Hello, I’m Ash and this is The Fat Lip podcast.
On the morning of August 18, San Francisco’s Castro district woke to a naked statue of Donald Trump glued to the sidewalk. That statue was one of 5 that showed up suddenly in cities across the US that morning. And later that day we learned that the statues were an installation by an anarchist art collective called INDECLINE. The piece was called “The Emperor Has No Balls” and indeed it had no testicles. It also had a very small penis, skin that was pocked and veiny, and a hanging fat belly.
I did a short show a few days after these effigies debuted to voice my disgust at that public reaction. Shane Brodie, though, a fat trans artist from Berkeley, California made the incredibly courageous decision to wage a one man protest. Shane went out to the Castro, to the very spot where one of those statues had been glued to the pavement, and he took his clothes off.
Shane, a very shy, private guy, protested naked for four days. His was the only public protest of it’s kind, and Shane is on the phone with me today to talk about his motivations, the response to his protest, and how we can all follow his lead.
Yeah this whole thing…Part of what I want to communicate besides the whole Trump statue thing and the terrible reactions that people had to the statues (which was the worst part of it, right? I could ignore the statues, but I can’t ignore my community making fun of a body that looks like mine.) But part of it for me is also I’m such a private person that I’ve had to…It was kind of impulsive for me to go out to do my action. It felt like I was kind of pushed into it, in a way, because well, I had heard about the statues online. You know, I don’t watch TV, and I lead a very kind of quiet life, you know, sometimes I’m just reading all day or doing some art or something, so I don’t often talk to people in a day. And I noticed online that this was happening, people were having conversations about it, and when I saw a picture of the statue it looked just like me, you know? And I saw people putting brassieres on it and pointing at the depiction of a penis, and I saw all kinds of jokes going on the internet about small erections taken down—that was from the New York parks department or something like that—and I was just shocked that basically the whole country was laughing at someone who looks just exactly like me.
And it’s very hard for a person like me to find community in the first place, right? Because I’m queer, I’m trans, I’m an artist, and just to see people in my queer neighborhood in the Castro, people who would normally would be allies of mine…And I’m sure there were people from other parts of San Francisco and maybe people from the East Bay that came into town, but these were people who would probably be allies to me but there they were basically shaming who I am and I couldn’t believe it. And then I saw people online who were friends or friends of friends who were excusing that. And when I brought up “hey, this is not cool by me—this hurts me,” then they came up with these logical arguments about it, rationalizing it and saying “oh it’s just art” and “just get over it,” but they weren’t listening to the impact that this had on me and my real emotions about it. And whenever you ignore someone’s emotions about something, something is wrong. It’s just so important to listen to people when they say that they’re being harmed because they are giving you a gift when they say that. And it’s vulnerable.
So I didn’t know what to do. So I just woke up the next day and I was just like “Screw it. I’m just going to show my body. And I’m going to dare people to look at me and say to me that I’m a disgusting person. I dare them to do that.” And so you know I’m an artist and I always have tons of sketchbooks, and they’re only partially drawn in—I’m very bad with buying sketchbooks when they’re on sale—so I got one of of my good sketchbooks with nice heavy paper and one of my nice markers and I asked someone to take over my volunteer shift at the place I volunteer. I just saw her at a coffee shop and was like “I might be arrested, you know, can you take over my position today?” And she was like “yeah, what are you gonna do?” and I said “I’m not going to tell anybody yet. I just have to go into the city and I might get arrested and I just have to do it.”
And she was like “Okay, everything’s covered. Just do what you need to do.”
So I dropped my car off at the BART and took the BART into the city, and along the way I had been thinking about manhood a lot because people kept making jokes about manhood, and that manhood means a penis basically, which is like the adolescent joke version of what we think of as manhood, whereas myself as a trans person—someone who was a woman but who now lives as a man—I’ve really had to examine what manhood is about and really take responsibility for what it means to be a man in the world, you know: the good stuff—there’s good stuff about being a man in the world, and there’s a bunch of crap, too—crap that I have to take responsibility for. So I’ve really tried to examine that in my life. And to have people like on the news or on the internet making jokes about manhood and just reducing it to a body part was really upsetting to me.
So on the BART I was trying to loosen myself up socially because I was about to do a protest and be out in public. So I talked to some people on the BART, just trying to be as social as possible, and I talked to some men, and I asked them, I said, “I want to ask you a very uncomfortable question, and you’re welcome to say no—it’s probably going to make you uncomfortable, but I’d really appreciate an answer though,” and all three of them said yes. You know, I really wanted to get their consent before asking them because I think that’s really important. You just don’t want to ask a stranger a question like that—it can really be not so great. And we had been talking for a while, so it wasn’t like I blurted this out, it was kind of at the end of our conversation, and I asked them, basically, what their manhood meant to them. And all three of them had no idea how to answer that question. They said they were confused about manhood, they were unclear about it, but then one man said “I guess it’s too small,” and I was like “oh, can you tell me more about that?” so he was also reducing it to just a body part, so I said “can you kind of expand on that?” and he said “oh, I’m just average.” And then I said “well, you’re just like every other man, then. I mean, most men are average. I’m really small because I’m a transsexual person and I haven’t had any surgery.” And he said “no way, you’re not transsexual,” and I said “yeah, I am transsexual.” I had to actually convince him.
At the end of the conversation then I asked him if he could be my bodyguard *laughter* because he was also going to the Castro. And I was actually really afraid. And why should I as a queer trans person be afraid to go into my own queer neighborhood, right? But I did, I felt very afraid.
Then when i got there, there were some drag queens and there were some Sisters there; there were also just some men in drag and there were some leathermen, and that sort of thing. So people were really dressed up, it was a Sunday afternoon and I think it was the tail end of a fundraiser. So I walked up to them and said, “I’m about to do something. I’m about to do a protest of the Trump statue and I’m going to get naked and I feel very afraid, and I was wondering if you could hang out for a bit just to make sure that I’m okay. And they didn’t quite understand what I was talking about, and one of them said “Just give me a flyer and I’ll put it up in my shop” and I said “Oh, well thank you anyway” so then I go to the spot, you know I see the glue that is still embedded in the sidewalk and you could see what it was—sort of this brown stain in the otherwise gray sidewalk—and I tried to think about my buddhist meditation practice because in meditation practice, at least for myself, I try to cultivate centeredness and quietness and non reactivity within myself so that I can then bring that into the everyday world. So I tried to keep that in mind and think about the feelings I had in my body when I’m meditating.
And then also I thought a lot about other performance artists who have taken off their clothes or have been stripped of their clothes in various ways or have used their bodies as a message like Yoko Ono in her cut pieces performance art pieces in the 1960s. I just took an art history class and we watched a film about that. During it she had been crying at the very end and people go up to her and they clip off small pieces of her clothing and then people just continued to do that and she’s crying, she’s very dignified but she’s also crying. It’s a very impactful performance piece and I just figured, you know, it’s okay to be raw. You know, this whole situation has made me feel very raw and very afraid of my own community, so I’m going to show them this rawness, and I was crying, and I just…I’m not somebody who tells people that I’m trans. If you’re familiar with trans men, then you will probably spot me because I started transitioning well into adulthood, which I’m fine with—I’m fine with the more feminine, curvy aspects of my body, I have no problem with that at all, but if you’re savvy you can spot me. But in general I don’t tell people and so I have lots of friends who I’ve known for 10 or 15 years who had no idea at all. And I’m just shy, private, introverted, so what I did was I took off a sneaker, and I had made my signs on the train and on the bus. And somebody had seen one of my signs. It was the one that said “I love my fat body,” and he looked at it and he this most beautiful smile on his face, and I was like “All right, I am doing something here.”
So I took off a shoe and I started holding up my signs, and I took off a sock and another shoe. I just kinda did it slowly and I was pretty emotional about it, but eventually I knew that—I still had my shorts on—and I knew that the impact wasn’t going to be as great if I kept my clothes on, so I just did it. I pulled my pants off and I put them behind me and I just tried to sort of steel myself for what the possible reaction might be. I was afraid of that. Interestingly, I did not receive many negative reactions, in fact, lots of people were very interested in what I was doing. I think that they knew that my protest/performance was very heartfelt—I’m a very heartfelt person—and I think that people noticed that and when they were across the street maybe they saw me maybe they saw me but then they were like “oh, it’s more than spectacle. this person is actually trying to communicate something.”
So a lot of tourists actually came up to me which was really interesting. I think it really says something to how we think of the body in general in America, because a lot of Americans were very hesitant to approach me. They did eventually, but it people were very considerate, they would ask me if they could take my picture and I would say “Yes, of course, and please put it on social media. It’s the reason why I’m doing this. I want people to know my message that I love myself and I look just like the statue that was here.” Tourists didn’t understand why I was there at first—they didn’t know that the statue had been there—so I explained to them the whole situation and they were just so happy that I was there. They were ecstatic, in fact. People from Ireland, Germany, Brazil, all over Asia, India, Japan, Korea, people from all over the place were coming up to me. And also the older gay male residents of the Castro were walking by and saying very supportive things to me like sort of whispering to me as they went by “We’re so glad you’re here.” or they would stop and take very intimate photos with me, like of my face smiling or something like that. There was one fella who was very sweet to me and he hung out with me for a bit, and it really made me relax, too. I sort of forgot in a way sometimes that I was naked which is really strange and I was just you know hanging out on the street talking. And overall it was a ver very positive experience, and actually it really…you know I had been very afraid and then afterwards I was not as afraid, which was a very good result. “
So how did you feel when you left that day? After it was all over, after you had spent the day, how did you feel?
I felt really great. I felt like I had pushed back against something that had harmed me and I had really—I had done something positive. I am somebody that has a hard time going to protests, you know, street actions and stuff like that. A lot of that has to do with being trans because the thought of going into custody is terrifying because you know with the body that I have and you know, the legal papers…often trans people have kind of a mixture of legal papers, you know. Our birth certificate will say one thing, our state ID will say another, so you know it’s so terrifying to think “what would they do with me? who would frisk me? or what cell would I go in?” The trans people who are in prison, you know, it’s inhumane how they’re being treated. So here I am and I can’t really go to street protests, at least, that’s my life. I certainly appreciate people who do, though, who put their bodies on the line that. Like Black Lives Matter, for instance, I’ve been trying to do everything else that I can in supporting them because I completely agree with what they’re doing, so I’m not against that direct action that’s very loud and takes to the streets and blocks things but me as the person I am and with my history and what not, this is what I could do, right? So I felt like I needed to do what I could do. And I felt pretty powerful after that. I didn’t know if anyone would actually know about my protest afterward, but I felt good in just having done it myself. And I talked to people on the BART about it, and there’s just been a lot of crying. There’s just been a lot of crying all throughout. I had a really good conversation with someone on the BART, oto, and we talked about…we just talked very intimately about what I had done, and she was just really supportive—she was actually the perfect person for me to talk about the stuff with and to sort of decompress…yeah, she was great. And then I just, you know, sort of went about my business. And then I went back the next day and the next day was a monday, you know, it’s less of a party scene in the Castro. There’s usually some naked men in the Castro. They usually have some tape around their genitalia but you do often see them around—or like a sequined sock or something like that—but mondays are a much quieter day. And actually when things are more quiet that’s when things can get more dangerous. So somebody did show up early on in the day when I was out there. Each day I was out for about three hours, and I went out four different times, by the way.
So the next day was a Monday, so there weren’t a lot of just regular Castro people and there weren’t a lot of tourists around—not like on a weekend, and this fella came up to me, and he was like super upset that I was out there. He was like “You’re not supposed to be out here naked!” and he kept running up to me and running away, and from my perspective he looked like a well-to-do older gay man. You know, I don’t know what his history is, but that was my perception, and so then, so I was actually kind of afraid of this guy because one time then, he ran up to me, and then he actually kind of looked down at my genitalia and he said “You have no penis!” like he just kinda yelled that out, you know, and I was like “Yes, that’s true. Have a nice day.” and i tried to be as polite to him as possible, I was just like “It’s okay, I’m just here to do a performance piece and you know, I have a right to be here. The statues were here, so I have a right to be here.” And eventually a community police officer showed up, and I think the police are sort of trained to be really harsh in their words and in the energy that they put behind their words so they can scare you. So they can scare you into compliance, and I definitely felt that. In fact, it kinda made me shudder. And this was a relatively nice fellow, and he was probably even gay, he kinda looked like Robin Williams. He wasn’t very intimidating. He was on a bicycle and he was wearing shorts. But he immediately intimidated me. So I said “Well, I understand that sir, I understand that if people make a complaint you have to say something to me, but I also have a right to be here. I am an artist and this is a performance art piece, and I am here because the Trump statue was here. It was here for an entire day. Scott Weiner, the local politician made sure it was here an entire day whereas in other cities it was taken away very quickly—you know, the statues were taken down within minutes—and this is my queer community and I’m a queer person and I get to be here.”
And he understood it actually, and we just talked for a while, and at the end of that conversation he said that he would give me as much time as possible—as much time as he possibly could. And in some ways I felt like I won him over, and I was amazed by that actually. And he gave me at least an hour—an hour to an hour and a half—to continue on with my protest, and then he showed up again. And actually that same guy he kept hovering about and saying bad things to me and whatnot and then he showed up again and he once again tried to intimidate me and he said “I just have to tell you this, the regular police are coming, so this is how it’s going to go down” and then the guy who had been harassing me came by again, and he started complaining really loudly to the police officer, and the police officer told him “This man is doing a protest and performance art piece and he gets to do that.” and he escorted the guy away. It was pretty good.
Then the regular police came after a few minutes, and the female police officers were in front of me talking to me. I think that was probably done on purpose because of who I am and being what people would call a “female-bodied” person which is not entirely true, I have a mix of characteristics, but it was probably a softer approach to have these women talk to me, which I appreciated. And I talked to them a while, and one of them was actually a fat butch dyke, and she was wearing sunglasses, though. It’s hard to read peoples’ eyes when people are wearing sunglasses. Your eyes are, for a lot of people you know, the windows to the soul. For people who are blind that’s probably different. And so I tried very hard to meet their eyes and to bring the conversation to a very calm level. Because once again they tried very hard to just get me to comply right ow otherwise they were going to do very bad things. That was what they told me. “We’re going to cite you and if you don’t sign the citation and if you don’t cover up, we’re going to take you into custody.”
At this time and throughout this conversation, I didn’t know what was going on around me. Apparently there were 8 to 10 cops behind me. So they had really brought out a lot of police, and they were all gloved up and ready take me in. So I’m talking to these two female police officers and I said “Okay, I understand what you’re saying. I understand that there’s been a complaint like i said to the community police officer. But I would like an equal chance to talk to people about my protest, though.” and I went into exquisite detail, and as I went into exquisite detail, I consciously tried to relax as much as possible. I tried to really feel the message of my protest, which was love and love of myself and I tried to emanate as much of that as possible and tried to have the police see me as a part of the city as somebody who belongs in this community and who this message is important to. And that kind of worked as well. They let me stay out there talking to them for probably a good 10 minutes. 10 to 15 minutes, you know, it was a while. And I was trying as hard as possible to stay out there as long as possible hoping to win them over, for one thing, and also creating an opportunity so people could take pictures of me and could also rally behind what I was saying. And people did, too. It was really amazing. There were men who walked around the perimeter where the cops were—two more male police officers at that point had stepped in and they were kind of blocking view of me, which is something that they do if you are someone who is going to be taken into custody—police will kind of form a wall around you to block. And so there were these really tall, very muscular police officers who were out there too, and so these gay men were walking by saying “we love you; we’re glad you’re here; we love your protest,” you know, just walking by. And I think they were doing it on purpose, they just kept walking around the perimeter.
And then the most amazing thing happened. This is something that I’m going to remember like when I’m on my deathbed or something. There was…because you know, I work with little dogs, and there was a gay man who purposefully walked his little tiny chihuahua who was really old between the police officers and me, purposely making space between me and the police officers. And I thought it was one of the most beautiful pieces of civil disobedience that I’ve ever witnessed. And he looked back at me and gave me this huge, beautiful smile and it really helped me. It felt like—it really felt like my community was supporting me at that point, and you know, I work with little dogs, so it felt like “yeah, little dog is..he’s helping!”
So when the police were there at some point I had gotten to a point that I was so comfortable that I started playing with the police a little bit. And I will say that I have to say this because of all of the murders of black people and the targeting of black people and other people of color in our country, I had immense privilege in this situation. IF I had been somebody else, somebody who didn’t look like most of the residents of that community, somebody who wasn’t white, I’m sure that it would have been different. So I have a little bit of guilt about that, but I also felt like, in a way, that I used my privilege to a really good end. Which I think is really important for white people to do, if they recognize that they have privilege to use it in a way that promotes social justice.
So here I was and I finally relaxed a bit and I actually felt very warm, and I started playing with the police because I did not know how they wanted me to comply. I did want to comply with them because they were threatening to take me into custody, so I said “Can you show me what part of my body I need to cover up? Because there isn’t actually anything exposed. I dont’ have my genitalia exposed. Um, I have a vulva area that is very fat, but I don’t have anything actually sticking out. So I sort of ran my hand down my body and said “Could you look here and tell me what I should actually cover up? I could put some tape down here, but could you maybe look and show me where I could put that?” and the main female police officer, she literally crossed her arms, looked up, and shook her head and said “No, I’m not looking.” And I said “Well, you know, ma’am, I really do want to comply with you. I don’t want you to take me into custody. I do want to comply. So, you know, just tell me what I need to do. Should I just put some tape? If I put a line of tape down here, would that be okay?” And she said “Oh yes, okay. But how are you going to get the tape? You’re going to put your clothes on, right?” And I said “Yes, of course. I’m going to put my clothes on. I want to comply with you. And then I will put some tape on and I will continue my protest.” And that was the decision that we came to—that I was going to put a line of tape somewhere down there and that I could continue my protest. But I had to reiterate that I have a very large vulva region and that there will be hair sticking out, there will be flesh sticking out. Is that okay? And they said yes.
So I think they were relieved to not have to tackle a naked protestor. So they walked off in the crowd and I looked back and thought “Oh my goodness, there are so many of them. Just for me.” and just for perspective I am 5’2”, so I’m a rather small person.
So then I met with someone who had been taking photos of me. We just started talking and she took some more photos of me. She said that she has some photos of me and the police interacting, and we just talked and hung out and talked about social justice. And then we just got burritos and hung out.
And then the next weekend I went—by this time I had been very, you know, I had put it out on social media more. Somebody sent me a video that they had taken of me and some pictures, so i put those up online. There was some censorship of that, though, on Facebook, so some woman was very kind and took my video and put it up on Wikimedia Commons
Yes, I saw the link to that. I’m going to link to the Wikimedia Commons page so everyone can see that.
Right, so Facebook can’t take that down. You know, they can’t censor that, so it’s kind of a permanent link to the video. So I’m glad. And so then by that time lots of people had heard about it and then Facebook sent me an apology after a couple days and said that they had made a mistake in taking my video down and that it was reinstated. And then ever since hen I’ve just been trying to get media coverage.
The East Bay Express did an amazing job. They interviewed me—the editor interviewed me—so I’ve just been trying to get media coverage. It’s been a mixed bag. The SF Chronicle, some of the editors there are very behind the Trump statue and it’s message, actually. So there was kind of a fluffy article that was written that quoted me from twitter. The author did try to contact me. His name is CW Nevius, and he used Twitter, and I had just gotten on twitter that day, so I did not get his tweets. So all he did was put a quote from my twitter feed up there and that was it. And then he interviewed Virgie Tovar and Scott Weiner and that was the bulk of the article. And basically they misconstrued what I said. He got some of it right, but then they went on to basically say that “oh, get over it, it’s just art.” And as somebody who is an artist, I took an affront to that, because they brought up Robert Arneson’s Moscone bust which is a really famous and controversiall sculpture made by Robert Arneson in 1981, and it’s truly a piece of radical art. And everybody was pissed off about it when it was made. And so they likened that very famous piece to the trump statue. But the thing is is that the Arneson piece is truly radical art. What it did was it explored the circumstances of Harvey Milk’s and George Moscone’s deaths within the piece so it explored that hatreds were brought up, that there was homophobia, that there were civil rights struggles going on, and this was the result: the death of two beloved San Franciscans. The Trump statues, no. There is no comparison there. It’s more like an adolescent prank.
Right, there was no criticism of Trump’s policies in that.
No, there was no criticism of anything except for…
Except for let’s shame bodies, right? Yeah, it has nothing to do with his ideas. It has nothing to do with anything except that there was a lot of hatred that was stirred up. And I felt it, and lots of people who have contacted me felt it. Trans people, fat people, cis-gendered men with small penises have contacted me saying that my protest meant a lot to them. Straight women out in the world whose bodies are judged all the time even if they’re thin, even if they supposedly match some beauty standard that we currently have, they have been contacting me. Because everybody is effected by body shaming. Every body.
I was actually just talking to a young trans man earlier today, and he was saying that a lot of his friends were just telling him to get over it, you know, that he was just being PC and to man up, basically, and you know that it’s about free expression. The thing about free expression, though, is that it goes both ways. So if people are going to put a message out into the world, especially one that is so harming, it’s good to counter that. It’s good to say how it harmed you and it’s vulnerable and people might not initially listen, but it’s always good to state it and if somebody, like I said earlier, tells you that something is harming them, it’s good to listen to them. If you have a friendship with them and you don’t take their feelings into account, how can you? You’re basically denying their humanity when you do that. A
And if we’re going to consider it art, art needs to be criticized. Free expression goes both ways. If people are going to put a message out there, that message—you’re allowed to criticize it. And in fact, it’s appropriate. It’s always appropriate to criticize anything that comes up. Why not? THat’s one of the vulnerable and scary things about my being an artist is that I put so much effort into a piece and I hope that people connect with it in some way.
I want to say thank you so much to Shane Brodie for talking with me today. This was so inspiring and incredible and I’m going to post photos and the video link to Shane’s protest on thefatlip.com so it will not get taken down. I’m also going to post links to Shane’s social media so you can follow him and learn more about him and what he’s doing. And please, if you were touched by anything he said today, share Shane’s story. It deserves so much more coverage than it has gotten so far.
I also want to thank Starcrusher who is responsible for all of the music you hear on The Fat Lip, and, actually, his new album, Goodbye Halcyon Days is out and it’s so good and I hope you check it out. His bandcamp is cstarcrusher.bandcamp.com. I’m going to post a link in the show notes, so make sure that you check that out and buy the album.
And our Patreon patron for the week is Jennifer H. Jennifer is hysterical and one of the actual best people on the planet and man I wish I saw more of her. If you want to be a Patreon patron and have your name shouted out on the show, go to patreon.com/thefatlip and it will show you how and you can watch a little awkward video of me.
Thanks for listening!
I have to tell you, Shane, this is the best interview that I’ve done.
*laughter* Aww, really?
You’re very good at this. I hope you do more of these because you give a great interview. And I feel so inspired just from talking to you.
Well thanks. I mean, I was really nervous. I mean, that’s part of this whole thing, right? Step by step I’m getting over fears… not really getting over the fears but taking a chance anyway and just doing it and seeing what happens