We live in a culture where a nearly everyone has to grapple with a sanitized, narrow ideal of human sexuality -- one that looks more like Ken & Barbie than anything resembling actual people having sex. For those with disabilities, the sense of exclusion is even more intense. After all, very few movies, magazines, or TV shows depict people with disabilities in a realistic manner. Even in the liberal, creative community of the Bay Area, it's relatively rare to find a platform for artists with disabilities.
On top of that, a subtle bias can live in the heart of even the most well-meaning able-bodied people -- a tendency to look at people with disabilities with pity, to focus on the disability and not the common humanness. Hence, those with disabilities feel alienated, or worse, invisible. And one of the most insulting misconceptions is that people with disabilities can't, or don't, have sex.
"It's incredibly painful" to have this aspect of your human nature dismissed, says Patty Berne, artistic director of non-profit arts organization Sins Invalid. In 2005, she and Leroy Moore co-founded the performance project as a platform for artists with disabilities to make their sexual identities and journeys known. Because ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT community face the same sort of exclusion when it comes to mainstream images and stories of love and lust, Sins Invalid gives priority to artists who identify themselves as queer, as gender variant, or as a member of another minority.
"The idea of presenting beauty and disability and sexuality is sadly seen as incongruous, and we know that not to be the truth in any way, shape, or form," Berne says. "We know the truth is, of course, all of us are beautiful and valuable. Based on the response we've gotten, it's clear to me that a lot of people are hungry for that message. It's a pretty straightforward thing to me, but it's sadly not represented in the mainstream culture very broadly or deeply."
This weekend, Sins Invalid will present its first-ever Artists-in-Residence showcase. A few years ago, the Sins Invalid artistic core realized that there aren't many opportunities for artists with disabilities to refine raw talent, or to learn how to translate their work to a professional stage show. Thus, in 2010, the organization launched its first residency program with singer, writer, and voice coach Nomy Lamm at the helm. Unlike the regular showcases, this event, titled Resident Alien, does not focus on the performer's journey of sexual discovery, even though it is sexually frank.
"We came up came up with a way of weaving it together that would connect all the different threads people were working on," Lamm explains. "The idea of 'alien' came up a number of times. Lateef McLeod wrote a poem called "Not of This World" that explores that kind of othering, talking about the perception of disabled people as kind of monstrous or alien. Then, there are two artists, Fayza Bundalli and Redwolf Painter, who are culling a family history around colonization and the impact of colonization on their bodies, which led to their disabilities. The show is about the ways that so many of us in this culture are treated as aliens and not given the same kinds of rights. And yet, it is not about being victims; it's about how we come into our power in that context."
Before the Artists-in-Residence program launched, Sins Invalid hosted a workshop for emerging artists last spring, and soon after, started accepting applications for its residency program. Eight of 15 applicants were accepted, with one resident eventually dropping out. During the nine-month program, the artists attended four community workshops on writing, singing, dance and movement, and staging. They also met as a group, in small groups and with Lamm individually to hash out their acts and the broader theme of the show as a whole.
"The first thing we did when we met each other as a group was write a piece called, What to Leave Outside," Lamm says. "It is all the things we don't want to hear: 'Here are things that get said to us all the time that we get tired of.' We said all that stuff up front, so it was like, 'OK, great, now we don't have to say all that.' And that became our opening piece."
The final version of the opening piece, which incorporates movement and other performance elements the artists learned during the program, is a laundry list of specific comments relating to each artist's experience in the world. "Wow, you really get around so well!" "You're so big!" "Whoa, what kind of name is that?" "You can't eat anything!" "Are you a boy or girl?" Ending on a positive note, the evening concludes with another group performance, a poem reciting what they do want to hear, things, like "You're home." "You're beautiful."
In between, the audience will be treated to a wide range of performances featuring visual arts including works by Tee and fabricated body adornments by Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi, a live-music score by Colleen Nagle, and an experimental documentary film starring Matthew D. Blanchard and directed by Daniel Cardone on living with AIDS. Many of the artists collaborate on the theater pieces created by the other residents, stepping well outside their normal artistic media. For example, Nagle, a composer, tells her personal story for the first time, in a piece called The Smoking Room, about the one place at a mental institution that felt like safe space for human connection. The other artists all appear as characters in her tale.
Lamm says she hopes people walk out with "a feeling of community in the room that includes every single person's experience who's there. Here is this diverse group of people with disabilities who are sharing what their lives are about, and it's really deep stuff that I think a lot of mainstream culture doesn't want to listen to or think about." If the attendees can acknowledge these truths, Lamm hopes they'll "walk out feeling a new sense of possibilities in the world."
"Not of This World," the poem by McLeod, who has cerebral palsy and speaks through a machine-sounding voice adapter, may sum it up best. He starts at a place of being perceived as an alien and moves toward humanness. "We will teach you how to love us. Don't fight the feeling. We will show you how beautiful and sexy aliens can be."
Resident Alien: The Sins Invalid Artists In Residence Show runs 8pm Friday, January 28, and Saturday, January 29 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. The regular Sins Invalid showcase runs April 8, 9, and 10 at Z Space in San Francisco. For more information visit sinsinvalid.org.