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DVP Interview: Dominika Bednarska and Alice Wong

On December 13, 2014, Alice Wong interviewed Dominika Bednarska for the Disability Visibility Project at StoryCorps San Francisco. Below are short excerpts from their conversation.

On queer and disability identities/communities

Alice: Dominka, I have to admit to you, I did a Google search, and I Googled you, and you know, it’s really interesting is, a lot of articles about you, you know, they describe you as some of these words: queer, disabled, femme, academic/performer/activist and that’s a mouthful! [Dominka laughs] But, I want to know, how do you… does that sound accurate, and, how do you describe yourself in a.. if somebody had to.. you had to sum it up, quickly.

Dominika: Um, well, I guess, you know, I am all those things. Um, I think I just wrote on my StoryCorps form that I’m a disability studies scholar and performer and government worker as far as occupation, but, yeah, I mean, I also identify as a queer femme and, you know, lots of different things depending on context, I guess. But. That all sounds pretty accurate. [Alice and Dominika laugh].

Alice: Yeah, and there’s like, a lot of things, you know, all combined in that. I guess, could you tell me a little bit about your, kind of, thoughts about, your queer identity and your disabled identity, and kind of how the intersection of those two things fit in.

Dominika: Yeah, I mean, I think that, I feel like there’s a lot of overlap in some ways between my queer identity and my disabled identity, um, cause I think there is this way in which disability can kind of, you know, turn things upside down and really make us question normative concepts about the body and the mind. And, I feel like, you know, in a way, queerness does that as well in terms of thinking about, you know, sexuality and desire and what’s sort of acceptable and appropriate or not. And, um, I think that there’s, you know, there’s ways that those two identities really inform each other and kind of, give one a bigger space to be outside of cultural norms. But then, you know, I also feel like, there is a lot of asexualization that happens when one has a disability and kind of presumptions that one you know isn’t a sexual person, and that really, kind of goes against the kind of, hypersexualization that can really happen around queer cultures, and kind of, you know. The ideas that queers have about bodies and [laugh] sex are still very, in some ways, are still very ablised and very kind of normative things, you know. Depending on the queers I guess, but…

Alice: Yeah, there is, you know, at least I think we’re lucky in that San Francisco/Bay Area, that there is this nice kind of confluence, and there is a pretty strong queer disability community. [Dominka: Yeah] What’s been your involvement or connection to the queer disability community?

Dominika: Um, well, I was involved with this group Laura Ripkin put together called “Fabled Asp” that was a group of disabled lesbians in the Bay Area. So, I’ve done some stuff with them. There have been some really cool disability sexuality centered events at the Center for Sex and Culture. So those things happen. I mean, I have queer and disabled friends that I am friends with because I met them at various events on disability and queerness. So, I mean, I don’t know.. I think um, I think it’s more my relationships to different spaces and different people than like, one coherent community that I can put my finger on. It’s true that there’s more sense of that here than anywhere else in the country.

Alice: Yeah, and you definitely would find more queer disabled people…not saying that you need a label or organization to coalesce around, but they’re, they’re just around. And there is this kind of informal network. And, sometimes you know, it’s like, it’s nice that there are people who share multiple identities together in the same space. Because so often… it’s isolating when you’re the…when you’re in queer spaces you might be the only disabled person or, sometimes in the disability community, definitely for the queer LGBTQ, they’re often the only one there. And, I think there’s a lot of ableism and homophobic stuff that happens within both environments.

Dominka: Yeah, it’s true.

Alice: Tell me a little bit about your experiences traveling across these different terrains. And, I guess it’s kind of unfair to assume that they’re separate spheres, but, sometimes they do feel separate.

Dominka: Well, I think the queer disabled community is fairly small, by comparison. You know, there’s gonna be more disabled people overall and more queer people overall, so. You know, I think anyone who’s disabled and queer has had experiences in queer space where they’re the only disabled person there. And you know, also being in disability spaces that are pretty, you know, pretty heteronormative and pretty focused on that whole idea, yeah. You know, I worked at a disability nonprofit when I finished college and it was, you know, I thought, this is gonna be a really great environment because they were a really up and coming organization, and I just really experienced a lot of homophobia when I worked there. And you know, it was my first job out of college and I came from a school that was, had a lot of disability access barriers, but you know, was very queer friendly, so, I think that was very difficult and surprising, but most of my issues at that job had to do with being a woman and with being queer. Not so much being disabled. Because, it was mostly male, and mostly white men that were part of it at that time so…

On the creation and performance of Dominika’s one-woman act, “My Body Love Story”

Dominika: Yeah, it was something that I wanted…it took me 10 years from first thinking of the idea to actually like, bringing the show to completion and doing a full performance so, it’s something that I, I was thinking about and wanting to do for a very long time and, um, the show basically consists of monologues and there’s some dancing and all of the monologues are around moments in my life where my relationship to my body changed, um, you know, sometimes for better sometimes for worse, although, mostly for better and that’s kind of like, the structure behind creating the show. So, you know, there’s different things.

There’s the shopping piece that you talk about, which is, you know, totally a true story, I mean, I was very much dragged into a fitting room and like, only really put that on to shut my friend up so she wouldn’t keep harassing me about it (laugh). Um, and you know, I was like, I get it! I understand slutty clothes (laugh) and why women buy them and (Alice: they’re empowering!) Yeah! I mean, not, empowerment means different things to different people, but at that time in my life, I was like, oh wait, I do get it, like, I’m cute. I have a nice body. And this is at that time in my life I really, that was a big piece of how I discovered my sexuality and became comfortable with my sexuality. Really, it was like, you know, coming into this identity as a femme that I realized that I could have, without taking every single piece of what being a femme meant, culturally. You know, I could pick and choose the parts that I wanted and it felt good to me. And you know, going out dancing, and it was kind of, I guess, an unusual choice for someone who’s a crip physically. But what I think I liked about that space is that I really like music, and I really like dancing, and it was just something that brought me a lot of joy, just like, on its own. And then, you know, it’s a very sexualized space, so, it’s really, like, you know, I still kind of had these weird fucked up ableistic experiences with people, but at the same time, it’s a space that’s so sexualized that it’s, it’s pretty clear when someone’s interested in you, at least on some level, just because of like, the physical contact and the whole set up of the thing.

So, at that time in my life that was really important. But, I also have a piece in the show about physical therapy and some disabled dance performances that I went to that were really influential, and um, I have a piece about going out dancing and what some of those experiences were like. And, um, you know, a couple of pieces that center around different relationships and things like that. So,.. I wanted to do the show because when I was in my early 20’s and in college and you know, realizing that I was, you know, queer, and um, trying to figure out, ok, so I’m queer, and I have all these sexual feelings that you know, my peers do, and they all seem to be hooking up and finding people and it seems super easy for them, and that’s not really happening for me in the same way and like, what’s that gonna look like for me and how am I gonna break out of this idea that people have that you know, that I don’t fall into those categories for some reason. And there’s really nothing I really could find. I think it’s better these days, but I really could find just nothing that spoke to any kind of disabled queer experience. Like, I would Google disability and sexuality, and I would find articles on the internet about how to get men with spinal cord injuries off (Alice: oh my god!) and sexual surrogacy, and I’m sitting in my room, 19 years old, like, this is not helpful! (Alice: yeah…) You know, I’d go to the book store and it would be like, ‘what to do now that your lesbian partner has become disabled,’ and I’m like, “This is also not what I need help with, like, I need to figure out how to do the whole kind of dating thing, not really the whole, you know…”

Dominika Bednarska holds a PhD in English and Disability Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in many places including Sinister Wisdom, Bellevue Literary Review, Blast Furnace, and Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, a Lambda nominee. Her show My Body Love Story kicked off the National Queer Arts Festival in 2012 and is part of this year’s SF Fringe Festival in September.

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