The Feministing Five: Patty Berne

pb3.jpgPatricia Berne is the Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, a San Francisco theater company that blends performance and art with the political vision of a more just and equal world. The goal of the company is to challenge and reshape the public’s ideas about people with disabilities and other traditionally marginalized groups. Focusing particularly on disability justice, their performances resist the framing of the company members’ bodies as “less-than,” simply by putting those bodies on stage. “It’s the most basic claiming of voice and claiming of space by creating beautiful work with political grounding,” Berne says.
Berne, who believes that performance and other forms of cultural work play a crucial role in movement building, has dedicated her life to social justice, a dedication that has taken many forms. Currently, Berne also chairs the board of San Francisco Women Against Rape. Clearly, her role as Director of Sins Invalid is only one piece of a life devoted to giving voice to the voiceless and empowering the invisible. When I observed that the mission of Sins Invalid sounds both challenging and crucial, Berne’s matter-of-fact reply was, “It’s challenging, but life is tough.”
If you’re building a social justice movement, this is the woman you want in your corner. That said, as her answer to question number two reveals, she is a (self-professed) total geek.
And now, without further ado, The Feministing Five, with Patricia Berne.


Chloe: What led you to your work in disability justice and performance art?
Patty Berne: We understand the work of movement building to include cultural work. So we understand performance work to be a broader part of movement building. I’ve done work with different communities; I’ve done work in women’s communities, I’ve done work with women of color, I’ve done work with survivors of violence and in immigrant communities, and queer communities. Sins Invalid is a way of centralizing all of the intersections and of emphasizing disability and ableism, as well as a way to explore interlocking or intersecting movements and identities.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
PB: I feel like such a geek and I’m so embarrassed, but the person who first came to my mind – and this is so embarrassing, I’m not sure I can say it – is Captain Janeway in Star Trek. She was just a really strong character, and a really strong leader. She was unabashedly in leadership and in no way withdrew from her role as a woman, but she was a really strong, sound leader. She’s just a badass. And for some reason, there was this really great online queer porn fan fiction that featured her having an affair between her and one of the other women on the show. So I think that’s partly why, in my head, she’s queer, even though in Star Trek, I don’t think she’s queer.
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
PB: My mother is an amazing woman. She’s amazing. She left Japan shortly after World War II and married a Haitian man, and defied Japanese… everything. She defied the entire framework for what was expected of a Japanese woman. She’s kind of a badass. I have mad respect for my mother. There are so many women I admire and respect and try to model myself after, but definitely my mom.
CA: What recent news event/article made you want to scream?
PB: The first thing that comes to mind is the media lynching of Van Jones. Van has been such a committed advocate, and his work has offered so many frameworks for thinking about organizing and movement building. And his work has offered so many opportunities to so many people. It appalled me that the broader environmental movement didn’t step up to his defense.
Also, I’m not sure how much it was covered on Feministing, but the case of Ashley X. Ashley X was a young girl with a disability. And her parents petitioned the doctors to perform a hysterectomy on her, and to essentially perform an entire treatment that included a hysterectomy, removing her breast buds and giving her growth-stunting hormones so that she would never develop through puberty. It’s horrifying. It’s such an example of misogyny interacting with ableism and with the willingness to commit violence against children. Their reasoning was that it would be easier to care for her if she always stayed a child. And the hospital agreed, and it set a precedent in the United States for essentially neutering and stunting a person as a form of treatment. I mean, treatment for what?
CA: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
PB: I think the broader political climate has framed feminism as an antiquated analysis. And I think that there’s a little bit of an opening now, but generally in the broader political climate, any dissent is marginalized, and feminist critique is a dissenting voice. I think the conservative climate, where the integrity of women’s bodies is dependent on the political framework, that’s challenging. It’s one of the biggest challenges not just to feminism, but to the health and safety of women.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink, one feminist. What do you take?

PB: This is the second hardest question! But I really love tofu scramble. It’s my morning comfort food. My drink would be miso soup. And does my feminist have to be known by other people? Because I would say my friend Hilary Klein. We’re both on the board of San Francisco Women Against Rape and she’s an incredibly strong ally for disability justice and racial justice.
Sins Invalid’s performance is coming up soon (and Berne is in it!): October 2-4 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater. More info here.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Comrade Kevin

    I wouldn’t disagree with her summation that Feminism has been deemed antiquated and no longer deeply relevant to the debate. The question then is how to move it from a niche, still largely academic movement to the mainstream.
    The Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s made a broad impact, but it also followed the same trajectory of a lot of liberal social justice movements, where it created its own circular firing squad and became defined by its opposition. How we can manage to start a new movement and avoid the same pitfalls would be a question I would pose to those much wiser than myself.