Please Try This at Home: Queering Biotechnology

Flyer for Please Try This At Home, including drawings of a mer-person and a white, augmented figure, with the text "Please Try this at Home: A free conference about radical bodily autonomy and biotechnology, 2pm-6pm, Bloomcraft Building, 460 Melwood Ave, Hosted by Big Idea Books, Prototype, Come early for brunch benefiting Three Rivers Clinic! 11am-2pm in the Glitterbox Theater" including a web address: https://pleasetrythis.wordpress.com

PLEASE TRY THIS AT HOME: A Collaborative Conference About Radical Bodily Autonomy and Technology is being held on March 11th at Bloomcraft, in the Glitterbox Theater. It is a collaborative project between Prototype PGH and the Big Idea bookstore. QueerPGH had a chance to talk shop with Fox , a member of the organizing team, about the conference, activism, and bodily autonomy.

QueerPGH: Please tell us a bit about yourself.

Fox: I’m Fox. I moved to Pittsburgh about a year-and-a-half ago from Albuquerque, NM and I fall in love with the city more every day. One of the things I like best about Pittsburgh is how much creative energy the activist community has here. There are so many unique, exciting projects going on and intersecting with each other all the time, it’s hard to keep up! I’ve been involved in queer and trans community activism since I was a teen and it’s been amazing watching all the ways that landscape has shifted and changed over the last twenty years. As a professional bodyworker, I’m particularly interested in queer embodiment: How do we express and experience our identities through our physicality? How is that influenced by other people, technology, politics, and the environment around us?

QueerPGH: What is this event about?

Fox: Please Try This at Home is a collaborative conference about radical bodily autonomy and biotechnology. That means we’re bringing people together from a wide range of communities and technical backgrounds, and we want to talk about an issue we all have in common: What is the relationship between technology and our bodies? In particular, we want to center the experiences of transgender and non-binary folks, people with disabilities, people of size, medical cyborgs, and anyone else for whom navigating the complex politics of embodiment is a daily reality.

QueerPGH: Can you tell us a bit about who is speaking?

Fox: Please Try This is structured ‘unconference’ style. This means that speakers are not pre-scheduled, rather participants will sign up on the day to give talks, demo projects, run hands-on workshops, and facilitate roundtable discussions about topics they are interested in. While some participants are professionals in relevant fields, there’s no need to be an expert to run a session at the event. All you need is curiosity, excitement, and a desire to share and learn!

That being said, there will be folks there who are involved in some higher-profile biohacking projects such as Open Source Estrogen, Grindhouse Wetware, and the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective and there will also be participants from the local herbalism community, street medics, community organizers, queer academics, scientists, journalists and cyborgs. Community-based medicine and individual agency around health care are a core focus of the event.

QueerPGH: What kind of topics will be addressed?

Fox: I’ve heard a lot of session ideas and I know folks are still working on more. Some of the suggestions that I’m excited about are:

“Queer Identity Construction in Digital Spaces”
“Femmes as Gearheads: Makeup is Biotech”
“Cyberfeminism & Desire”
“Technology of Drag”
“Microbial Art Workshop”
“Make Your Own Mifepristone”
“Cyborg Show ’n’ Tell”
“Reading the Xenofeminist Manifesto”
“Haptic Augmentation for Better Sex Toys”
“Transitioning With or Without Technology”
“Bioengineering Skills for Anarchists: Autodidacts vs. Authorities”

QueerPGH: What do you mean by biotechnology?

Fox: “Biotechnology” is a broad umbrella. The term can refer to mechanical technology that is integrated into the human body, such as medical implants or recreational augmentations. It can also describe technology created with organic materials, such as hormones, medications, and even food. Genetic engineering is a form of biotechnology. So are cochlear implants, knee replacements, SSRIs, insulin, and vegan cheese. At Please Try, we’re particularly interested in “biohacking”: people taking these technologies into their own hands; experimenting with, exploring, and developing them outside of big institutional research settings. A classic example of this is “grinders” (the biotechnical equivalent of “hackers” — different from Grindr!) who implant tiny magnets into their fingertips in order to feel electromagnetic fields. Others work on projects to disrupt pharmaceutical industry monopolies on life-saving medicine.

QueerPGH: How do these issues specifically affect queer people?

Fox: Gender non-conforming folks and people with disabilities are the original biohackers. When we hear terms like ‘biotech’ and ‘transhumanism’ we often picture rich, white, cis bros in Silicon Valley who want to upload their brains to the Cloud or colonize Mars. But the real forefront of biohacking today is folks changing their brains and bodies with hormones they ordered off the Internet, or using mechanical and digital technologies to augment their existing physical capabilities. If you’ve experimented with various ways to strap on, take off, or reimagine your existing body parts, you might be a biohacker. If you do anything described as self-medicating, you might be a biohacker. One of the key concepts of transhumanism is morphological freedom, the freedom to make our own decisions about how our bodies look, feel, and function. I think this idea resonates deeply with many queers.

Meanwhile, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks are some of the most vulnerable to biotechnologies in the wrong hands. Queer folks have long been policed and controlled by forces hostile to our bodily autonomy. The state, the medical-industrial complex, many religious institutions, and hateful and fearful individuals all want a say in how queer bodies look, what we do with them, and where we do it, including how we dress, how we have sex, and whether we’re allowed to pee. Countless queer and trans folks have been literally tortured via medical interventions designed ‘fix’ them. Understanding the powerful possibilities and threats that biotechnology presents is a necessary part of protecting ourselves from those willing to enforce cisheteronormativity by any means necessary.

QueerPGH: What does this have to do with radical politics?

Fox: It’s fun to check out cool toys and projects, but Please Try This at Home is more than just a big gay science fair. The event is being hosted by The Big Idea, Pittsburgh’s anti-profit anarchist bookstore, and Prototype, the feminist hackerspace, so you know it’s going to have some politics. In fact, radical politics are the driving force behind the event. Within radical communities, there’s a lot of disagreement about the role technology can play in resisting and liberating ourselves from oppression. Human (and animal) bodies are always a particularly contested site. Those of us organizing the conference believe that new technologies can have radical potential to make people more free. At the same time, we’re skeptical of ‘tech-utopian’ visions that don’t acknowledge how challenging, dangerous, invasive, oppressive, and legitimately terrifying some of these developments can be for marginalized people and communities. As these technologies are being developed and rapidly integrated into our bodies and environments, we need to be having critical conversations about how they’re made, how they’re used, who has access to them, who controls them, and how to understand, engage with, or resist them on our own terms. And we need as diverse a range of people and communities as possible involved in this conversation.

We want to make the event as accessible as possible, so Please Try This at Home is totally free. We’ll have options for childcare available and young people are also welcome to participate in the event. (I have a 10 year old friend who’s obsessed with DIY genome editing and I’m hoping he’ll come and teach us about it!) We’re accepting donations to cover the cost of printing and space rental, and anything we raise above our base costs will be donated toward Bloomcraft’s accessibility ramp fund. As I mentioned earlier, queers and disabled folks are the original biohackers, so it feels great to be hosting a biohacking event in a queer community space, but a truly cyborg-friendly venue also needs to be accessible to people with wheels. We’d like to help fix that ASAP. We’re also organizing the conference in collaboration with the Big Idea’s fundraiser brunch for the Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People. Three Rivers Clinic is an amazing organization that offers free holistic healthcare to anyone in need and has become a touchstone for community-oriented wellness providers to find each other. Come early for some delicious vegetarian and vegan food and to help support self-organized healthcare in Pittsburgh!

QueerPGH: What can people expect from the conference?

Fox: Honestly, we don’t even know! This whole event is an experiment in itself and so it will depend on who shows up and what they want to talk about, learn, and share. We will have spaces of various sizes within Bloomcraft where participants can give talks and workshops. We’ll have an exhibition hall where folks can display projects and information. We’re going to be doing a two-way livestream with a I/O, a radical tech collective in New York that runs a Cyborg Clinic every month. There will be someone doing Technomagical Tarot, some biotechnological art, maybe some live music, definitely bright colors, probably popcorn. In short, there will be a lot going on, but you’ll have to come by to find out exactly what.

If you have questions or ideas about how to participate, feel free to contact the organizers through their Facebook page or pleasetrythis@riseup.net.

Drawing of a mer-person, with flowing pink hair and goatee, with hand augmentation
original art by Adam J. Yanyo, https://www.instagram.com/trashguts/

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.