ABOUT THE CONFERENCE
J. O'Connor talks to BENT Editor Bob Guter
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002
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."
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 radicalbut
nothing like this conference.
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 againtwo
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
- 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
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.
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.
Talk of agenda leads us to substantive content questions. What did
you think of the panels, presentations, and performances?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
groupsmembers of the people-of-color caucus and those with
mental illnessescomplained 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,
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?
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
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.
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.
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 thanwell,
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.
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.
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