By: Lillith Grey
I recently launched a new project, the Academy of Queerlesque, and I have been getting a lot of interesting reactions from people in the local burlesque community. The reactions haven’t been negative at all; they’ve been generally supportive but confused and unsure of what queerlesque means or what place it has in the broader burlesque scene. There is no shortage of allies in the Dallas burlesque community – on the contrary, the community is warm, loving, and accepting, and I have no doubt that if I wanted to douse myself in rainbow glitter and run around a stage yelling “I’M A DYKE” as part of my act, I could find a producer and an audience that would appreciate it here. Last year, a local straight(ish) performer did a Muppet-against-Chick-fil-A act in front of a huge mainstream audience and was very well received. A popular local host is a wildly gender-bending drag queen and budding boylesque star. All-in-all, being queer in the Dallas burlesque scene is pretty freakin’ cool.
So it’s not surprising that many of the people around me are not sure how to feel about this project. They’re wondering why I felt the need to start a series of performance education classes focused specifically on the queer community when the queer community is so welcomed in mainstream burlesque. Some of them don’t know what queer means, let alone the concept of queerlesque. And, although none of my kind friends and burly colleagues have said this to me directly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be a twinge of hurt or rejection, or maybe the feeling that I’m somehow blaming them or saying I don’t feel welcomed here, which is absolutely not true. Hopefully I can answer some of these questions and be open about what my motivation and vision is for the academy.
Before I can talk about queerlesque, though, I want to be sure I’m being clear about the terminology I’m using, particularly the word queer. Society at large conceptualizes gender as a dichotomy – only two options: boy or girl. Researchers, scholars, and social justice advocates (particularly those in the women’s movement) have a lot to say about this perceived dichotomy, and more and more people are coming to realize that those two categories don’t really make much sense. There are so many ways to be a guy and so many ways to be a girl, it seems weird to have all these expectations about femininity/masculinity connected to somewhat arbitrary body parts (WARNING: BABY WITH PENIS WILL EXPLODE IF TOUCHED BY PINK FABRIC). So a more diverse and accurate understanding might fit better on a spectrum, rather than two checkboxes. Taking the body parts out of the picture, we can loosely classify gender like this:
We’ve all known men who embody more traditionally feminine characteristics, and women who tend toward the masculine (my fav). If you were to put yourself on that spectrum where would you fall? Does it change sometimes? Mine does, depending on how I feel – sometimes I’m all high heels and glam, sometimes I’m in jeans at the gun range. In fact, that’s one of the things I love about performing – pushing my gender alllll the way to the tip of the spectrum (ten points if you know how many rhinestones I can fit on my eyelid!) And that’s the fun and appeal of drag – jumping drastically on the spectrum. Some people feel strongly identified with one place on the spectrum, and that’s cool, while other people feel most comfortable moving around it more fluidly.
Unfortunately, social messages about the relative meaning of those points on the spectrum are misleading and often harmful. We are taught early on that men should be manly and women should be ladylike, that boys should only strive to push themselves closer to the masculine and never ever to the feminine (ballet and skirts? Doubtful). Girls can push toward the masculine a little bit (playing sports, wearing pants), but cannot go past a certain line without social repercussions. Breaking these rules of gender is very, very dangerous – it is the root of gay- and trans*-bashing and is strongly related to violence against women.
Because I was born into a woman’s body and I also happen to identify as highly feminine (I am cisgender), I carry some privilege in the mainstream culture. No one looks at me funny, no one taunts me or challenges me or threatens me, no one feels the need to heap their biases on me. I don’t visibly appear to break the rules of gender. So very many people I love, though, do visibly break the rules. They are so brave and self-aware and confident and insightful that they will not conform to an unreasonable and inaccurate method of categorization. They choose instead to live authentically, and they pay the price for that, from tiny micro-aggressions to overt acts of violence.
Enter the world of the queer. In this world, we collectively reject those stupid checkbox genders – we shatter them as we dance wildly around the spectrum. We dance around the spectrum of sexuality, too, defying labels that are dichotomous, knowing we don’t have to be either “gay” or “straight,” but can love and connect with people freely and in whatever way feels right. Queer takes away the need to categorize – I mean, if someone moves around the gender spectrum, does that make a feminine gay dude a lesbian? Am I not a “real” lesbian because my partner is masculine? Wait, what? THESE WORDS ARE STUPID. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
So queer gives us space to connect, to celebrate, and to feel safe with other people who don’t live in the world of heterosexism and heteronormativity. While we love and respect and care for our friends who do live in that world (the vast majority of the burlesque community), we don’t have that comfort of normalcy. We don’t put on queer when we get to the theater and take it off after curtain call, we live it every single day. We face the oppression and hate and discrimination aimed at our people, our family, every single day. And it is exhausting. It’s exhausting to walk the tightrope of safety, to wonder if your identity will cause someone to harm you. It’s hard to hear people tell stupid jokes, make mean comments, use the word “gay” to mean something bad or unbearable. It sucks to see friends and family post hateful political messages on Facebook. It’s heartwrenching to read about another murder, another suicide, another assault. Every. Single. Day.
And we take risks when we take queerlesque to the mainstream stage. It is entirely possible that an audience member will take issue with our queerness and choose to make a scene. My partner and I had to leave a show once after she was harassed and overtly threatened when she used the women’s bathroom – I barely made it through my act and we got out of there. We were terrified and devastated and alone. And this isn’t uncommon – I have to consider our safety when booking gigs anywhere. Venture twenty miles out of Dallas and Texas becomes a whole ‘nother country. This isn’t the fault of producers, of my burlesque sisters – they don’t want us to be hurt, we know that. It’s the fault of a fucked-up social system that for some reason can’t handle the fact that my girlfriend wears ties.
Queerlesque is an attempt to create safe space. It’s a place to celebrate queer history and queer culture – and we do have our own culture! Drag Queens and Kings go way back in our history, and we have our own icons and ancestors and important events – and we want a chance to focus on that. Instead of being one queer in a cast of non-queers (which is fun and awesome and I love you all), I get to be in an ENTIRE SHOW of queers! OMG heaven!! Instead of worrying that I will make someone in the dressing room uncomfortable if I admire their panties, I know that my compliments won’t be misunderstood. And since all of us – our audience and our cast and crew – walk in the same world, we can understand each other, support each other, and celebrate each other. We can be a little bit more vulnerable, a little bit more real. For a few hours, we can be unabashedly queer, and that’s magic. Just plain magic.
As the producer of several queer-focused shows in Dallas, I see a lot of queers in very vulnerable moments. It takes a lot of guts to stand up and perform something real after living for decades in a world that says that who you are is wrong. That’s what the Academy is for – it’s a place to start unlearning all that shame, all that critique and censorship and rejection. It’s a place to heal self-doubt, to help others heal theirs, and to dance naked together in a shower of rainbow glitter spraying from the horn of the gayest unicorn ever.
The courses we’re offering at the Academy of Queerlesque are specifically geared toward queers and queer culture, but people who identify as non-queer are absolutely welcome. We love and need allies, and your presence tells us you stand with us. We only ask that you recognize that you’re coming into our safe space, and make sure that you’re respecting that. Don’t judge us, don’t tell us we shouldn’t be worried or that we’re overreacting when we express fear or concern. Don’t forget the struggles we face every day, and do everything you can to contribute to the positive, warm energy of queer space. If we designate a class as limited to a specific identity (i.e. Trans* only, or woman-identified only) please respect that and don’t be offended – it is our mission to create safe space, and sometimes that means being in private groups.
So that’s my vision. I welcome questions and conversation about it, and am always looking for more talented students, instructors, advocates, allies, and supporters. Oh, and if anyone knows where I can find a gay, glitter-spewing unicorn, please let me know.