8 min

Staring shame down

Amber Dawn wins Community Hero of the Year

Credit: Sarah Race Photo

Artist and activist Amber Dawn is many things to many people, depending on who you ask.

Those who love her would describe her as radical, provocative and incendiary, a champion of the underdog. Those who disagree with her politics and performances would suggest that her use of nudity, her violent onstage imagery and her generally sex-positive anti-shame stance is anti-feminist.

While the opinions about her may vary drastically, both camps can agree on one statement: Amber Dawn is cuntroversial.

Naysayers be damned, this year’s Xtra West Community Hero of the Year winner is a one-woman Xena Warrior Princess when it comes to smashing the state and its sex-politic barriers and breaking through walls of patriarchy and gender rigidity.

An inspiration to many — including past and present Xtra West Community Achievement Award winners Michael V Smith and Gwen Haworth — Amber Dawn is an example of community inclusivity and consciousness at its finest.

“One of the things I’m really best known for is my ass and titties. So when [Xtra West managing editor] Robin called and told me the great news that I had been nominated, I thought to myself ‘can ass and titties be heroic?'” the 33-year-old began as she accepted her award at this year’s Heroes ceremony, May 11.

It was a fitting way to start her speech, but she quickly shifted gears to a much more solemn note.

“When my mother was younger, she was taught to go to bed with her arms above the covers so that she wouldn’t accidentally touch herself when she slept and thus sin against God. When I was told this story I thought, ‘How unfair is that to have shame laid right on top of your body?”

Overcoming shame is at the root of much of Amber Dawn’s work. From her outrageous performances to her For The Girls/For The Boys trans fundraisers that have, over the years along with other fundraisers, donated thousands of hours to raise funds and awareness for a host of different people and organizations in need, to the heralded Odd Ball dance parties and beyond, Amber Dawn’s central theme is about creating inclusive spaces and permissions, especially when it comes to sex and gender.

Zena Sharman, Odd Ball co-coordinator and assistant director at the Institute of Gender and Health, puts it this way: “Amber Dawn consistently brings awareness to the fact that on so many levels, shame is a weapon used against the queer community. We use it against ourselves and others use it against us, whether it is us being ashamed of the way we look and feel in our skin to whether we are ashamed of our sexuality and gender identity.

“She has to fight against all those similar shaming experiences and really succeeds in confronting and rising above it. There’s a reason people have nightmares involving standing naked in front of a roomful of people and I think that she is able to, in a sense, enact that nightmare scenario and make art out of it. By doing that, she pushes us to think about where our own sense of shame comes from and, maybe, how we might do better accepting ourselves and accepting one another. That is about building solidarity.”

It has been more than 10 years since Amber Dawn began delving into performance art and putting on live shows designed to blow the minds and expand the horizons of Vancouver audiences.

Her first series was an annual event entitled File This, which she describes as a “pan-gendered sex show with the core group of performers being queer sex workers and trans folk that ran from 1997 to 2000.”

It was the beginning of a significant personal shift, allowing her to use performance as a means of healing herself — and others — from past trauma.

“I felt like I had spent my childhood and early teens saying not much,” she says quietly but resolutely. “I was really ready to say something.”

File This was designed as a safe space to share both her art and the art of others with the audience, where ‘hidden’ topics were brought to the forefront.

“At the time, I was working in the sex trade and was pretty out about survivor politics and survivor history,” she recalls. “For some people, that was a lot to take in. I had people tell me then that it wasn’t appropriate to call myself a lesbian if I was going to be doing sex work with male clients. It brought up a lot of stuff, but didn’t make me reconsider who I was.

“It just taught me that I better have some pre-prepared rebuttals for the potential comments that I was going to be getting.”

Writer and performance artist Michael V Smith describes his first File This as “a watershed moment for me. That show and Amber Dawn’s work on it really made me lose a lot of my hang-ups about doing work that I thought was important but terrifying.

“She was programming work that people desperately wanted to do; it was clear that all the performers wanted to tell their story or a story about the kind of life that they had lived, and Amber Dawn was giving people permission to be wholly themselves in that community. To be seen and recognized for who they were, rather than despite.”

Amber Dawn’s performances are truly legendary, providing titillating entertainment on one level and, on another, layers and layers of dense didacticism designed to provoke dialogue and prompt a seismic shift forward.

Smith recalls his first introduction to her performance art. “She came out dressed like a blow-up doll with fake tits, fake hair and a very robotic striptease. When she got all her clothes off, she was wearing bills. They looked like they were pasted to her body, over her genitals and boobs. She did this little gesture over one boob and the bill fell to the floor. I realized that they had been pinned to her body.

“She does this incredible thing as a performer where there is such a presence in her skin, such a vulnerability and a sense of self-possession that she has a lot of power onstage. Just that simple little device of stripping for money and the value of human bodies. Our whole sense of currency, how personal and painful those currencies are to people, at what expense they go to in order to survive and function and be recognized. All of that in that one simple gesture — pinning bills to your body and stripping out of them.”

Sharman recalls another memorable Amber Dawn performance, this one at Sistahood Cabaret in 2007.

“She came onstage in a body bag and basically stripped out of a body bag, dressed in burial clothes. It was this very powerful commentary on violence against women and violence against sex workers, the violence that permeates a misogynistic culture.

“There’s such intelligence and sophistication in her work. But I think also being able to be sexy, erotic and sometimes irreverent.”

In the piece, when Amber Dawn emerges from the body bag and strips naked, she pulls off not just her clothing, but also removes sharp implements — scissors and knives — from her hair and bra.

“All my costume had elements of objects of pain, of something that could be harmful to us,” she explains. “That piece summed up everything I had been doing as a performance artist all along: not concealing that the pain is there, not concealing that there is evidence of having survived hardship, but at the same time having a playful, sexy performance.

“I feel like I really nailed that because I was so connected with the audience and tried to include them. I tossed out funeral flowers and in that moment I could clearly see people catching their flowers and the expression on their faces. At that show, people could celebrate what I had been trying to celebrate all along.

“I feel like by giving me a standing ovation, they were standing up for themselves, too. That felt like everyone in the room got it and were ready to celebrate it at the same time.”

Just as the word ‘cuntroversy’ comes into play, so does ‘vulnerability’ when it comes to Amber Dawn’s performances.

According to Lukas Walther, who coordinates the Transgendered Health Program, Amber Dawn is a hero “because she suffers for what she does. She puts herself out there, is the archetypal performer and celebrator.

“A lot of people come because they know that she is really going to get down and dirty — that brings people in the door, but those of us who have worked with her really know how tender she is and how much she holds things together because of that tenderness and sensitivity. She feels things really deeply.”

Gwen Haworth, who won Visual Artist of the Year at this year’s Heroes for her autobiographical documentary She’s A Boy I Knew, says “there’s a vulnerability to much of her work that I cherish. She encourages us to put ourselves out there — imperfections and all — leaving room for us to stumble along the way. As someone who has always felt incredibly awkward, and consequently suffered some artistic paralysis, it was liberating to see room for this form of raw self-expression.”

From her sex-work-positive stance to her early pro-trans advocacy to her often graphic live shows, Amber Dawn has unflinchingly confronted her naysayers both in performance and on paper, including through her book With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, which she co-edited with local author Trish Kelly.

According to activist/co-performer Rika Moorehouse, Amber Dawn has consistently — and bravely — charged headfirst into her own personal struggle for the greater good.

“Whether people know she’s doing it or not, a lot of her performances are about healing from trauma and from being subjected to experiences that she wouldn’t choose for herself. Every time she goes onstage, she makes herself vulnerable to criticism.

“By telling her story and allowing people to respond with resistance, she is allowing people to be angry, to blame her and to find easy answers to their own discomfort in the space of her challenging them.

“She would prefer open dialogue by having people angry at her than to shut down dialogue. Every time she goes onstage, she is choosing to be a facilitator and a catalyst. For her, there is power in transparency. She doesn’t mind how angry and resentful that conversation is, as long as there is dialogue and discussion, as long as she is doing something that encourages communication in some way, shape or form.”

“She’s a boundary pusher,” enthuses Sharman. “She is someone working really consciously as an ally to trans people, to people of colour, to people with accessibility issues, she consciously has a kinship and works for and hand-to-hand with people of different experiences of marginality.”

Smith echoes a similar sentiment. “Too many of us take the easy way out and live an easier life that is more complicit with the darker side of complications. Amber Dawn is a person who has walked down a very dangerous street; rather than avoid that street or that neighbourhood, she’s trying to clean it up for all people.

“The very thing that makes her performances uncomfortable for people is the reason why she is doing them. Human sexuality is a beautiful thing. Gender diversity and expression is a beautiful thing. Amber Dawn is actively engaged in trying to make people see the beauty, not the shame, embarrassment and pain of their histories that has taught them otherwise.

“She embodies and lives her politics in a way that is really inspiring. There are very few people who have as much courage of their convictions as Amber Dawn.”

“I understand that sometimes being queer means being a survivor of shame,” Amber Dawn told the Heroes crowd last week. “I definitely know very well that most of my achievements — which I am very grateful to be honoured for today — I won’t ever be able to share with my Italian Catholic family. I understand that shame for us lurks everywhere but it is not going to live here.

“I flat-out refuse to let shame burden my body and by offering me this award, this community has chosen to also say that you all refuse to let shame live in our bodies and in our hearts. I think that my ass and titties have a lot to say about dignity and social justice and taking action and I hope that my ass and titties can serve you all for years to come.”