heteronormativity and queer burlesque


I had a really enlightening talk with a friend of mine last night. She was telling me how much she loves my Queerlesque! shows but that she has noticed there is a privileging on stage of depictions of straight relationships. She wanted to see more lesbian and other queer relationships. 

This totally blew me away. 

I started out doing drag and was always frustrated by that, that I was performing a queer art but replicating straight relationships. So I often played gay male characters, even though I don’t really know anything about their culture other than what I see and hear from friends. I’ve played bears, leather daddies, twinkies, gym bunnies… all so I could continue to be in drag and play with masculinity in all different kinds of forms but still in an explicitly queer depiction and framework. 

I posted earlier about why I started Queerlesque! but basically I saw performers wanting a safe stage to be openly queer in whatever way that meant to them as well as a safe space for audience members. 

I spent a long time and a lot of energy working to convince non-femme or non-female-identified performers that they were very welcome on stage, that everyone would find them sexy when they stripped. But nearly all of them felt more comfortable doing it in drag. I never asked why, because I do burlesque in drag sometimes (and sometimes not). So, to me, though some acts appeared heteronormative, just the very act of having an openly explicitly queer body naked on stage was a queer revolution to me.

I’m not sure how to balance this. Burlesque is often solo performance and to me giving a safe stage to people who identify in some way as queer and celebrating their bodies without anything other than some sexy stripping is a defiant act. But it wouldn’t explicitly depict a queer relationship. I (and hopefully the audience) just know that the performers on stage are there because they really want to be there, they want to be performing queer burlesque for a queer audience.

I thought about one of my friends who I think of as “straight queer,” an ally who identifies with queer politics. She always performs in my shows and at the last one, where she performed her first draglesque act, she said to me, “Thank you for allowing me into this space.” It touched me, because I’ve always thought she belonged, she’s performed with me many times before, but her recognition of the importance of emphasizing queer bodies on stage was really moving (and exactly why she is in my shows!).  

Returning to the butch or stud or in some way masculine women, transmasculine performers and genderqueer performers that I worked so hard to get on stage— should I really encourage or persuade them not be in drag when that is what makes them feel sexy and safe on stage? (I would never do that). And sometimes they, just like I did when I was performing drag, will do acts where they portray gay men (stripping!). 

This all comes down to a simply-stated but not simply-understood— what is queer? How do we identify it not just in people (that’s really about self-identification) but in events and performances and actions? 

I don’t have any answers. I didn’t have any for my friend. But if anyone has any thoughts, please drop them in my ask box.