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Audre Lorde deserves better than some superficial tribute at National Women’s Studies Association.

Date: March 26, 2008

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by the National Women’s Studies Association and invited to speak on the “Tribute Panel” at this year’s annual meeting in June. The tribute panel is designed to “honor past scholarship that set new directions for the field,” and this year it is dedicated to Black feminist thought, especially the work of Audre Lorde. Since Audre Lorde is one of my all-time greatest heroes and influences, I was very excited about this opportunity.

However, there’s one problem: all NWSA can offer in exchange for my service is a complimentary conference registration and membership. Since my resources are extremely limited as I do not have a regular source of income (I pay my bills and fund my organization, Intersex Initiative, by giving lectures at universities across the country, which doesn’t happen frequent enough to be reliable), I can’t attend the conference unless travel and lodging expenses are provided.

So I wrote Allison Kimmich, the executive director of NWSA, to explain my circumstance, and asked for some financial assistance so that I could attend the conference. She replied “I do not have discretionary funds available to cover travel and lodging for invited speakers. As our letter of invitation noted, NWSA would be able to offer complimentary membership and registration; I certainly wish we could do more.”

I realize that NWSA’s resources are limited, and might not be able to offer all the expenses for all speakers. But if it wishes to invite activists, artists, independent scholars and others who do not have a tenured or tenure-track academic appointment or a conference budget through their job, I believe that they need to provide expenses. Otherwise, only those activists who are independently wealthy would ever be represented.

I asked some members of the Governing Council of NWSA to advocate for funding on my behalf, and they did, but in vain. At this point, I wrote an appeal to WMST-L, an international women’s studies mailing list, explaining the situation, and asked members of NWSA to help me by 1) writing letters of support to NWSA, 2) pledge a donation to cover my expenses, and 3) arrange a speaking gig for me to raise money.

The response was very encouraging: thanks to supporters who circulated my appeal in other women’s studies and NWSA-affiliated email lists, about a dozen people came forward to offer contributions ranging from $25 to $300 (wow) within several days, and I was able to quickly raise enough money to pay for the airfare between Portland and Cincinnati, where the conference is being held.

It also began to mount a pressure on NWSA, as several caucus presidents and Governing Council officers began asking Allison why NWSA couldn’t provide travel and lodging expenses for an invited speaker. Then strange thing happened: when contacted by Barbara Howe, the Governing Council President of NWSA, Allison Kimmich told her that I had been offered free hotel room at the conference site.

What is going on? Allison did not offer to assist me with any expenses except registration and membership fees (which doesn’t cost NWSA anything, as the marginal cost of adding a member or attendee is virtually zero) in her initial invitation dated March 3, and also in her second email (after I explained that I could not attend the conference without assistance) on March 14. But she is telling other people that I was offered free lodging, directly contradicting what she has told me before.

Did Allison change her mind, because of the bad publicity my appeal has generated? I truly don’t know, since I still haven’t heard directly from her about the hotel room. But by (falsely) telling Barbara that I was offered free lodging at the conference site, Allison is making me out to be a swindler, a con artist, for seeking donations to cover the very expense that has supposedly been paid for by the NWSA.

Was this an intentional spin of the Karl Rove variety designed to smear me? I’m not sure, but it makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about it. In fact, I almost don’t want to attend NWSA after all this, although I still feel that it’s important for me to be there. I can’t allow them to pay superficial tribute to Audre Lorde and her work while the organization continues to operate in ways such as this that alienate and marginalize women of color, poor women, queer and trans people, etc.

Oh, did I mention that this year’s conference is “dedicated to the ongoing process of undoing the long history of racism and homophobia in Cincinnati, NWSA, and beyond”?

(Just to remind everyone: there are many great people within NWSA, including the folks who have offered contributions and advocated on my behalf. I’m just addressing the general organizational tendency and historical patterns within NWSA, not its members…)