Tag Archives: relationships

Finding Each Other: Building Legacies of Belonging

*Opening keynote speech at KQTcon 2018, the first national LGBTQ Korean conference in the United States, in New York City on 4/7/18.

 

To listen to the live recording from the conference, click here: KQTcon 2018 Keynote. (Thank you to Asia Pacific Forum for the recording!)

 

[photo of the words “queer korean” and a heart below them written in light in the air at night next to a fire.]

Thank you so much for having me here today.

 

I want to extend gratitude to the folks on the planning team who put this conference together. Anyone here who has ever put on a big event knows that it takes a lot of work. And specifically, I want to acknowledge, not only the logistical and grunt work put into this conference, but the work it takes to go from having an idea to actually deciding to make it a reality. It takes a lot of initiative and courage to put yourself out there like that and step into leadership. So, I want to appreciate all of the different types of labor that you all have put into this.

 

Thank you, because I grew up in and spent most of my life in places where I never had access to any kind of spaces like this. So, I don’t take it for granted and I know how much this kind of gathering would have meant to me when I was younger. I hope none of us take this space for granted because there are so many queer and trans Koreans who would give anything to have and be in this type of space; would give anything to be here.

 

I want to send gratitude to the people who built and care for this building every day and all the unseen and forgotten labor that goes into that. The people who clean the toilets, dispose of the trash, mop and vacuum the floors, care for the grounds. The people whose land this originally was as well as all of those who have been displaced since then.

 

 

I’m honored to be speaking at the first national gathering of queer and trans Koreans in the US. Thank you for inviting me to be here. Thank you all for being here and for being part of this space.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have someone like me speak at this conference. What it means to have a queer physically disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor raised in the Caribbean speak in this space. I never thought that anything like that would happen. I am queer Korean and yet, often times I’ve learned that “queer Korean” or “Korean” doesn’t always mean or include me. And I am sure that many of you have also felt this.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have a visibly, physically disabled Korean speak, when most queer and korean specific events or events put on by queer Koreans rarely, if ever, mention accessibility on their event information. Queer and trans Koreans who rarely, if ever can even engage in a conversation with me about what it means to be queer and trans, korean and disabled. How can we talk about gender without talking about bodies and disability? How can we talk about what it means to be Korean without talking about the impact of violence, imperialism, colonization, war, militarization and legacies of abuse and separation on our bodyminds, psyches, hearts and relationships? And that is completey connected to ableism.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have an adoptee speak when so many queer Korean spaces haven’t done the best job at making space for us. When so many of us are queer and share the experience of finding “queer and trans family” and searching for our people, our history, our place within the korean diaspora. When we represent the pain of separation, unthinkable survival and resilience in the face of life-altering violence, returning, reunification and the unbreakable longing of Korea and the Korean diaspora.

 

I say all of these things because it is not lost on me that many of the reasons I was invited to speak, are the very things that have made it so hard for me to be part of queer and trans Korean, and Korean american community. I say this because whenever we come together it is our differences that get emphasized and the contradictions they represent become more acute. And we have a lot of differences. We may all be queer Koreans, but we are also many more things. When I think about what it means to be queer and Korean, I cannot separate it from all of who I am.

 

I can’t separate it from being an adoptee or being disabled or growing up in the Caribbean or being a survivor. I can’t separate it from growing up in a small, rural feminist community, surrounded by lesbian and straight women who worked side-by-side to respond to violence against women and children. I can’t separate it from the reason I was even on that island in the first place. Can’t separate it from the surgeries I had once I got to the US that I can’t even remember because I was so young. Can’t separate it from growing up as a visibly, physically disabled child. Can’t separate it from coming into my queerness in the South, in a vibrant and loving queer community that was predominantly Black. Can’t separate it from navigating QTPOC spaces with a visible, physical disability. Can’t separate it from my Korean mother asking if the reason I don’t have a husband is because of my disability.

 

How do you divide-up and measure longing? My longing for queer people and queer love. My longing for Korea and a family to which I will both always belong and never belong. The longing to be able to have at least one conversation with my Korean mother without a translator before she dies. The longing for queer Koreans who want to hold all of who I am, not only when it’s convenient or for political gain. The longing for both queerness and Koreaness, which led me to the most magnificent love I have ever known (or known of) with a queer Korean from the South.

 

I say all of this to say, what is Koreaness? What does it mean if it means something so very different to all of us? What does it mean to be Korean specifically in the US, in this historical moment as the fears of nuclear war rumble through the country? What does it mean to be part of the Korean diaspora in the US, given the role of US imperialism, war and occupation in Korea? In this historical moment of US racial and immigrant justice movements as the legacy of state sanctioned violence against Black people continues to roar forward, against a backdrop of ICE raids, deportations and seething anti-immigrant contempt.

 

I say this to ask, where does my story fit into the legacy of queer and trans Korean people and community? Where does your story fit? And how can we commit to sharing our stories with each other—our whole stories—without fear of losing each other? Because the one thing I know about queers and Koreans is that we know how to find and hold on to each other—sometimes to a fault. We know how to take care of our own, even if we are strangers to each other, because we know we are never truly strangers to each other. And we know we are all we have.

 

For example, I think about the ways that queer APIs in the South would stretch for each other and take care of each other. I think about the times when I opened my home to strangers, without hesitation, who needed a place to stay or a meal to eat or a safe person to be with. I think about the times when that same loving care was extended to me and how these were the ways we learned how to survive. These were the ways we knew we would survive because we did not have the luxury that queer APIs did and do in other parts of the country. This was one of the ways we built small islands of belonging in the middle of a raging river.

 

 

In preparing to write this keynote, there was a part of me that thought, What do I have to say that’s even worth anything? A lifetime of isolation and not belonging anywhere doesn’t go away easily. But then I thought, if I don’t belong here, where else would I belong? How can I not belong here, when I am queer Korean? How can my story not belong here, when my story is queer Korean? As queer and trans Korean people, if we don’t belong to each other, then to whom else do we belong? If we don’t love and accept each other, then who else will?

 

Because on the one hand, it’s true, I don’t belong anywhere, like many of you also probably feel. And on good days, it can feel like a slow, dull, throbbing ache, while other days, it can feel acutely, excruciatingly unbearable. Belonging can be a hard thing to believe in. It can be a hard thing to believe you deserve. It can be a hard thing to be able to even feel.

 

Most days the canyons that loneliness and isolation have carved out inside of me feel impossible to cross. They feel insurmountable and I know most of you in this room have those moments too. But then I think about the powerful legacies I am a part of and the people who have risked their lives for me to have a shot at something more than hopelessness. I remember all the people we’ve lost to loneliness and despair and isolation and longing and pain, whether their own or someone else’s. And I muster myself up and I choose to try; I choose to leap; I choose to love and reach out—to you and to myself. I choose to share; I choose to trust.

 

In that spirit, I want to share a little bit of my story with you; my queer Korean story. It is not the full story by any means, but it is a practice of hope; a practice of trust; a practice of love for you, my kin; and a practice of risk—because hope, trust and love are always risks we take with each other and ourselves.

 

 

I am a queer disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee. I was adopted from Korea at 6 months old, by white parents on to the small island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. I was adopted a hair before the peak of Korean transnational adoption and I am one of the few Korean adoptees that I know of who were sent to the USVI.

 

I contracted polio before I was shipped to the US and I arrived in the US needing immediate medical attention and spent most of my childhood in and out of doctors and practitioners’ offices. Most summers I had a surgery on either my ear or my leg—or sometimes both.

 

I experienced so much trauma and violence in the medical industrial complex (MIC) that even now, I still try and avoid it at any cost. On top of the regular onslaught of ableism that disabled children face, I was also sexually abused in the MIC. I know it had everything to do with being a disabled girl of color; being a tiny Korean girl whose body was handed over to a white male establishment by white parents who didn’t know how dangerous that was. I know that the violence of adoption helped to normalize the violence I experienced within the MIC, both the gross abuses of power, as well as things that are still considered standard practices. It was impossible to separate the violent erasing of my disabled self via ableism from the violent erasure of my Korean self via transracial and transnational adoption.

 

I wore a large fiberglass brace on my leg until midway through college and it was excruciatingly hot under the Caribbean sun. It would give me blisters and pain and I hated wearing it. It often made me stand out, along with my limp and being Asian, and to this day, I don’t know what it is like to not have people constantly stare at you; constantly watch you. I often think that disability and being a Korean adoptee contributed to my ability to be a public speaker: I am used to being a spectacle and having people stare at me. People ask adoptees of color just as intrusive and offensive questions as they do visibly physically disabled women of color. You are public property, a game show riddle to figure out, a problem to solve.

 

I never felt like my body was my own. It always felt like someone else’s. It was always a never-ending barrage of how it was wrong: too disabled, too ugly, too awkward, too un-feminine, too undesirable, too Asian, too Korean, too uncontrollable, too tragic. Something to be pitied; never desired, never loved.

 

I was raised in a very rural, tight-knit feminist community. The year I was adopted, my adoptive mother, along with 9 other women started the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, a direct service organization that helped victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. Before that, there were no services on the island for people to go to and because of this, they became a catch-all for families in crisis. I went to countless Take Back the Night marches and helped stuff envelopes and make purple ribbons. I learned early on that violence was everywhere. It was systemic and more than just a couple of “bad apples.” It was happening in every community.

 

In the early days of the Coalition, I would play in the hallway with kids while their mothers sought support. I remember being young and having our neighbor from up the street and her two children spend the night at our house, so they could catch a plane and escape off the island in the middle of the night to escape her abusive husband. I remember going to court cases about domestic violence with my adoptive mother and playing with the other kids while our mothers met for hours on end at meeting after meeting.

 

I am a child of the movement and I witnessed women organizing for themselves when no one else would.

 

I grew up around Audre Lorde and Gloria Joseph, meeting Angela Davis and getting to hear her speak, getting to watch Sweet Honey and the Rock perform and having conversations about oppression at the dinner table. I learned about oppression from an early age and tried to engage my classmates in conversations about their white or male privilege in grade school. But even through growing up in such a politicized community, no one ever taught me about ableism or what it meant to be Asian, East Asian or Korean. No one ever connected the violence they were fighting against with the violence I was experiencing within the MIC. We never talked about my parent’s roles as colonizers on the island or what it meant for a white straight couple to adopt Korean children and decide to raise them on an island with virtually no other Korean people.

 

I was lucky that I got to grow up around proud lesbians (women of color and white women) who had been with their partners for years, and who were as normal to me as the “you can’t beat a woman” T-shirts we wore for the annual Women’s Race fundraiser. I was lucky to be surrounded by lesbian and straight women who consistently got called “dykes who hated men” and “wanted to break up families” because of the anti-violence work they were doing. Lucky that all through my adolescence, my adoptive mother would tell me over and over, “You know, Mia, if you or any of your friends are gay, it’s O.K. You can always come and talk to me about it.” And though at the time, I thought I would die from sheer embarrassment, I look back now and know how lucky I was, as a queer youth to have that kind of support. I wouldn’t fully come into my queerness until the end of college, but I know that no matter who you are—that was rare for that time.

 

I didn’t grow up culturally Korean and had no support in figuring out how to move through the world as an East Asian woman (adoptee with a disability) in the Caribbean and later the South. I remember another queer Korean adoptee once describing it as being faced with a giant puzzle she was left to figure out on her own, with no picture to follow and no instructions to go on. I remember feeling her words in my heart when she spoke and the way her grief, frustration and resilience seemed indistinguishable from each other in that moment.

 

Even when I was asked to speak at this conference, I was surprised, because my story is not usually the queer Korean story told, but it is a queer Korean story. What do we mean when we say “queer Korean?”

 

My story is not the story most people want to hear or are used to hearing. It’s too disabled or not disabled enough; too adoptee or not adoptee enough; too survivor or not survivor enough. It’s not Korean enough, not Asian enough, not immigrant enough, not queer enough, not Caribbean enough, not American enough. It is, I’m sure, like a lot of your stories: complicated and full of contradictions; full of the hard and soft. It’s not easily categorized into neat boxes and requires people to hold multiple truths at the same time.

 

And yet, it is part of the queer and trans Korean diaspora. And so am I. As are you and your stories.

 

I belong everywhere and nowhere at once. We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

I know it can be hard just to show up. It can take a lot of courage just to be present. Belonging must be built and grown collectively. And that is part of what we’re doing here today: the work of building and creating belonging. It is a skill we can learn and teach others, a practice we can always be engaged in and a decision we can choose to make at any given moment.

 

I want to acknowledge all of you, for the labor of showing up and being present (especially those of you who were nervous about it), as well as all of those who aren’t able to be with us.

 

There are many who will never know queer Korean community or some who have been so burned by queer Koreans and queer Korean community that they have given up on it. Or those who are afraid to be part of queer and trans Korean community. Or those who long for it so badly, at the very same time that it terrifies them.

 

We often crave, the very things that scare us: love, community, belonging, vulnerability, trust, accountability, family. It reminds me of that James Baldwin quote: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

 

I witness this all the time in my transformative justice work. I witness people being terrified of that which they desire most. Whether it is healing, accountability, trust, transformation, vulnerability, truth, belonging or courage. So, they often find endless ways to push it away, distract themselves with something else or they continue to choose their masks again and again.

 

We will all be faced with moments when we have the opportunity to risk lowering our masks—to risk true vulnerability with each other. Those moments when we have a chance to soften and let someone else in and let ourselves out. Those moments when we risk being hurt or having our hearts broken or bruised. Those moments when we can feel just how ill-fitting our masks really are.

 

And we don’t always choose to lower our masks. Many times we choose to tighten our masks closer to us. None of us are perfect and we are all growing. As a queer Korean I talked to earlier this week said, “I’m flawed and we’re all flawed.”

 

But I think everyone who is here for this conference is, in some small way, loosening their mask, even as we cling to it. Even as we peek out a little from behind it. Everyone here, even if it’s small, is letting their desire for queer Koreans, and queer Korean desire, be seen and recognized. Even if many of us would also roll our eyes at the thought of “queer Korean community,” or at the thought of “community.” A lot of us have become jaded and rightfully so. It’s not enough to come together and talk about the good things, we also need to be in principled struggle with each other because that’s how we grow and deepen our connection with each other.

 

I told a queer Korean friend of mine about this conference and they said in a long sorrowful sigh, “I just don’t know what queer Korean community holds for me anymore.” I told another and they scoffed, as if to say, that’s a nice idea, but it’s not possible—or worse, it’s not worth it.

 

Because after all, what is “community?” What is this thing, “community,” that we talk about so much? This thing that we romanticize to no end and that has let so many of us down, even as we refuse to let it go completely? We talk about community all the time, but many of us struggle to know what that actually means and how to actually build it, especially when so many of us are so isolated.

 

I travel from coast to coast and most people I meet do not feel connected to a community. This is especially common for those of us living in the west or under capitalism. Many people don’t even know what community is or how to know if they have it. Folks want to be connected to community, but they don’t feel they are. Even those who are thought of as “in community” often feel lonely and isolated too. And across the board, most people don’t feel like they belong.

 

Maybe this is just a part of what it means to be part of a diaspora. Always feeling in-between; always feeling that familiar longing and grief for what was lost, what was taken, what never should have been. I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.

 

I am Korean, but I’m not Korean. They are my family, but they’re not my family. That is my home, but it’s not my home.

 

I was 25 when I returned to my Korean mother and family for the first time since being given up for adoption when I was a week old. I remember many days, especially in those first days as I struggled with jetlag, waking up on the floor in my parent’s room surprised to find my mother sleeping next to me with her hand in mine. This was a language for which we did not need a translator; a language that couldn’t be translated, even if we had spoken the same language. I remember silently watching her sleep, as she had probably watched me. I remember wishing that I knew her and that she knew me, and knowing that I am her daughter and yet I am not. Knowing that though we share blood, a laugh that fills a room, and an experience that fundamentally changed both of our lives forever, we were also strangers in many ways.

 

We are, but we’re not. We ‘re not, but we are.

We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

One of the things I always think of whenever I think about queer and trans Koreans is the way that so many people I know and love stay connected to their families. Though their families often do not understand or are hostile to their queer and trans identities, they refuse to let each other go. Though they might have to hide who they are, for decades, maybe even their entire life, they continue to return to each other. To me, there is something so powerful about that kind of love.

 

I know it is not perfect and there are many painful complexities about it. I know that the silence that is expected in return for connection is dangerous, harmful and neither just nor right nor fair. I know that it can be hard to tell guilt, shame, denial and abuse from love. And—both/and—there is something so deeply magnificent about the ways that we can still love and care and show-up for each other, even through our pain. In the ways that a heart can break and still keep loving at the same time. And how in so many ways, that has everything to do with who we are as a people, both as queer and trans people and as Korean people.

 

I think about the ways that we find each other as queer and trans people, the way that we find each other as queer and trans people of color—as queer and trans Koreans. The ways that we are often raised outside of our queer and trans communities and culture and language and history, but how we find our ways to each other and teach, create and grow our culture together. And I think about how this mirrors many Korean adoptee’s journeys.

 

I think about the many queer and trans Koreans that I’ve known who did not live on the coasts or in big cities and how we were able to find each other and stay connected, even in the face of incredible isolation—we still held on to each other.

 

“Family acceptance” is not just about our biological or immediate families, it is also about “family” in the ways that queer folks have reclaimed that term and made it our own—made it into a balm for our lives. I’m talking about the way queer and trans folks make up our own kind of family. We are kin.

 

It’s not enough to only talk about the homophobia and transphobia we face inside Korean community and family, because we also do damage to each other. We also reject each other, abuse each other, push each other away and fear one another. We also gloss over our differences in favor of convenience, denial or fear. And in many ways it can be even more painful because we are each others kin—we are each other’s queer and trans Korean kin. The stakes are so high and the fall is so great when things go awry—those canyons are so deep. And we often don’t have resources to turn to, as queer and trans people of color, and many of us suffer in silence for years, sometimes for entire lifetimes.

 

We have a lot of work to do within our community, our relationships and our selves.

 

We have to prioritize healing, both individually and collectively because they cannot be separated from each other. I would bet that most of us in this room have at one point or another struggled with our mental health. I would bet that most of us have experienced some type of abuse either from our families, within our relationships or even within our organizing. All of us have trauma and we all carry generational trauma in our bones, breath and cells.

 

How can we work towards any kind of liberation, if we can’t treat each other well? If we can’t build and rebuild trust when it is broken? If we can’t build healthy relationships? If we can’t let each other be human and make mistakes? If we can’t take accountability for harm we’ve caused? If we can’t support survivors in their healing and people who have harmed in their accountability? Most of us can’t even navigate conflict well, let alone violence, harm or abuse.

 

How can we ask other people to treat queer and trans Koreans well, if we can’t even treat ourselves and each other well?

 

What I want for us is healing and transformation. I want us to fight with everything we have to invest in building the skills and commitment we need to be able to face ourselves and each other—and to do it lovingly. To be able to speak our truths and tell our stories and our secrets without fear of losing each other. I want us to be able to risk being vulnerable again and again because you cannot build trust without vulnerability, and true love cannot exist without trust. I want us to call on our queer super powers of desire.

 

As queer people, we know the power of desire and we know how political desire is. And I’m not just talking about who you sleep with, I’m talking about desire in a much more expansive way. I’m talking about desire as that which pulls us towards liberation and that which pulls us towards aliveness. I am talking about that hunger that won’t let us sleep and makes us ache for something more, something true.

 

I want us to learn to desire the true, the messy, the complicated—the human. I want us to desire each other as queer and trans Koreans. I want us to desire queer Korean family and community. I want us to desire queer Korean love.

 

I think about what it means for those of us who continue to show up for this thing that we call “queer Korean community.” Even through our heartbreak and disappointments, even through our hesitations and fear. This is the kind of love and desire that I want us to continue to practice. This is the kind of hope that I want us to live into and pass on to the next generation of queer and trans Koreans who will struggle to find their place and wonder if they belong. Let us be able to meet their longing and fears with our longing and love, so that we may be able to embrace them and all of who they are with all of who we are, whispering, “Yes. Yes, you belong.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

Photo of my wheelchair in a dark room, silhouetted against a doorway, with a large shirt outlined in lights hanging against a dark wall.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access, but it also includes forced physical intimacy, especially for those of us who need physical help that often requires touching of our bodies. Forced intimacy can also include the ways that disabled people have to build and sustain emotional intimacy and relationships with someone in order to get access—to get safe, appropriate and good access.

 

I have experienced forced intimacy my entire life as a disabled child, youth and adult. I am always expected to do the work of opening myself up for others’ benefit, education, curiosity or benevolent oppression.

 

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable—whether we want to or not—about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

 

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

 

Another example of forced intimacy is when I am somewhere and need an arm to lean on while walking, as I often do, and I have to be physically close to and touch someone I do not want to. This happened much more when I was growing up as a disabled child and youth, before I had more say over my life and the people in it. Forced intimacy is also my entire experience in the medical industrial complex with doctors, nurses, brace makers, physical therapists and practitioners, none of which I ever consented to. It is also the many moments in my daily adult life when I have to share more information than needed to get access for events I would like to attend from folks, including “comrades,” who do not post any accessibility information on their event pages or flyers, but have an “accessibility needs” section on their Google forms. Tip: if you don’t provide any accessibility information about your event, then I cannot assess what my access needs will be. Am I supposed to list out every single access need I might ever possibly have, simply because of your ignorance?

 

Even in writing this essay, I am pushing back against the ableist notion that disabled people should just be grateful for whatever we get—whatever crumbs are thrown our way. Well, at least they even had an “accessibility needs” section on their form. And most importantly, I am pushing back against the forced intimacy and emotional labor I am supposed to constantly be engaged in so people won’t be “mad” at me, because as disabled people know all too well, able bodied people will not help you with your access unless they “like” you. This is a very real and dangerous caged reality that I and many other disabled people live in and it is one of the main reasons why forced intimacy exists.

 

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. People I don’t know or who have never even had a conversation with me about disability casually expect to be my “access person,” without realizing that there is significant trust and competency that must be built. People assume that I will accept any access—again, any crumbs—thrown my way and of course that I should be ever-grateful for it. They don’t realize that consent exists on both ends. Sure, I know how to survive and get by with ableist access, that is a skill I will never lose as long as I am living in an ableist world; but I am also working for a world where disabled people get to be human and have consent over our bodies, minds and intimacy.

 

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

 

One of the reasons that forced intimacy has been so prominent in my life is because there is an inherent intimacy to access—or at least, in my experience, to my access. When someone is helping me with access, I am vulnerable; I am interdependent with them, even if they don’t realize it. There is a magnificent vulnerability to access and to disability that is powerful and potentially transformative, if we would only tap into it. Sadly, in an ableist world, access and disability get stripped of their transformative powers and instead get distorted into “dependent,” “burden” and “tragic.” Forced intimacy is a byproduct of this and functions as a constant oppressive reminder of domination and control.

 

Though I have written here about forced intimacy as it relates to disability and access, it is in no way relegated only to ableism. I have experienced forced intimacy as it relates to other forms of oppression as well, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. It has been a constant part of my life and my experience as a queer disabled korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor. The forced intimacy of transracial and transnational adoption, for example, is a never-ending black hole for so many of us.

 

I cannot account here all of the many ways that forced intimacy has so fundamentally impacted and shaped me, that is for another piece of writing. I ache for the day when that will no longer be the case, especially for future generations of disabled children.

 

 

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Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice

My remarks from the 2017 Paul K. Longmore Lecture on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University delivered on April 11, 2017.

 

To watch and listen to the video of my talk, click here. (Thank you to the Longmore Institute on Disability for the video!)

 

[Photo of a fall leaf with reds, oranges and yellows being held up against a background of water and land in the far off distance under a cloudy sky. Photo by Mia Mingus.]

 

Good evening everyone and thank you so much for having me. Thank you for being flexible as I recovered from being very, very sick. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you to the people whose work has made this event possible (twice!) and for your work to make this event accessible—work that is so vital and, sadly rare, when it comes to social justice work.

I want to send a thank you out to everyone here and around the globe who are resisting—in big and small ways—the current administration, greed, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, fascism, colonization, environmental destruction, xenophobia, islamaphobia, and rape culture. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I want to extend gratitude to not only the organizers of this event, but also to the people who work and care for these buildings, rooms and grounds. The people who built this building, dispose of the trash, and clean the floors and toilets. The people who work for this institution, but can’t afford to attend it or live near it.

Let us also acknowledge that we are always on native land (and this is no exception) and that communities and lands around the globe are being exploited so that we may sit here in an air-conditioned room together. Let us remember how interdependent our lives are, not only when it is convenient, but every single day.

 

I want to say unequivocally that disabled people are everywhere. We are one of the largest oppressed groups on the planet. We are part of political movements, even if you don’t know or don’t acknowledge that we are. No matter what community you’re working with, you are working with disabled people. (And given how violent and polluted our world is, those numbers will only continue to grow.)

Disability and ableism are not secondary issues, though they continually get treated as such. If you are a disabled person out there, I want you to know that our experiences as disabled people matter. Our experiences as disabled queer people of color matter—even if queer, people of color, and queer people of color communities don’t bother to include us in their events, social gatherings, strategies, movements, analysis and communities. We matter and our stories and experiences matter. It means something to be disabled. Never forget that.

Understanding disability and ableism is the work of every revolutionary, activist and organizer—of every human being. Disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet. We are all aging, we are all living in polluted and toxic conditions and the level of violence currently in the world should be enough for all of us to care more about disability and ableism.

 

Access Intimacy

I would like to focus my remarks tonight on access intimacy, interdependence and disability justice. I want to talk about these because I think they are—especially access intimacy—an important example of how we can reframe our understandings of disability to help us in our fight for liberation.

For those of you less familiar with Access Intimacy, it is a term I began using and coined in the spring of 2011 in my essay, “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” And I want to be clear, I didn’t invent access intimacy, I simply gave a name to something that was happening in my life and I hope it’s useful to others. Just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it.

From “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link:”

“I have never had words for access intimacy before.  For years, I would feel it or crave it, but not know how to describe it. It has always been just out of reach; just beyond my grasp.  I have mistaken it for emotional or political intimacy, sexual attraction or romantic desire.  I have mistakenly assumed that it would be there based on one’s identity or experience.  I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy.  And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow. 

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.  It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.  Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.  Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations.  Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.  I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.  It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are.  It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

In my life, access intimacy is something that has been hard won, organic or at times even felt magical.  It has taken me by surprise, showing up with people that I never would have expected to have that kind of “access connection” with.  It has been exciting and relieving, like a long slow exhale.  I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens.  It has felt like an unspoken, instinctual language between different people, like an entirely unique way of being able to communicate and connect.  Similar to meeting someone you just “click with,” access intimacy has felt like a distinct form of attraction, desire and energy unto itself…

Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost.  In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.  There is a good feeling after and while you are experiencing access intimacy.  It is a freeing, light, loving feeling.  It brings the people who are a part of it closer; it builds and deepens connection.  Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible.  Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world.  Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.”

 

Tonight I want to focus on access intimacy between disabled people and able bodied people because it has been the hardest for me to build. This is a huge part of my life because most of my access depends on able bodied people and because I don’t have paid or formal attendants, I am often relying on friends, coworkers and strangers for my access, as is the case for so many disabled folks.

For me, I understand Access Intimacy as something that can transform ordinary access into a tool for liberation, instead of merely reinforcing “inclusion” and “equality.” I am done with disability simply being “included” in able bodied people’s agendas and lives only when it’s convenient. I want us to tap into the transformative powers of disability, instead of only gaining access to the current system, or the burning house as the late Grace Lee Boggs would say, and doing nothing to change that system. We don’t simply want to join the ranks of the privileged, we want to challenge and dismantle those ranks and question why some people are consistently at the bottom.

Cultivating access intimacy is a way to directly challenge ableism and the relentless isolation that disabled people endure, especially disabled folks who are part of other oppressed communities. Access intimacy at once recognizes and understands the relational and human quality of access, while simultaneously deepening the relationships involved. It moves the work of access out of the realm of only logistics and into the realm of relationships and understanding disabled people as humans, not burdens. Disabled people’s liberation cannot be boiled down to logistics.

Access intimacy is interdependence in action. It is an acknowledgement that what is most important is not whether or not things are perfectly accessible, or whether or not there is ableism; but rather what the impact of inaccessibility and ableism is on disabled people and our lives. In my experience, when access intimacy is present, the most powerful part is having someone to navigate access and ableism with. It is knowing that someone else is with me in this mess. It is knowing that someone else is willing to be with me in the never-ending and ever-changing daily obstacle course that is navigating an inaccessible world. It is knowing that I will not be alone in the stunning silence, avoidance and denial of ableism by almost every able bodied person I have ever and will ever come in contact with. Access intimacy is knowing that I will not be alone in the stealth, insidious poison that is ableism.

The power of access intimacy is that it reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able bodied people’s world, and instead calls upon able bodied people to inhabit our world.

It challenges able bodied supremacy by valuing disability—not running from disability—but moving towards it. It asserts that there is value in disabled people’s lived experiences. In this way, it reframes both how and where solidarity can be practiced. Access intimacy is shared work by all people involved, it is no longer the familiar story of disabled people having to do all the work to build the conversations and piece together the relationship and trust that we know we need for access—that we know we need in order to survive. I know this has been the story of my life, especially with able bodied people of color and able bodied queer people of color.

 

Disabled people get told we must shrink ourselves and our desires to settle for living in the wake of an able bodied parade. And especially if we are part of other oppressed communities, we are expected to be grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown our way. In my life this has looked like a lifetime of political events by communities I am a part of that were not (and continue not to be) accessible—and where seemingly no one even pondered disability with no mention of it on any event information—or where access was done reluctantly or only for political show. It has looked like a lifetime of rich, passionate political conversations with people from my communities about everything under the sun except for disability and if disability was going to be talked about it was always me who had to bring it up. It has looked like friends from my communities inviting me to social gatherings and never once asking me or thinking about my access or differences in ability. It has looked like dates that were inaccessible and, in the worst cases, left me badly physically injured and bloody. It has looked like friendships that expect me to do all the work to educate them on disability and engage in conversations about disability and ableism. It has looked like a lifetime of supporting “my communities” in “their work” and them never showing up for anything related to disability.

It is easy to list these things off and analyze them, but it is harder to convey the way they have felt. It is harder to talk about how incredibly—sometimes unbelievably—painful these have felt when experienced. Queer people of color to-be-parents want to spend hours talking about how they will support their will-be children to explore their genders and sexualities outside of binaries, but when I ask them how they will support their child if they are or become disabled the conversation abruptly stops or I am told I am being “negative.” Or Asian, Korean or Korean adoptee communities don’t make their gatherings accessible and then I am asked, “why aren’t you more connected to those communities?” Or disabled communities who have no interest in talking about race, sexuality or gender and respond with hostility that you are being divisive when you explain that you cannot separate your disability from your other identities. Or the only access people you can find are white and there are “people of color only spaces” that you desperately need access to for your own survival as a woman of color adoptee. The ways that ableism and white supremacy work together so successfully to isolate disabled people of color continues to break my heart.

This is why access intimacy has been so important to me in my life. It has been an antidote to the pain and the extreme isolation that pound like crashing waves with no end. It has been a way to remember my magnificence and my dignity. It has been the tender balm and recognition of parts of me that most people would rather deny, avoid and pretend away.

And I want to be transparent, access intimacy is not easy to build. When it doesn’t happen magically and organically, it has been hard to create. It requires a lot of trust and faith and practice. And it has been lonely because not everyone is ready for it (or even a good fit for it) and it has taken discipline inside myself to not settle for crappy access when I don’t have to, which often means I have less access. And because we live in an able bodied society, most of the burden is still on disabled people (and will be for quite sometime) to grow it and introduce the concept to able bodied people in our lives. It is like anything else that transforms you, in that it is a thawing that will force you to inevitably question why you have gone so long without it and why it doesn’t exist in more places in your life, similar to the way that any kind of powerful alignment, love or joy does. It reminds me of the way that Audre Lorde talks about the erotic in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic”:

For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.

 

Access intimacy is one of the main ways that I have been building interdependence in my life. I have been pushing myself to grow it and not just subsist on the little I have been able to find, most significantly with my partner, as is the case for many disabled folks. Engaging in building any kind of interdependence will always be a risk, for everyone involved; and the risk will always be greater for those who are more oppressed and have less access to privilege. In an ableist world where disabled people are understood as disposable, it can be especially hard to build interdependence with people you need in order to survive, but who don’t need you in order to survive. In an ableist context, interdependence will always get framed as “burden,” and disability will always get framed as “inferior.” To actively work to build something that is thought of as undeniably undesirable and to try and reframe it to others as liberatory, is no small task.

Especially as disabled people, we know what it means to live interdependent lives and it does not always feel revolutionary or enjoyable.

There will always be a difference of power between myself and able bodied people I am in relationship with. It will always be a choice for them to not have to engage in any work around disability or ableism. It will always be perfectly acceptable for them to never have to have conversations about disability or ableism, and certainly not any conversations that address their privilege, ignorance or question their ableist desires. They will never be expected to be in solidarity with disabled people and even if they are—even mildly or offensively—they will be applauded by the world for taking pity on us. The scales are already tipped and those of us who are on the sinking side know all-to-well what living in the shadows is like.

In my life, access intimacy continues to be a game-changer, a way to queer access into a tool we can use to get free. It has been a way to shift and queer how I and others understand disability and ableism. And because of the inherent interdependence of access intimacy—the “we” of access intimacy—it has transformed the kinds of conversations I am able to have with some of the able bodied people in my life. Access intimacy has helped me to orient my desires from a place of magnificence and moving towards the Ugly. It has required me to demand more from the people in my communities and settle less because I know things can be better. In short, it has sparked possibility inside of me that, growing up as a disabled child, I never had and never knew could exist. As a disabled child, I didn’t know that access could be anything other than the usual mixture of guilt, shame and isolation that always seemed so normal.

Access intimacy is critical to disability justice because there will never be any work with disabled people that does not include accessibility work. And it is important to note that access is often one of the biggest hurdles to doing work with disabled communities. Access is not some “optional way of life” for us—it is part of everything we do. It is part of everything I do. So, if we are working to transform the world for all of us, and not just some of us, access will be a huge part of this work. There is no liberation without disabled people.

 

Liberatory Access & Interdependence

We talk about the importance of making our movements and communities accessible and yes, that is important. We have to make our work and spaces more accessible. There is no way around it. Access is concrete resistance to the immense isolation that disabled people face everyday. But I don’t want us to just make things “accessible,” I want us to build a political container in which that access can take place in and be grounded in. Access for the sake of access is not necessarily libratory, but access for the sake of connection, justice, community, love and liberation is. We can use access as a tool to transform the broader conditions we live in, to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. Access can be a tool to challenge ableism, ablebodied supremacy, independence and exclusion. I believe we can do access in liberatory ways that aren’t just about inclusion, diversity and equality; but are rather, in service of justice, liberation and interdependence.

I have been calling this concept “Liberatory Access.” Liberatory access gets us closer to the world we want and ache for, rather than simply reinforcing the status quo. It lives in the now and the future. There is no liberatory access without access intimacy, and in fact, access intimacy is one of the main criteria for liberatory access. Liberatory access understands addressing inaccessibility and ableism as an opportunity for building deeper relationships with each other, realigning our selves with our values and what matters most to us, and challenging oppression.

Liberatory access calls upon us to create different values for accessibility than we have historically had. It demands that the responsibility for access shifts from being an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility. That access shifts from being silencing to freeing; from being isolating to connecting; from hidden and invisible to visible; from burdensome to valuable; from a resentful obligation to an opportunity; from shameful to powerful; from ridged to creative. It’s the “good” kind of access, the moments when we are pleasantly surprised and feel seen. It is a way of doing access that transforms both our “today” and our “tomorrow.” In this way, Liberatory access both resists against the world we don’t want and actively builds the world we do want.

Liberatory access requires a political container to live in and orient from and I believe that disability justice is that political container.

Access should be happening in service of our larger goals of building interdependence and embracing need, because this is such a deep part of challenging ableism and the myth of independence. The myth of independence is the idea that we can and should be able to do everything on our own and, of course, we know that that’s not true. Someone made the clothes you’re wearing now, your shoes, your car or the mass transit system you use; we don’t grow all our own food and spices.  We can’t pretend that what happens in this country doesn’t affect others, or that things like clean air and water don’t bound us all together. We are dependent on each other, period. The myth of independence reflects such a deep level of privilege, especially in this rugged individualistic capitalist society and produced the very idea that we could even mildly conceive of our lives or our accomplishments as solely our own. And of course, the other side of this is not just that it’s not true—not just that the emperor has no clothes, but that everyone else should pretend he’s fully clothed too. So, the Myth of Independence is not just about the truth of being connected and interdependent on one another; it is also about the high value that gets placed on buying into the myth and believing that you are independent; and the high value placed on striving to be independent, another corner stone of the ableist culture we live in.

Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through “dependence,” which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence. We become charity cases, a way for able bodied people to feel better about themselves and we in turn, internalize our sense of being a burden, sad, and tragic. All of this sets up a dynamic where disabled people feel like we have to be “liked” in order to receive basic daily access to live and where able bodied people feel entitled to receive praise and recognition for providing access. This is not access intimacy and this dynamic of disabled people being “dependent” on able bodied people shapes so many disabled people’s lives and is the foundation upon which so much domination, control, violence and abuse happens.

Liberatory access is something I work to practice in my life and political work. Whenever we have events, I always think, how can we build access intimacy into our access work and our political work at large? I think of liberatory access and access intimacy as things we can use to unhinge ableism. These are tools we can use in our work to confront ableism and all forms of oppression because disabled people are not only disabled: we are people of color, we are all different genders and sexualities, we are from different class backgrounds and cultures, we are survivors, bystanders and offenders—we are human. In our campaigns and at our conferences, we can ask our selves, how do we use this opportunity to practice parts of disability justice? How can we help grow access intimacy? Or what would liberatory access look like? In the same way that we would work to try and practice racial and gender justice, again, in service of things such as justice, building community, trust, love, we can work to practice disability justice.

 

Closing

In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access and Love,” I wrote:

These are the parts of disability justice and liberation that keep me up at night, that have hurt more than any ableist remark, that have left more scars than any surgery. This is the underbelly of ableism. This is what I fear we will be left to wrestle with after every building is made accessible and every important policy is passed.

In all of my work for disability justice, I always come back to the human parts of disability. The parts that we would rather not talk about. The parts that are not about the bills or budgets or laws or services. The parts that live under our skin and inside of our bones and cells. The parts that are buried. The parts that most of us have had to learn how to navigate on our own, if we learn to navigate them at all.

I love being disabled and my history of disability has been so drenched in trauma and sorrow, pity and isolation, silence and pain, shame and guilt, violence and abuse. I don’t know how to talk about disability without talking about these parts—without pulling them out of their hiding places and holding them out to show you and asking, where are yours?

I don’t know how to be disabled without being all of who I am: a queer disabled korean transnational and transracial adoptee woman survivor from the Caribbean non-mainland U.S., always searching for others who have had to learn how to live on the outskirts; who know how to survive off of longing and laughter. These identities and experiences are all part of each other and asking me—or anyone—to separate them is not only oppressive, it’s impossible.

Access intimacy has transformed my life and transformed my present, even if I can’t change my past. It is one of the ways I practice disability justice in my everyday life and one of the ways I ask others to do the same. Ableist access has shaped so much of who I am and every relationship I have ever had. When I think of all the oppressive forces in my life that demanded (often violently) that I shrink myself in order to survive, ableist access is easily one of the most prominent.

Access intimacy means so much to me, that it is hard to articulate. When I try and explain it the people with whom it exists, I never seem to do it justice. When I think about disability justice, I think about access intimacy because it has a direct affect on my daily life and makes love possible. And in any of our work for liberation, isn’t that what we should be working for: anything that makes love more possible? Anything that makes joy, healing and trust more possible? Anything that can take away the power and cruelty of oppression, violence, abuse and trauma?

Access intimacy makes love more possible in my life and in myself. And I will always be grateful for that. I’ll never understand the magic of it or how it works exactly, only that it softens my heart and let’s me exhale. Only that it gives me hope, as terrifying as hope can be when your survival has always depended on fear and the lesser of two evils. Access intimacy has been a lighthouse in the storm of ableism, beckoning me back home to love and reminding me that I never left.

Thank you.

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Still Choosing to Leap: Building Alternatives

Remarks from the closing plenary, “Revolutionary Organizing Across Time and Space,” at the INCITE! Color of Violence 4 Conference, March 26-29, 2015, Chicago, Illinois.

 

vie on wallI am engaged in the work of building transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (The BATJC). We are a local collective and we are not a nonprofit because we believe that it will not allow us to take the kinds of political risks necessary for transformative justice and community accountability (TJ/CA). No one is paid and we work to get everything for as free as we can. We are not “volunteers,” but rather we understand this as part of our life’s work.

I am interested in our internal work. The work with each other inside of our movements, inside of our organizations and groups, inside of our relationships. The way that our analysis by itself is not enough, because what good is it if we can run great campaigns if we all end up hating each other in the process? If it means that leaders who used to be friends now don’t work together to the detriment of our movements? What good is our amazing analysis of TJ/CA if our intervention to violence tears apart our community, and then we need an accountability process for our accountability process?

Because it is easy to hate a white police officer, but what do we do when the violence and abuse is coming from people who look like us? People we rely on? People we love? What do we do when the violence is happening inside of our homes, our relationships, our communities? Inside of our political groups, collectives, organizations and movements?

Our inability to respond well to intimate violence and abuse continues to undermine our other political work. How is it that we still can’t respond well to one of the most common experiences on the planet that our peoples face?

This is the moment we are in.

Because it is clear to me that we don’t lack political analysis or people power or deeply compelling work. But I am interested in what happens next: the way we come together and then break apart. The way we can mobilize people against the state, but when it comes to intimate violence within our own communities, we can’t ever seem to find enough people; or they are there in the beginning, but are nowhere to be found in the following months; or we end up replicating our own versions of criminalization, exile and “other.” It is not enough to say, “community-based responses to violence” if we simply just end up replicating the state.

I am interested in what we are going to do when we have a world without prisons—that’s right, I said, “WHEN.” Because it is going to happen: we will win. I have no doubt in our ability to shut down the prison industrial complex forever and throw away the keys. It is going to happen.

But then what? What will be our alternatives for dealing with violence, harm and abuse?

We need to build alternatives. Yes, we need resistance—it is crucial. Our communities are being attacked and erased at every turn. Yes, we need to resist against the systems that are targeting us—most definitely. AND (BOTH/AND) we also need alternatives. Because even if we abolish prisons tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with conflict and harm and violence. Even if violence and abuse ended tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with the impacts of trauma (individual and collective trauma, immediate and generational trauma). Generational trauma will be with us for some time.

And of course these are not mutually exclusive to each other. We can resist in ways that build a new world. And I am not saying we need to do everything all at once all the time. On the contrary, I am saying the exact opposite. That instead, we get clear about our different roles and work in service of a shared vision, and that we are strategic about those roles. That those of us who are working to resist and hold back the tide for one more day, one more night, do so for those of us who are working to build alternatives. And that those of us who are working to build alternatives stay grounded in the current urgency and reality of intimate and state violence. That we work in concert with each other so that we are not responding to immediate needs in ways that undermine our long term visions (and in ways that perpetuate the very systems we are fighting); AND that we are also not building utopic politically pure castles in the sky that have no relevance to our current conditions. We need both and we need them together and we need them to be in service of one another.

Because we are good at resisting. We are good at fighting for the world we don’t want. We are good at analysis and analyzing things up and down (and sometimes into oblivion). We are skilled at naming what we don’t want. I think we are less skilled at naming what we do want; our visions for liberation. And not just vague things like, “ending white supremacy and heterosexism,” but how are all the children going to get fed? Who will clean the toilets? Who will take out the trash? Who will cook the food?

We know that most people who experience violence—any type of violence—turn to their intimate networks first: their best friend, their family, their partners, a neighbor. Most people don’t call the cops or an anonymous hotline or even seek social services. They turn to their intimate networks. So if we know this, then that is where we need to build.

I hope we are in a moment where we are realizing that we need to put half if not more of our time and resources into building alternatives and building in our intimate networks. BOTH a reclaiming of what has been stolen from us, as well as a reimagining of what can be. As well as a revealing of what we are already doing and the strategies of resiliency that are already embedded in our lives. For example, I think about queer chosen family. No one took a class or got a grant to learn how to do that. We did it to save our lives and in the process, created a new world for each other.

We are at a moment where we have almost two decades of shared language and thinking around TJ/CA—obviously the work has been going on forever, just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it—but in terms of a shared language and political framework, we have had tremendous contributions from so many great people and groups. We are in a moment where TJ/CA is gaining more and more visibility and where we are able to share examples of our responses to violence like never before. I feel incredibly lucky to be alive in this moment doing TJ/CA work and I extend daily gratitude to the folks who have come before me in this work as well as the brave and dear revolutionaries who I have the honor of working with.

We are in a moment where we are building off of this work knowing that practice yields the sharpest analysis.

How are we building the world we long for in our day-to-day? After the protests, after the conference, after the event, outside of the meetings? During the unsexy times, in our most mundane moments?

This is not about perfection, but practice. Falling down and getting back up. Spectacular failures and learning how we can be and do better. Resilience in the face of fear; Humility in the face of ego; Faith in the face of hopelessness. This is about understanding organizing as a spiritual practice that is just as much about our souls as it is about our goals.

Sometimes I think it is strange to speak about this work from a microphone because so much of the work I am engaged in is quiet work, tender work. It is witnessing people in their most vulnerable moments around their histories of child sexual abuse, the times when they don’t want to be seen. This work is about nuance, complexity and contradiction, not sound bytes and drawing lines in the sand. It is messy and sticky work that reminds me every day that notions of “good” and “bad” people are fantasies that simply serve to make us feel more comfortable, but ultimately don’t serve to make us more liberated. I don’t believe in “good” and “bad” people, I believe that given the right conditions, any of us can be an asshole; any of us can abuse power.

How do we leave a legacy worth fighting for? How do we learn to invest in each other as our greatest resource? Because we will need each other to build the kind of world we want; liberation is a collective practice. How can we cultivate a sense of shared commitment to each other and understand this as part of our organizing? How do we cultivate the kind of commitment to each other that can withstand failures, heartbreak, disappointment, gossip, mistakes and conflict?

The kind of commitment to each other and love for one another that allows us to continue to leap together, knowing that we will fall and mess up and make mistakes and get bruised. Knowing that we will have to brush ourselves off and climb back up the mountain to do it all over again tomorrow. How do we cultivate that kind of commitment? One where we still choose to leap. Together.

Thank you.

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On Collaboration: Starting With Each Other

*Excerpts from the 5th Annual Queer & Asian Conference, “Collide, Connect, Create,” keynote address, delivered on April 28, 2012.

sea buble with stones and sand stuck to it, set against the sun.I would like to invite you to breathe, deeply. To remember why you do this work—this work for liberation. Think of the communities your work is in service of—hold them in your mind—feel them. What are your wishes and dreams for them? Let’s remember why we’re here, what brought us into this work of daring to create movements that value all of us; daring to assert that Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders matter; that we matter.

Let us ground in all those who have come before us and honor them. All the freedom fighters who have made this moment possible. All of the queer Asian and Pacific Islander (API) folks in particular that have gone the hard road of being the only queer person or the only person of color, or the only asian, or the only pacific islander. Let us ground in the legacy of racial justice and queer liberation organizing and community building, of immigrant justice work and radical women of color and trans liberation work. Everyone who has wanted something more than criminalization, isolation, shame, self hatred and invisibility.

Let us ground in and honor all of the people who are currently fighting for us. For all of us in this room—each and every one of us. For the first queer API person we ever met; or whose writings we read or who helped make it possible for us to be who we are. For the first time we were ever in a room full of queer APIs. For the queer APIs in the south, rural lands, small cities who don’t have access to this type of space and belonging. For the queer API folks who have families that do not support them. For everyone currently involved in and committed to building queer API community. For all of the people fighting for liberation in this country and around the globe in big and small ways whether they are working for food justice, reproductive justice, the community caretakers, child care workers, prison abolitionists, healers and radical educators.

And finally, let us ground in and honor those yet to come, the people who we do this work for. We hope we can give them intact queer API communities and organizing. We vow to be able to pass on concrete, substantial tools and learnings to them; and wish for them a deep sense of pride, belonging and dignity in who they are, in all of their complexities. Our work and our time is responsible to them and we work so that they may have a lighter burden to carry…

I do this work in service of community. I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation. I speak knowing that all of our voices are important. I speak to leave evidence for the people like me who are searching for reflection and recognition and a “yes, we exist.” I speak to leave evidence for folks who have been told that disability is not as important as race, or that gender justice will have to wait until after class equality is won. For folks who have been told that how you feel is less important than what you think; for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to rattle off 10, even 5, writers or books that reflect their identities or experiences. Those of us who straddle the lines between multiple oppressed communities. For those of us who are working to end violence for all of us, not just some of us. For those of us who truly believe that no one’s safety is more important than anyone else’s, even when we feel unsafe.

I want to specifically name my privilege as a disabled person, when so many of us are locked up in prisons, institutions, group homes, or in the back rooms of our families’ houses. I have a level of mobility that many disabled folks don’t have and I know it is a huge reason I am visible. As someone who is physically disabled and does not have mental or cognitive disabilities, I know how privileged it is to get to speak from the mic to a crowd full of people and be listened to…

I was asked to speak about collaboration and how we build alliances for social change. There is so much I could say about it, but really, to me, it comes down to our relationships. It’s not about the smartest analysis or the fanciest organizing campaign with sleek billboards, buttons and stickers. It’s about the quality of our relationships with each other, how well you can build community and how you treat people.

If we are truly committed to ending oppression and violence, then we must be committed to each other. Then we must live out of the simple truth that we need each other. We need each other. And this is where I would like to center my comments for today.

The best analysis in the world is useless if we don’t treat each other well. If we don’t invest our time and energy in learning how to love each other better, if we can’t build relationships that can last more than 2-5 years. If we can’t commit to practicing working out hard dynamics in our relationships or if we are recreating the very conditions we are fighting against inside of our collectives, organizations, and movements.

It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you’re not willing to work on your heart and your relationship with yourself. If you don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry,” “that really hurt my feelings,” or “I messed up.” None of this matters if you are interested in staying “right” all the time or always wanting to only talk about the places you’re oppressed and never talk about the places you are privileged.

All of us here know that oppression needs to be ended. All of us have been moved to come out here today. But then what? Our movements don’t lack people being inspired and motivated, it lacks what comes next: the day-in and day-out work to end oppression and violence that is not glamorous or easy.

Take the day-to-day work of being an ally to queer disabled API folks, for example. The work of learning about your able bodied privilege, valuing the voices of disabled queer APIs, making sure your events are accessible, fighting ableism in public and private, educating your fellow able bodied queer API comrades about their able-bodied privilege. As a queer disabled korean adoptee woman, I ask you, how are you connecting your identity as an able bodied person to your identity as a queer API? How are you connecting your fight for queer APIs to fighting ableism? How are you making sure that queer API community and family building is accessible for all queer APIs? How are you actively listening, valuing and learning about queer disabled APIs?

Because you can know about something and it doesn’t mean that your behavior is going to change. It’s the white middle class way of activism, isn’t it? If I know different, then I will do different, but we all know that it takes much more work to change. Good intentions are not enough. We need to practice. We have to be in it for the long haul.

Because hopefully what that sharp analysis should tell us, is that systems of oppression and violence are deeply embedded in our lives and world, intertwined with each other; and white supremacy and transphobia are not going to be ended in a campaign or in 5, 20 or 50 years. It is going to take a long time. And we have to be committed to each other through it. We have to think of our relationships as long-term relationships with each other, as people we will be working with and plan to know for the next 30, 40 years.

Any kind of systematic change we want to make will require us to work together to do it. And we have to have relationships strong enough to hold us as we go up against something as powerful as the state, the medical industrial complex, the prison system, the gender binary system, the church, immigration system, the war machine, global capitalism.

Because we’re going to mess up. Of that I am sure. We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in violence or accept violence as normal.

We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it—because they do. We have to learn how to have hard conversations and get skilled at talking about and dealing with shame, guilt, trauma, hurt, and anger. That’s the kind of skills building and workshops that I want to see at conferences! And not some new-aged privileged imperialist, “let’s go to India and get healed and work on our relationship disconnected from the rest of the world and injustice.” But rather, we are doing this in service of liberation because our movements, organizations, groups and communities are imploding from the inside. People get into fights and then we never see them in the same room again; most of our non-profits feel more like corporations with CEOs and dictatorships; break-ups divide entire queer communities or people are exiled or leave and never heard from again; activists are burning out or being traumatized by the very movements that seek to end trauma; campaigns fail because we don’t know how to listen and work together, so instead of coalitions, we have turf wars and undermine each other for next year’s grant that barley pays the bills.

We must work to transform our selves, each other and the systems we’re up against. The task in front of us is to learn how to value and practice individual, collective and systematic change together. There is no other choice. Someone once said, “ community is taking responsibility for the relationships in the group.” What if we moved from that place? What if we understood each other as our collective responsibility? What if we understood that we are all interconnected and what harms you will impact me—and THIS is why addressing power and privilege are so vital?

How can we demand accountability from the state, if we can’t even hold our selves and each other accountable?

How do we stretch for each other and learn to live past our lifetimes? How do we live in service of people 3-5 generations to come? How do we grow our skills to be able to center our vision and think long-term? That’s the kind of thinking I want us to have. Because, the truth is, most of us won’t live to see the kind of large scale change that we dream of, but we can do our best to lay the necessary ground work for the next generation to be able to take it and run.

I want to leave a legacy of useful tools and substantial work for the people coming after us. I want to be able to give them loving, intact queer API communities and API women (gender queer, trans and cis) who love themselves and each other. I want to give them a world free of sexual violence. But most of all, I want to be able to leave them with a legacy of stories of how people came through harm with each other, how they risked loving each other in the face of uncertainty, how they built family and community that centered resiliency and healing.

Because the truth is, we need each other. We need each other. I need you and each and every one of you make my life more possible. We owe our existence to each other in so many ways. I don’t know how you have survived, but I am grateful you are here.

Take some time to look around at each other. Connect with each other and realize all the brilliance in this room. Commit to each other and remember that every time we turn away from each other, we turn away from ourselves. Remember that loving each other as fellow queer API folks is loving ourselves. This is where coalition building, collaboration and building alliances across movements begins: with each other. Because movements, coalitions, communities… they’re all made up of individual, living, breathing people. What good is it if you claim solidarity and alliance with disabled people, if you don’t treat the disabled people you know well?

Commit to not letting go of each other, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard. Commit to finally learn that the ends do not justify the means. How many times do we have to learn that how we do the work is just as important as the work we do? Commit to thinking about after the meeting, after the protest, after the revolution. Commit to being a grounded force to end violence and oppression. Commit to being a grounded force for healing and community. Commit to learning about where each of you are different and how “our differences lie down inside of us,” as audre lorde talks about.

What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is about: loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other…

I have been all over the country speaking for the past seven years and across the board, almost everyone I have met, has longed for community and love that will be able to be the foundation for justice and liberation. Community and love that are just and libratory. But most of us have been so hurt, experienced such harsh things, that we are afraid to try again. Each time community, political work or love fails us, it is that much harder to muster up the courage to try again. I know it’s hard. And I am not standing up here saying I am perfect at this by any means—far from it.

But what I am saying is that it is our only chance. We have to be bold. We have to be courageous. We have to be willing to risk again and again and again. In a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done.

I’d like to close with one of my favorite quotes, by a fellow korean adoptee:

I am realizing that our stories weave together, that acknowledgment of your story does not mean a necessary preclusion of my own. Something has been shattered. Some door flung open that I will never close. And I will lose some people when I acknowledge the door, while others will accompany me to the other side. And I cannot forget the people who are waiting there, people i have been holding my breath to see.

–Soo Na, from Garlic and Salt in

Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption

Thank you.

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Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access and Love

This essay was originally published in Issue Ten of Makeshift Magazine.

forsythia

This is a beginning; a dive into waters that I swim every day, but have been taught not to speak about.  I struggle with how to talk about love out loud in a way that holds access and doesn’t diminish love in all its glory, but instead illuminates how ableism twists and threatens love and relationships. Needing to constantly negotiate access for my physical disability within all my relationships in an ableist world has shaped the kind of connection and love I am able to have.  I have been scared to open up the Pandora’s box that holds the intimacies of ableism.  Scared to talk about some of the deepest parts of what disability has meant in my life.

Most days I feel like access and love are like oil and water.  I wonder how the two can possibly coexist.  I am speaking of love broadly, meaning any relationship where there is love, whether that is between friends, lovers, family members (chosen, birth, situational), community members, etc. As a queer disabled woman of color adoptee, I am questioning the very fabric that makes up love and, in particular, disabled people’s access to love—or, rather, the kinds of love (and relationships) that disabled people have access to.  How can disabled people who rely on our loved ones for daily access be our whole selves when that threatens the relationships our access and survival depends on?  And how can this support genuine, deep, loving relationships?

The activist-dreamer-revolutionary part of me believes that access and love don’t have to be separate.  It is the part of me that is committed to revolutionary love, radical love, or whatever it’s being called these days.  It lives off of the idea that somehow, if we work hard enough at this thing called liberation, our lives will be different: institutions, relationships and all.

But my life has proven different.  My lived experience has left me holding one half of my heart in each hand, one for access and one for love, crushed.  I have found myself on cold windy cliffs, staring at the canyon between the two.

I have watched ableism tear apart relationships with people I love.  I have seen access be too much of a barrier for people to be in relationship with each other.  I have made excuses for inaccessibility because I loved people and didn’t want to lose relationship with them.  I have excused racism, sexism, violence, homophobia because I didn’t want to, couldn’t afford to, lose access.  I have asked for access or raised ableism in relationships, only to have those relationships end abruptly. I have stayed in relationships for access and I have been too afraid to enter into relationships because of access. I have had access held over my head, leveraged for able-bodied supremacist means, or treated like a reward for good behavior.  I have had access made invisible or belittled by loved ones; I have had to make access happen so the person providing access didn’t know they were.  I have kept parts of myself from people I love because I was afraid to, didn’t know how to, be whole and complex in the context of needing access.

This is the cruelty of ableism: it robs us from each other.  This is the weight of access.  This is what gets said in whispers, not on the microphone and at the panel.  This is what gets shared in a fleeting glance between us, disabled, sick, crip folks; a recognition, a silent sigh, an unfocused stare.  This is what we don’t share, don’t know how to share, because it is so instinctual, so ground-level, so what’s-the-point-it’s-never-going-to-change.  This is the air I’ve breathed since I can remember, as a disabled child, never knowing it could be any different—never having been able bodied.

The weight of inaccessibility is not logistical.  It is not just about ramps, ASL interpreters, straws and elevators.  It is a shifting, changing wall—an ocean—between you and I.  It is just as much feeling and trauma as it is material and concrete.  It is something felt, not just talked about.  It is made up of isolation from another night at home while everyone else goes to the party.  The fear of being left by the people you love and who are supposed to love you.  The pain of staring or passing, the sting of disappointment, the exhaustion of having the same conversations over and over again.  The throbbing foolishness of getting your hopes up and the shrinking of yourself in order to maintain.  It is an echoing loneliness; part shame, part guilt, part constant apology and thank you.  It is knowing that no matter how the conditions around me change, my body will still not be able to do certain things—it will still need other people, it will still signal dependence, it will still be disabled.

At 30, I have experienced many different kinds of beautiful love, largely because I have had the privilege of not being locked away in an institution, group home or my family’s back room like many disabled people.  And indeed, to question the love I have been honored to experience on this page is terrifying and puts my current relationships, love and access at risk.  But these are the parts of disability justice and liberation that keep me up at night, that have hurt more than any ableist remark, that have left more scars than any surgery.  This is the underbelly of ableism.  This is what I fear we will be left to wrestle with after every building is made accessible and every important policy is passed.  This is what I desire as a queer disabled woman of color adoptee: to be able to love and not have access used as a weapon, and to be able to have access without the fear of losing love.

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Access Intimacy: The Missing Link

abstract painting with yellow, purple, pink and red spots.There are many ways to describe intimacy.  For example, there’s physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, intellectual, political, familial or sexual intimacy.  But, as a physically disabled woman, there is another kind of intimacy I have been struggling to name and describe, what I have been calling “access intimacy.”

I have begun using the term loosely and am still realizing different aspects of it.  This is in no way a complete describing of it, instead, this is an initial naming and the beginnings of giving it shape.  I am offering it as something that has been useful for me and I hope is useful to others to describe all different kinds of access, not just in relation to disability.  I think Access, as a framework, is powerful for so many of our lives.  Here, I am speaking from my own lived experience as a physically disabled person but I know access intimacy can also happen in many different ways for mamas and parents, women of color, queer and trans folks, etc…  Anyone can experience access intimacy.

I have never had words for access intimacy before.  For years, I would feel it or crave it, but not know how to describe it. It has always been just out of reach; just beyond my grasp.  I have mistaken it for emotional or political intimacy, sexual attraction or romantic desire.  I have mistakenly assumed that it would be there based on one’s identity or experience.  I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy.  And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow.

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.  It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.  Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.  Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations.  Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.  I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.  It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are.  It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

In my life, access intimacy is something that has been hard won, organic or at times even felt magical.  It has taken me by surprise, showing up with people that I never would have expected to have that kind of “access connection” with.  It has been exciting and relieving, like a long slow exhale.  I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens.  It has felt like an unspoken, instinctual language between different people, like an entirely unique way of being able to communicate and connect.  Similar to meeting someone you just “click with,” access intimacy has felt like a distinct form of attraction, desire and energy on to itself.

Access intimacy is something I am coming to understand that I need in my life; something that I cannot (and don’t want to) live without.  I need it to literally be my whole self because access is such an intimate part of my life as a queer physically disabled woman of color adoptee.  Without it, relationships exist under a glass ceiling or split by thick frosted windows, with huge pieces of myself never being able to be reached. Without it, there is survival, but rarely true, whole connection.

Access intimacy is not just the action of access or “helping” someone.  We have all experienced access that has left us feeling like a burden, violated or just plain shitty.  Many of us have experienced obligatory access where there is no intimacy, just a stoic counting down of the seconds until it is over.  This is not access intimacy.  There have been numerous relationships in my life where I have loved people very deeply, but never fully felt safe with them around my access.  So many relationships where I knew I could only ask for or share so much, without getting snapped at, chided or being punished with reluctant passive aggressive access.  So many times where I was too afraid, because of the lack of access intimacy, to speak up and voice what I needed or what I couldn’t do, resulting in being isolated or getting very badly physically hurt from pushing myself too hard, in some of the worst cases.

Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost.  In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.  There is a good feeling after and while you are experiencing access intimacy.  It is a freeing, light, loving feeling.  It brings the people who are a part of it closer; it builds and deepens connection.  Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible.  Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world.  Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.

It has looked like relationships where I always feel like I can say what my access needs are, no matter what.  Or i can say that I don’t know them, and that’s ok too.  It has looked like people not expecting payment in the form of emotional currency or ownership for access.  It has looked like able bodied people listening to me and believing me.  It has looked like people investing in remembering my access needs and checking in with me if there are going to be situations that might be inaccessible or hard disability-body-wise.  It has looked like crip-made access.  It has looked like crip solidarity.

In the last half decade of my life I have been able to experience many different forms and levels of access intimacy.  Before that, I was not even in a place where I could have had access intimacy with anyone.  It has only been in the last seven years that I have come into myself as a politically disabled person enough to begin to experience or desire access intimacy, even on superficial levels.  Looking back, there have been only a handful of relationships in my life where access intimacy has existed.  And in most of them access intimacy was not instant, but built and cultivated, with me bearing the brunt of the work.

For the first time in my adult life, I am experiencing access intimacy that is not just painstakingly built over years, conversation by conversation, but is already in fertile existence, ready to grow.  For the first time in my life I am in disabled community meeting sick and disabled folks and experiencing a kind of mutual access intimacy that feels like family.  For the first time in my life, I am in relationships with able bodied queer people of color experiencing access intimacy that is beyond explanation and belief.  For the first time, this year, I am experiencing a level of access intimacy in my intimate relationships and home life that I have never experienced before.  It has been both amazing and saddening, now having something that actually cares for me.  And it, like emotional intimacy, is also a deep risk because it would be devastating to lose and requires maintenance.

Now, when I describe relationships, I include access intimacy along with my many other descriptors.  I am watching it, studying it, bearing witness to it as it grows, evolves and shifts and as I learn all the different ways that access intimacy can exist.

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