Patricia Berne had three DVDs to share at a private Tuesday afternoon screening in her South Berkeley flat. All fell in the vein of "art porn" or homemade erotica, featuring disabled people delineated as sexual beings. All were too racy for YouTube, Berne assured. Still, it's difficult, on first glance, to see why anyone would take a prurient interest in their content. Shot mostly in black and white, the films had such grainy, soft-focus composition that body parts looked like ill-defined geometric shapes. The spoken- word voiceovers and inter-titles distracted from the actors' bodies but emphasized their embodied rage. And the more explicit parts — Berne getting fingered in a way that's inscrutable to the untrained eye, Berne's friend Leroy Moore crawling naked along a dark stage floor, the slow-motion money shot that wraps up the second film — were too emotionally and politically fraught to seem salacious. Apparently, that's the point.
Moore was in attendance that day, since he and Berne were making preparations for Sins Invalid, their annual two-hour showcase of disabled performance artists, held at San Francisco's Brava Theater. ("Invalid" meaning "not valid" in this context, as opposed to its homonym.) Now in its third year, the show combines songs, modern dance, choreographed erotica, and self-affirming spoken word (i.e., Lezlie Frye "Don't Diss My Disability") in a way that foregrounds the performers' sexuality without exploiting or fetishizing them. The title derives from a commonly-held notion that disabilities are karmic retribution for some past sin, said Berne. "We're playing on the word 'invalid' (as in sick, incapacitated person) and the religious valence that gets put on disability." She added that many of her disabled friends have had the unfortunate, displeasuring experience of a stranger attempting to "heal" them. Moore, who has cerebral palsy, recalls having to walk down the aisle of his church as a young kid. ("I used to call it my Hollywood showing," he jokes). Berne, who has muscular dystrophy and went straight from a stroller to a wheelchair, says that throughout her life people have tried to lay hands on her and cast out the curse. "The last time it happened to me was on BART," she said.
The bookshelves in Berne's South Berkeley flat say just about everything there is to know about her politics: anthologies of black feminist thought sit cozily beside Dorothy Allison novels, a copy of the Popul Vuh, and at least one heavy paperback tome on sex and disability. Berne is pursuing an advanced degree in clinical psychology but still has to write the dissertation, a process she's put off for six years while she decides whether or not the field suits her personality. In 2002 she directed a project on race, disability, and eugenics at the Center for Genetics and Society, an organization that encourages discussion about new reproductive and biomedical technologies. The issue that most concerned Berne at that time was "deselection of certain genetic characteristics at the zygote stage of embryo development" — meaning that doctors could isolate certain undesirable traits in an embryo (namely, disability) and remove them. Berne found herself advocating for embryos that would develop into disabled children, which put her in an awkward position. "It was very painful to argue that we have a right to exist."
She met Moore at a poetry workshop in Berkeley back in the early '90s, and found they had a lot in common. Moore also was an activist with a strong commitment to identity-affirming politics — a self-described "queer disabled person of color," just like Berne. He had been writing poems since the '80s and developed a very cutting style. (His poem "Against the Stream" uses sperm as a metaphor both for virility and pathology — as in, My sperm is in test tubes marked "damaged."). From 2004 to 2006 Moore participated in a KPFA radio show called "Pushing Limits," then left to do his own show, "Blind Black Blues Krip-Hop" on Berkeley Liberation Radio. His latest enterprise is the Krip-Hop mixtape series, which features disabled rappers from all over the US.
The real genesis of Sins Invalid was the spate of erotic videos that Moore and Berne created over the past six years. Berne began dabbling in video on her own; Moore ventured into the medium after meeting local filmmaker Todd Herman during a disabled performance showcase at Malonga Casquelord Arts Center. Herman was impressed with Moore's poem "Black Cripple," an affront to a fellow performer who described himself as "the Great White Disabled Hope." Their collaboration resulted in "Forbidden Acts," a triptych that combines three of Moore's poems with images supplied by Herman ("Against the Stream" shows sperm under a microscope). He and Berne began sharing their work with other disabled artists. "We'd think, 'Damn, these are hot. We should sell these,'" Berne said. "We didn't really see any venues where people with disabilities were centralized, even in sex-positive forums."
They officially launched the show in 2005, with Berne presiding as artistic director and financial backing from Herman, who had a grant to produce work by disabled artists. Their first show was about two hours long, and featured an emcee from a big-bodied burlesque troupe, as well as a performer in his 70s, who did a piece on skinny- dipping. Berne and Moore gave a lot of latitude to the term "disability," incorporating people with small forms of disfigurement, speech impairments, and disabilities that aren't visible on the surface of their bodies. The gist, according to Berne, is to take people "who are not traditionally seen as sexually viable," and present them in an erotic context. "People think it's a non sequitur to put disability and sexuality in the same sentence," she explained. "Of course people with disabilities are sexual. One of the things that catches people off guard is both how sexually provocative the show is, and how beautiful it is."
Berne often says she has a knack for making things beautiful. She started directing Sins Invalid with no formal training, but said she had a natural sense of how the whole thing should be put together — and it seems to work. Berne loves girly details. She has perfectly manicured nails and a burgeoning purse collection; her right arm is covered with a flowery scroll meant to represent her Haitian and Japanese heritage. Berne's room is the work of someone with an aesthetic eye and a far-ranging definition of beauty: painted branches; incense holders; a framed watch collection; a delicate Japanese fan; bright plastic book covers shining from every nook and cranny. The largest bookshelf is also home to Berne's Barbie Dolls, three blond-haired coquettes in short dresses, and chic, knee-high boots. One of them sits in a wheelchair.
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