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© 2015 by Sonja Franeta
 

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December 6, 2017

 

What do I do about stories I wish I had included--maybe do a second book?

So much has changed over the years. Just think of how the computer has affected us. I can backspace and delete with no problem. Yet I remember agonizing over papers where I had to white things out and cut and paste physically, run off copies instead of copy them. It's really unbelievable.

 

One story I wish I had included that is definitely a part of my life in Russia, and even my queer life in Russia is that of the people with disabilities in Novosibirsk. In 1994 I began to work with Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University as an assistant project manager for their USAID grant to improve wheel chair manufacturing and usage in Siberia. We worked with existing disability organizations, namely Finist, and the Wheelchair manufacturer there and did some wonderful things. Ralph Hotchkiss's design for his Whirlwind chair was introducted and the factory began to produce more adaptable wheelchairs instead of the cumbersome one-size-fits-all. But besides this excellent work we did, I met some of the most wonderful people I had ever met and I will never forget that experience because of them.

 

Part of our work was to bring other organizations to do exhange work and workshops with the people with disabilities who had been quite isolated. Two women came to do a workshop on sexuality from  U.S. Planned Parenthood. They asked me to come to the workshop on the second or third day and talk about being a lesbian. I had come out to some of my close friends already, like Larisa and Lyuba and others, but this meant being more public. There were about fifty women in the room--they were so engaged and obviously had been learning a lot. Their faces looked so beautiful and attentive when I began to talk. I don't know exactly what I said but when I explained that I was a lesbian and that some of them may not know that--I noticed one of the younger women's mouth drop open (it was she who was already a lesbian; she had had a back injury from a fall out a window). After the discussion I had numerous propositions--one from an older married woman who asked me to be her "cavalier." Another incident occurred at the party celebrating the end of the workshops during which I got an amazing and intense kiss from a single mom who entwined her arm with mine in demonstration of her love, as we drank sips of wine and then kissed with everyone clapping and hooting.

 

When the Planned Parenthood facilitators asked what they were taking away as an important learning experience, one woman said learning about STDs and AIDS, another said discussing the question of violence against disabled women, and Larisa said that she appreciated learning more "about LGBTs and Sonja's struggles with coming out." I can still hear her strong musical voice in Russian. Larisa was murdered in her bed by a robber several years after we ended the project and her husband Zhenya, also a wheelchair-user, died of a stroke and the slow response of emergency services. Larisa was one of the most courageous people I'd met. Although she was born with spina bifida, nothing could stop her. She was the lead woman activist and the head of the Novosibirsk  women's organization. She would fearlessly go out in her East European tall-handle chair to zip around and do what she needed to do whether there was snow, rain or sun. One time when I was walking with her near where she lived she stopped to talk with the workmen working on the sidewalk. She said: "why don't you just put in some curb cuts here. I live nearby and so do other people in wheelchairs. You could make it easier for us. Just do it." And she convinced them right there on the spot. No paperwork or government orders necessary!

 

 

 

Lyuba

 

Axis 

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