The tradition of burlesque has always been about subverting the norm and challenging the privileged class. So it should be no surprise that queer performers make up a significant percentage of the new burlesque movement. Or, as Amelia Mae Paradise, cofounder of the queer femme burlesque troupe Diamond Daggers, puts it: "The burlesque world has always had room for freaks and queers and fat ladies."
A quick look at the current Bay Area burlesque scene confirms Paradise’s theory. The cabaret outfit Hubba Hubba Revue regularly features queer and straight performers. Though burlesque dancer Dottie Lux identifies as queer, both her Red Hots Burlesque showcase (www.myspace.com/redhotsburlesque) and the classes she teaches are geared for mixed audiences. And queer performers from soloists like Kentucky Fried Woman and Alotta Boutte to groups like Twilight Vixens and sfBoylesque find themselves performing for straight audiences nearly as often as queer ones. In the burlesque world, queer and straight performers bump up against each other so often (pun intended), it might seem arbitrary to distinguish them at all.
But most queer performers agree that there is a difference however subtle. Queer performers tend to mix their burlesque with spoken word, lip syncing, or drag, and also tend to be more subversive and political than their straight counterparts. Some attribute this to the fact that many queer performers are already schooled in other kinds of politically-based performance art.
"There’s a strong component of the queer performance community who are extremely politically conscious and recognize the power they have when they’re on stage," said Kentucky Fried Woman, a.k.a. KFW (www.myspace.com/kentuckyfriedwoman), who founded the Queen Bees in Seattle before becoming a major force in the SF burlesque community. "You have this whole room of people looking at you, so you can make them focus on any issue you want."
Queer burlesque performers also seem more comfortable with comedy, farce, and a diversity of body types, ages, and races on stage. "I think queers are better at burlesque than non-queers," said Maximus Barnaby, founder of sfBoylesque (www.sfboylesque.com). "They’re not afraid to be outsiders."
And all agreed that it’s different performing for a queer audience than a straight one even if it only comes down to how many people get your jokes. "Queer audiences already arrive loose and ready to have a good time," says KFW, a phenomenon she hasn’t always witnessed with straight audiences.
KFW also pointed out that there are places where the distinction between queer and straight audiences is even more pronounced and where having queer-friendly events like Debauchery (www.myspace.com/debaucherydivine), a strip club night for queers of all genders, is even more important.
While some performers might be considered queer exclusively because of their sexual preferences, others like Twilight Vixens (www.twilightvixen.com) and Diamond Daggers (www.diamonddaggers.com) employ the title as a part of their subversion of the norm.
Indeed, when Paradise cofounded the Daggers with Cherry Lix (who later went on to found Twilight Vixens) and Fannie Fuller in 2003, the idea was to create empowering, queer performance as femme dykes. "We’re so invisible so much of the time, people assume that we’re straight," Paradise said.
Melding elements of musical theater, Hollywood glamour, and showgirl choreography, the Daggers created a campy cabaret troupe whose purpose was femme visibility.
In 2005, the Daggers birthed the Twilight Vixens. While the Daggers headed toward comedy, gender-pushing, and narrative performances featuring the bearded Paradise and her six-foot-tall bearded butch wife Sir Loin Strip Cherry Lix took the Vixens even further towards vintage Vegas showgirl glam. "In San Francisco, you have a lot of men imitating women being showgirls," said Lix. "This was: let’s be women being women who like women being showgirls."
Interestingly, Paradise says the lesbian audience hasn’t always been the easiest for femme troupes like the Daggers and Vixens. "It’s confusing," she said. "They ask, ‘Is it feminist? Not feminist? It’s hot, titilutf8g, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.’"
On the other hand, gay men have always loved them, especially in the beginning, because those groups and gay men tend to speak the same language of camp.
Gay men are also the primary audience for sfBoylesque, the all-male dance revue founded nearly three years ago. But they weren’t an automatically easy audience either. "People have different expectations of men in burlesque," said Barnaby. "The point of reference is Chippendale’s … this perfect, chiseled body. We are absolutely not Chippendale’s."
Whereas burlesque has traditionally been a place that empowers women of all body types, Barnaby said his troupe has had to create an audience to expect and accept the same from men. As for the troupe identifying as queer? Barnaby says that’s mostly because he likes the inclusiveness of the term.
When it really comes down to it, though, performers like Simone de la Getto, cofounder of all-black burlesque review Harlem Shake and the queer event Cabaret de Nude, thinks the titles are stupid but necessary. "I guess I’m a queer black burlesque performer who’s a single mom," she said. "Once we get past all the labels, life will be easier."
Plus, the lines between queer and straight burlesque are becoming ever more blurred, as Getto who joined the burlesque scene as a straight woman and then came out should know.
"People like to see people taking their clothes off. It doesn’t matter who you’re sleeping with," she said. "That pretty much seals the deal for everyone."