SPEAK By Patty Berne

By Patty Berne

January 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“A performance project on disability and sexuality? Really? Why? I mean, I never really thought that handicapped people have sex!” — anonymous observation #132

Blunt truth be told, we do have sex, have love, explore in relationships, lose lovers, and try again; and like many communities that are marginalized from dominant cultural discourse, our stories are obscured because our lives occur in a social context which deems us “other.”

The story of this performance, like many good stories, was first woven over dinner, a large bowl of saffron laced paella, steaming on the table between two good friends. Leroy Moore and I were excited over his recent collaboration with Todd Herman–a film entitled Forbidden Acts that intertwines Leroy’s randy poetry with tasteful yet explicit body shots–and shared dismay that most people can’t seem to conceive that people with disabilities are sexual, let alone sexy.

We’ve both been disabled since birth, and bluntly, we’re both pretty hot, and we both humbly know it. Still, throughout every day we each struggle with the disconnect between what we know to be true about our beauty and the passion of our bodies and lives, and what the world seems to believe, that we are less than, undesirable, pitiable. So, being artists and organizers, we did what we know how to do, so a performance event on sexuality and disability was in the process of being born: Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty In the Face of Invisibility.

“It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” — Audre Lorde

But why this show? Well, besides the obvious “have you ever been to an erotic performance event featuring people with disabilities?” Let’s dig more deeply into this context of “othering” in which we live. We know that our culture maintains embodied and enforced norms, norms that constrict all of us with unmet expectations and fears of the repercussion of not “measuring up.” Regardless of where we identify on the spectrum of sexuality, gender, size, ability, age, class, etc., the boundaries of our normalcy get policed. And when we transgress boundaries by having different abilities, gender presentation, etc, we are at risk of social and economic alienation, hostility, threats to safety/violence and the deepest acts of dehumanization–the implied, and at times explicit message, being that they (insert any oppressed group here–people with disabilities, African descended people, gender variant folks, queer folks, etc.) are a different kind of human, they don’t feel or think as we do, they don’t deserve what we have, they are less than us.

To bring the issue to the body, the definition of the “normal” body is becoming narrower, to the extent that the natural process of growth and aging is seen as a problem to overcome. People with disabilities are often seen as flawed and our hope of normalcy rests in medical interventions to “normalize” us.

But what if each of us were whole and complete just as we were? What if the “problem” resides in social and economic structures that exclude an array of people and abilities, and the solution were social and institutional social change? As people with disabilities, we are not oppressed by what we can or cannot do with our bodies or minds. We certainly may be inconvenienced by living with an impairment, but what oppresses us is the systemic prejudice, discrimination, segregation and violence we face because we do not fall within a perceived “norm.”

And what better way to communicate the magic of embodiment, of non-normative physicality, than to express it in a performance–with disabled artists celebrating their power and grace and desire. Every reader knows that as cultural workers, we have the power to move an audience into a new experience of themselves. After all, why do we love certain kinds of movement, resonate with this or that rhythm and sound, crave a certain touch, feel opened by the light when it is there–because we then know it is possible. Sins Invalid artists move the audience through a new paradigm, with emotions in the theater shifting from voyeuristic eroticism, to intimacy, to loss, to anger, to risk, to arousal, by a new vision of embodiment, demonstrating that it is possible to love ourselves and our bodies on our terms.

“For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up…being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” — Audre Lorde, from Sister Outsider.

“Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and action is sacred.” — Hafiz

Please continue this conversation by dropping us an email at info@sinsinvalid.org and visit our website at sinsinvalid.org.

This article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of In Dance.