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.