Last Winter I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on the topic of transgender, hosted by Rev. Michael Hampson of the Church of England, at St. Margaret’s Church in Hornby. My contributions were drawn from my long experience in both burlesque theatre and in advocating psychological wellbeing.
My ‘angle’ overall was on the positive lineage of gender satire in theatre and my aim was to advocate the burlesque world being an ally to those trans people whose voices are often diminished beneath controversy and misunderstanding.
Here are some thoughts from my address. Parallels between church and theatre are drawn with a call to all to practice what they preach.
Gender-blending in Burlesque:
Like gender itself, burlesque is subject to a lot of myths.
Burlesque theatre is not a recent trend (although there is a resurgence of enthusiasm) and it is not an American form per se. It is also not equivalent to striptease nor even ‘posh stripping’ as some lazy newspapers (and even producers!) have expounded over the years. In fact, in equivocating burlesque to ‘stripping off’ for the sake of stripping off, they misrepresent a joyful sparkling jewel of historic satirical theatre. Besides, striptease is an artform in its own right, too!
Historically and in its contemporary form, burlesque is a multi-faceted genre of diversity one that includes and challenges societally perceived gender and body norms – although I feel today it has more room to grow than ever. Burlesque actually has a 2500 year history going back to Aristophanes in 500BC and just as it was then, true burlesque theatre still rocks the status quo through the very powerful medium of satirical humour. Essentially, performers work in detail to set up, present and then subvert perceptions of propriety/normality. It most often targets gender norms and seeks to question notions of acceptable behaviour e.g. how we ought to conduct ourselves according to our assigned gender identities.
In particular over the millennia, burlesque has dealt with how WOMEN ought to behave, in any given era, often throwing out anachronistic absurdities and double standards that still dictate today. Here is where stripping does fit perfectly – both historically and with modern relevance – because any amount of public nudity is still taboo for women, but not for men.
Double Double Toil and Trouble:
There is a prevailing, undeniable double standard that shames women’s bodies. E.g. On a hot day men can be publicly topless (regarded as distasteful at worst) yet women quietly and even discretely breastfeeding their babies, remains controversial and an ‘outrage’ to many resulting in women having to actually determine official ‘breast feeding friendly zones’. There’s an app for that.
Women are subject to staggering expectations of grooming, weight and genetically determined body proportions that men are not. There is an automatic sexualisation of women’s bodies that encourages shaming – both for the nature of being sexual and for their ‘adequacy’ of sexual attractiveness, whatever that means at any one given moment. Furthermore for the trans community, they also have to contest with a new form of critique – that of being regarded as ‘passable’ (whether or not they could, would or do ‘pass’ as a believable man or woman), which kind of be implies a default status of ‘failure’ as an identifiable being. The fear ignited by the ambiguity of such subjective impressions is where anxiety and self-loathing blossom. In theatre, the three graces (of the classical era) became a trio of ugly and necessarily ‘evil’ witches – an idea that prevails in our modern ‘culture’ where women are admonished over the unattractiveness of ageing or wisdom. There is too, an increasing concern for young men today who are also being emotionally targeted over body shame (typically for commercial financial gain, e.g. grooming, weight and muscle building products and services) in a similar way, but the long term prevalence of women’s oppression is undeniable.
As the Western marketplace for health and beauty has been directed by white straight male privilege for as far back as advertising has existed, the resulting notions of ‘appropriate’ gender roles and bodily ideals have been perpetuated by a communal participation – to the point of perceived ‘fact?’. Of course, like many ‘facts’, gender and body norms are entirely subjective and are in-fact subject to a changing landscape of belief.
As liberal as the world of arts is considered to be, it too is not without such biases of its own or as enforced by the status quo; there are often venue rules that only apply to female anatomy e.g. no nipples to be seen on stage (but male nips are fine). An irony is now raised in asking whether such rules apply to women or only to those with assumed XX chromosome pairings, per se. What of transgender women’s nipples? What of transgender men’s nipples? Or are these nips in some sort of policy limbo? As a producer I have yet to get a straight answer on this from venues.
Gaze, Gays and a new Craze:
Our cultur’s backdrop too, has the eponymous ‘male gaze’ in paintings, the arrests of Victorian music hall performers, the imprisonment of homosexual writers and the selective recording of history that has relegated herstory to bit-parts and supporting roles at best. The theatre was also constrained by male privilege for so very long (arguably still is), yet interestingly at the same time it was a relatively safe place to be subversive. Such subverting artists gradually affected change because there was a costume department and stage with a fourth-wall that permitted the suspension of belief and a sense of separation from audience participation. Here there were thinkers and risk-takers ready to write or perform and to sneak their ‘dangerous’ ideas in the stage-door (which is usually the back-door) and on to the public platform for consumption.
Burlesque theatre in itself is actually where we see the first women take up lead roles on stage – but they did so, in the male lead roles (let’s face it, all lead parts were male parts and you needed well, male parts to be allowed to play any part even if you were pretending to have female parts). Crucially however, these male roles came with an almighty opportunity for women to be heard and not just seen – for the first time, women had speaking parts with which to address a captive and willing audience. Dressed as feminised male icons, villains and heroes (e.g. Don Giovanni, Henry VIII, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard…), led the shows mocking the patriarchy of their day with their ribald speech, song and gender-blending figure-hugging modus-operandi. See Eliza Vestries and Lydia Thompson for some 19th Century gender-blending fun.
Burlesque was (and when authentic) still is essentially, a kind of adult pantomime with a socio-political undertone. In my opinion, what was really shocking about burlesque in Victorian Britain was not the fact that ladies had ankles (two by Jove!) and were in fact bipedal like their male counterparts, but more so that they were literally wearing the trousers and these garments symbolised power. They had for the first time, a public voice and they used it for derision. Whatever would be next? Opinions on things? Financial independence? The vote?
Not a far cry of “he’s (or perhaps she’s?) behind you!?” or even a gender neutral? “they’re behind you!!?” that we still see in pantomime today where young women play feminised lead males known as the principle boy (think Buttons, Peter Pan or Prince Charming) and in contrast to everyone’s favourite the outrageous Panto Dame – usually the local vicar or policeman. Again the subversion of gender and societal norms is clear: On stage we are allowed, permitted, to empower those without male privilege whilst we emasculate those who traditionally hold all the male-dominated community power. Underneath all the twinkling tat and titillation, lies a rather potent inverted power-dynamic.
Burlesque was and is a playful form of exploring transitions – often we see performers transition in character and/or costume as their backing music and lighting jump dramatically between styles – from fully clothed to nude, from male to female and vice versa, from timid to bold, from repressed to liberated. Always in the positive direction of freedom.
Now more than ever, we see the same stages hold space for transgender expression but the stage is an oasis of relative safety amidst the real world of gender-driven power dynamics, fear and redundant social conventions. Through performance art we begin to really appreciate that our notion of ‘male or female’ gender itself is arguably a complex performance with no one defining aspect – a performance that each and every one of us is playing out, right now. We do it every day, from the moment of birth, as we learn and play, at home, school, work, and online. Whether ever on stage or off, it is one life-long personal interpretative dance sequence.
The trick is in learning to play and perform together, not as segregated by conceptual differences. We must share our props and costumes – and to not only allow all people to move and adapt the roles they were randomly assigned as babies, to encourage play, develop and perhaps even to move to an entirely new role that is more suited to their unique being. In the school play of life, some of us get the part of the prince and others the princess but most of us are cast as generic genderless, mute townspeople or background trees. The roles assigned may seem important at the time – but in reality they are all equal starting points for our individual progress because they don’t ever define us as people.
In Other Frocks:
When I first received Rev. Hampson round for tea and cake as a new resident of his parish, I was concerned that he might not embrace some of my ideals as exemplified in my decor choices; namely the multitude of pagan icons on the walls, the pet pythons, the morbid collections of Victoriana and our Holy Toilet of Wonder. This is the tiniest room in the house – a downstairs loo festooned with rosary beads, crosses, reclaimed church apparel, dancing 3D religious images, Buddy Christ (from the film Dogma) resting on the toilet brush, choral music playing from a light up nativity scene and portraits of myself as “Mary Dragdalen”, my other half as “Jon the Baptist” and our friend smoking a roll-up as the “The Virgin”. I was delighted to hear him laugh heartily from the confines of this unusual confessional and I knew I was on to a different breed of cleric. After much discussion about art, humour, comparative religion, gender, metaphor and the power of provocation, I was excited to become involved in his Peace and Justice Week of panel events and to learn of his own story of controversy within the CofE itself – where he has tirelessly championed for the inclusion of gay marriage services.
From having participated in the Peace and Justice Week it is a breath of fresh air to be able to see that there are many such enlightened clergy today challenging their own institutional status quo, their direct contemporaries and congregants in order to support the inclusion of all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. This is no mean feat considering the staggering history of church-led persecution and its mercurial (often ironic) interpretation of scripture to exclude, punish and create a culture of fear and intolerance of various groups of people. Colossal mistakes of the past are to be learned from and clerics today have more autonomy to lead effectively and in line with the core message of their faith – one of universal love. For example, Rev. Chris Newlands (Lancaster Priory) went all the way to the General Synod to pose a motion for services to recognise gender transition. The result was that the Church of England has created new liturgy meaning that trans people (who had been baptised or Christened in their former gender and name), are able to ‘re-introduce themselves’ to their community and to God.
Regardless of how absurd it may seem to some (in either camp) to draw parallels between burlesque theatre and the Church, if we can all put our trendy or moralistic prejudices aside and see the people, there is hope for ever more celebration of our collective and individual being, regardless of whether you believe in creation or cabaret.
In in the spirit of moving forward together, we need direction. We must let go of misdirected anger, grudges and prejudices that we often levy at aspects of the perceived patriarchy – perhaps the church, the government or even society itself. Yes, there is history (and herstory) and it is to be learned from. We all could practice what we preach and it seems that burlesque theatre and the church might just be singing from the same sheets – albeit if it’s in a cat’s choir.
A further theatrical parallel is clear when contemplating the whole point of the church is in being a host to and also representative of Jesus, often described as ‘the Host’ that ministers to the community. Successful variety shows rely on a great host – one with commanding skills of influence, through grace of wit they offer the audience ‘the way’ to engage on both sides of that invisible 4th wall or ‘realm’ .
Hosts with the Most:
As In the variety show that is the church (it’s not always a media shit-show), some churches have ditched the dogma and where Jesus is referred to as ‘the Host’ – he is still regarded as a renegade going against the status quo of his society… and from what I’ve read in wider terms, he seems to be all for pan-sexuality and gender equality. Perhaps now, the church, can introduce people to one other as souls beyond gender and encourage more gracious support for each other, applauding each other’s performances, however uncertain, and with however much room still to improve; both there in the theatre of the church, and out here in the world.
Our burlesque show hosts always encourage the audience to give in to rapturous applause and to make as much noise as they can – to whoop, cheer, encourage and ultimately to show Love. We often joke that we need the applause because performers are rather needy people.
Big laugh… but there is truth in this.
Keeping the Faith:
It is important to recognise that needing a show of support is not a sign of weakness. It is in fact a request for solidarity because to get on stage in front of strangers (especially those who have paid hard earned money) takes guts. In fact, it takes more than guts – it takes a special kind of Faith. Faith in others to understand or at least, to listen. Like all people secretly do, performers openly crave acceptance and praise – but they know the risks and are willing to take them to be heard. Even in acts who do not use their audible voice, being heard is about the sharing of ideas, a fundamental truth about the self – an encoded message sent out in to the dark in the hope of some kind of response.
Extending the theatre as a metaphor for life, by virtue of their own courage, transgender people are exposed on the world stage. Every day in the media, at their workplaces and schools, at home and in play. They cannot escape to the green room – because they are not actors. They have emerged beyond performance, the masks are off and they are the authentic jewels.
It’s time that burlesque theatre reminded itself of where it came from, so that it might continue toward a more inclusive future. One without the body and gender shame for all. Striptease, pinup glamour and political whimsy are entertaining but hardly addresses the patriarchy, the pound or the potential for change with any power. It is time to revel once again in the taboo and play dangerously with those matches and mismatches – that just might ignite a revolution.
The Church of England are, rather ironically, making like an ecdysiast – the serpent and the stripper. They are shedding their skins. Peeling off their once oppressive robes and stepping out into the light. We can all take inspiration to lose our dogmas and be bold in the simplicity of individual freedom. As ecdysiasts with a sense of humour, we need to scale up our operation.
Whether we go to church in the morning or cabarets at night, we all stand together in our vulnerability. Just as a performer can be naked and fierce in public they are yet gently bathed under a lighting rig’s colours to flatter or augment their realities. Stained glass images can be beautiful to behold, we must not forget to go outside and see the source that makes them possible – that one true light that shines on all of us equally.
As a producer I am calling for more trans performers to get in touch – for both stage and/or for coaching. Visit or apply to join the Ministry of Burlesque mission here.