Proceedings: Panel: Crossroads and Borderlands:
Narratives of Intersecting Oppressions
Moderator: Chris Bell
Panelists: Heather MacAllister, Amanda Tink
Edited from Real Time Caption transcript by Eli Clare
Chris Bell: …We will begin our panel, which will discuss narratives
of intersecting. Chris Bell is my name and Amanda Tink and Heather MacAllister.
One person is missing, and that’s Michael Robinson. There’s
been a bit of an emergency, and he will be unable to join us. And Heather
might have an interesting story about the Muni.
Heather MacAllister: it was very challenging. I don’t have the same
issues like some of my other friends as far as using public transport.
But nobody was using public transport so I’m very glad to be here.
As people coming who live in San Francisco, particularly people who use
chairs or scooters, they might be late just because of that. I know some
people might be late. We will welcome them also even though they are late.
Chris Bell: [announcements] …I will move to our first presentation:
“Being Blind and Queer in Australia.” She’s studying….
Please welcome Amanda. [applause]
Amanda Tink: Hi. I will try to do as good summary of my paper as I can
in 15 minutes. This is the first time I’ve done this. Nobody told
me it was so easy to run something that goes for half an hour without
even thinking about it.
AT: I was interested in the differences between the blind and queer communities.
They are very opposite, I think in a number of ways. One of them being
the most obvious which is that the queer community is generally very visual,
whereas blind people are not. So I decided to speak to a number of people.
I asked for volunteers, and I ended up with 12 people who already willing
to speak to me about their experiences of being blind in the queer community
and being queer in the blind community and about whether there is any
in fact, a blind/queer community. I started out this paper [assuming]
that there was and would be. It seems there is not. Which is essentially
the conclusion of my whole paper. Just in case you wanted to leave now.
AT: And but I think there are some really serious issues that cause that,
which I think are worth having some consideration by everybody. I think
that generally blind peoples inclusion in the queer community is accidental
or exclusion as well. That both tend to be just how everything has happened.
There seems to be no thought given to blind people at all. And I think
that other people with different disabilities will find they can relate
to a lot of this stuff I’m going to say. And that’s a good
thing because I think we can all work together to solve some of these
AT: One of the big ones being which we’ve spoken about in various
sessions that people tend to assume that you are heterosexual or even
asexual. That means for blind people that you are not going to get invited
to various events. And the biggest problem with that as well is that if
you are not going to get invited, then you have to look for opportunities
to invite yourself along. And as I was saying before, the queer community
is very visual, expressions of sexuality tend to be very visual, through
hair style or dress or however. And that is all, of course, inaccessible
to blind people. So going along to queer-specific events means that you
have more chance of meeting queer people, obviously.
AT: That’s one really important point. Another thing that people
came up with was that if you want to know, if you really want to get involved
in queer culture then you basically have to have some friends who are
willing to explain things to you and point out all of the visual elements
of it. One thing that people found that was really concerning is the intolerance
of difference, I suppose, within the queer community. Some people thought
this was just the usual intolerance that a lot of people have against
disability anyway. Others thought that this was a real queer-specific
thing. I suppose similar to the thing when you go through when you are
growing up, when you are a teenager, fear of association, being seen with
AT: As you might expect, the biggest problem that blind people have in
being involved in the queer community is nightclubs. [laughter] That’s
a big problem, because I think most of us know how much of an integral
part nightclubs are in queer community. Just lost my place and my hands
are cold. Just excuse me for a second. That’s one advantage you
have, you don’t need to read with your hands.
AT: Yeah, so night clubs can be difficult in all sorts of ways. Mostly
the music which creates all the difficulties because it means it’s
difficult to communicate. Sighted people often have things that they can
do, like hand actions or even half lipreading to compensate for that.
Blind people don’t have that advantage. The other thing is that
it completely disorients you if you have learned the space beforehand.
Learning perception, you can hear where things are, where walls are and
so on. Even if you have learned that beforehand, having something like
the music over the top of that kind of fades into the distance.
AT: There are also more personal issues, like finding the toilets, because
that can be problematic. Or perhaps misinterpreted, if you ask somebody
to go to the toilets with you. [laughter] So there are a number of important
AT: One aspect of queer community where blind people really do feel comfortable
and [like we] fit in is on-line. It’s the place where you can find
information about all sorts of things. You know, erotica. Things that
you are concerned about.
AT: And also there are occasionally magazines. This is a really big concern
because often they are available in print. We were walking around San
Francisco the other day and picked up a big thick glossy magazine, and
it is in print, and it is for free, and most of them are, and blind people
don’t have access to those things.
AT: Chatting in particular on-line can put you in a real advantage position,
I suppose, because you have control over disclosing your disability. I
think a lot of people would relate to that. You can let your personality
shine through first. And then decide what you want to say and how.
AT: Turning to the blind community and how it deals with queerness. Unlike
the queer community, which basically implicitly excludes blind people,
the blind community specifically rejects queerness in a lot of ways. People
had no involvement with the blind community at all. Of the remaining 8,
4 of those had experienced really specific harassment, things like isolation,
being gossiped about. The blind community is tight knit. It’s very
difficult to stop it.
AT: Blindness agencies, which is where you get all sorts of services
from having your mail read to learning how to get around various places,
have similar attitudes. And then there were 4 people who had specific
instances of harassment. One had been told to not reveal their sexuality
to other clients. One had a staff member who encouraged and participated
in clients harassment of that person. One person was refused a volunteer
position on the basis of their sexuality. And one person had confidential
details of their sexuality revealed to another client. And this understandably
leaves a lot of people concerned about anonymity. This further isolates
them because things like learning how to get around and having material—gay
news for example—put into Braille are not an option any more.
AT: So this takes us to the blind/queer community and the fact that there
isn’t one despite the obvious need for one. Most blind queer people
had one friend who was also blind and queer and that helped a lot. Everybody
that I spoke to wanted to meet more blind/queer people. And in fact, all
of the women that I spoke to took the opportunity to ask me about my experiences.
I think that gives everybody an opportunity to think about inclusion and
exclusion and what they both mean. And how inclusion still often means
exclusion in some ways. .
AT: …The only other thing I wanted to say was that it’s important
to think about how these things compound each other. And I think many
people with disabilities will have that experience, like, for example,
if you are in a nightclub or trying to be part of a nightclub. If you
are blind, you cannot become part of that so easily because of the music
and just the general atmosphere.
AT: Out of all of the people that I spoke to, nobody could go into night
clubs despite the fact that all of them had tried to be involved in the
queer community and that was the first way that everybody tried pretty
AT: There was one person who felt they were active in both communities.
And they really enjoyed night clubs and liked to be part of them. [They]
found they could only cope with it for only a little while because it
takes so much concentration to be there [unreadable]. Not being able to
see people walking around who look like you makes you feel isolated. So
this all leads to an incredibly isolating experience that I think everybody
can do something about. Thank you very much. [applause]
Chris Bell: [Announcements] Again my name is Chris Bell, and the title
of my paper is “To Act Is to Be Committed: AIDS Activism and Identity
Politics in an English Graduate Program.” I don’t have much
to offer by way of a biographical statement, because I think you’re
going to hear enough about me. HIV positive feminist vegetarian. [laughter]
There is a handout that lists some current trends and statistics in AIDS
prevalence and incidences as well as some quotes from different individuals,
and that handout is available along with a copy of my paper in large print
version at the table. I wanted to share orally to sort of preface my paper
this. Every 5 seconds someone in the world contracts HIV. Accordingly,
in the 15 minutes it will take to reach the conclusion of my paper, 180
individuals, 180 human beings, of flesh and blood, fiber and substance,
will have contracted HIV. When you hear that statistic and when you take
a moment to unpack it and consider its ramifications, I think you ultimately
come to the conclusion—I know I did—that the AIDS crisis as
we know it might very well still be beginning.
CB: [text provide by CB] It used to be when people asked me why I did
the things I did after receiving a positive HIV diagnosis during the second
year of my Masters program—why I shared my diagnosis in a cover
story for the school newspaper; why I earnestly talked to classes and
student organizations about HIV/AIDS; why I did not contest the Director
of Composition’s decision to “relieve me” of my teaching
assignment largely as a result of the diagnosis; why I protested this
shortsighted decision by leaving the university three months before my
degree would have been conferred—I would reply, “It’s
because I was stupid.” I don’t think that anymore. I now view
my reasoning and thought-processes as much too complex to convey in such
a cavalier, throw-away response.
CB: In this paper, I describe some of the episodes occurring prior to
my HIV diagnosis, including the salient, precursory account of a fellow
student’s death from AIDS. I then discuss my diagnosis and the ensuing
series of events that transpired in the English Department. I conclude
with an analysis of the overarching experience, examining its personal
impact as well as its relevance as a cautionary tale for other graduate
CB: It should never be argued that I am the most scholarly individual
in the world. My undergraduate grade point average was an undistinguished
2.3 on a 4.0 scale, a 2.7 in my major of English. Clearly, I did not set
academia on fire during those four critical years. I was, in retrospect,
distracted, expending too much energy on extra-curricular pursuits, e.g.,
student government and outside reading. Despite this lack of academic
prowess, I decided to apply to graduate school because I wanted to continue
studying literature: plot development, character depiction, anachronisms,
and the like. Thus, I devised a passable personal statement, suffered
through the General and Subject Test in Literature GREs, begged three
professors for recommendations, and patiently awaited a response. To my
surprise, not only did I gain admission to the one university I applied
to, I was also provided a fellowship as a bonus. Consequently, after taking
a semester off, I began graduate school the following January.
CB: In contrast to my lackluster undergraduate record, I enjoyed some
degree of success that first semester. This could probably be attributed
to the fact that I actually attended the majority of my classes. I even
liked some of them(!), the most engaging being “Theory and Practice
of Composition” which prepared me to teach the following semester.
CB: This second semester, on the other hand, proved disastrous. I had
a difficult time balancing teaching with coursework; as a result, the
latter suffered unreservedly. Perhaps things might have been different
if I had felt a connection to my classes. I couldn’t however because
most of them were immersed in theory and criticism, and I deemed it disingenuous
to apply yet another postmodernist-Lacanian perspective to The Awakening.
The whole enterprise struck me as derivative and meretricious. In her
novel Fear of Flying, Erica Jong flawlessly captures my sentiment: “I
had gone to graduate school because I loved literature, but in graduate
school you were not supposed to study literature. You were supposed to
study criticism. Some professor wrote a book ‘proving’ that
Tom Jones was really a Marxist parable. Some other professor wrote a book
‘proving’ that Tom Jones was really a Christian parable. Some
other professor wrote a book ‘proving’ that Tom Jones was
really a parable of the Industrial Revolution. You were supposed to keep
all the names of the professors and all the theories straight so that
you could pass exams on them. Nobody seemed to give a shit about your
reading Tom Jones as long as you could reel off the names of the various
theories and who invented them…. Fielding would have been rolling
over in his grave. My response was to sleep through as much of it as possible.”
CB: And sleep I did. Given the option of attending my seminars or napping,
more often than not, I opted for the latter. Before long, I was mired
in a cycle wherein I was depressed because I neglected my classes and
neglected my classes because I was depressed. The battery of anti-depressants
prescribed by my therapist helped little during this time. What did comfort
me was reverting to my undergraduate tendency of exclusively reading what
I thought I should be reading, the texts which interested me the most.
Accordingly, while my colleagues struggled with Bakhtin, I was engrossed
with the metaphor of the train in Anna Karenina.
CB: A few weeks before the end of this second semester, my lack of class
attendance was brought to the attention of my boss, the Director of Composition.
He called me at home one afternoon to check on me after a colleague had
taught my class two days in a row. I assured him my depression was merely
a stumbling block and promised an imminent recovery. Despite my optimism,
I concluded the semester by taking “incompletes” in my coursework.
I did however manage to evaluate papers and assign grades for the class
I taught, but not without attracting my boss’s continued concern.
CB: For this reason, I recommitted myself to graduate study the following
semester. In addition to finishing my “incompletes” from the
previous term, I excelled in my new classes during the first half of the
semester. My renewed diligence was interrupted one mild day near the end
of spring break. While riding home with a colleague, she asked if I had
“heard” about Billy Vance, an English Ph.D. Candidate. After
acknowledging I had “heard” nothing out of the ordinary, my
friend apprised me that Billy was suffering from the final stages of AIDS.
Indeed, three days later, Billy died.
CB: When Billy Vance died, I anticipated an apocalypse of sorts in the
English Department. Instead, life went on as if nothing had happened.
I did not bear witness to a single expression of concern or sympathy over
his death. Whether this reticence in mourning Billy was because the department
was in a collective state of shock (most of us were unaware of his health
status until days, in some cases, hours, prior to his death), or whether
it was due to a sense of disdain because he died from AIDS, I’m
not sure. All I know is that I wanted some form of acknowledgment to give
me closure. I needed to process Billy’s death by talking about it.
Since this exchange was not occurring in the English Department, I decided
to share my thoughts and memories of Billy with the university’s
gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student organization, the Triangle
Coalition. In summary, the group was surprised to learn that someone on
our campus had died from AIDS, and they spent a good portion of that meeting
discussing AIDS as it affects college students. As a result of this interchange,
I gained some of the closure I needed.
CB: It seems ironic in retrospect that I had to venture outside of the
English Department to process Billy’s death. It baffles me how our
field of study can spend an illimitable amount of time examining representations
of death and human suffering in The Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, King
Lear, and countless other canonical works, but when confronted with death’s
reality in everyday life, all of a sudden we become mute. In his essay
“The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” James Baldwin recounts
the story of a friend who died from tuberculosis. Baldwin’s community,
the community of the church, does not express sympathy for his friend
because he was a gay man who—like so many gay men who die from AIDS—ostensibly
died because of his “actions.” The following excerpt from
Baldwin’s essay is vividly reminiscent of my sentiments toward the
English Department, my community, following Billy Vance’s death:
“The [incident]…haunted me…. In some way, obviously,
it haunts me still. I had the feeling, dimly, then, but very vividly later,
that he died because he had been rejected by the…community….
That we had it in our power to bring the light back to his eyes. He was
a sinner and he died, therefore, in sin; but, we are all sinners. Let
him who is without sin among you cast the first stone. But I could not
say that, then…. I was acting, after all, on the moral assumptions
I had inherited from the community that had produced me. I had been told
to love everybody. Whoever else did not believe this, I did. The way of
the transgressor is hard, indeed, but it is hard because the community
produces the trangressor in order to renew itself. I am afraid that this
mathematic, this inexorability, will last as long as life lasts; and I
would not have to risk sounding so grandiose were I not under the necessity
of attempting to excavate the meaning of the word community—which,
as I have understood it, simply means our endless connection with, and
responsibility for, each other.”
CB: As a member of the English Department community, I was frustrated
and appalled by the silence following Billy’s death. Months later,
when I became apprised of my own HIV-positive status, my actions would
reflect my efforts at combating this silence.
CB: I took a much-needed break that summer. In lieu of enrolling in classes
or teaching, I brainstormed thesis topics and devised a Women’s
Studies-themed syllabus for the class I was scheduled to teach that fall.
When the semester began, I attended classes and worked on preliminary
thesis research. In preparation for doctoral study at another university,
I signed up to retake both GREs and requested Ph.D. Applications from
several choice schools. Due to a lingering malaise, my doctor at the Student
Health Center suggested I be tested for HIV antibodies. On the second
Wednesday in October, I received a positive HIV diagnosis.
CB: Twenty minutes after receiving this diagnosis, I inadvertently encountered
the president of the Triangle Coalition. Remembering the sense of closure
I felt when discussing Billy Vance’s death with this group, I asked
her if I could share my diagnosis at their next meeting. She agreed this
would be beneficial for all parties involved. A few days later, I was
in the Women’s Center preparing for class when the editor of the
school newspaper approached me. She explained that she was writing an
article about college students’ attitudes towards AIDS and asked
me for a quote. She had heard me speak about Billy to the Triangle Coalition
earlier that spring and also knew I had integrated an AIDS component in
my previous Composition class. As she was unaware of my positive status,
I viewed this as an incredibly ironic opportunity. For this reason, I
apprised the editor of my recent diagnosis, and expressed my willingness
to discuss it in the newspaper. As a result, I was interviewed for an
article which became the cover story of the newspaper’s Homecoming
issue to be published later that week, nine days after my diagnosis.
CB: Instead of reading about my HIV-positive status in the school newspaper,
I preferred my close friends hear of it from me. With this in mind, I
devoted the three days between the newspaper interview and its publication
to a series of conversations apprising my friends of the situation. One
of these individuals was the Director of Composition. While he expressed
concern about my health, he was alarmed with the effect my “coming
out” in the paper might have on my students. Suggesting I had enough
to contend with and would be better served without the additional responsibility
of teaching, my boss advised me to take the remainder of the semester
off. In lieu of teaching, I was expected to assist in the Composition
office, a form of desk duty. Because I respected this individual and did
not, at the time, wish to consider his line of thinking as discriminatory,
I abided by his decision.
CB: The newspaper was published to great fanfare. I received an immeasurable
amount of support from various members of the campus community, most notably
in the form of invitations to present experiential-based AIDS programs
for several classes and student organizations. In the weeks following
the newspaper’s publication, I had the opportunity to process my
boss’s decision which I could clearly see was specious. At the end
of the semester, I attended a meeting with him wherein I was given permission
to teach the following semester, but only with the stipulation that I
teach an “approved” syllabus, one he would devise for me.
In essence, I had to decide if I wanted to continue in a graduate program
that prides itself on granting its students teaching autonomy, yet asks
me to accept differential treatment. It took me less than a minute to
come to a decision. In addition to declining the offer, I chose not to
enroll in classes the following semester, effectively terminating my relationship
with the English Department and, by extension, the university.
CB: In retrospect, my experience at the university was a particularly
heuristic one in terms of my personal identity development. There I was
at the time of my HIV diagnosis: a black gay man teaching a Women’s
Studies-themed class. This seems to be the sort of diversity higher education
in the late 20th/early 21st century strives for. Nevertheless, my teaching
duties were relieved because I added the tenet of HIV-positive not to
my curriculum, but to my identity. This puzzles me, especially considering
I had integrated an AIDS component in the previous class I taught. The
dynamic is peculiar: I could talk about HIV from a theoretical perspective,
but I could not teach as an HIV-positive person.
CB: Perhaps I might have understood my boss’s decision if I had
decided to abandon the Women’s Studies syllabus and teach a singular-focused
HIV-related one. But I made no intimations toward this. I simply wanted
to continue teaching the class I had begun. In its adopted statement on
graduate students, the Modern Language Association asserts, “Graduate
students’ freedom of inquiry is necessarily qualified by their still
being learners in the profession; nonetheless, their faculty mentors should
afford them latitude and respect as they decide how they will engage in
teaching….” Based on my experience, particularly the condition
that I could only teach an “approved” syllabus, I do not believe
I was afforded this latitude and respect.
CB: Moreover, Anthony D’Augelli, professor of human development
at Penn State notes, “One of the espoused values of higher education
is to advance personal intellectual development while simultaneously developing
a broader sense of personal responsibility to others.” In keeping
with D’Augelli’s view, it was essential for me to engage the
campus community, if only temporarily, in a series of discussions about
HIV/AIDS. Despite this belief, the message I received from the English
Department was that I should be silent. Ultimately, this ideology reminds
me of the propaganda films of the 1950s wherein elementary school children
were instructed to “duck and cover” should they see the flash
from a nuclear explosion—as if cowering in fear was going to protect
them from the radioactive fall-out. To reiterate, my goal was to stimulate
discussion about a disease that people have historically been ashamed
and/or afraid to talk about. It is unfortunate this attempt was encouraged
by virtually every facet of the campus community except the English Department.
CB: In essence, while I wish things had been brought to a more satisfying
conclusion in the English Department, I harbor no regrets for the decisions
I made. I did, quite simply, what I know should have been done. Likewise,
in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin contends, “People find it very
difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to
be committed is to be in danger.” By virtue of having lived through
this experience, I know what it means to be in danger, and I accept this
risk as a result of my choice to link my academic pursuits to my commitment
to social justice. I hope that other graduate students who feel as strongly
as I would be willing to do the same.
CB: It has been said that people enjoy happy endings. Here’s mine:
One month after departing from the university, I received a letter from
the Provost. This missive arrived unexpectedly; thus, I curiously tore
open the envelope and drew out the letter. The first word read: “Congratulations.”
I read on. In short, one of the students who was in the class in which
my teaching duties were “relieved” had read the article in
the school newspaper. She had also heard me speak about AIDS to a Freshman
Experience class. This student was struck by my efforts and wrote a letter
nominating me for the university’s Human Rights Award. I won the
award, and returned to the university six weeks after my departure to
accept it. It seems fitting that I received this honor because although
the university confers several hundred Masters degrees each year, only
one Human Rights Award is given. All things considered, I like to think
I earned it. [end of text provided by CB]
CB: Thank you. [applause] Thank you, particularly for bearing with me,
as I sort of excised a part of that paper…. This is kind of a treat
for me, because I actually heard Heather MacAllister speak earlier this
year at a conference at Michigan State University, and I e-mailed her
about a month ago and said to her that this is a conference series that
I have attended for about three years. And her presentation was one of
the best presentations I’ve seen not only in that series but just
overall on the conference circuit. So this will be a great presentation,
I promise. Heather’s presentation is titled “Other Bodies:
Making the Connections Between Oppression Based on Queerness/Gender Identity,
Size/Weight, and Disability.” Please welcome Heather MacAllister.
Heather MacAllister: …Thanks for being here, and I’m really
excited to be in this community. When I do “Other Bodies,”
the workshop, I generally do it with three other people, I have in the
past. That’s Eli Clare, Jay Sennett and Jennifer Lyle. Because they
are not here, I will do an amended version of it, because without their
voices here, without their perspective, I can only present my own perspective.
So what I want to talk about is my experience as a fat woman and how that
relates to ability issues and disability issues.
HM: I have been an activist since 1985 or ‘86 now, and one of the
things I’ve learned from doing “Other Bodies” is I’m
hearing very personal stories, personal narratives, of people who have
disabilities, and it is very striking to me the similarities that we go
through, not only our experience of oppression but our experience of our
own bodies. When I say fat people, I guess what I’m meaning specifically
is fat people who don’t identify as having other disabilities. Obviously,
there’s people who are fat and also have disabilities, but I’m
more talking about fat people who don’t otherwise have a disability
or anything, just to acknowledge that a lot of people are experiencing
that oppression and that experience of oppression and joy of being fat
and also the futility.
HM: There is some discussion of this in the size and substance community.
I’m not sure how much discussion of this is happening in the ability
communities, but there is some controversy about identifying if you’re
a fat person, identifying as having a disability based specifically on
your size and also using the ADA; that has been done with varying degrees
of success. There are other people who could speak to that more specifically,
and I’m happy to share those resources with you later. But the question
is accessibility, at least my personal experience; I find myself and women
and men who are my size and larger have similar disability issues as friends
of mine who are slender but who use wheelchairs and other mobility devises.
There are many theaters in my community where I can’t go. I can’t
get in the seat. Riding on an airplane is a nightmare. For me it is impossible,
for many people my size. There are a lot of restaurants I don’t
go to because I can’t maneuver; others have chairs that have arms,
so they’re really inaccessible to me. Turnstiles at the subway:
there are a lot of things a lot of us here have experienced, and I think
a lot of people don’t realize that fat folks have those specific
issues…. It’s a matter of literally not fitting in, in the
most literal sense not fitting in.
HM: And what I would like to do at some point today—either here
or elsewhere—is have a discussion about identifying as disabled
or having a disability because you’re fat and having those accessibility
issues. What that means, is that a co-optation of disability issues? I
don’t have any answers for this. This is something I haven’t
talked about very much, because I haven’t had the opportunity except
with certain individual people. So that’s part of what I wanted
to talk about here, and this is the place to do that.
HM: Some of the things that we’ve also discovered in “Other
Bodies” is our experience of our own physical selves. And I don’t
need to harp on certain things, but certainly as a fat woman, I have experienced
a lot of self-loathing and shame around my body and the intense desire
to remove a part of my body that I hate. And I said that in a workshop
where someone else who does not have a disability and is fat used the
same words I use about wanting to cut off a part of their body, because
it was “deformed.” That was how they felt about it.
HM: Now we know other people are talking about their bodies just the
way we talk about our own bodies. I found so many similarities in that
mental process with my friends who have other disabilities.
HM: Also, our path to liberation is pretty similar, too. I can talk about
that later, if you want. People in the [dis]ability rights movement have
come together politically and socially on liberation issues. It seems
to me there is a path these people have taken, and in the community there
are some similarities. There’s such a huge opportunity for coalition
work that I can’t not come to this conference; I can’t not
talk about it at this conference, because it’s oppression that’s
located on the body. And a lot of us have this experience who are not
a slender white male. A lot of us have experienced oppression that’s
body-specific. For those of us who have visible disabilities, for those
of us who are fat, those of us who are queer, people of color, it’s
something we can’t hide; we can’t be in the closet about.
And that sense of being a constant target all the time is something that
I experience myself and that other people who have disabilities talk to
me about and talk about in their writing. If you just want to get on the
bus, you just had a bad day at work and you want to go home, go to the
restaurant, whatever, but you just had a bad day, you’re a constant
target and you never know when it’s going to hit. And I find it
puts a lot of us in a very stressed-out, anxious space.
HM: Then other similarities that I’ve seen are when we’re
trying to get services, particularly mental health services. There’s
an understanding I see a lot in self-help and mental health movements,
if you will, that if we would just have a better attitude about everything,
we wouldn’t feel so bad about our oppression. I think this is true
about anyone who experiences oppression that’s body-specific. We’re
told that if we just let it roll off our back, we can choose our own reality;
I mean, it’s true. I can choose how I behave, but that doesn’t
change the fact that I live in a reality that is specifically against
me, because I am a fat person. And that’s essentially true of people
with visible disabilities. There is oppression against us, whether or
not we have a good attitude. I just see so many of the struggles that
I’m dealing with and feeling like a freak, even in the fat community,
because of my proportions.
HM: From the waist up if people see me, they say, what are you talking
about, disability fat issues? But when I go to the theater or when I stand
up, all of a sudden it’s like, wow. I definitely feel like in the
fat liberation community, feel like a total freak.
From Audience: You’re not the only one.
Heather MacAllister: I don’t want to be emotional in San Francisco.
This city kills me. That word is very interesting, too, because I live
in a lot of alternative cultural spaces, as a queer person, as a femme,
as a kinky person. If I didn’t have anything else going on, I still
am part of what a lot of us call freak culture. But I also know that word
is like the “n” word or the word queer. It’s not a word
a lot of people necessarily want to claim. But I’m standing in a
space and sitting in a space and moving in a space where I’m trying
to reclaim that word and also not wanting to cause pain to people who
have experienced that word in the way I have. So that’s something
I’m struggling with.
HM: …I just met a person here, we were talking very briefly. We
have a friend in common in another city, and we were talking about the
liberation movement. Again, to me it is such a natural alliance work.
And there’s so much overlap, obviously, between the fat community,
the fat liberation community and the [disability] communities. There’s
more of us than there are of them. By them, I mean people who would deny
us our rights and people who would sit passively by when we are struggling.
There’s more of us, numerically, and I think we forget that because
we’re made to feel very isolated, like we’re the only ones,
even if intellectually we believe better. Those of you who live in California,
I don’t know what your experience are. Where I live, I’m definitely
in a culture as a queer person, certainly with other issues as well. I
certainly don’t have to tell anyone here about the failings of the
queer community, the LGBT community to embrace its diversity. And I find
it very common. It’s very interesting, as far as body image goes.
People have this attitude, “Oh well, it’s okay if you’re
fat if you’re a lesbian, because lesbians are more accepted if you’re
fat. That’s news to me. [laughter]
HM: I do think there is a difference in the experiences of gay and bi
men and lesbian and bi women. I think there’s definitely a difference
there. But I’m still a woman in a patriarchal culture. I mean, that’s
above and beyond everything else. And certainly in the lesbian women’s
community, there’s a lot of hostility against fat women, just like
there are against women who have disabilities. And I think the femme and
trans communities can be a lot more accepting, especially if they’re
political, because again they experience that body body-specific oppression,
and sometimes they get it more.
HM: Again, the connections we experience are very profound, and I would
like to start a dialogue on a national level, because we don’t have
strong communities yet locally where I live. Maybe you do here. So I would
like to start a national dialogue in the fat liberation and [dis]ability
HM: This is important. I work for the Triangle Foundation who is paying
for me to be here, so I need to mention that. And they have been very,
very supportive. We are the only organization that’s nationally
queer-specific that is developing a policy guideline profile on size acceptance.
If there are others, I would love to know who you are. We have a policy
profile that guides our work. And I’m working with my staff and
my administration, and they have been very supportive of us doing size
acceptance work and disability work because they sent me here. And we
are a statewide Michigan organization. So I wanted to represent Triangle
Foundation. So that’s my time. Thank you for your attention. [applause]
Chris Bell: I believe we have 20 minutes, maybe 25 for any question….
From Audience: Amanda, if you would tell us a little bit about your radio
Amanda Tink: okay. My radio program is called Access O’Lars. It
goes for 15 minutes. I can tell you when you can hear it if you have access
to the internet because it gets played on the internet. And you can find
it at www.acb.org. That’s the American Council of the Blind. And
it deals with disability-related issues. We have to stick to my state
Queensland because it is being sponsored by disability services in Queensland.
But we are pretty general; we’ve covered issues like the Australian
budget, which was handed down a few weeks ago. We have covered and still
covered things on wrongful life and wrongful birth, which is really interesting
and an area for all of us to be concerned about, I think. I think that’s
it. Oh, I should say, I co-produce it with a friend of mine Jeff Chang.
From Audience: Thank you all. This was such a great panel and raised
so many interesting questions. I had one that I just wanted to follow
up with Amanda also. You made a provocative statement that perhaps there
was more intolerance of blind and other disabled difference in the queer
community than in dominant culture, and I just wondered why you thought
that was the case?
Amanda Tink: okay. All right. I can give my personal opinion. All of
the things that were in my paper weren’t my personal opinions. They
were from the people that I spoke to.
From Audience: Did you follow up with that person asking why he or she
thought that there might have been more intolerance in the queer community.
Amanda Tink: I can talk about it more in their perspective. They didn’t
say a lot more. They were, I guess talking about things about appearance.
And the concern with appearance. The queer community seems to have….
I’m trying not to be too specific because I don’t want to
identify them as being male or female. But yeah, essentially things, concerns
with appearance and very specific concerns or very specific things about
appearance and looking a particular way to a great extent.
From Audience: I have a lot ideas about that too. One, there’s
sort of the larger umbrella. Certainly it’s true and sad that everyone
is in a marginalized position. Stigma from what: this is what we say.
I expect someone marginalized by being queer would be more accepting with
someone with another disability. It doesn’t happen. So there needs
to be education in that front. But the other thing I think interesting
specifically here about the visibility that you talked about in the culture
is that maybe one of the ways the queer community has used to modulate
their own marginalization is through being really cool, really hip, and
that is something that we really use. But we need look at, as you point
out, the kind of exclusions that mode generates. I thought that was a
very interesting comment. Thank you.
From Audience: ....Three things. One followup from this conversation.
I think everybody on the panel—a person of color, a fat person,
and a blind person— will all probably agree that on-line is a very
different community than in person. And that some of us have decided that
on-line is safer, better space, that we will feel more comfortable being
out, more comfortable flirting, more comfortable even just in dialogue
when people can’t see us. But that also doesn’t question the
standard or the norm which is causing us to want to be on-line because
it will make us safer. I think although we should all try as best as possible
to make the on-line community a safe place and a good place. I personally
use it as a respite to get away from the other parts of world. We should
not give up on the world that’s physical and around us. [Second,]
one of the reasons that it’s a problem I think is related to this
visualness of this queer community. The Deaf community is a very visual
community. And they have a lot less problem with gayness and a lot more
problem with disability. The Deaf community does not want to be labeled
with disabled. [unreadable] They are a little bit more okay with queerness,
and I think that’s because of the visualness of it. Deaf people
are very visual. As Raymond [Luczak] said, you don’t need talk to
get laid. You smile, you smile, go back and finish. That’s not possible
if you are blind. You cannot do that smile, smile, wink, go to the bathroom.
It’s a misunderstanding and you get a date. The third thing I think
is really important. Heather, you said you might talk about it later.I
would love you to explain why you think the phrase ability rights is a
better word. I see it as a euphemism. I would not want to see us move
to ability, then it’s ability centric. I like the word disability
because it is in your face. It says what it is. I’m curious why
you would think ability rights has any progress at all compared to disability
Heather MacAllister: I would not put a value judgment on it. I use it
when I’m talking to people outside of this community. I’ve
had the conversation with other ability/disability rights activists. I
do try to use both because people have that experience. I’ve started
to use it lately. I know it’s trite saying. I really believe that.
Even the word disability is ability centric because it’s saying
there are certain abilities tthat we don’t have. And that those
are somehow the abilities that are the central one. And what we have is
dis, other. Dis is a negative word. That’s why I use that word because
it’s saying that everybody has abilities, and I’m not valuing
core level of abilities….
From Audience: [inaudible]
Heather MacAllister: We are trying to get to the same place. This is
what ability means and everything; everyone who can’t do this means
that they have a dis-ability. Rather than everyone have abilities in general.
That’s where I’m coming from on that. It’s….
Amanda Tink: I didn’t mean to interrupt. Before we go into another
question, I had many, many reasons for [unreadable] my paper. [unreadable]
But the fact that it seems to be limited to some blind people I think
is a concern. And there’s still concerns that, like I mentioned,
you have to disclose. Most people that I spoke to who had access to on-line
chatting felt that it was preferable to disclose their disability at some
stage. And there are a couple of things with that. Just briefly. One person
had a really funny experience where they disclosed that they were blind
and had the other person say, “Oh, I’m blind as well.”
[laughter] [applause] And the other problem can be that you might be having
a really sexy conversation, and then all of a sudden, you know, you decide
to meet, and it is still going well. And then you will say, “Oh,
by the way I’m blind.” And you will drop back to questions
of how you read the screen and how you are going to find your way to the
cafe or whatever place you are going to meet at.
From Audience: I just wanted to say even at this conference the difficulty
for me…. It’s not something anybody can necessarily help.
But as a blind person, I did have sight before, so I do know what it is
like as a gay person with vision, and now I don’t have it. So I
do have that as a means of comparison. I just find that I can be in the
room with someone that I have a conversation with and maybe want to connect
with, but I don’t know they’re there if they don’t tell
me. Of course, they may not know I’m struggling with that. But just
literally struggling with the whole subject of life and why gay or queer
culture might be more visually oriented. I don’t even know if it’s
more so in queer culture, but it may be. And definitely life’s impression,
wanting to look good, it’s a queer thing. But just literally, the
way we signal each other that way. And not that they’re all the
same, but they’re complicated, what we do. You know, what color
is your handkerchief, are you a lipstick lover, whatever it is. And now
those feelings, I now don’t have them, and I miss them.
From Audience: I guess the point is that specifically if you’re
seeking other queers. I mean, I can go and stand in the middle of a Gay
and Lesbian Freedom Day, and it doesn’t fucking matter. You know,
I’m happy to be there. It’s not like I’m not getting
anything from being there. But it’s just very difficult to make
connections. I have made connections; I have little drive-by conversations,
where someone will come up to me, make a comment to me, and I really appreciate
they’re doing that, but I don’t know their name. I can be
in the room with them later and wish to continue the conversation, but
I don’t know if they’re there. Just those kinds of things.
…If people want to understand what might be helpful to people that
are vision impaired or blind and how to be an ally, one way is to have
a conversation. You may not want to speak to them. I’m not assuming
every time they’re in the same room with me, everyone has to come
up to me. But there has to be a connection, or you want to have that connection
or make it possible for a blind person to do that. One way to do that
is simply to say, “I talked to you yesterday. I’m here in
the room with you.” That has happened to me this weekend. Some people
have done that, and I really appreciate it, because we’re all here
because we want to make connections with each other. That’s what
a conference is. And for blind people a conference is exhausting. I’m
sure it’s exhausting for all kinds of people.
Amanda Tink: I just wanted to comment on that briefly and agree with
everything that [was just] said. It’s nice to have people come up
and continue conversations with you, to find you if you can’t find
them. And I guess I just wanted to comment on finding my way around. You
know, I’m a stereotype which is a very shocking [unreadable]….
From Audience: This is a comment rather than a question. Anyhow, I’m
speaking as a gay person and a disabled person but also an old person.
And I think there’s a lot of natural connections between the elderly
community and the disability community. In fact, I think there’s
hardly any issue that a disabled person faces that the elderly don’t
also face. You know that expression about TAB, the temporarily able bodied?
I think it might be good that young people think of themselves as temporarily
young or middle-aged. And the other issue I wanted to talk about was the
issue of sexuality, where aging [is] like disability and aging bodies
and aging faces are like disabled bodies and disabled faces, or disfigured
faces. I’m not considered sexy. We go through the same sort of psychological
process to deal with that. There are lots of other connections, but I
think there’s also a good chance for coalition between the elderly
community and the disabled community.
Heather MacAllister: If I can add to that, the idea of having a fat body
is apparently unhealthy and unsexy is total bullshit, number one. And
number two, it’s really part of aesthetic and queer culture. And
while I have the mic, I would also like to say that something I didn’t
cover earlier in my time was the medical pathologizing that we need to
be fixed. That is one of the most compelling pieces of our experience
that we can talk to each other about and build a possible coalition around.
People in my community certainly are very poorly underserved by the health
industry and have had very hostile, life-threatening experiences. We need
to hear each other’s experiences on that and do something about
From Audience: I do have a radio program as well, dealing with queer
issues, also with a special emphasis on issues of disability. You have
to get close to this thing, issues of disability, sexism, ableism, all
the “isms.” I identify with everything that was said on the
panel, because I feel there is a part of that in me. I am a fat person,
and I do feel that discrimination…. But I also think about that
in terms of being a person without an “ism” and how if people
do not know your race, you’re discriminated against in that way
as well. And being a blind person, visually impaired, all of that, everything
that was said I feel. And I heard, and I agree with it. We do live in
a community, a gay/queer community, that is intensely very visual. I mean,
even the act of learning itself is very visual, which is totally difficult
for me, because everything just is based visually, and I just don’t
get it. I do feel that the queer community is more ableist, and I feel
that way because of the visual component that goes with it and the obsession—I’m
going to use that word, because that’s what it looks like to me—with
the body. I’m going to make this real quick. The thing that keeps
me out of the community socially, because I’m very involved politically
in the blind community and in the queer community in Atlanta, but the
thing that keeps me apart socially is that visual component. And also
I feel that people have this fear that—and others of disability
may feel this way as well—you’re going to need something or
they want to stay away because you’re going to ask them for a ride,
a ride home or anything like that, because you don’t drive. I get
that feeling very much. I do get invited to some things socially, but
for the most part I feel like going to clubs and everything. I don’t
know who’s there, and no one comes up to me, because they assume
that I see them or…. I don’t know. And that makes me very
uncomfortable, going into a space and not really knowing who’s there,
and because I am involved in the community, I’m sure I know some
people who are there who just don’t come up to me.
From Audience: I had a question which you just touched on. I was wondering
if some of the resistance in the fat community to making connections with
the disability community comes from the total resistance to the pathologizing
of our bodies and the medical assumption that there is something wrong
with our bodies because we’re fat, and, “Oh, my god, if we
make that connection with those people, that’s going to rub off
on us somehow.”
Heather MacAllister: I’m glad you brought that up. I think there’s
two things there. Many fat women don’t think there’s anything
medically wrong with being fat inherently, that inherently it’s
not a bad thing. And I think there’s also a lot of that in the disabled
community. So I think both of those things are going on, unfortunately.
That’s why I want to start this dialogue. One of my proudest moments
was when I did a fat workshop at the National Women’s Music Festival
and there were some people there in the national disability rights movement.
They gave immediate for [unreadable] this solidarity thing. To me that
was one of the best workshops ever, because we were in this together and
sharing. Also, as I said before, a lot of us who are fat have ability
issues and accessibility issues, and we develop…. You know, it’s
really complicated and a lot to talk about, but maybe we can talk about
right after this. Thank you.
From Audience: Well, I just wanted to say to Heather, you know, being
a fat woman in the gay community is tricky, because I think there’s
class and I think there’s all this kind of stuff that goes on. I’ve
been involved in liberation stuff. I’m older. I’m going to
be 55. Oh, this is what it’s going to be like for me. But your body
gets like this. They say, “Well, you have a disability? You don’t
look like you have a disability.” I have a brain injury, and I have
glitches. “What are you here for? You can talk.” It’s
like the looks-ism. That’s the whole part. You embrace each other,
but it’s just like I really hope that we embrace more people of
color with all the stuff going on in the world. There’s fat people
oppression, there’s this oppression, but the oppression of not caring
about each other, just that.
From Audience: Thank you guys for being here. I wanted you to know that
it was, I guess, a 3,000 mile journey for me to get here, and I came to
this particular presentation this morning because there was supposed to
be a panelist speaking on denial and degradation in regards to mental
illness. Do you have any idea why this panelist is not here, why there
is no discussion of this issue? I see hands waving on the side of the
room. I know I’m not the only one who has this concern. I want to
comment while I’m here [unreadable] [about] invisibility. The only
mention of mental illness type issues that happened in any kind of presentation-type
setting were related to legal issues for a lawyer who represents people
who are institutionalized, which I have never been. There is a wide variety
of people with mental health and neurological and other conditions, and
we are not all the same by any stretch of any imagination. Let’s
see. It seems there was one other thing. I got one positive vibe from
one of the performers last night, although I don’t think a lot of
members of the audience really appreciated or understood what she was
communicating. I very much enjoyed that. But having come so far geographically,
having had a lot of people spend money for me to come here, having to
experience what I personally have had to go through to be here to stand
at this microphone and ask this question, I just wanted to say that I
feel it’s poignant that the lecturer who was speaking on denial
and degradation is not even here. That’s not about that person;
it’s just about that I wonder what we need to be doing as a queer/disabled
community so that there’s less of the denial and the degradation.
Thank you. [applause]
Chris Bell: I’m going to address that very briefly. There was a
remark made at the beginning of the panel that, unfortunately, Michael
Robinson, who was to deliver that paper, as a long-term AIDS survivor,
is having one of his, what I like to call, AIDS days, where he was feeling
it. His attorney did come by and mention that to Amanda and myself earlier.
His attorney was going to be part of the [unreadable] action. But in keeping
with your overall and larger concern, I think that’s a very viable
one. You may want to speak to the conference organizers, so in the future
that will be brought up. [announcements]
Chris Bell: [It’s] not necessarily easy for someone with a mental
disability or illness to organize. I apologize, and I just want to give
you some options, after traveling 3,000 miles. A comment: Instead of the
person who just spoke individually bringing it to the conference organizers’
attention, that we all do that. And I agree. With that in mind, I would
like to thank Heather and Amanda for their presence. This has been a particularly
enlightening experience for me personally…. Thank you for your attention
and for all of your comments here.
[end of RTC transcript]