Dropping Gilda Radner’s name from Gilda’s Club is disrespectful, but let’s not lose focus (Opinion)

Since the Madison, Wisconsin chapter of Gilda’s Club announced this week their plans to change the name of their organization by removing any reference to late comedian and Saturday Night Live great Gilda Radner, after whom the non-profit was named, there’s been an incredible amount of backlash— and in my opinion, for good reason.

Speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal ahead of the formal announcement and ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for Thursday at 5:15 pm in Middleton, WI, Gilda’s Club Madison executive director Lannia Syren Stenz explained the reason for the change.

One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed, as we are seeing younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.

This explanation is so absurd that I refuse to believe it represents the real reasons for the name change. First, and most obvious: There’s an endless list of foundations, organizations, non-profits and businesses that have been named in honor of someone or some thing, wherein huge percentages of people have no clue from where these groups’ names originate. I seriously doubt most addicts in their early 20s (and there are many) entering the Betty Ford Center know who Betty Ford was.

Stenz submits she doesn’t want to create any confusion for those who might pass by their doors. This argument works if said doors belong to, say for example, an independently owned bakery with such an absurd name or oddly decorated storefront that it’s unclear what they do inside. That business partially relies on foot traffic in order to secure new clients. I’d imagine most folks who take advantage of the excellent services Gilda’s Club provides, do so based on recommendations from doctors, therapists, friends and relatives. In short, if people need the services provided therein, it’s likely they’ll find Gilda’s Club without a sign that says “cancer” on its façade. Which brings me to my next point.

I imagine Radner’s husband Gene Wilder and her cancer psychotherapist Joanna Bull, who co-founded Gilda’s Club, purposely left out the word “cancer” in the name of the organization because they didn’t want to scare patients any more than they already rightfully were. They wanted to create an informal, comfortable space where patients and their friends and family can go to escape their realities for a few hours and maybe even have some fun.

The point about younger patients being unaware of Radner is also lost on me. Instead of her name representing an element of confusion, why can’t it represent an amazing opportunity to teach a young person about a groundbreaking comedian? Factor in YouTube, where there are hundreds of Radner videos, and you’ll find that a young patient who doesn’t know Gilda Radner can get to know her in less than a minute. And, by the way, attaching a person’s name to something as terrifying as a disease helps humanize the condition and ultimately lends comfort to those affected.

Although the Madison chapter’s announcement created waves, protests and the launching of petitions, it’s important to note a few things. First, Madison wasn’t the first of the country’s 23 chapters to change their name. North Texas and Milwaukee came before them. Second, the Cancer Support Community, which became Gilda’s Club’s parent organization in 2009, has, in no way, mandated that all chapters change their names. Instead, they’ve given local affiliates the freedom to keep “Gilda” in their name or change it to Cancer Support Community or The Wellness Community, the latter of which is also under the CSC umbrella and was, in fact, the place Radner visited throughout her battle with ovarian cancer before succumbing to the disease in 1989 when she was 42.

It’s also important to remember that in the end, we’re talking about names. And while I firmly believe that dropping Gilda Radner’s name is a complete sign of disrespect and, as outlined above, makes little sense from a business and emotional perspective, I do wholeheartedly support the work done by the Cancer Support Community (who provided more than $40 million in free services last year), regardless of what its affiliates call themselves.

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor emeritus of Laughspin.

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