The Queer Disability Conference, the first conference of its kind ever, held on June 2 and 3 at San
Francisco State University, began with great enthusiasm of the participants, many of whom identified
as both disabled and queer in some fashion or another. The opening plenary included an intersex activist,
who discussed feelings of not being safe in a world where binary notions of sex and gender make being
intersex perilous, and hoping that s/he would feel safe at the conference. A diverse group of activists,
academics, and disabled queers provided for an interesting mix of perspectives.
The conference featured multiple panels, presentations, and performances occurring simultaneously,
including but not limited to queer/crip art, writing, and documentaries. Some extremely
talented individuals shared their art and writing, while activists, academics, and allies discussed issues
pertinent to the queer disabled community
Finding a place of intersection between queerness and disability was not easy.
The issues confronting the disabled today—the dismantling of the Americans with Disablities Act,
fighting the Social Security Administration for benefits which are often withheld from persons with severe
disabilities, and many, many, more—are so strong and intense, that they often leave individuals who are
disabled with little time, energy, or resources to deal with issues of culture and society. Nevertheless, such
issues are extremely important to queer disabled communities.
The most common remark made by conference participants centered on the difficulty of finding
acceptance in either the queer or disabled communities. Issues of the body were presented with a noted
demarcation between those with visible and invisible disabilities. People with invisible disabilities share
the issue of “coming out” with non-disabled queers, but in double. They share issues of trying to pass
with transgender and intersex people. People with visible disabilities discussed marginalization, conflicted
body image in queer culture that emphasizes visual aesthetics and “perfect” versus imperfect bodies. It
was noted that such a struggle is not only germane to people with disabilities, but extends to other
communities as well. The so-called “fat” community faces incredible discrimination, and needs to be
accommodated with wider seats on airplanes just as wheelchair users need to be accommodated with
ramps, elevators, and accessible bathrooms. Blind queers discussed issues of social interaction, urging
those who talked to them earlier and had a connection to them to come up and address them, so that
they would know a person whom they had met or hoped to meet was present. People with so-called
mental disabilities voiced their needs to feel safe, and the practice of LGBTQ youth being committed to
psychiatric institutions and thereby abused for so-called “gender identity disorder” and other diagnoses
was roundly criticized by advocates.
In a panel entitled “Queering Disability Activism, Cripping Queer Activisim,” activists suggested that
disabled queers and their allies organize around assisted suicide. Assisted suicide, according to the
panelists, has been used as a way to discriminate against marginalized people with disabilities who
cannot care for themselves. I was intrigued by this suggestion; frankly, I am still processing whether I
think this is a viable point to organize around, simply because it is one of a myriad of issues facing
disabled queers. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that activists voiced how assisted suicide can be
misused to rid the world of disabled people, who, in different, more just environments, might be
accommodated and allowed to thrive.
These and many other questions have begun to be addressed by a new and emerging field of
Disability Studies using “crip theory,” similar and akin to “queer theory.” Like queer theory, crip theory
explores issues of marginalization, “ableism” as a form of oppression similar to heteronormativity, and
its relationship to many other -isms, such as racism, sexism, ageism, and so on. While some papers
focused on the intersections of queer and crip theory, by and large the conference presenters dealt
with the everyday issues of ableism and heteronormativity, and the horrendous burden of these dual
oppressions that have helped to fuel a coming together of crip and queer theory and issues.
Conference participants noted that individuals with different disabilities have many different
needs, and the conference organizers provided a safe space for these needs to be voiced, and at the
final plenary, took suggestions on how the next conference can be better planned with great dignity
and respect for all of the communities present. Indeed, that final plenary turned into a town meeting.
Although this meeting was heated, I believe that a lot of constructive suggestions for the future came
out, and I give the conference planners a lot of credit for allowing all to voice their opinions and
needs, and, despite whatever criticisms were voiced, for doing a tremendous job of accommodating
disabilities of many types and providing a space where a much needed dialogue of queerness and
disability could take place.
Participants suggested that a second Queer Disability Conference needed to be more representative
of the community at large racially. In addition, others wanted future conferences to address
issues of religious minorities, youth, and other considerations. Also raised was the need for all people,
disabled or not, to try to understand the needs of people with so-called mental disabilities. Some of
those who brought forth these suggestions volunteered to help organize the next Queer Disability
Conference, which is now tentatively scheduled to be held in Atlanta, Georgia in 2004.
Walter (Peter) Penrose is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the The Graduate Center, CUNY, a CLAGS Student
Representative and the co-coordinator of QUNY.