Crip Kinship
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Crip Kinship

The Disability Justice and Art Activism of Sins Invalid

Shayda Kafai

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eBook - ePub

Crip Kinship

The Disability Justice and Art Activism of Sins Invalid

Shayda Kafai

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About This Book

In recent years, disability activism has come into its own as a vital and necessary means to acknowledge the power and resilience of the disabled community, and to call out ableist culture wherever it appears. Crip Kinship explores the art-activism of Sins Invalid, a San Francisco Bay Area-based performance project, and its radical imaginings of what disabled, queer, trans, and gender nonconforming bodyminds of color can do: how they can rewrite oppression, and how they can gift us with transformational lessons for our collective survival. Grounded in their Disability Justice framework, Crip Kinship investigates the revolutionary survival teachings that disabled, queer of color community offers to all our bodyminds. From their focus on crip beauty and sexuality to manifesting digital kinship networks and crip-centric liberated zones, Sins Invalid empowers and moves us toward generating our collective liberation from our bodyminds outward.

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chapter 1

Sins Invalid’s Origin Story

Sins Invalid began in 2006 over crip love, food, and conversation among Bay Area disability activists and friends Patty Berne (she/they) and Leroy F. Moore Jr. (he/him); Patty is a Japanese-Haitian, disabled, queer, gender nonbinary artist-activist and Leroy is an African American, krip29 poet, community historian, and artist-activist. As they sat in La Peña, a cultural center created by Chilean exiles on the edge of Berkeley and Oakland, Patty remembers that, “Like many good stories, the early threads of this one were woven over dinner, a large bowl of saffron-laced paella steaming on the table between two good friends.”30 That day, they began by talking about Leroy’s artistic collaboration with filmmaker and photographer Todd Herman. Leroy had just completed Forbidden Acts, a twelve-minute piece that centered his sexuality and his poetry.
When Patty and Leroy spoke about crip sexuality, they spoke aware of their crip fierceness and lust; they began with the awareness that for so long, their crip beauty and sexuality had been juxtaposed against the deeply felt ableist beliefs that they are “less than, undesirable, and pitiable”31 simply because they are disabled. Their bodyminds had felt the historical impacts of eugenics, forced sterilizations, and ugly laws;32 they felt the ableist assumption that as disabled folks, they must be childlike and desexual. Patty remembers telling Leroy, “‘We should have a venue for this, where we would not just be the token Other. Where would that be?’ And we thought, ‘Oh, our own venue!’”33 Sins Invalid’s beginnings grew here among saffron, among their sexy bodyminds craving recognition. That evening at La Peña was the first spark, that cutting flash of bright light that initiated the performance project into action.
Two people lovingly face one another. A brown-skinned person with a sensual smile gazes fondly at a Black man with a salt-and-pepper beard whose eyes are gently closed.
Leroy Moore and Patty Berne. Photo by Amal Kouttab, courtesy of Sins Invalid.

It Begins with Intersectionality

Early on in their journey, Patty and Leroy connected with Todd Herman and fellow artist Amanda Coslor, and soon, the group of four nurtured Sins Invalid into being. Patty writes that Todd and Amanda “offered to collaborate, contributing massively toward the aesthetics, contacts, and available resources. Sins Invalid then had a dedicated core group, moreover, a family.”34 Specifically, Todd and Amanda brought with them a grant that they had yet to fulfill from Theatre Bay Area, a nonprofit arts organization. Serendipitously, they had received the grant for the specific purpose of putting together a show about the intersections of disability and sexuality. This was a moment of true alchemy.
The artist-activists arrived together with the communal understanding that a disabled, queer of color art space needed to exist, one that was mindful of Disability Justice, one where conversations surrounding disability could occur in unison with conversations about sexuality, beauty, autonomy, and desire. The disability community was in need of a cultural shift, an acknowledgement of the crip beauty and sexuality that Patty and Leroy knew to be true. Our community needed a place of intersectional bodymind appreciation and space holding.
Intersectionality as a framework considers the layered ways our identities converge, engage, and inform one another. Originating with the work of lawyer and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, and serving as the first principle of Disability Justice, Sins Invalid defines intersectionality this way: “Simply put, this principle says that we are many things, and they all impact us. We are not only disabled, we are also each coming from a specific experience of race, class, sexuality, age, religious background, geographic location, immigration status, and more. Depending on context, we all have areas where we experience privilege, as well as areas of oppression … We gratefully embrace the nuance that this principle brings to our lived experiences, and the ways it shapes the perspectives we offer.”35
Sins Invalid cannot practice Disability Justice or progress as a performance project without acknowledging the intersections of our bodyminds. It is a framework that fills in the gaps of the mainstream Disability Rights Movement and creates new imaginings of what can happen when we acknowledge our unique bodymind experiences.
More than a lens, intersectionality also results in relentless and unshamed embraces of our disabled, queer of color bodyminds. Sins Invalid practices intersectionality in their work and they invite us to participate in a similar pursuit. The fact that we are made up of many things becomes an opening, an invocation that we deserve to move purposefully through this world as our full and intricate selves. I turn to Cara Page’s monologue during Sins Invalid’s 2008 performance to provide us with a clear description of what it means to enact intersectionality. Standing on stage at San Francisco’s Brava Theater, Cara, a Black feminist queer cultural memory worker, addresses the audience: “Sins Invalid asks of you unapologetically to love all of your parts, your disabled parts, queer parts, radical parts, erotic parts, political parts, without exception, without judgment, without normality or pathology, without sacrifice … welcome the possibilities that you are whole and perfect, that we are whole and perfect.”
Cara’s monologue presents us with what intersectionality yields and elicits: we all are welcomed into a liberated place where we can confirm and honor the myriad parts of ourselves. For Sins Invalid, this practice becomes foundational to what they create and how they celebrate disabled, queer of color bodyminds. With their art-activism, they encourage us to view ourselves without shame, in wholeness and in affirmation.
Initially, Patty and Leroy envisioned Sins Invalid as a small-scale, single-evening event for close friends at a local café. When the call for artists was released, Patty remembers that they were overwhelmed with interest. The desire for homecoming could not have been communicated more clearly; Patty and Leroy were not the only ones who desired disabled, queer of color representation, visibility, and magic. The community was collectively exhausted and frustrated by the mainstream Disability Rights Movement’s erasure of disabled folks who were queer, gender nonconforming, transgender, and of color; it was an exhaustion of the spirit. The artist-activist space that Sins Invalid created became an opening palm, a gesture of welcoming, a statement: we have always been here, too. After their first night of multidisciplinary performance art, the disabled, queer of color community desired for more whole, beautiful, and radically liberated representations of themselves, and so, Sins Invalid grew.
By 2008, two years after what was meant to be a one-time performance, Sins Invalid officially became a performance project grown out of need and in solidarity with crip family and love. They used the initial funding from Theatre Bay Area to support their work for their first four years.36 Patty shared that, as is common in the early months of any organization, the group of four also had to use their own personal money and in-kind services to bolster and breathe life into the performance project. The studio space behind Patty and visual artist Micah Bazant’s home in Berkeley, California, was renamed Sins Central and became Sins Invalid’s central hub, a place where its members and supporters would meet to organize, plan, and reimagine what disabled, queer of color living could look like.
Since 2008, Sins Invalid has created a new home where disabled, queer of color artist-activists can teach their lessons of survival and thriving, a place where community can “see”—in all the diverse, accessible ways we “see”—sexuality and beauty no longer judged based on their proximity to whiteness, cis-heteropatriarchy, and nondisability. Patty and Leroy’s Disability Justice–informed content fostered inclusivity, whole bodymind liberation, and radical crip visibility as healing for the communities that the mainstream Disability Rights Movement had left behind.
The broadening and politicization of beauty and sexuality continues to be a critical intervention for the performance project. It is profound for us to learn how to reframe beauty and sexuality as actions and as crip bodymind manifestations of radiance, especially when we are told that sexuality and beauty are unattainable impossibilities for us. Patty, Leroy, Todd, and Amanda37 initiated Sins Invalid as a living, growing repository of performances, histories, stories, and workshops that remind us that crip beauty is tongue-slurring. It is dance-swaying with canes and in wheelchairs. It is glittery stimmy-ness. It is neurodiverse and Mad minds manic-dreaming. Crip beauty happens when we embrace our bodyminds as the lustrous, intersectional sources of energy that they are.

Imagination First

Creating new realities requires imagination. It requires rousing inventiveness. Dreaming a reality that holds space for all our intersectional bodyminds is how we declare ourselves in a world that, as Audre Lorde writes, “we were never meant to survive.” This type of creativity is sacred and generative, and it is informed by Gloria Anzaldúa’s description of imagination. In her book Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro, she writes, “Imagination opens the road to both personal and societal change—transformation of self, consciousness, community, culture, society.”38 Imagination is how we change our individual and collective perspectives and move toward liberation.39 I think about Patty and Leroy’s crip-dreaming of Sins Invalid through a similar lens: imagination is how they began to manifest a world where disabled, queer, gender-nonconforming, and trans bodyminds of color were embraced in accessible, revolutionary love.
Sins Invalid outlines their vision and mission statement on their website, sinsinvalid dot org. Their vision extends their radical imagining by conceptualizing possibilities and futures where we, in all our intersectional glories, are valued and whole:
Sins Invalid recognizes that we will be liberated as whole beings—as disabled, as queer, as brown, as black, as gender non-conforming, as trans, as women, as men, as non-binary gendered—we are far greater whole than partitioned. We recognize that our allies emerge from many communities and that demographic identity alone does not determine one’s commitment to liberation. Sins Invalid is committed to social and economic justice for all people with disabilities … moving beyond individual legal rights to collective human rights. Our stories, embedded in analysis, offer paths from identity politics to unity amongst all oppressed people, laying a foundation for a collective claim of liberation and beauty.
This statement stays true to Sins Invalid’s original intent of dreaming, enacting, and practicing disabled, queer of color recognition and wholeness. Grounded in the fifth principle of Disability Justice, wholeness advocates that disabled bodyminds are not defective, incomplete, or lacking, as the medical model of disability would have us believe. This principle unsettles how we define wholeness from ableist and capitalist synonyms like productivity and success and instead asks us to crip, queer, and decolonize wholeness. This principle tells us that we do not need to meet a capitalist benchmark of success to be viewed as important. We are whole and valuable simply because we are ourselves. Sins Invalid’s vision that “we will be liberated as whole beings” reframes wholeness as a liberatory practice of diverse bodymind celebration.
The stories and historical retellings that come from this place of cripped wholeness also embed self-love practices within them. I use “self-love” throughout the book in the way that author and poet Sonya Renee Taylor crafts it: self-love is the radical politics of embodiment and loving. In her book The Body Is Not an Apology, Sonya writes that radical self-love is the realization that “We did not start life in a negative partnership with our bodies”,40 that “Radical self-love is indeed our inherent natural state, but social, political, and economic systems of oppression have distanced us from that knowing.”41 When I dream of what intrinsically disabled, queer of color wholeness looks like, when I ground myself in Sins Invalid’s vision, I find a performance project that seeks to create space and art-activism that invites us back into our whole selves, just as we are. It is an invitation to return and plant seeds of change-making.
To grow distant from the self, to erase parts of ourselves, is, to use Sonya’s language, to live in “negative partnership” with our bodyminds. This distancing is akin to ableism, racism, and cis-heteropatriarchy’s erasure. In this distancing, we are made invisible and distant from ourselves so that we are no longer whole, radiant beings. To ground Sins Invalid in the vision that disabled, queer of color bodyminds deserve to be seen in all of their identities and in all of their beauty requires an amplification of radical self-love and wholeness; it requires a movement away from the negative, toxic bodymind partnerships that this world and all of its intersecting oppressions have forced upon us. When I spoke with Patty, she/they advised that all our disabled, queer of color bodyminds deserve to be seen and that this practice begins with ourselves: “At a certain point, we all n...

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