On April 8 the performance project and arts incubator Sins Invalid will unveil their newest production in San Francisco. In a culture that's at once saturated in sex and remarkably superficial when it comes to sexual representation, Sins represents the kind of sexual performance we all need more of. I'm missing this year's run by two weeks, but I wanted to know more about it, so I invited Sins co-founders Patricia Berne and Leroy Franklin Moore Jr. to meet me on Skype and explain why putting sin back in sex was a good idea.
I've seen your name and heard it shortened, so I need to start by asking, what's the proper pronunciation of 'Sins Invalid' or more precisely, where is the emphasis in that second word?
Leroy Moore: It's pronounced Sins Invalid (as in "not valid"), and the full name is Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility.
Patricia Berne: It's a play on words of course, referring to the fact that people with disabilities have been called invalids (pronounced in-VUH-lid). But it's also acknowledging that in many cultural contexts having a non-normative body is considered along the lines of "the sins of the father being cast upon the son". To us that is the invalid framework, the idea that somehow it's not part of the way we exist as humans to have a wide variety of ways of embodiment. The truth is that all bodies are valid and beautiful. Also, we knew our nickname would just be Sins, and that works for a group exploring sexuality.
Where did the idea come from?
Leroy: The origins of Sins? Well, it started as a conversation between Patty and I, as well as our friends Todd Herman and Amanda Coslor. We had all gotten together and were talking about our work, as artists, as activists, and for me and Patty, as people as color, and as people with disabilities. Patty and I both had films about sexuality and disability (mine was a collaboration with Todd Herman), and they were hot, so we wanted to share them. We were going to do a small event, just something for our community. At the time there was really nothing out there about sexuality and disability that also held our politics as social justice activists looking for something more than identity politics.
Patty: There wasn't a complex analysis around disability in the disability arts scene. So much of the cultural work that is created by people with disabilities has focused on single identity politics around disability and lacks an analysis of race, queerness or gender, or any layering of experience. And when we look at the cultural work offered by the social justice left, the bulk of that work doesn't in any way reflect disability oppression (ableism), resistance to that oppression, or even the experience of disability. There may be an acknowledgment that people with disabilities should participate in movement building or in community organizing efforts but there's a lack of analysis that there are barriers to participation that have to do with institutionalized ableism, and the ways in which that interacts with white supremacy, male supremacy, enforced heteronormativity, and so on.
We weren't seeing folks who were holding the complexity of our identities -- as people of color, as queer, as people impacted by male supremacy, as people with disabilities -- all in one place. We wanted to create a space that could hold all of who we are, where we wouldn't be the token person of color, or the token person with a disability, or the token queer person (not that Leroy is queer -- he's an ally).
Leroy: As we talked more about the concept behind the show, people started coming to us with their work, and we realized the need for Sins Invalid was outgrowing our original idea. So we decided to do our first event bigger than we had originally planned, in 2006 in San Francisco at the Brava Theater, which seats 300 people. We had a little bit of funding from Theater Bay Area, but basically we did that year from our own pockets and it was huge, we packed the place. So after that year we all agreed this shouldn't be a one-time event, and that's how it became something more. Over the past 5 years we've gained additional community and foundation support to keep doing the work. And now it's much more than an annual show, we run performance workshops for community members, we just piloted an artist in residence program for artists with disabilities who are queer or people of color, we offer presentations on disability, sexuality and performance, we offer workshops on the intersections of disability, race, gender and sexuality throughout the year, and we're finishing the production of a film.
Can we back up a bit and can I ask you to define what you mean by social justice and how does it relate to another term you use, disability justice?
Patty: The social justice world typically references a network of people who engage in what's called movement building work - organizing communities and community members toward collective action for a shared good, based on shared values and principles. It acknowledges that there is institutionalized oppression, power and privilege occurring on multiple axes - race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, immigration status, religion, etc - and organizes people to challenge and transform that institutional oppression as a path to social change.
Disability justice is the framework from which we started the organization. Often times disability is seen as an individual experience, and usually a tragic one. But in fact, disability is in relation not just to individual bodies or minds but to the broader social body and consciousness. You can't do a project on disability without having that project be situated in the context of race and gender, for example, because disability identity is not independent of any other identity. Disability justice affirms that we are whole and embodied beings, that there is no need to separate ourselves into distinct little bits of experience. If you want to talk about racial justice, you have to talk about disability. If you want to talk about gender justice you have to talk about race. If you want to talk about disability you have to talk about queerness. I think people have begun to appreciate this in some movement settings, but I think it's still quite new for people to integrate disability and ableism. I think people are not used to thinking about disability politically, and to see disability rights as a very separate movement. And it has been separate from justice based movements! It reminds me of the identity choosing we hear from activists from the previous generations, for example, black women at the beginning of the black power movement who had to choose whether they held the politics of race or the politics of gender as central to express.
Leroy: For me, disability justice is about going further than changing the laws, which change the physical environment. Disability justice embraces disability, it means talking about issues like poverty and police brutality against people with disabilities, environmental issues, by telling our stories. Sins uses cultural work to get the point across that our issues and our bodies are here in society, and that we need to change not just the legal rights framework to get justice, we need to change our way of thinking. When you see a Sins performance and experience our culture, it can really change your way of thinking.
You've both use the word "crip" and I've heard you use it as a noun but also a verb. It's definitely a word I've been raised to understand has nothing but bad connotations. Can you talk a bit about that word and why (or how) you're using it?
Leroy: Of course it comes from crippled, but for disabled artists and scholars, it's a word we're taking back. Similar to hip hop, where you have a lot of artists taking words that other communities use to describe us negatively, and reclaiming them, putting them back out there with their own spin. The word "crip" is part of disability culture, disabled artists, activists, and writers are turning it inside out and putting "crip" back out there as an empowering word.
Patty: Language is always evolving and reclaiming language is part of building up and out cultural references. Activists who are engaged in the process of defining disability may choose to use "crip" in the same way the word "dyke" is now a chosen identity for many people but was, for generations, a deep insult. And within communities not everyone is going to be comfortable with all terms. So not every person with a disability is going to be comfortable with the word crip.
Leroy: It's all up to the individual, but of course non-disabled people (and reporters) shouldn't be using it! I think it's a word mostly for disabled individuals to use. But also non-disabled activists who hold the politics and have done their homework, who are using it in an open and positive way.
Patty: I feel differently. I think that even if someone is an ally to a community, the ally doesn't experience the kind of oppression that the community experiences, and may not always be best positioned to know the appropriate use of language and what is going to be potentially painful. For example, I'm half Haitian - but I don't get clocked as a person of African descent, I don't live with the same kind of oppression leveraged against me as does someone who has darker skin. So in relation to language, I'm not comfortable using the "n" word. It's not something I've been on the receiving end of, and I don't feel like I'm positioned to use it appropriately.
I have been bashed as a person with a disability, as a woman, as queer person, as a brown skinned woman. I've had things thrown out of cars at me and been called insulting things based on disability, queerness, based on my gender - and I don't think that someone who is non-disabled, or has heterosexual privilege, or white privilege, is going to know the sting of those experiences in quite the same way, and they may not be as aware of the nuance of language and how that can invoke difficult histories and feelings.
Tell me about this year's show.
Patty: Oh my God, it's so exciting!!!!! It's our fifth annual performance and the theme is "Knotting Stories across Time and Geography". Really, the seeds of every show start the night of the last year's show. This year we're guided by the telling of stories that are embodied because they can't be articulated by language alone. So, for example, the routes to the north through the Underground Railroad, couldn't be articulated -- if they were discovered people would be killed or tortured and the route would be shut down. So the maps were coded was embodied, people wove the route into quilts that could then be hung outside of windows and people could follow these maps. Many of our stories come from oral histories, they aren't documented in books, but they are embodied through oral traditions or other forms of cultural work, like dance, drawing, or weaving. This year we're weaving stories and the stories are vast. I don't want to tip our hand too much, but this year is kind of off-the-chain phenomenal...the show references everything from the histories of colonization, to the disposability of black men's bodies, to spiritual struggles with privilege, to resistance strategies to violence to power through crip sex moments.
So I guess this is where I can get confused. I think I understand the politics, but I'm not sure where sex, or crip sex, fits into this.
Patty: Okay, said another way -- this is the context in which I live. When I'm having sex, I'm having it in a context which says that my body is not desirable, in a context which has campaigns of violence against me. When I think of my body, I do so in a cultural landscape with massive media onslaught that marginalizes my form. This the case quite honestly for most people, but particularly for people who have been multiply marginalized -- people who are disabled, queer/gender queer, dark-skinned people. We're experiencing our sexuality in a context of significant dehumanization.
That's why Sins Invalid is not just about saying "We're sexual too!" - clearly, we are sexual too - but it's about how do we crip sex, how do we have sex and view it erotically through the lens of disability. It's similar to the struggle that we may experience as people of color when we endeavor to "decolonize our minds" and stop whitewashing ourselves, and instead to say "I am centralizing my self as a person of color". As a person with a disability, I don't have to mimic able-bodiedness in order to be sexual. I can experience my sexuality as a crip, as someone who fully occupies a non-normative physical space. And part of that movement to fully living in one's own experience is naming and resisting dehumanization. So all of that has to be in the show. It's in life, so it's in the show.
Leroy: I love the history of disabled people. People with disabilities aren't anything new, our stories have history. We're telling these stories not only to bring a connection between disability and sexuality but to connect the audience with something that is a part of all our history. Patty talks about the Underground Railroad, and we all know Harriet Tubman had a disability. There's history even talking about crip sex moments, stories of institutionalization of people with disabilities and how people had to sneak off to get their groove on. It's nothing new that we are alive. But we're sharing these stories in a way that hopefully connects us to our past and also allows us to change our future.
Who is the show for?
Patty: Anybody that has a body...
That's pretty broad. Can you say something more?
Patty: I'm serious about it. All of us face the joy of embodiment and the struggle of embodiment, that's the nature of being alive. At some point in each of our lives I hope everyone has absolute pleasure, and I'm quite certain that everyone is going to be distraught with embodiment. The show explores bodies and what it means to be sexual.
My experience is that sexuality is a key part of our experience as humans, and it's one of our human rights. If others deny us our sexual identity, there's a way in which our humanity is being denied. All of the performance work is in that nexus. So it's not a show for able-bodied folks to learn about disability (although that will certainly be a by product), and it's not a show for disabled people to feel reflected as people with disabilities (although that will happen too). It's not geared to any one group of people. It's for all community members to reflect and experience the fact that we're all valuable and we're all beautiful.