Patty Burns — 10 Principles of Disability Justice (Sins Invalid Art Performance Collective)
Mutual Aid is Abolition Work — Slides & Recording (Black Abolitionist Network)
*”Communal abundance-making” is a term originally coined by Ameenah Rashid
Trans and Caffeinated, Episode 11: Bex León (they/them, fae/femme) on being the monster that’s under your bed is now available on:
iTunes (Apple Podcasts)
Arielle: Bex León is a lot like nature: their gender cycles with the passage of each season, they are justifiably angry about the impact of capitalism, and they are tired of white people-centric approaches to problem-solving.
Bex is raising their voice and fighting for justice in the face of oppressive systems designed to disempower their communities. As a disability justice advocate, Bex’s efforts are focused through the lens of community care, interdependence, and communal abundance-making, with the understanding that scarcity is falsely created by state control over our resources.
Through their poetry, Bex highlights their experiences as a disabled, gender cyclical, non-binary Boricua in the often visceral texts of “bible perverses” and monster literature, in which they reclaim the ableist trope of “monsterhood.”
I learned a lot from Bex in our time together, and I’m confident that you will, too.
This episode mentions ableism, codependency, police brutality, environmental racism, and white supremacy.
This is Bex León on being the monster that’s under your bed.
Hi there! Today I’m chatting with Bex León, who uses they/them or fae/femme pronouns! Bex, why don’t you kick us off by sharing a little bit about yourself?
Bex: Hi, yes, it’s so good to be here. Thanks for introducing me. I am Bex León, and I am a gender-cyclical, non-binary Boricua.
Arielle: For people that haven’t heard the term “gender cyclical” before, can you just break that down a little bit?
Bex: Yeah, for sure. So, gender cyclical is a term that I use for myself. It’s basically related to being gender fluid, but I also feel that my gender cycles. And so I have different gender feels at different times of the year, or at different times of the seasons.
And I just feel that… I think it’s related to… in my brain, everything is basically a cycle, it’s related to my spirituality, which is seeing everything as cyclical. And so I perceive my gender to be cyclical in that same way, very much related to my spirituality and my respect for nature and love of water.
Arielle: Cool, thanks so much for sharing that. So Bex, you are someone who’s been super outspoken about disability justice. Just from hearing you talk, I hear that disability justice and disability rights are often used interchangeably. And I’d love to hear, in your words, what the distinction is between those two, and also why that distinction is important.
Bex: Cool, yeah. So disability justice and disability rights… obviously they’re both disability-related, and I think people confuse them often because of that.
Disability justice has become kind of a buzz word in a lot of social justice spaces, and I think that it deserves that hype. But I also think it’s important we know who started it and also where it comes from.
Disability justice was a term that was coined by Patty Burns and the Sins Invalid Art Performance Collective. Disability justice is about creating communities of liberation and centering the folks who are most marginalized within…I guess, within and without disability communities…. But specifically centering disabled queer folks of color.
And so the disability justice movement has really been interested in creating liberation through building community, through mutual aid, through centering those most impacted and centering their leadership.
Disability rights is a movement that’s been around for a while, and different organizations are within the disability rights umbrella. But a lot of disability rights has been very white-centric. It has been very single-issue—so, seeing disability as always the central and only thing going on in peoples’ lives. And that doesn’t match up with the reality of us being people, and it also doesn’t match up with the reality of disability. So, the fact is, that if you are a poor person of color and your city decides to build a bunch of factories, or put landfills in your area of town because it doesn’t value you as a poor person of color, that then affects your health. Or if you’re out on the street protesting, and you are brutalized by police for really wanting to create a better world and wanting to create liberation, then that can lead to being disabled. And there’s all of these ways that society disables us, and it’s very interconnected with our other identities as well.
And it’s also something where, if you are a white cishet man and you are disabled, there’s still so many other things that make it possible for you to exist within society in a lot of ways that someone with that same disability, but a queer person of color, would not be able to have. So, disability justice recognizes that and recognizes that that is very tied to us being able to create a world of liberation for everyone.
So, I’d definitely say that’s that case. And then, disability rights is also very much focused on the law. It’s very much focused on the legalities of it. It is interested in making sure that people have human rights. And disability justice is interested in imagining this new world of liberation and coming into that together in community with each other.
Arielle: So, it sounds like disability justice takes more of a broader approach to this. Like a lot of these movements we’ve seen in years past… a lot of movements center white voices, they center the least marginalized people in the community and leave whole scores of people in the dust. We’ve seen that with so many movements. I know I’ve personally seen that with LGBTQ rights, leaving people of color behind, leaving disabled people, leaving neurodivergent people out of that movement. And it sounds like you’re saying that has also happened consistently with disability rights movements, is that they’re centering white voices at the expense of other people. Does that sound accurate?
Bex: 100%. And I’ve actually been involved with one organization, a blindness organization, National Federation of the Blind, and they have been very white-centric, and very white supremacist in a lot of ways. Who they centered in leadership, how they’ve continued to not put policies in place that protect marginalized folks. And at this point, actually, they’ve had this very patriarchal culture, and it’s led to a lot of sexual assault, and the culture has not been about consent at all. And so it’s led to all of these things. So again, the disability rights movement is very much focused on single-issue, and it’s had… “a hard time” is a kind way of putting it…it’s had a very hard time and just not been interested in creating paths of even equal rights for everyone… certainly if we’re getting into equity, and certainly if we’re trying to think of liberation, it hasn’t been interested in that as a whole.
And I would say, within the disability rights movement, there have been times or pockets where this has come up and folks have tried to deal with it. But just, as a whole, disability rights has been really single-issue in a way that’s been very white supremacist, very patriarchal, very much pushed queer folks out, and I would say has been legally-focused, and not focused on creating liberation.
Arielle: If you’re comfortable talking about it—what is it like, then, to be a trans, disabled, Boricua person in an environment that is operating that way?
Bex: Yeah, so specifically with this organization—I’ll just keep talking about this organization, specifically, although I think it is something I’ve experienced throughout different disability organizations, for sure — I don’t feel comfortable being in the space because I am not welcome as an entire person in that space. They’ve made it clear on multiple occasions that they are interested in blindness issues, and blindness issues only. And that means, when my blindness issue is also an issue related to another one of my disabilities, they’re not interested in hearing that.
For example, in training centers, they always tell folks for blindness-related, non-visual training, “Never sit down in the front of the bus. That just increases peoples’ pity for you, and it shows that you’re not an independent person. But for me, as someone who has a lot of chronic pain, that was something that was never talked about as far as, “yeah, it’s actually fine to sit in the front of the bus, and it’s actually fine to allow people to stand up and let you sit down. And of course it’s complicated, of course there is going to be ableism. And honestly, that doesn’t necessarily change, even if you pretend to be the most independent person ever.
So I think it’s that, but I think it’s also… for me, coming into these spaces as someone who is also trans, as someone who is Boricua, as someone who grew up and continues to be poor, I think that I have this very different idea of community and what mutual aid and interdependence should look like. And a lot of these spaces don’t create space for other forms of community, and I think that is something that is very… white community tends to be very much about independence and individualism because they want everyone who can’t succeed to feel like it’s their fault. And I think that I’ve never been interested in that kind of community. Or, at least, I grow less and less interested in living in that sort of false reality. I’m not interested in that at all.
I think that’s something that also…it’s just uncomfortable. Because of my perspective on the world, which is related to being a Boricua, and is related to being trans and having, in order to survive, built these really deep and lovely communities… seeing that not at all present, and seeing that looked down upon very much pushes me out of those spaces.
Arielle: It almost sounds to me like their idea of the “best way to exist as a disabled person” is to conform in order to make non-disabled people less aware of your existence, and thus sort of erase part of yourself for their comfort.
Bex: Yeah, so it’s supposed to be something where you are supposed to be equally as independent as non-disabled people. And here’s the thing—I don’t want to let non-disabled folks off the hook, because a lot of this is very much wrapped up in ableism—but there’s this illusion of independence that non-disabled folks live under… this idea that they are independent, and they don’t depend on others, because the world has been created with door handles at a certain place, and all of these different things that’s just in our society to make them so that they don’t have to have accommodations for literally walking out the door. Or anything like that.
I would definitely say what’s happening—specifically in a lot of disability rights organizations, but in a lot of disability organizations—then, there is this push towards, “you need to be independent like non-disabled folks are independent, or [you] need to be seen as that.” And non-disabled folks are living in an illusion of this. They’ve literally had society created for them to be like this, and I think it’s unhealthy for them to be living in that, and I certainly don’t want to have to conform to be able to be seen as falsely independent, like they seem themselves as.
I think… not that I don’t think there are so many accommodations and different ways of creating access that we can do for ourselves and do for each other, but I don’t think that coming into this illusion of independence is the key.
Arielle: Yeah! So I’m curious, then, to hear about what interdependence looks like for you… especially as someone who’s involved in a lot of community care, especially as someone who’s involved with a lot of mutual aid organizations here in Chicago… what does that look like for you?
Bex: For sure. And I recently talked about mutual aid, I know you were present when I was with Black Abolitionist Network and talking about mutual aid as abolition, and talking about disability justice in relation to that. I think something that was really difficult for me when starting to talk about it, or even just plan the workshop that I did, was that I was looking up mutual aid and disability justice and looking to see if anyone had put together extensive theorizing on it that I could pull quotes from.
And I’m sure that’s out there, but a lot of what I found were just these examples of mutual aid happening in a disability justice way, or just these very practical ways that disability justice and mutual aid are connected through examples. So for me, it’s sometimes difficult to talk about mutual aid or interdependence or disability justice as a day-to-day thing, because it is so much of my day-to-day. It is a lot of how I exist and have continued to exist and form community.
So, yeah, I would say interdependence for me is this idea that we all do depend on each other. I’ve talked about this before, but I know when I first came on this idea of interdependence, I felt very uncomfortable. I grew up very codependent with my family, my family was very enmeshed, we all had to always be present with each other all the time. It was very unhealthy, and I was like, “Oh god, I’m not interested in that,” and I’d been trying to be “independent” to avoid this co-dependency issue. So I think coming into interdependence, I had to realize it’s not about being continually dependent on one person and only having one person who can ever help you out, or anything like that. It’s about creating these community networks of care where we all do depend on each other to survive, and we all do depend on each other in order to create community and liberation.
And so, it’s important that we care for each other in the ways that we can. And that can look like so many different things. I have a friend who, she and I have talked a lot about community care and interdependence and what she coined as “Communal Abundance-Making,” so really this idea that together, we can create abundance instead of this scarcity model that’s always out there that’s making us depend on that state. But if we come together, we can create abundance with and for each other on a lot of levels—emotionally, physically, all of that.
And of course, that is still impacted by false scarcity, which is created by the state and by those in power to oppress people. But I think that we can still come together, and whether that means someone needs something financial, but someone else needs some help with just cooking food or just needs to be walked through an anxiety attack, or whatever it is, there’s so many different ways that we can care for each other and really create abundance outside of state control.
Arielle: And that sounds very much like a mutual aid tenet—it’s even right in Black Abolitionist Network’s Principles of Unity, “We believe in abundance.” We don’t believe in the state-created concept of scarcity where the wealthiest people in our society hoard resources, we believe that the resources are there and we can accomplish sharing those through mutual aid, through community care.
And I’m curious, for you, coming from what you referred to as a codependent family, how has community care been healing or helpful for you?
Bex: Yeah. And I want to quickly go back to one thing you just said—I’m not saying that there can’t ever be scarcity, I think there is, but it’s very falsely created by folks like billionaires, folks who are hoarding resources, state control of resources, all of that can happen. And sometimes, abundance-making means pushing back against that. Some of the time, it really is pushing back and getting the resources that we need, liberating those resources from the state or from corporations or whatever that is. So, I do just want to put that out there as well, because I think, some of the time, mutual aid—as a perfect dream, as a perfect society—we would always have everything we needed if we shared our resources. And I think, even in a very broken society, we can get much closer to that than we are if we use mutual aid. But it’s not a perfect thing, and I do want to put the onus on the state and people who are hoarding resources for why that’s not happening.
Arielle: Yeah, and thank you so much for clarifying that, I think that’s a really, really important point to drive home, so thank you.
Bex: Anyway, community care and how it’s been healing for me—wow, yeah, what a deep question. I think some of it may just be seeing myself as worthy of care is really just incredibly powerful. And coming from a codependent family where it was about being enmeshed, and all of us were not supposed to be autonomous, not supposed to have our own bodyminds and be individuals in that sense…coming into community care, where it is about creating space for each person to have their own bodymind, to have their own presence, to have their own space is really wild. And so, I definitely want to say that that has been one of the most healing things, and just seeing how, when we care for each other, we can create the space for all of us to have the different needs that we have and to have those shift over time, and to create access for each other in very personalized and kind ways.
Arielle: That was beautiful. Deep question and a deep response. So I also know that you have written poetry about a lot of your identities, a lot of your experiences with disability and other parts of your identity. And I would love if you’d be willing to share one of those poems with us today, if you’re interested.
Bex: Yeah, I would love to. I do have a poem I would definitely love to share.
All my chosen family are demons,
A holy hell of vice.
I share wine with troublemakers.
I break bread with blasphemers.
That “Eat the rich”
That “Fuck 12”
That “If we don’t get it, Shut It Down”
That “Love is love”
That “Existence is resistance”
That “Your value is not your productivity”
That “Our bodies are enough”
And are we not that pride of deadly sins,
Prowling like roaring lions waiting to devour?
Are we not the seven devils,
Come to replace the one you cast from your home?
For we are many
And we will turn hell into
The new heaven.
(This poem was originally published on Bex’s website, Obtuse Angles & Abstractions)
Arielle: Wow. First of all, thank you for sharing that, that was awesome. And I’d love if you could break that down a little bit. You said you wrote this for your community, and I know that some of this has references to what you were calling bible perverses when we were chatting outside of this recording sesh, and I’m curious if you could speak a little bit more to that.
Bex: Yeah, I do call them… I kind of jokingly call them bible perverses, a lot of my poetry has these references to Christian teachings and to the bible. I grew up in a cult and learned a lot of these verses… had to learn them, memorize them, had a lot of these teachings very much pushed upon me as a child, growing up.
So, writing this poetry is a way of reclaiming…I think reclaiming my brain, in some way, because there are some things that are still in there and I’m like, “guhhh.” Especially as a pagan, especially as a brujx, I’m like, “I don’t need to have this shit in here.” But I think this is a way of reclaiming it, and I’m really not interested in reclaiming Christanity itself or its teachings really in any way. I know that people can do that, and I am not here to say that is wrong or anything like that. But for myself, I’m really not interested in that.
So, I’m really not interested in reclaiming Christianity in that sense. This poem actually fits into a genre of disability literature that is known as Monster Lit. And in Monster Lit, disabled folks— specifically disabled femme and queer folks—reclaim the idea of being seen as a monster. So I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any films with any disabled folks in them, but there’s a lot of them where disabled folks are seen as the monster or where an evil character is given a disability to make them more off-putting or more monstrous.
And so, disability literature is really about reclaiming that, and saying “yeah, we are the monsters under your bed, and you should be terrified, because we are going to come for you, and you might not survive the night,” sort of thing. I’ve written different pieces that fit in that, but this also has this added level of reclaiming monsterhood within Christianity—so this idea of being a demon, being one of the deadly sins. There’s multiple references in here—”prowling like a lion waiting to devour,” is a reference specifically to Satan being cast out of your home, being a reference to God casting Lucifer out of heaven,…as well as “breaking bread with blasphemers,” and aligning with the deadly sins, that sort of thing. So it’s really about reclaiming all of that for me, because in this way, I’m saying, “look at all of these things that you hate. I am all of these things, yet somehow, I am more interested in liberation and beauty and morality and creating a heaven that is full of equity and goodness than you have ever been.”
And so I think that’s where this poem comes from in a lot of ways.
I’ve been writing poetry for a while, partly for healing purposes, partly for putting into words—usually very visceral words—what my communities have experienced, and what I’ve experienced personally. And so I have been really interested in publishing that poetry, and have started the process to be able to do that.
So I am putting together a prayer book—a poetry book called Prayerbook of the Ex-Communicate—really full of these different pieces of poetry, some around my individual healing journey, some around collective healing, and I guess my own individual trauma and healing and collective trauma and healing.
Arielle: And I kind of want to circle back a bit here to this idea of being there with members of your community and this idea of self-parenting that you talk about as a trans person, and how that shows in your relationship with yourself and with members of your community.
Bex: Yeah, definitely. I think so much of being a trans person and being within the trans community is so much parenting. There’s been so much loss of parental figures, of elders in the community, whether it’s trans folks who didn’t survive because of the AIDS epidemic, or because of ongoing oppression and brutality…or whether it’s been rejection from our own biological families, or families that we grew up with because of being trans, and rejection in that way.
And I think a lot of this does mean that we end up parenting each other, and some of the time it’s not even age-related or anything, you just kind of all parent each other, and we all have to parent ourselves in so many ways as well. Part of this poem is somewhat in relationship to that, because it’s about creating a community where we are all accepted, and a lot of times that means creating community where we can feel accepted, and that is in relationship to the communities we grew up in that never accepted us.
Specifically in this poem, there’s a line that says, “Are we not the seven devils /
Come to replace the one you cast from your home?” And it’s this idea of coming back to the homes that we were rejected from, and taking them over…. Or the communities we were rejected from, and taking them over. Bringing all your trans friends and kicking your parents out, type of thing.
Arielle: That sounds fun!
Bex: Right! It’s also related to the story about God kicking Lucifer out of heaven, and it’s also related to this parable that talks about, “if you kick one Devil out, and don’t fill up the space that they took, then seven devils will come to replace the one that you cast out.”
And I think, for me, there is this idea that all of us are devils, and all of us are here to create a community that accepts us where we are, and to create heaven out of the hell that we’ve experienced. I definitely think there’s that. In addition, I definitely think… trans folks, we just end up parenting ourselves. I’ve talked a lot with my therapist and also my friends about the fact that, as trans folks, a lot of our experiences with parenting—for many trans folks, again, I’m not saying that every single parent has been terrible to their trans child, it’s just a very common narrative right now—I would say that a lot of trans folks experience coming into themselves, and realizing who they are, and having to assure themselves that that’s okay. And doing that parenting job of holding themself as they come into this identity, and as they embraced who they are. And that should be the job of a parent, but a lot of our parents weren’t there to do that. And then, in addition to that, having to go back and explain—often to your parents—why you need to be treated differently, why it’s not okay that they’ve been trans-antagonistic, why they need to respect your pronouns, wherever it is, you end up then doing that parenting job, literally representing yourself as a parent to yourself, then representing yourself to your actual parents.
It’s a really fucked up thing that a lot of trans people have to experience, on top of then parenting other folks in the community, and on top of—for myself—I was a parentified child, so I took care of my younger siblings all the time, so I just experienced a lot of parenthood in my life.
Arielle: I don’t remember how much I’ve shared with you about my experience, but I didn’t have the chance even to come out to my family. I was a student at a therapeutic boarding school, where my therapist outed me to my family, and the whole administration basically shared with them that it was a ploy for attention and that I shouldn’t be trusted. And so I very much relate to everything you’re saying. I left that boarding school after graduating, and came home having to not only then convince my parents that I was trans and undo the damage that that therapist did, but then also sort of explain to them, “the fact that you bought into this lie of me doing this for attention and this not being true,” has now caused me a lot of harm. And so while I was undoing that damage for myself and coming into my own as a trans person, I was also then undoing the damage that had been done to my parents. And it led to me not talking to my father for a year, because I just couldn’t have that relationship while he was going through that process. And it was tremendously painful, so I related to a lot of what you’re saying in that way.
Bex: Yeah. Wow, that’s so much, and also just so exhausting. Because, what should have happened is that, at the point that you decided that you were willing to come out, you were able to talk to your parents about that, and then they took on the parenting role of saying, “yeah, you’re good and you’re enough and you deserve love and you should experience affirmation and acceptance and joy at who you are,” and “how can we help you to do that?” And you should have had advocates, as well, because it sounds like then you had to be your parents’ therapist, too, because this other therapist fucked up… yeah, that’s so much.
Arielle: Yeah, and I mean, I was 18 at the time, so technically an adult but definitely did not quite feel like one yet.
Thank you so much for everything you’ve shared, for being on the show today. Do you have any other parting things, any other words of wisdom that you want to share before we part?
Bex: Sure! I want to know—I have a bunny, and I think my bunny might be my mom, but like…my good mom, not my actual mom, not my biological mom. I just adopted this bunny, and they are very much mom-like and I was like, “oh, you’re the parent here, I understand the dynamic….parentification.”
This bunny is…I’m now their child, apparently. They’re only eleven months old, and they go around and show me where the wrinkles are in my carpet, and nudge at them with their nose until I come.
Arielle: Also, a little behind-the-scenes here for those listening—in the notes that I wrote before this episode, I just wrote, “Bunny???? Rabbit???? Go????? Hoppity hop????”
Bex: I feel like bunnies were definitely supposed to come up in this episode…
Arielle: Well, we made the joke about releasing a special edition Pets and Caffeinated… there may or may not be a comic strip in the works for that.
Bex: I think Trans Bunny and Caffeinated because my bunny is non-binary.
Arielle: Non-bunnary, if you will.
Bex: Oh my god.
Arielle: I did not create that, there’s an artist that said that, so I can’t even claim that.
Bex: [sarcastically] I hate everything
Arielle: But also kind of love everything
Bex: Oh, I love it. I very much love it. Oh, wow.
Bex: Bunny! I’m trying to think if there’s any other words of wisdom that I have at this exact time.
And I don’t think there are. I thought my bunny might show up and say something, but they haven’t at this point.
Arielle: Well, before we started rolling… I mean, I guess it was coming from your phone, but I fully thought that your rabbit was trying to say something.
Bex: It may or may not have been my voiceover on my phone… [but] it was almost definitely my bunny talking.
Arielle: That is what I’m going to assume and share with people, that you have a talking mom bunny.
Bex: So, please keep an eye out for Pets and Caffeinated, and the first episode of Pets and Caffeinated—Trans Bunnies and Caffeinated, which will have an accompanying comic strip about a bunny.
Arielle: What is your bunny’s name?
Bex: My bunny’s name is Bazil.
Bex: With a Z!
Arielle: With a Z. Bex, how can people find you online or support you and your work?
Bex: Yes. So, you can find me on Instagram as @onmybex_behavior, and in addition, you can contact me on Venmo [pauses as if waiting for me to give permission to continue haha]
Arielle: Plug it, go for it. Definitely.
Bex: [laughs] @BexLeon is my venmo. I always tell people, when I do accessibility consulting or I tell them that they need accessibility consulting and they say, “Hey, can you do it for free?” and I say, “Hey, please contact me to continue this conversation on my venmo, so yes.”
And keep an eye out for my poetry book, Prayer Book of the Ex-Communicate.