When Sins Invalid co-founders Patricia Berne and Leroy Franklin Moore Jr. put on a live event in San Francisco in 2006, they didn’t know it would blossom into a years-long collaboration. That night poets, dancers, and performance artists from the Bay Area and beyond filled the stage with emotionally powerful, erotic work, leaving audience members deeply moved – some of them walking away in tears. “We often say we started out of friendship,” recalls Berne.
Why did the first Sins Invalid performance mean so much to everyone involved? Perhaps because that night was the first time many audience members had been to a venue in which a majority of the performers were people with disabilities. And for many of the performers, this was the first time they’d been given a space to affirm their humanity as sexual beings, challenging a culture that tells us that love and sex are the sole property of young, thin, able, white bodies. “I needed to see the show,” says Berne, who became the director at Sins Invalid. “I needed to see this work in the world.”
Since its first performance, Sins Invalid has blossomed into a robust political and arts organization, providing annual performances, movement-building and creative workshops, and educational work on disability justice, as well as an artist-in-residence program. Today it’s an established venue where queer, racially diverse, gender-variant, and disabled artists create evocative works, touching on themes of love, death, birth, and sex – essentially, the stuff of life.
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“Is This Desire Safe?”
A man who is using a wheelchair (played by Rodney Bell) plays basketball alone. It’s a Sins Invalid performance from 2008. Suddenly a figure approaches from the shadows offstage.
“Wanna play?” the figure asks, played by seeley quest. Bell tosses the ball and the two begin to play. The game continues until quest casts the ball aside, touching Bell on the chest.
“So you don’t want to play ball,” says Bell.
“Well, I didn’t say I didn’t want to play,” quest responds. The audience laughs.
Quest kneels down, taking Bell by the hand. Silence fills the auditorium.
Breathing heavily, Bell hesitantly gives his hand. Quest caresses Bell’s hair and eventually pulls off his shirt.
For a while the two seem as though they are about to kiss. But unexpectedly quest slaps Bell across the face. The two scuffle and in a climatic moment quest pushes Bell and his wheelchair to the ground. Bell tosses quest off, pulling himself upright. The two recede upstage, eventually embracing.
A voice addresses the audience. “Is this desire safe?” the voice asks. “Is this safe? Are you safe? Are you sufficiently insulated from us, the deviant, the disabled, the non-normative, the crippled, or might you become stained by our leaking needs?”
Sins Invalids’ performances are often challenging. They hold a mirror up to our culture, taking stock of the preconceived notions many have about people with disabilities. One common misconception is that all people with disabilities are either uninterested in or are unable to have sex. For Berne this is one of the most destructive aspects of ableism (the system which holds that some bodies are acceptable, and others are not) because it denies people with non-normative bodies recognition of what for many is an essential aspect of their lived experience: the desire for love and sex. “It’s one of the more painful ways people with disabilities are made invisible,” says Berne.
For Berne, disability justice doesn’t just mean advocating for people with disabilities – it also means fighting for social justice and for humanity as a whole. When Berne and Moore founded Sins Invalid, part of their frustration as disability justice advocates was that even within social justice movements people with disabilities are often marginalized. Berne and Moore thus sought to put disability justice front and center and create an organization in which no one is excluded. This in part explains why Sins is so intersectional, not just advocating for disability justice, but also for racial justice and the needs of the LGBTIQ community.
The intersectional nature of Sins is one of the organization’s most defining attributes. Its dancers, poets, and performance artists have identities that are multiple, mutable, and always changing, cutting across multiple spheres of oppression and identity. Their performances bring to light the complex lives led by all people, including people with disabilities – lives replete with love, loss, exuberance, and yearning. They reveal to us rich interior worlds where they’re constantly forced to grapple with the question of who they are. “I’m not only a person with disabilities,” Berne says. “I’m a disabled woman. I’m a disabled queer woman. I’m a disabled queer woman of color who’s a child of immigrant parents,” she adds, noting her Japanese and Haitian heritage. “None of us occupy any one singular experience. As whole beings, we’re in multiple relationships with other whole beings.”
Identity will be an important theme in Sins’ upcoming 2015 performance, Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom, which will explore the intersectional nature of identity, as well as the process by which people with disabilities discover and define themselves. As Berne points out, for people with disabilities the body and identity are in constant states of change. “A person can be disabled from birth, or acquire a disability when they are thirty-five” she says, noting how disabilities can come and go at different stages of life. “Our bodies are not static, so we’re constantly becoming. Parts of us are becoming and others are being shed or are dying.”
For Berne the process of becoming is encapsulated by the word embodiment. “I use the phrase embodiment to literally mean occupying our bodies. There’s no way to do that outside of a political, social, historical, cultural context,” says Berne, adding that able and disabled people alike struggle to find fulfillment in an oppressive culture that seeks to peg human beings’ value to the color of their skin and the shape of their bodies. “One way we can deal with that oppression is by disassociating, by just saying, ‘OK, I am going to judge myself by the male gaze. I am going to judge myself through the lenses of white supremacy and the colonialism of the global South. I am going to judge myself through hetero-normativity.’ And I would not really call that embodied,” says Berne. “We have to be who we actually are in our own skin, and not a projection of other people’s oppressive ideas or fears.”
Becoming Who We Are
Perhaps what’s so alluring about Sins’ performances is that, through their confessional specificity, they uncover an essential truth about our collective story as human beings: our shared experience of vulnerability. It’s the same essential truth that the Buddha was said to have learned when he first came out into the world and recognized how illness and frailty are an essential and inescapable part of human experience. As Tom Shakespeare points out in Tikkun‘s upcoming print issue on Disability Justice and Spirituality, “we are all vulnerable and frail, or soon will be, and our time in the world is brief, which puts both our achievements and our dependencies into context.”
Sins’ performances invite us to contend with the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of ourselves. But the lesson is not to “overcome” brokenness in the same way one is said to “overcome adversity,” in the manner of the American dream. The point is rather to become fully embodied within our skins, to exist in brokenness – to embody it in all its ugliness and beauty. To do otherwise would mean to affirm the oppressive forces in our lives, those which are damaging to our social, psychological, and spiritual selves.
As humans, Sins teaches us, we must emerge not out of but from within brokenness. The struggle to become who we are is a thing of beauty for Berne. She says:
I don’t think we see beauty with our eyes. I think we can only see beauty with our hearts and with our beings. I see the struggle to become who we are as really beautiful because it’s something we already know, but there’s so much socialization that we forget our nature. In spiritual practices people talk about cleaning the mirror, or in the political world it’s referred to as decolonization. The process of encountering who we are is really beautiful. It’s a struggle and it’s beautiful and kind of amazing.
This struggle has long been a theme for poets and playwrights, perhaps allured by this same sense of beauty. It forms the material of the epic, for what is an epic if it’s not a struggle to encounter the self in the face of antagonism? When we fight for disability justice, then, we’re not just fighting for specific rights – though that is part of the struggle – but rather for a fundamental change that will touch anyone who has ever struggled with the brokenness of the world.