- "Beauty Always Recognizes Itself":A Roundtable on Sins Invalid
In August 2017, Natalie Havlin and Jillian M. Báez, coeditors of WSQ: Beauty, talked with Patricia Berne, Jamal T. Lewis, Stacey Milbern, Malcolm Shanks, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Alice Wong about the work of Sins Invalid and the relationship of beauty to disability justice. Since 2005, Sins Invalid has presented multidisciplinary performances by artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists with disabilities in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We are excited to host a discussion about Sins Invalid's approach to beauty and justice. Thank you for joining us. To start, we are interested in hearing how Sins Invalid's approach to storytelling as a way to create a collective vision of beauty and liberation has influenced your own work and thinking
Sins Invalid intervenes into cultural landscapes engaging disability, gender, race, and sexuality, contextualizing beauty in our bodies and communities while debunking myths of beauty within ableist, white-supremacist, cispatriarchy. As marginalized peoples, we've been positioned to be in conflict with our bodies. I think we must decolonize ourselves, play large, know our fabulousness, our worth, our power in the face of being told that our beauty could not be. And when I say beauty, I mean a beauty based in our integrity, our lineages, our aesthetics, in self-possession of our sexualities and being desirable to ourselves; a beauty that radiates from our hearts, not from symmetrical bone structure. I believe liberation is intimately tied to the experience of being human, to every cell of our beings saturated in love—self-love and love of others—liberated from the shaming enforced by ableism [End Page 241] and Wong and other systems of oppression. And liberated to be responsible for creating a culture, a world, which values all communities. A liberatory experience can't happen only at an individual level; there's a collectivity that is part of what creates us as individuals. So, if liberation is self-love, and our identities are comprised of our community relationships, liberation is also loving our people.
I think we are all in a constant state of transformation. The ways that we are able to transform are totally linked to the conversations and people we have access to. Encountering the work of Sins Invalid has been foundational not just to my thinking about these questions, but my embodiment of them. As a gender nonconforming, transfeminine person, I am often told that I am ugly. Sins Invalid has created the space in me and in the world to challenge that, to find power in what they call despicable, and to rally in solidarity with all who are disenfranchised by normative beauty and ability.
I've been a long-time fan and friend of Patty and the organization, and I have worked with the Sins Invalid program team. I have also participated in disability justice work, particularly around working with youth. One of the things I really like that Sins Invalid says is the idea that beauty always recognizes itself. I think when you're talking about liberation for people with disabilities, specifically people of color with disabilities, we're talking about unraveling ableism, racism, and all of these systems of oppression that have told us to think certain ways. People have all of these unspoken ways of thinking about disability. We can look at pop culture and see that how many characters who are the villains are people with disabilities or we could read all of those statistics about dating apps and the people who are not going to be selected as dates. All that is shaped by race and disability. Or we can think of the legacy of freakery and circus shows. All of these show how afraid people are of disabled bodies. In order to unravel ableism, racism, and these frameworks, people need access to imagery that contests those images. That is one thing I really value about the work of Sins Invalid and Patty...