It’s good to get complicated. On this episode, we rethink binary approaches to brain science, sexuality, gender, and disability.
This episode featuring a moving story from stand-up comedian and #GoodMuslimBadMuslim co-host Zahra Noorbakhsh, who talks about her decision to come out as bisexual as a 36-year-old. We also hear a high schooler’s dispatch from transgender and gender-fluid students in California, thanks to the Youth Radio project. Writer s.e. smith closes out the show, interviewing Sins Invalid co-founder Patricia Berne on being “hot and disabled” and the group’s brand-new show, “Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom.” Also, we debunk some myths about gender and neuroscience. Listen in!
GENDER AND BRAINS:
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH ON BISEXUAL VISIBILITY:
YOUTH RADIO PROJECT:
SINS INVALID INTERVIEW:
• Read Zahra’s full essay about coming out as bi right here and hear more of her on the newest episode of #GoodMuslimBadMuslim.
• If you’re interested in learning more about the neuroscience study discussed on this show, read Rebecca Koon’s article, “A Binary is a Wonderful Thing to Break.”
• Snag tickets to Sin Invalid’s performance in San Francisco at the ODC Theater!
• The photo featured on the Soundcloud embed of this episode is by Brian (Creative Commons).
• The band highlighted on today’s episode is British trio Shopping. They are so rad.
Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts through our audio RSS feed.
SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
We have a tendency to want to see things in black and white. It’s simpler that way, right? If there’s good and evil, if there’s right and wrong, if there’s “we’re dating” or “we’re not dating,” it just all makes so much sense. Buuuuut we all know it’s never that easy.
This week on Popaganda, We’re making things complicated. In a good way. Complicated is good. This week, we’re talking about Breaking the Binary.
[recording of computer voice repeating “1,0” repeatedly]
The idea for this episode, like all our episodes this fall, came from a listener. They wanted to hear about how binary thinking, as a cultural structure and ideology, influences us. So on this episode, we’ll be rethinking binaries in neuroscience, sexuality, gender, and disability. Stay tuned cuz it’s gonna get complicated.
One of the most basic ideas about binaries that we have in our culture is about brains, specifically, that men and women have fundamentally different brains. You hear this all the time. It’s the basis of, like, all boring stand-up comedy. Here’s one example from Mark Gungor, a pastor who works with Focus on the Family and whose career is built on giving motivational talks about marriage. Here’s a clip from his talk “A Tale of Two Brains,” which, by the way, has been viewed 4 million times on YouTube.
PASTOR MARK: All right, now men’s brains are very unique. Men’s brains are made up of little boxes, and we have a box for everything. We’ve got a box for the car, we got a box for the money, we got a box for the job, we got a box for you, we got a box for the kids, we got a box for your mother somewhere in the basement [Audience roars with laughter]. We got boxes everywhere! Now, women’s brains are very, very different from men’s brains. Women’s brains are made up of a big ball of wire. [laughter] And everything is connected to everything! [laughter] Zzzzzz! The money’s connected to the car, and the car’s connected to your job, and your kids are connected to your mother, AND EVERYTHING’S CONNECTED TO EVERYTHING! [laughter] It’s just like zzzzzz! [applause, cheers]. It’s like the Internet superhighway. [laughter] And it’s all driven by energy that we call “emotion.” Bzzzzzzz.
So maybe you don’t necessarily think that men compartmentalize everything, and that women’s brains are metal balls just waiting for an emotional lighting strike so they can go on the fritz [chuckling]. But there’s this perception, even not that extreme, that gender determines something about the shape and structure of our brains. This was the scientific thinking for a long time. But in the last decade or so, neuroscientists have come up with a much more complicated picture. It’s not as simple as a binary. There’s no such thing as a “male” brain or a “female” brain.
Bitch editorial intern Rebecca Koon has been looking into this subject this summer and wrote about the gender of brain science at BitchMedia.org. Hi Rebecca.
REBECCA: Hi Sarah.
SARAH: Thanks so much for joining us on the show.
REBECCA: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SARAH: So you took a look at recent neuroscience looking at the relationship between gender and brain structure.
SARAH: Just tell us what you found. What’s the science say about this?
REBECCA: So there was a study that came out at the end of last year that looked at 1,400 brains. They looked at MRIs from 1,400 brains. Basically, what they showed was that all brains have a mix of characteristics that would be considered male or female. So they call this the mosaic brain. So basically, what they showed was that the different anatomical structures in the brain don’t align with a person’s biological sex necessarily. So they looked at gray matter and white matter and connections in the brain. Previous research had sort of showed that brains fit neatly into two categories, and what this study showed was that everybody has a mix of both characteristics.
SARAH: So there’s two categories that the previous science looked at. Was that male and female?
SARAH: And so scientists before thought that oh, you can look at somebody’s brain and tell if they’re male or tell if they’re female?
SARAH: So when these scientists in this most recent study, which was from where? Who has done this research?
REBECCA: The research designer was from Tel Aviv University.
SARAH: Interesting. So when they looked at people’s brains, they found actually you have a mix of characteristics; you can’t tell from looking at somebody’s brain whether they’re male or female?
REBECCA: That’s right.
SARAH: What kind of characteristics were they looking at that were traditionally male or traditionally female?
REBECCA: So I know that they looked at gray matter, white matter, and then connections in the brain. The neuroscience research gets a little hairy [both laugh].
SARAH: A little heady, maybe?
REBECCA: Yes, a little heady. So for somebody who’s not a neuroscientist, it can be a little bit tough to understand exactly what they were looking at.
SARAH: I think when some people hear “characteristics associated with male and female” they think personality traits.
REBECCA: Oh, I see what you mean. Yeah, so they were actually just looking at the anatomical structure of the brain, things that they could see on an MRI. So I think that previously because personality characteristics are so aligned with gender, or we think they are, there was also this idea that our physical brains must also really different. So this study showed that that’s actually not true, and that while some people might have more physical characteristics in their brain that more closely align with what you might expect to see in a female or what you might expect to see in a male, actually, everybody has a big mix of both. So you can’t tell by looking at somebody’s brain.
SARAH: So our brains are a spectrum.
REBECCA: Our brains are a spectrum, yeah.
SARAH: Oh, that’s beautiful. A rainbow spectrum [laughs].
REBECCA: Yes, exactly.
SARAH: So there’s still, I think, this commonly-held idea that I hear all the time about, “Well, men do this because their brains are different. It comes from our brains have been different since we were cavemen, and women just have different brains.”
SARAH: Why does that stick around, that notion, and how does this science counter that?
REBECCA: The idea that men and women have different brains is a way that we can justify oppression and social inequalities. There’s actually a long tradition of biological research being used to justify oppression of different groups. So for example, in the 18th Century scientists used a practice called phrenology where they measured and classified human skulls and “proved” that Caucasians were superior to people of other races. And then similarly, the fact that women tend to have smaller brains than men has been used as a justification for the belief that women are not as smart as men and was historically used to keep women out of college and that kind of thing. So this idea that the biological differences between people determine inequality is actually a really dangerous one because if we believe that, then that’s something that we can’t change. Because we don’t have control over our biology. But if we see biology as more of a spectrum, and we don’t divide people into those different classes, then it becomes easier to see oppression and social inequality as culturally constructed rather than biologically determined.
SARAH: Mmhmm. This is kind of a tricky topic, but there’ve been a lot of studies saying that men and women react differently in different situations, and some of that comes down to neurology. So does this study that you’re talking about that’s out of Tel Aviv University show that on a fundamental level, you can’t tell someone’s gender from the shape of your brain, but are there gendered ways that our pathways are made in our brain? Are there different personality traits that come from our brain?
REBECCA: The study didn’t actually link anatomical characteristics with personality traits. It was purely looking at the physical makeup of people’s brains. One thing that I think is really important to stress is that the study isn’t saying that there are no differences between people’s brains. In fact, they recognize that often men will have more “male” characteristics, and women will have more “female” characteristics, but it’s just not as cut and dry as we usually like to think. Because again, people have sort of a mix of characteristics.
SARAH: You have a young daughter yourself.
REBECCA: I do.
SARAH: How old is she?
SARAH: Do you think a lot about how her brain is developing? Is this something that you’ve thought about as a parent, like oh, I want my kid to have a good brain [laughing]? As you’re reading this brain science, are you thinking about your daughter?
REBECCA: Yeah, absolutely! I mean I think about her brain development a lot, but it’s hard for me, in my mind, to separate that from the cultural influences. I don’t often know which is which, and that could be just because I’m not a scientist. But I definitely do think about her language acquisition and what it means when she picks up certain ways of talking about things, and how much of that is brain function, and how much of that is stuff that she’s picking up from the other kids at preschool or whatever?
SARAH: Yeah, in this study, we’re talking about just the way that your brain is constructed, but so much of the way that you are, that we think of as part of your brain, comes from culture, comes from the way you’re raised and all those influences.
SARAH: So it’s hard to parse out all the time the physical neurology of your brain versus what role culture and parenting plays in that.
REBECCA: Yeah, I think you’re right. And actually, there’s a note in the study about that where they talk about they don’t differentiate between the terms “sex” and “gender” in the way the study is written, which when I was reading it, I was surprised by. I found it kind of troubling. But they have a little explanation in there that talks about basically, regardless of whether– Because there is this thing called “neuroplasticity,” which is the idea that our environment and the experiences that we have and the interactions that we have in the world actually change the anatomical structure of our brain. So the reason they don’t differentiate between sex and gender in the study is because regardless of whether these are innate biological characteristics or whether they’re culturally determined, the end result is the same. And that is that everybody has this sort of mosaic or mix of characteristics in their brain.
SARAH: Hmm. So regardless of the way you present to the world, whether you’re presenting female or presenting male, identify as a man or a woman or genderqueer or anywhere on the gender spectrum, your brain is also gonna be a spectrum inside your brain.
REBECCA: That’s right.
SARAH: So was reading about this science surprising to you, Rebecca? Is this what you expected to read when you were starting to read about gender and brains? Or did you expect it to fall into more binary categories?
REBECCA: The idea that there’s a male brain and a female brain is so prevalent that certainly some of that has seeped into my understanding of how brains work. As I was reading the study, I was thinking a lot about–and probably a lot of your listeners have heard of–the work of Ann Fausto-Sterling. She’s a biologist at Brown University who does a lot of work on challenging binary understandings of biological sex. So because I’m familiar with her work and thinking about sex as a spectrum– Because we’re used to thinking about gender as a spectrum, right? That’s an idea that we’re all pretty on board with. But being introduced–
SARAH: We being?
SARAH: Popaganda listeners [laughs].
REBECCA: Yeah, right! Feminists, right. Maybe not culture at large. Yeah, but I remember in grad school being introduced to the idea that sex is also a spectrum, was kind of mind blowing to me. So then, reading an extension of that type of understanding of biological sex as a spectrum, reading about that extending into brain science didn’t surprise me too much. But it definitely did push against some pretty ingrained cultural understandings of male and female brains that I think I’ve been exposed to since I was little, like most people.
SARAH: Well, Rebecca, if people wanna read the study and read your reporting on it, they can do so at Bitchmedia.org. What’s the headline on the article?
REBECCA: Binary Is A Beautiful Thing to Break.
SARAH: Aw, yeah. That’s our theme for today’s show. Thanks for sharing your talents with us this summer as our editorial intern, Rebecca, and also for being on the show.
REBECCA: It’s been my pleasure.
[music, recorded poem]
SARAH: That was a bit of binary poetry from the poet Infenemisis.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Our theme today: Breaking the Binary.
Last year, the British government did this really interesting survey. They asked 1,600 adults to place their sexuality on the Kinsey Scale. Developed by researcher Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s, the Kinsey Scale is a way to think about sexual orientation as a range rather than a binary. On the one side of the scale, at zero, is someone who’s exclusively heterosexual. On the other side, at six, is someone who’s 100% homosexual.
This sounds basic if you’re already familiar with the idea of sexuality as a spectrum. But it runs contrary to a lot of our pop culture and societal thinking. It’s still assumed in a lot of ways–big and small and constantly frustrating–that everyone in our culture is straight. You see it in advertisers and film studio executives who gear their pop culture toward an assumed straight audience. It’s horrendously heterocentric. And if you’re not straight, then you’re gay. Gay and lesbian voices are very underrepresented in our media, but there’s still some vocal visibility there. But what about those people in the middle who are neither straight nor gay? And that’s where a lot of us are, it turns out.
In that British study, a huge number of people said they were neither straight nor gay: 43% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 said that they were somewhere in the middle of all-straight or all-gay. That percentage of some-degree-of-bisexual folks dropped a bit with age. Among 25-39 year olds, 29% of Brits places themselves somewhere between straight and gay. And among people over 60, it was just 7%. I think this study is really interesting because it shows that, among the younger generation, there’s a comfortableness with fluidity, with a gray area, with a spectrum rather than an either/or identity. And it’s important because the reality of bisexuality is often dismissed and overlooked. If you’re a woman married to a man, for example, a lot of people are going to assume you’re straight. Even if that’s not the case.
ZAHRA: There is this way that, with bisexuality, you’re kind of coming out all of the time, cuz I pass as straight. I’m a straight marriage, a monogamous one. So there’s this way, but you’re always surprising people.
SARAH: That’s Zahra Norbash. She’s a stand-up comedian and the co-the host of the excellent podcast GoodMuslimBadMuslim. This summer, Zahra finally came out to her family as bi. I talked to her about this on, appropriately, national Bi Visibility Day, which was September 23rd.
ZAHRA: I guess in retrospect, I probably always identified as being bisexual. I just didn’t know that it was an option. And also, I always associated bisexuality with something in porn. The hotness of two girls as it would please a man, and the male gaze on that was very present, that it was for a guy. And yeah, it took me a while to actually– By a while I mean I’m 36 years old. So just a little while [laughs] to actually own it as an identity. And it helped a lot when women who were also married to men would tell me that they were bisexual, just in conversation. We would be talking about sexuality, and they would mention it. Then, it was like, oh! Huh. I think I am too, I think.
SARAH: Zahra’s husband had known for years that she was bi. She told him on one of their first dates…in a rather, uh, abrupt way.
ZAHRA: Looking back on that, it might’ve been a little curious to mention that to my boyfriend right after we’d had sex. Like, “By the way, that wasn’t great what you just did. I’m bisexual. I have had experience that was better than that, and I just wanna put that out there that I might choose that instead of you,” [laughs] was the way that he took it.
SARAH: They had a bunch of conversations about her sexuality. Actually, there were two conversations going on here: one about sexual orientation and one about monogamy. Would Zahra feel good about dating a man, or would she always be missing women in her life? Would she be happy with monogamy? Is that what she wanted?
ZAHRA: It took a long time for me to say, “I do. Till death do us part. And even if other people turn us on, I’m with you.”
SARAH: So Zahra and her husband had gone through all this years ago and keep talking about sexuality a lot. But she’d never talked about her identity with the rest of her family. Her parents and her siblings, they didn’t know. She felt a bit like, why stir things up? Why do they need to know? But then this year, something happened that made her realize the power of visibility.
ELLEN DEGENERES: I woke up Sunday morning, June 12th. I turned on the TV, and I saw the news about the nightclub shooting in Orlando. I spent the next 15 hours sobbing.
SARAH: That’s Ellen DeGeneres, of course, describing the deadly attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. As she followed the coverage of the attack, Zahra’s heart broke.
ZAHRA: The effect of the shooting had hit me so hard, and I was so sad and grief-stricken. And then, even worse was knowing that there were so many of my friends who it wasn’t safe for them to be out to their families for a number of reasons: emotionally, physically, mentally. And that on top of having to grieve through this process–and I believe it happened during or near the end of Ramadan–they’re sitting at dinner with their families, and they can’t talk about it or address it. It just made me so sad. And then, at the same time, I was like, “I can’t.” Then I got angry, and then I got scared, and then I got worried. Then, all of those emotions turned into me going whoa, this is something that I can’t ignore. There’s a lot going on here. What is going on?
SARAH: Another infuriating part of the media coverage of that shooting was how right-wing pundits got time on the air to talk about their belief that the LGBT communities and Muslim communities were at odds. They got to say on the air that Islam is inherently homophobic. Zahra knows that’s not true in her life experience, and she wanted to counter that, to say, no you can be bi and be Muslim. But in addition to facing a complicated conversation with her family, she was wary of what it would mean to call herself bi on the big public platform of her podcast.
ZAHRA: And I went to a lot of my queer friends and was like, “What is going on with me? Am I gay enough? Am I gay enough? Am I gay enough? Can I ask you that? Is it OK if I ask you this?” And I was so scared of the politics of it because I wanted to do a good job. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t usurping some identity. And then, it was a couple of really great friends who are also activists that were like, “Bi erasure is a real thing, and no, there isn’t such a thing as gay enough.”
SARAH: So this summer, Zahra talked on GoodMuslimBadMuslim about being bisexual. She kind of thought that her family would listen to the show and then call her up and ask about her sexuality…but no one said anything. She spent all summer traveling–Zahra’s a stand-up comedian, so she has a lot of gigs–and when she got back to her parents’ house, she was on edge. She was super stressed out.
ZAHRA: When I finally got home, my mom asked me, “Hey! How come you’re not going to your cousin’s wedding?” And as soon as she said, “hey,” I was like, again feverish, like is this it? This is it. We’re having this conversation. And then, every moment after that where she was like, “Hey! Do you want espresso, or do you want an iced coffee?” And I was like, I can’t deal with this. I can’t [chuckles] hang out with my folks. I live with my folks when I’m not gigging, and so I was like, I really can’t take any more of this. So then, I joined my parents for dinner. My little sister was there, and I said, “Hey. So. In the latest episode of GoodMuslimBadMuslim, I came out as bisexual. And my husband knows; he’s always known. And so there’s that. What’s up?” And I was bracing for impact, you know, like here we go. What’s gonna happen? Is my mom gonna cry? I had heard friends tell me that that happens. Is my sister gonna be disgusted? I had heard friends tell me that that could happen. My dad was the one who reacted first, and he just immediately goes, “Girls? Women?” And he looks at my mom and looks back at me, and he goes, “Good luck.” Of course, my mom then punches him in the shoulder and goes, “Shut up!” [laughs] What do you mean good luck? And then she immediately wanted to know which of my friends I was sleeping with. Is it this person? Is it this person? Is it this person?
And she started going through my Facebook feed. I was laughing, but then I was like, OK, a: this is what I hate about conversations about bisexuality, is that they’re always about sex, and it’s not just about sex. And no, I’m not sleeping with all my friends! But if I was, that’d be fine too. And my little sister was the one who was really processing it all, and she asked me, “Oh my god. Orlando must have been really hard for you. You didn’t mention it then.” And then that really hit me. It’s hard for me to show my emotion when I’m sad with my folks, especially, and my little sister. And she would hate this [laughs], but I still see her as my little sister, and it’s really hard for me as the oldest in my family to let my family take care of me. So I just kind of took a breath, and I said, “Yeah. There are a lot of people that are saying you can’t be gay and Muslim. So it felt really important to claim that space.” My mom was like awesome, and she was so mad, and she was like, “God, I hate that. Nobody stands between you and Allah. Nobody. That is Islam. That’s the whole point.” Cuz Muslims also believe in Jesus Christ, not as the son of God, but as a prophet. She said, “Jesus walked on water, but Allah gave [Arabic word] Mohammed, a little orphan boy, who was illiterate, a book and said, “Read, because self-discovery makes you a prophet, not a bunch of self-righteous jerks.”
SARAH: Zahra wrote a really great article for Bitch about the process of coming out as bi. Look it up at BitchMedia.org. Coming soon: Shirts from Zahra’s mom that just say “Self-Righteous Jerks.” Okay, not really. I made that up. But you can definitely read the essay and hear more of Zahra’s excellent stories at her podcast, GoodMuslimBadMuslim.
Hey listeners, just a quick note about who makes this show. Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. So if you love our work and want to pitch in, become a member! Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. And when you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a brand-new monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews, straight to your inbox! Become a pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.
Also, a special plug. We want to feature some listener stories from you on a show that’s coming up. It’s about surviving male-dominated and white-dominated spaces. A listener suggested we do a show about navigating everyday patriarchal stuff, so we’re making one. I’m sure you have a story, regardless of your race or gender, about a time when you’ve noticed a weird power dynamic in a mostly male or mostly white office or event or classroom. So record a short voice memo about it and send it in to email@example.com. You don’t have to share some profound wisdom or have any kind of brilliant takeaway. We just want to hear about a time that’s been tricky and how you felt. So surviving as a minority in spaces is the theme. Record a voice memo and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So today we’re talking about gray areas, spectrums, making things complicated in a good way: breaking the binary. This next story comes to us from a high schooler, fledgling radio reporter Nanette Thompson, who put together this dispatch from her high school in El Cerrito, California, with help from the nonprofit Youth Radio. Listen in.
NANETTE: The first time I learned that gender could be fluid was in sex ed in the 9th grade. I remember the teacher mumbling under her breath that some people don’t identify their gender with the biological sex they were born with. At the time, it didn’t faze me because I had never known anyone who talked about it or felt that way. But now, three years later, I have a 16 year old classmate who’s trans.
JACE: My name is Jace. That is the name I have chosen. It’s what my parents would’ve named me if I was born biologically male.
NANETTE: Jace McDonald was born female but says he always knew there was something different about him. He didn’t like so-called girl things. More than that, he felt like a boy. At 13, he started identifying as transgender and has become something of an activist.
JACE: Never ask someone who’s trans what their “real” name is. That is so offensive! My real name is Jace. And my birth name is none of your business.
NANETTE: Jace has thick glasses and short brown hair, and he’s outspoken at school. One time in English class, when a teacher stumbled over gender terminology, Jace stepped in to clarify and ended up teaching a whole lesson himself.
JACE: High school’s hard enough as it is. High school as someone who is non-gender conforming just makes it harder. How many times today am I gonna be called a girl?
NANETTE: Last year, California’s first law protecting gender non-conforming students went into effect. It gives Jace the right to use the bathroom of his choice.
JACE: This is actually where some of our main bathrooms are.
NANETTE: When Jace uses the boys’ bathroom between classes, he says occasionally kids give him strange looks.
JACE: So if I go in there, and people are already in there, I’m more likely to just hold it and go to my next class.
NANETTE: It seems rough, but Jace says this is way better than he used to have it. He’s a Junior now, and this is his first year at my school. He’s gone to two other high schools and left because he was taunted and called names like “tranny.” At my school, he says he finally feels safe.
[school bell rings, voices in the hallway]
At an elementary school two towns away, teachers start addressing gender identity at a young age with the goal of making school more safe and inclusive.
TOMÁS: My name is Tomás Rocha, and we’re at Malcom X Elementary School.
NANETTE: Third grader Tomás Rocha has shoulder-length hair and long bangs. He’s wearing a turquoise My Little Pony t-shirt and black flats. A lot of days, he wears dresses, and last year he started using the girls’ bathroom. Tomás says people regularly ask him if he’s a boy or a girl.
TOMÁS: I just really think I’m really both. I don’t really care what people call me. Sometimes I say I’m a girl, sometimes I say I’m a boy, sometimes I say, “Does it really matter?”
NANETTE: It mattered to his mom, Amy. She struggled with Tomás’s gender bending and at first, hoped it was a phase.
AMY: His first grade teacher told me that, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is a phase.” So that scared me because I wanted it to be a phase because I didn’t want to have to have my child hurt. I wanted him to be what society wants a baby boy to be like when they’re born: tough and wanna play sports.
NANETTE: She didn’t want him to be bullied.
JULIA: I overheard a student say to Tomás, “Did you know you’re wearing a dress to school today?”
NANETTE: Julia Beers was Tomás’s second grade teacher last year, the first year he started wearing dresses to school. When students question Tomás, Beers tries to assume the best: that her students are curious and not trying to be mean.
JULIA: If a student is laughing, for example, I might say, “Hmm…What are you thinking when you laugh like that?” And by opening up that question, it can often help the student kind of dig deeper and realize, “Oh, it just seems weird. I feel uncomfortable,” or “I’ve never seen someone do that before.”
NANETTE: According to the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, 82% of transgender young people say they don’t feel safe at school. Struggles like the ones my high school classmate Jace has been through are the norm.
For Tomás though, his elementary school’s efforts seem to be working. His mom says his grades and behavior improved after he was given more freedom to be himself.
For NPR news, I’m Nanette Thompson
SARAH: Nanette made that story as part of Youth Radio, an awesome Bay Area journalism organization that partners up professionals and students to make stories about things young people care about. They’re amazing, so check ‘em out: YouthRadio.org.
Sins Invalid is a performance group like no other. Founded in 2006, Sins Invalid is a performance project that’s rooted in disability justice. They explore embodiment, identity, and empowerment in a fundamentally intersectional way that’s conceived and led and driven by people of color who have disabilities. The group does really provocative and radical work. In 2013, Sins Invalid made a documentary about their work. Here are some of the voices from the trailer.
[from “Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility]
[a cappella voices harmonize]
MARIA PALACIOS: Sex and disability are two words that you don’t often hear together. And if you do, it’s like [gasp] have sex?!”
SARAH: So here’s the exciting news: Sins Invalid has a brand new show. It’s called “Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom,” and it’s running in mid-October at the ODC Theatre in San Francisco.
Writer s.e. Smith interviewed Sins Invalid co-founder Patricia Berne about complicating representations of disability in our media, about moving away from a binary view of disabled or able-bodied into a way of seeing the diversity of the ways bodies work. Let’s listen in.
s.e.: First of all, I’m a huge Sins Invalid fan. I’ve gone to a lot of your shows. I love your work. So when Sarah emailed me to ask if I was willing to do an interview with you, I was like, “Oh yes, of course. Please!”
PATTY: Oh! That’s so flattering. Thank you so much. That’s great to hear.
s.e.: And I’m super excited about your new show, which I guess is a good place to start talking.
PATTY: Yes. Well, it’s entitled “Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom.” One of the performers noted that we never talked about living in that title: birthing, dying, becoming [laughs]. Yeah, I think living is kind of all of the becoming, and whether that living happens in a kind of visceral form on the planet or if that living happens somewhere else, then that’s part of what we’re exploring in this year. It’s a big deal for us because it’s our 10-year anniversary. We started in 2006. So we’re not billing it as our 10-year anniversary because I don’t know. It’s almost overwhelming. But it is. And this year is going to be….I’m so excited. We’ve been dreaming this for a while now. Maybe that’s part of why it didn’t feel right to commemorate it as a 10-year anniversary, because we’ve actually been thinking about this topic for two years. It costs a fair amount to do these performances. So we have to build up the funds, essentially. We were finally able to do it this year, and again, we’ve been incubating these ideas for a couple of years now. I feel like I’m ready to burst.
s.e.: What is the incubation and working process like when you’re preparing a show?
PATTY: Everyone has an independent voice within the show. So every piece has an arc so to speak. Simultaneously, there’s one overarching arc within the show. So that’s why we’re able to put excerpts on YouTube or tour specific pieces. But it’s not a cabaret in that they’re not disjointed pieces; they’re all leading and weaving one arc within the show, which again, follows the art of birthing, dying, and becoming who we are. We all have iterations of this in our own lives, either when we came out–birthed ourselves, so to speak–as queers or as people with disabilities. I mean, I know for myself, I’ve been functionally disabled all of my life, but I really kind of came to a political identity around disability when I was in my 20s reading Essex Hemphill as a Black, gay poet and author. He talked about essentially multiple forms of oppression and resistance. And I was like, “Oh my god! That’s just like me!”
s.e.: Something that I noticed kind of thematically emerging with this show is a lot of discussion of aging, and I feel like aging and disability, independently, are really scary topics for a lot of people, and together are like almost a third rail of life in that they’re both, in many ways, inevitable for so many of us. What has exploring that been like?
PATTY: Well, I think many of us are….Well, no. Everyone is aging [chuckles]. It is the nature of growth as we know it in this plane of existence. As we grow, we’re also moving forward in time and also expanding. But for all intents and purposes, we’ve all grown since we started the Sins Invalid project. It’s very different. As a person with a disability, to be–so I’m 49 right now–it’s very different to be 39 in general than to be 49. Our bodies really change when we hit 40, and particularly having a disability. We joke that crip years are like not quite dog years, not like every year is seven years, but it’s definitely not a one-to-one ratio! And so I think as people that are, in some way, embodied in a non-normative way, we’re used to talking about things that are scary or complex. That’s just kind of part of the parcel, I think, of having a non-normative body, be it because of disability or for someone that perhaps is gender non-conforming or perhaps within white supremacy has always been pushed to the margins in terms of our bodies, not being centered.
s.e.: One thing that I’ve always really admired about Sins Invalid is the very explicitly intersectional from the front nature of the project and the people who are involved. What kind of response do you get from that, especially in the disability community? Which is, speaking as a white, disabled person, really heavily white dominated.
PATTY: I think sometimes people are…I don’t wanna say shocked. The first word that came to mind is aghast [laughs] because a lot of times, people in disability community–in my experience–are just loathe to talk about any other system of oppression, be it gender-based oppression or heteronormativity, white supremacy, I mean any nature of things. I think people are more inclined to talk about class, but really, historically, the disability rights movement has been very single-issue focused. That’s one of the offerings of disability justice framework has an understanding of multiple and interacting sources of oppression and institutional power and multiple means of drawing our strength and our histories, our narratives, our power. I think we, as disabled people of color, as queer folks with disabilities, of course we’re gonna talk about the wholeness of our experiences, which includes not just disability but what it’s like to be a queer, brown crip. Yeah. And I think again, aghast might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but I think if people are expecting a disability performance, I think they’re gonna be surprised because it’s not. That’s not the totality of who any of us are, and it’s certainly not the totality of my identity of any of the performers’ identities. So people are gonna, I mean, if anybody has a body, I’m hoping they’ll be enriched by the show cuz it’s not just about disability, it’s not just about race, it’s not just about queerness or gender. It’s about all of it and more.
s.e.: You make an interesting point when you talk about the expectations of the viewer or the listener in terms of coming to a performance and expecting a disability variety show and not getting that. One of the things that I’ve noticed at the performances that I’ve attended is that you do an excellent job of breaking down the notion of disability as monolith, that even within disability, embodiment is hugely diverse. When you’re adding these intersectional identities, it gets much more layered.
PATTY: Mmhmm. Thank you. That’s the core of our hope is. It’s kind of ridiculous, like when people refer to “Asian languages” you know [laughs]? Or whatever, just the ridiculous kind of flattening of experiences, of millions and even billions of people. When we’re talking about people with disabilities, we’re talking about every– We’re talking about people that experience their body in some way non-normatively or their minds or their emotional processes. Of course there’s gonna be variance. How could their not be variance? And just at a certain point it’s considered a disabling variance in this culture when things like, we can really see when it comes to things like vision, where at a certain point someone is considered visually impaired or blind.
s.e.: Well, and you bring up an interesting point here with the distinction between disability as a personal identity and disability as a political one. I feel like there’s kind of a slowly growing social awareness that disability is not just a medical problem but actually an identity and a social embodiment, as it were. Do you see that change as well?
PATTY: Yes, and it’s really exciting because I feel like we’ve done a lot of work, people with disabilities, over the decades to shift that. And it makes me really proud of the work of the disability rights movement and moreover, really proud of the work that we’ve done setting forth and pushing a disability justice framework. I think that there used to be such shame identifying as disabled that no one would want to claim it. And I’m not saying that’s still not true. In the majority of, at least what I can speak to most I feel like most clearly, is in the United States, but at the same time, it’s absolutely shifting. Maybe not everywhere, but it’s shifting where people are able to identify as both hot and disabled [chuckles]. s.e.: So speaking of being hot and disabled, I promised we would talk about sexy goodness.
s.e.: So let’s talk about sexy goodness. This has been fore grounded in so many of your performances and so much of your work. Does it completely freak people out that you dare to put sex and disability in the same sentence?
PATTY: Not crips, but yeah, able-bodied people are like, “Oh my god!” And then, I forget sometimes. I grew up in the Bay Area, and so just the idea of disability and sex freaks people out. But then also, sometimes we have SM content. Sometimes we have– Like, we’ll go there cuz that’s reality, you know? And people seriously are like, “What? What?” [laughs] The first year, we actually had people bringing children, not infants, but like 8, 9 year old people to the show. And I was shocked because it was explicitly said it’s a show about sexuality and disability. If it had been any other community, people would not have thought to bring a child. If it was about the sexuality of Black men or intersections of sexuality, trans identity, and anything, people would not have brought children because they would say like, “Oh no! That’s definitely gonna be racy.” But sexuality and disability, did they think there was gonna be like a rehab talk or something? And then there’s an artist onstage with a 10-inch strap on, doing a strip and super grimy, awesome performer, and people–I’m not exaggerating–ushering, running their children out. I was like, well, you know, that’s what you get. I didn’t say anything, but you know, I was like, “What did you think? We said explicit.”
SARAH: That was writer s.e. smith talking with Sins Invalid Co-founder Patricia Berne. Again, their new show–brand-new material–is called “Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom” and you can see it in San Francisco this October.
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