«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
at the Gladstone, a boutique hotel located in the west end of downtown Toronto. The facebook event page provided the following description of the event, "to honour our tradition of messing with holiday stereotypes/expectations and to challenge, create new meanings, and continuously surprise ourselves, this winter we are organizing our very own superqueero holiday potluck dinner is the show, and you're invited!" That night, as soon as the show cut for intermission, one of the accessibility volunteers came up to me with an urgent look on her face. She told me that several audience members had approached her because someone who was wearing heavily scented products was sitting in the first two rows. This section was reserved for people with chemical sensitivities/injuries who need a fragrance free environment in order to be present at the show. In the throngs of people milling around and chatting with each other, kumari quickly approached me and asked if I had heard of the problem. Apparently, other volunteers had also approached kumari and informed them that the photographer Unapologetic had asked to take pictures of the show that night was the person who was wearing heavily scented products. Ever the problem solver, kumari said that they would ask the photographer to relocate from the front row.
Once the show had ended and all the lights had come up, I was wandering around in the audience, checking in with the people I had asked to volunteer at the show and thanking audience members for coming. I was quite surprised that three different women responded quite positively to the show's accessibility work. One of them was considered to be a well-known disability justice activist and commented that Unapologetic's accessibility efforts were "right up there with Sins Invalid". I took this to be quite a compliment as Sins Invalid, which describes itself as "a performance project on disability and sexuality that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists" (Sins Invalid, n.d.), is well known for its disability justice work. Trying to be modest, I confessed that I knew nothing about accessibility and that everything that was implemented that night was as a result of learning from other disability justice activists. She countered by saying that what matters is that Unapologetic is doing the work to make accessibility happen which does not necessarily take place within other community organizing initiatives. As I was still new to doing accessibility organizing, it felt good to get positive feedback from someone who had so much more experience than I did.
Several days later however, I had a conversation that made me question my work with Unapologetic and to think more deeply about the relationship between disability and accessibility. Later that week, I hosted an open house. I cooked a mountain of food and invited my friends to pass through at any point during the day. I had not had the chance to see my friend Scott in a several weeks and he agreed to come to my apartment an hour earlier so we could have some one-on-one catch up time before other people arrived. After making some tea for both of us and opening the box of pastries that he had brought from the neighborhood bakery, we sat on my blue couch and began to talk. Our conversation invariably turned to the Unapologetic Show that he had attended a few days before. As Scott works at the office of sexual and gender diversity at a local university, he had told several students from the school’s queer of color group about the event and had sat with some of them during the show. He said that he really enjoyed the event and the variety of the performances: while some were more professional and polished, others were performed by those who were clearly new to the stage.
As much as he appreciated the content of the show however, he also gave me some feedback in terms of how the event was organized. Having sat with several of the students who came to Unapologetic for the first time and who were relatively new to the queer and trans of color community arts scene, he shared some of the reactions of the un-initiated. Scott introduced one of the students, Harry to his friend, Kay who had agreed to volunteer as an active listener that night. Harry asked Kay why she was wearing a ribbon on her arm. She explained that the ribbon was meant to identify her as an active listener in case anyone needed to talk to her for support during the show. Harry was not clear about why such a role would be needed and laughed when he heard the explanation. Scott explained to me that not everyone was familiar with the concept of "active listener". Having invested so much time and effort into the accessibility work for the show, I responded somewhat defensively that we described the role of active listeners on the facebook event page and in the actual space of the venue itself we had put up signs at the entrance and within the performance space explaining what “active listeners” were. Scott responded that the problem is that people have to understand themselves in particular ways in order for these categories to make sense: if you do not perceive yourself as someone who can be emotionally triggered, the notion of an active listener will not be relevant to you. As newcomers to Unapologetic (and to a particular queer and trans of color scene) these students were still trying to get accustomed to the space and it is unlikely that they would have felt the need to speak to an active listener in the way that was intended. Yet Scott shared that even though Harry had expressed incredulity at the realization that a role such as active listener existed, Harry nevertheless periodically spoke to Kay throughout the night asking questions about things that he did not understand. Scott explained that the role of active listener presumed that audience members would need to talk about emotionally difficult issues when in fact they may find it useful to engage with volunteers in a range of different ways. He also pointed out that it was through his introduction of Harry to Kay that made Harry feel comfortable enough to approach her in ways that might otherwise have been difficult for those who did not have a similar social intermediary.
Scott also shared that the students that he invited were not always sure of what was expected of them as audience members. During the show's intermission, when kumari made the announcement asking folks wearing scented products to shift to the back of the room, they had also made a plea to audience members to cheer loudly for the performers. Scott relayed that some of the students that he was sitting with felt taken aback by this comment because they already felt as though they were cheering loudly. At the same time, he could also tell that some of them were not altogether sure of how to react to some of the performances because of their intensely personal nature. Having the set list still fresh in my mind and thinking about the performances that preceded the intermission, I could see the how newcomers to Unapologetic would be uncertain of the response to give to some of the pieces. For instance, one of the performers presented a deeply moving dance piece about the connection between their relationship to their father and their Christian faith and the need to break the pattern of trying to please both of them to the extent of sacrificing their own wellbeing. While performers sometimes indicate the type of responses that they want to hear from audience members in the biographies that are read out loud by the hosts of the show prior to their performances, this is by no means a universally common practice. Hearing Scott share the experiences of those who had never been to Unapologetic Burlesque made me think about how accessibility organizing is not exhausted by a focus on issues of disability justice.
I came to realize that I had to think about accessibility in broader ways. If my goal as the accessibility coordinator was to address barriers to the participation of those who normally do not take part in Unapologetic, I not only had to take into consideration people with disabilities, I also had to think about people who had never been to this kind of event before. While I had been hearing queer and trans of color community organizers talk about the need to tailor programming toward newcomers to the QTPOC community arts scene for quite some time, listening to Scott relay his students' responses to the event made me viscerally aware of this need in a way that I was not able to comprehend before. In my interview with Jeff, one of the facilitators for Asian Arts Freedom School, he offered a critical assessment of the way in which accessibility work is performed in queer and trans of color community arts circles, "[there are] events where there are paragraphs and paragraphs of what it means to be accessible but that makes it accessible to folks who have that language and have the time to read it and will read it". Likewise, Patrick, coordinator of Asian Arts Freedom School's Drag Musical program explained that it was important in community organizing work not only to engage people who are already in the "scene" and that accessibility was also about reaching out to others. He states, "for me, community is about expanding it too. It's not just QTPOC. I'm part of a larger community that wants to grow...when you are community organizing and building a movement, it’s not just about the people who agree with you, it’s about how to get everyone in". In trying to work with this principle in the Drag Musical, Patrick explained to me that in the selection process for the program, the team purposefully reached out to people who were not already within the queer and trans of color community arts scene and decided that most of the participants would be selected for the program on the basis that they had not already been involved with these and similar initiatives.
Patrick and Jeff's concern about the importance of reaching out to those who were not already "in the know" resonates with the insights generated by scholars whose work focuses on community organizing and community building. Walter and Hyde (2012) argue, "if we perceive community not as an existing unit that needs to be organized differently but as a dynamic and emergent whole embodying varying degrees of community-ness that is continually being built or created, then the building of community will be one of the central concerns and activities of community practice. Community is created or built, or not, with each of our actions; with our consciousness concerning ourselves, others, and the issues; and with our relationships" (2012, p.
84). In discussing a case study of how a feminist health center engaged in organizational change in order to meet the needs of immigrant communities in its neighborhood, Walter and Hyde point to the importance of building relationships with individuals and groups who were not initially envisioned in community building efforts.
Weil (1996) explains that in the field of social work, relationship building has a central role in community practice. Many community organizing scholars have turned to Pierre Bourdieu's work on social capital as a way to think more carefully about relationship building activities and their consequences. Bourdieu defines social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (1985, p. 248). While research around this phenomenon initially focused on the potential benefits accruing to actors who obtain social capital through their participation in broader networks, more recently, political scientists such as Robert Putnam (1993) have analyzed social capital in ways that have equated it with the level of participatory behavior in community activities. Walter and Hyde forward three different kinds of social capital and describe how they contribute to community building in different ways: "bonding- strengthening existing relationships; bridging - building new relationships; and linking - fostering linkages between community members and community organizations " (2012, p. 81). In this context, the Drag Musical's attempt to reach out to those who have previously not been involved in the queer and trans of color community arts scene can be understood in terms of both bridging and linking forms of social capital. The initiative attempts to build relationships with individuals who previously had little to no contact with the QTPOC arts scene and connects them to a community program.
In some ways, the kind of approach for which Patrick and Jeff are advocating may seem quite different from the efforts that I describe in chapter one where QTPOC organizers draw on a history of community organizing efforts led by women of color in order to create “safe spaces”.
In contrast to attempts to reach out unknown others, Stall and Stoecker associate modes of safe space organizing with a private sphere that emphasizes "the maintenance and development of personal connections that provide a safe environment for people to develop, change and grow" (2005, p. 202). At the same time, they maintain that even more privately oriented modes of community organizing work cannot maintain a strictly inward orientation. They argue that this type of organizing ultimately, "extends ‘the boundaries of the household to include the neighborhood' and, as its efforts move ever further out, ultimately tries to 'dissolve the boundaries between public and private life, between household and civil society' (Haywoode 1991, 175)" (2005, p. 198). In building on Stall and Stoecker's conceptualization of community organizing in relation to public and private domains, the following section brings together the separate strands of this chapter and uses the notion of publicity to think about relationship among accessibility, disability and strangerhood (or those who are unfamiliar with/ not involved in a particular social collective).