As I sit here and write, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the seemingly collapsing world around us. Every minute of every hour of the day seems to have a looming sense of dread attached to it. So much of what we knew to be true has changed, the certainty around us that provided some form of safety has in many ways revealed itself to be flawed and full of holes. When you aren’t worried about when or if your basic needs will be met, you are freed to think internally about yourself. There is no time left in the day to question gender, when all the time is spent on surviving in our new normal.
If we weren’t saturated with this current experience, I would suggest this feels like a parable of sorts. One that is a small piece of what it feels like to be trans in America every day. The constant turmoil, the ground pulled out from underneath you, the severe isolation. All of that are traits so many trans humans face on a seemingly daily basis. For many of us, dealing with that trauma can manifest in various ways.
A Confusing Way to Transition
From a bird’s eye view, the idea of a transwoman in the middle of her transition performing burlesque may be confusing. Trust me when I say, it has been much more confusing for me. I was a well-established performer before I announced to the world that I am a woman. Burlesque has been both a way to come to terms with my identity and a way to hide that identity. Somewhere in the midst of all that the truth is, I didn’t find burlesque, burlesque found me.
Long before I was known as the Ambassador of Cheese and Tease, I lived the life of a young man who was lost in a world populated with strict gender roles. I stumbled into burlesque through the guidance of strong, progressive, fierce women who performed all around the world. They encouraged everyone around them to be themselves, get naked, and have a good time. Unbenounced to me this was the beginning of my transition; it was this slow incline of expression led by the need for affirmation. I needed other people to tell me that I was okay to do traditionally feminine things. As a transwoman, seeking validation feels less like an ego-driven pursuit and more of a necessity.
Within the neo-burlesque world, the uniqueness of one’s self is rewarded with praise and approval. The more in-tune with your authentic self, the more likely the audience will connect and support you. In pursuit of this, I slowly unlocked buried truths of my own, concealed by the veil of masculinity I wore since childhood. I first changed my hair color to blue as a way to move forward from my theater background. Then wore flamboyant costumes to fit with the rest of the burlesque community, this was a departure from my random and sloppy costumes I had worn in the past. I covered my face in make-up to feel more otherworldly alongside my drag performers. I got tattoos of stars to go along with my new celestial name. With each step, I peeled back a piece of the mask. I was not only revealing parts of my body to the audience, I was slowly revealing my trans-ness.
The support and acknowledgement of this was overwhelming at times. People would use phrases such as, “I’m seeing you for the first time,” or “You look like you’re in your own element,” and, “You’ve grown into yourself,” all things I would later hear again after I would come out. However, at this time, I continued to feel uncomfortable in my own surroundings. I referred to myself as a guest in the art form, as a cis-perceived male who was operating in a field predominantly run by women.
I constantly acknowledged how I wasn’t comfortable, and when I taught burlesque classes there was always an air of apologeticness. “I’m sorry that I’m the one who is teaching” was never uttered but always in the back of my mind. Teaching women to accept themselves when I myself could not acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room, was hard to grapple with. I would utter the phrase, “You are enough,” to students to help make them see that they didn’t need all the glitz and glam, that being proudly them was all that they needed. This hypocrisy ate at me, it drove itself into my mind and grew into a self loathing.
When Did I Know?
Everyone always wants to know when I first knew I was trans. I could use the trans trope and say I tried my mother’s clothes on as a kid. Or that my favorite toys were barbies. Or I could say I watched that episode of The Jeffersons where a transwoman appeared on screen. There isn’t a singular moment, it was all the moments. Including every time I got up on stage, I would hear emcees talk about my male-ness. They would say, “Oh ladies, don’t worry we have something for you, too,” or “Did you know boys did burlesque?” all these things were how the world perceived me. I was the “guy” who got naked and was funny. That was the identity others had for me, it was comfortable, it was safe, and it was acceptable. IT WAS NOT ME.
This feeling crept up into my brain over the course of 30 years. I was that kid who wore my mother’s clothes, who loved barbies, and saw that episode of The Jeffersons. None of that was the dawning of my trans-ness. It’s all certainly a part of me coming to terms with who I am. But there is not a Disney moment, there are no violins playing or confetti popping. When I first uttered the words, “I think I am trans” to my spouse, I was full of anxiety. It was a conversation full of anger, and confusion, none of which came from my spouse, it was all from me. I was shouting about not wanting to be trans, and about how I just wanted to be “normal.” I was the villain in my own fairytale. My spouse accepted me and loved me from the very first moment I spoke the words. My friends, all of whom are accomplished burlesque performers, accepted me without a question. I wasn’t interrogated to prove I was a woman, they just knew it to be true. Burlesque was a way for me to surround myself with people who all wanted to be authentic.
The true contradiction though, is that I was a renowned “Boylesque” performer (The male eqaulitvant to burlesque performer, and no, I do not like the term). I won regional, national, and international awards, and even had the honor to compete for the “Best of Boylesque” at the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekender in Las Vegas. It is the most prestigious burlesque competition in the world. I was one of only five people competing in the category and was from the smallest city among 60 performers from around the globe. I ultimately lost, but ironically I lost to the very first AFAB performer ever to compete in the category and win. I was there on stage when history was made, and gender roles were being broken down right in front of me.
I built my career around blue hair, with a pompadour, goatee, and male comic antics. I attached myself so strongly to my “maleness” that trying to navigate how to move forward was extremely difficult. When you are in the middle of a career defined by gender, how do you navigate that if you are trans? What was once a way for me to explore my gender, was now a way to keep me from accepting my gender.
This battle waged on for over a year. I tried various methods to join my stage persona with my authentic self. I went as far as trying to view myself as a Drag King, even donning a full face of drag make-up. None of that felt right, it was as if I was leaning into a lie I built for myself. I had the support of all my friends, but I still lacked a safe and consistent space to call home. I needed physical walls to help support the emotional ones I had built.
Announcing I’m Trans
This space developed through a weekly burlesque show. No matter what was occurring in my world, this consistency of a place to communicate my thoughts became crucial. We ran the show in a venue that was a traditional Madison college bar. We were most definitely the queerest event in that space every week. Three months into that adventure, I wore my first dress on stage and announced to a room full of strangers I was trans.
We had effectively outgrown that space and needed one that represented our goals as a company but also allowed us to feel safe in our skin. This led us to a venue I knew very well, FIVE Nightclub. Much like I was beginning to rebrand my stage persona, we rebranded our weekly show as FIVE STAR TEASE, where every body is a burlesque body. It’s rare for transwomen to have a powerful platform to speak their minds on a consistent basis. I finally had mine. All of the trials and tribulations that littered my journey made me keen on helping others on theirs.
Every single performance became a way to express to others that they were not alone. We had performers of all sizes, ages, colors, and gender identities represented on a weekly basis on our stage. Representation matters, and in turn it cultivated a space filled with audience members who were all invested in our authentic selves. We didn’t lie to them, and in return they felt comfortable enough to explore themselves with us.
We saw trans humans coming out as themselves for the first time. I developed a portion of the show we called “pronoun check” where I went around on the mic to a few people in the audience and asked for their pronouns. Patrons got to see me take my estrogen tablets on stage every week, where I went over the changes my body was experiencing and finished by raising the question, “If all of that changes from this little blue pill, doesn’t that mean that gender isn’t binary?” Over 60 of these shows were done at FIVE up until the pandemic.
Where many performers and owners felt the need to slow down, something inside was triggered by the lack of control. This personality of resilience I forged for my own survival honed in on a new endeavor. We took what made our live shows special and then brought it to an even more vulnerable place, inside our own spaces, inside our homes. This was an online burlesque show called Quaran-Tease. Without missing a single week’s performance, we produced an 80-minute show with performers from all around the world contributing a pre-recorded performance set to royalty-free music.
Just as so much of this story has shown, we evolved that quick response into something more than just a substitute of what were all missing. We gave it its own identity, called Cinema Vertitease. With this version, we have chosen to be more cinematic and embrace the new medium rather than be an imitation of a live event. The correlation to this entire story with my own trans journey is an eye opener. There seems to be a pattern of evolution, acceptance, and growth.
However I am able, I choose to be the most vulnerable. A lot of talk and work has gone into explaining safe spaces, but I believe more now than ever, the safest space is whatever we choose to create. Be it our chosen family, the artistic community, the physical queer spaces we inhabit, or even the comfort of our own homes. The one common denominator is the seeking vulnerability. It’s in that effort that has led me to be a burlesque performer who happens to be a transwoman. Naked, loud, and proud for all the strangers to see.
Brief Tease of Burlesque History
For those uninitiated with burlesque performance, otherwise known as the art of striptease, it is an art form that has been in the background of American culture for well over a century. Flourishing in the 20s, soared well into the 40s and 50s with famous pin-up models, such as Bettie Page, Tempest Storm, and Gypsy Rose Lee leading the way. So much of fashion and what was trendy back during the early part of the 20th century was established through these women.
By the early 70s, burlesque was an aging art form that was getting pushed out of the cultural lexicon. The contributions made by these women were largely forgotten, and burlesque was dormant for decades. The early Internet days of the 90s saw a resurgence of the art performed in dive bars all across America, slowly gaining speed until the neo-burlesque movement was in full swing by the middle of the 2000s.
When you think burlesque, you may imagine feather fans, boas, and corsets. This is still a staple in any performer’s wardrobe, but the art form has shifted dramatically from one that was focused on titillating the audience with slow stripteases to one focused on self empowerment and embracing one’s unique beauty on stage. It has evolved into an art form saturated with progressive humans all looking to get sassy while being a little naked.