"Very condescending. Patronizing. Dehumanizing. Invalidating."
These are among the words that activist, artist, musician and Denver mayoral candidate Kalyn Heffernan uses to describe a passage about her in an April 8 Colorado Politics post by Miller Hudson, a public-affairs consultant and former state legislator. The item, which dubbed her "an HR manager's dream hire — gay, female, in a wheelchair, as well as a 'little person,'" set off a social-media frenzy, with commentators defending Heffernan and blasting Hudson in ways that figuratively set Twitter aflame.
Hudson is surprised by the response, particularly since he says he thought he was complimenting Heffernan, known internationally as the MC for Wheelchair Sports Camp, rather than demeaning her. Heffernan, meanwhile, is grateful for the widespread support she's received but wants the conversation to shift away from defending her and toward what she'd like to do to help Denver residents who are too often overlooked and ignored.
"I want to use this attention to focus on issues and solutions — and to talk about facts like how we have enough vacant apartments in the city today to house the entire state's homeless population," she says.
The setting for "Is Denver's Prosperity a Selling Point or Stumbling Block for Hancock?," Hudson's Colorado Politics piece, was the 2019 LGBTQ Denver Mayoral Forum, sponsored by One Colorado and staged on April 4 at the Exdo Event Center. Heffernan was joined on the panel by four fellow candidates who have also earned a spot on the May 7 ballot: incumbent mayor Michael Hancock, community organizer and educator Lisa Calderón, former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis, and ex-state senator and city official Penfield Tate. The sixth person who qualified for the ballot, outspoken citizen Stephan "Chairman Seku" Evans, wasn't on hand.
Here's the first paragraph of Hudson's account:
I attended a Denver mayoral debate last week for the first time in more than a month. Yard signs are starting to pop up across the city alongside spring flowers as residents tune in to a campaign that has been producing few ripples. This calm may be about to change. I can report the four major candidates have raised their skill levels substantially — honing responses and focusing their appeals. Several hundred voters turned out for the LGBTQ event at the EXDO Center, blessed with a cash bar and located in a near-RINO neighborhood humming with Millennials most evenings. Joining the debate was newcomer Kalyn Rose Heffernan, an HR manager’s dream hire — gay, female, in a wheelchair, as well as a "little person" — she punches a bunch of diversity buttons. Kalyn brought with her a wry sense of humor and equal opportunity barbs tossed expertly at her "more serious" opponents.
Journalist, podcaster and longtime Westword contributor Bree Davies, who is characterized by Heffernan as her "press sorceress," is among those who weighed in early on these sentences. Her tweet reads in part, "WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK IS THIS, @colo_politics."
Other social-media takes in a similar vein followed. One person tweeted, "This putrid writing makes me want to rip everything within 3 blocks of my apartment to shreds. Kalyn's fucking awesome. To hell with this writer. This is just so god damn thoughtless." Another offered: "I'm so disappointed in Miller Hudson with @colo_politics and his latest article on the Mayor's race. He used ableist language when talking about @kalyn4mayor. Kalyn is a qualified, smart, and wonderful woman, who deserves to be treated with respect and gratitude." A third maintained: "Wow, this is offensive garbage. If you can't do even minimal research on a candidate's (excellent) platform because you're too distracted by her queerness and wheelchair, you're the one who's not taking this seriously. This writer owes Kalyn an apology."
One reason Hudson was shocked by this invective, he says, is because his notes show that Heffernan used much the same language to describe herself. But that's not quite right, as demonstrated by a video of the debate shared by One Colorado. In her introduction, Heffernan said, "I'm queer" and divulged that "I came out when I was nineteen" — revelations she felt were appropriate given that the forum focused on LGBTQ matters. She also mentioned that "I'm a freedom fighter for the little ones." Later, at the 1:15 mark, during a conversation about Denver Public Schools, she noted that she doesn't see a lot of teachers who are queer, disabled or people of color. However, there was no allusion we heard to being a one-person diversity showcase.
Watch the video below:
Hudson doesn't apologize for his reference to "the four major candidates," which clearly excludes Heffernan. But he does stress that he put the phrase "more serious" in quotes as a reference to the general demeanor of Hancock, Calderón, Giellis and Tate as compared to Heffernan, whose most prominent moment of humor came when the forum's moderator asked the participants to write down one word to symbolize their campaign. Her answer: "Sexy."
"It seemed like she had the freedom to be funny, and that's the way I took it," Hudson says.
Regarding the reaction to his words, Hudson stresses, "I don't want to pass judgment on how anybody took it, and I don't want to get into a place like when Joe Biden was talking about intentions. But I tried my best to mirror the way she presented herself to the audience, and I didn't see anything wrong with that. I thought it was great."
Indeed, after the social-media storm, Hudson sent the following note to Heffernan via her website: "Hi Kalyn, I was impressed by your remarks at last week's debate. My comments about your candidacy have stirred concern. I believe your campaign deserves a longer story, and I would like to interview you for a column."
This invitation holds no allure for Heffernan, who notes that Hudson "did not characterize me as impressing one bit in his dehumanizing, invalidating description of me. Impressed, but still not taken seriously. Nah, that's not impressive."
She adds: "I'm pretty certain he didn't describe anybody else by their body, sexual orientation or gender."
On the topic of being excluded from either the "major" or "serious" candidate club, she admits, "It's one of the more frustrating parts of my campaign — having to advocate for myself as a viable candidate because I don't have the campaign finances that everybody else does. One of the biggest problems in politics is that it's backed by so many special interests, and you have to pay to play." At this writing, she hasn't been invited to participate in several major debates, including one sponsored by the NAACP on April 13.
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Meanwhile, though, Heffernan believes that "I raised the most serious issues at that forum, that I was the only queer represented at the forum, that I was the only one advocating for the homeless as hard as I was, that I was the only one advocating for marginalized queer youth like I was. I was the only person up there who mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, who started the Pride Movement, and I'm the only one who's really lived these experiences instead of talking about them from an outside perspective. So the fact that [Hudson] diminished me and my body and my looks when I think I spoke the most seriously at that forum is super-frustrating."
What's most insidious about the language in the piece from Heffernan's perspective "is how normalized it is. I've become accustomed to it. I've been covered in the press forever, my whole life. There have always been stories about me overcoming adversity and being an inspirational person. It's taken me a long time, but real writer friends of mine have helped me recognize the dehumanizing and harmful ways people with disabilities are represented in the media. And that's in some of the reactions, too. I'm glad that people are advocating on my behalf and that they see this as being unacceptable — but my body is still being fetishized."
She'd much prefer the conversation be about "how disabled, homeless people are dying today and don't have options to accessible housing — not just affordable, but attainable. That's a priority of my campaign, and I've been focused on putting campaign finances into solutions and things that will outlive the campaign. We've fed hundreds of unhoused people with campaign money; we've built ramps with campaign money."
Speaking with Hudson might give her a high-profile opportunity to share these accomplishments and further discuss "the way we're treating poor and disenfranchised people in this city." But in her words, "I feel like I'm putting so much energy into so many things that the last thing I want to do is to try to educate someone who's pretty clearly discriminated against me. That's not my job. I have a really big job right now in trying to get people out on May 7. It's life or death for so many people that I'm among, and I don't want this to distract from what's really important."