how many of the same presentations you and I attended). It seemed to me (and this is true more often than not of most conferences I've attended), that the content was either very good or very bad. I was angered by a handful of speakers who were thoroughly unprepared, really to the point of irresponsibility.

I am not talking here about artistic subjectivity, but about basic content. I know from experience as a conference organizer that the only way to minimize inferior content is to vet your speakers beforehand by a thorough networking and referencing effort. In view of the severe constraints they were working under, I suspect that this was something the organizers were unable to do as thoroughly as they might have liked. But I think substandard content lies at the very heart of queer crip activism. If you can't preach effectively to the choir (the conference environment, in this case), how can you make your case out there in the Big World, where you may have no allies?

That said, I think a lot of the better presentations we heard offered people material they could take back with them and work with in that Big World.

David: My observation is that the sessions were strongly skewed to activism as expressed through personal narratives, and I loved these. At the same time I was conflicted, because they are addictive. It's almost voyeuristic to hear others' stories. Another part of me wanted more balance, but who the hell am I to question the amount of conference space dedicated to the voices of people often marginalized?

Toward the end it became clear that different self-identified groups did not need presentations as much as they needed support-groups. So, I think many people attended for many different reasons. Some found what they came for, some created what they came for, and some went away wondering if the event served them in the way they originally imagined it would.

I liked the opening addresses by Raymond Luczak, Vicky D'Aoust, and Emi Koyama. I though they were strong and balanced in the way they addressed disability, sexuality, gender, and ethnicity.

Bob: I agree. I was struck again and again, throughout the proceedings, by how skillfully certain speakers were able to weave together the different strands of what we might call identity politics, to show how oppression based on "mere" difference always amounts to essentially the same thing. Did anything change your opinion or broaden your outlook in a way that took you by surprise?

David: Precisely because the conference was an earnest attempt to bring people together, I became more aware that simultaneous forms of oppression are felt by some but not seen by others (or given less value).

What happened at the closing plenary dramatized this, when it became evident that at least two groups—members of the people-of-color caucus and those with mental illnesses—complained of being excluded, overlooked, or even being made to feel anxiety or fear in surroundings where they had hoped to feel safe. Yet I believe we all participated in a forum where listening and hearing each other was allowed. Also, we witnessed how everyone cannot agree all of the time, and indeed, should they?

I, for one, was forced to contemplate mental illnesses and how other disabled people were not entirely comfortable among the self-described mentally ill. Issues of disability hierarchy were raised, too. To cite just a few examples: are LDs and stutters as disabled as quadriplegics and those with significant cognitive impairments? Are some "disabilities" disabilities at all, such as Learning Disorder, Attention Deficit (and Hyperactivity) Disorders (ADD & ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and various syndromes like Asperger's? Who gets to say "yes, they are" or "no, they are not"? Who are the labelers and the labeled? And how much of a difference does it make if a person self-identifies with a disability or rejects association with it?

Bob: These are questions that those of us with one particular disability, especially if it's a "mainstream" disability, are rarely prompted to ask. It's related to the even more basic reluctance on the part of too many of us crips to ask the facts about other disabilities. I think the conference did a good job of creating a place where people could at least begin the job of breaking down those barriers.

David, the two of us can't begin to give readers who were not there an adequate idea of the conference's range and complexity, but as a way of summing up let me ask you the Best/Worst question.

David: Best was seeing and hearing diverse people. Making contacts. Seeing some faces I'd met in the past. Seeing the faces belonging to some of the names I'd come to know via books and listserves. Participating in the dialogues.

Worst? Emotionally it was heavy duty. At the closing plenary, I felt the organizers were unfairly put on the spot for certain issues (lack of people of color, etc.). While I could understand and even agree with many of the complaints, I think that the organizers did a tremendous job, given their lack of finances and, I'm sure, political support. So I think we ended on a sour note.

Bob: Yes, I was frustrated by what some of us began calling the "hijacked plenary." I wish that the objectors who berated the "rest of us" for our privileged position (what you earlier called your "cultural capital") could have seen that they were merely guilt-tripping the converted, another minority population, and one of the few that already recognized the (minimal?) privilege ascribed to them. That kind of guilt-tripping is nothing more than—well, I can only think of a rude phrase to describe itpissing into the wind, which is a lot easier, of course, than going out to convert the heathen.

Near the end, I wanted to shake the program book at the objectors and insist they read paragraph three of the introduction, which opened with these words: "This is an incomplete beginning. For everyone who is represented in the program, there are others who are missing. There are many white people here but few people of color, a lot of dykes but not so many fags, a small handful of trans folk on the female-to-male spectrum but very few on the male-to-female, a whole bunch of people with visible physical disabilities but a lot less with cognitive, psych, and non-apparent disabilities. Who is here and who is not here mark places of struggle, places where oppression speaks loudly, places where we need to learn and stretch." In view of the Herculean and largely successful efforts of the organizers to make this conference a landmark event, I felt that it was demeaning (shades of the Cultural Revolution) for them to apologize. And yet, I must defer to the wisdom of Samuel Lurie, who observed that it was part of the magic of the conference that the objectors could so easily secure a platform from which to address all of us who had gathered there at the end.

With that in mind I've been trying to convince myself that the sour note you described was, in reality, a bridge to answering some of the hard questions posed by the organizers themselves.

BENT:A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2002