Australian burlesque has never been more queer

Earlier this year, history was made in the Australian burlesque and LGBTQIA+ community.

Scarlet Adams, real name Anthony Price, was crowned Miss Burlesque Australia.

She is the first drag queen to ever compete in the final and then claim the title in the competition’s nine-year history.

Scarlet Adams’ victory is reminiscent of the very beginnings of burlesque in its main hub New York City, which featured a significant amount of LGBTQIA+ characters who were celebrated by society at large.

According to research by Atlas Obscura, the 1920s to the early 1930s saw a trend known as the “Pansy Craze,” where every nightclub, burlesque, vaudeville and Broadway show featured lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans characters.

Drag queens and drag kings[1] held beauty contests all around the United States while lesbians and bisexuals performed songs about same-sex relationships, until a crackdown on “deviants” in the mid 1930s.

Today, the queer burlesque scene is alive and well, with a whole range of unique characters gracing stages around the world.

One only has to attend a showcase in Sydney to get a feel for the inclusivity of the Australian burlesque community.

Performers of all genders, shapes and sizes tease and amuse the crowd, who gleefully shove fake dollar bills into their bedazzled underwear.

No longer the domain of rich straight men, today’s burlesque crowds are dominated by women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, looking for a colourful night out complete with copious sequins and sparkles.

Classes in burlesque are also more popular than ever.

One studio in Surry Hills has made an active effort to embrace the queer history of burlesque, led by former Miss Burlesque NSW finalist Katia Schwartz.

Founded in 2016, Sky Sirens combines pole-dancing, burlesque and aerial artistry.

Ms. Schwartz has been on a range of burlesque journeys, having worked as a stripper and erotic showgirl by night and a graphic designer by day.

She is queer and is deaf in one ear. Her identity and accessibility issues served as the inspiration for Sky Sirens.

“I wanted to create a space that was inclusive and accessible and would allow people who wouldn’t otherwise be involved with these arts, to have a chance to get involved,” Ms. Schwartz said.

She is in a relationship with a non-binary trans person, who encouraged her to make the space more inclusive.

“When we go out together we get ‘ladied,’ quite a lot, like ‘hi ladies’ and ‘would you like a drink ladies?’ and that makes my partner feel really upset,” Ms. Schwartz said.

“Going into bathrooms is a problem and going into stores and being pointed into the direction of the women’s clothing is really hard too.

“I noticed how fitting in as a non-binary and a queer person since dating my partner has been really difficult, so I wanted Sky Sirens to be a place where people didn’t feel like they had any of those problems.”

All new students at Sky Sirens are asked for their pronouns, all dance instructors use non-gendered language during their classes and the bathrooms are open for all.

While Sky Sirens is not the only pole or burlesque studio in Sydney, many other studios choose to focus on the fitness aspect of these dance styles and not the queer and stripping roots, according to non-binary queer employee Mia Maraschino.

Mia Maraschino started out as a student in Sky Sirens in January this year and became an employee in February.

“Pole and aerial and burlesque were always things that I wanted to do, but I never really felt like I would fit at other studios,” Mx. Maraschino said.

“I didn’t really like the pole fitness aspect that a lot of studios seemed to push and how they distanced themselves from the roots of pole-dancing and burlesque.

“I really liked that Sky Sirens promoted body positivity and diversity, so I thought it would be a great fit for me.”

Some critics argue that burlesque being touted as an LGBTQIA+ safe space is rooted in the self-centred and “immature” ideologies of third-wave liberal feminism.

Meghan Murphy is the founder of Feminist Current, a popular Canadian feminist website.

She has written extensive critiques on burlesque and pole-dancing, which have brought both acclaim and attacks.

“Burlesque has always been a part of third-wave ideology and queer culture,” she said.

“That ideology has always been very connected to personal choice and it’s always been in favour of objectification, prostitution and pornography and to think critically about the idea of different identities and pronouns.

“It’s all based in these personal individual ideas of empowerment and choice and ‘me’ and how ‘I’ feel and what ‘I’ want and how special ‘I’ am.

“It sounds really immature, you’re the only one who cares about your f**king pronouns.”

Ms. Murphy rejects the idea that “choosing” to do burlesque makes it an empowering feminist act and has positive outcomes for the LGBTQIA+ community.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting the opposite sex to find you attractive – or the same sex depending on if you’re hetero or not – but it’s not addressing the real issue and the objectification factor is still there,” she said.

“We’re selling the idea that the most important thing about us and the root to our self-esteem is in our ability to self-objectify and be viewed as desirable.

“Acceptance is great and body positivity isn’t a bad thing, but why does body positivity mean being sexualised?”

However, Ms. Schwartz and Mx. Maraschino swear by the value of burlesque in helping them embrace their identities and communicate who they are with the world.

“It’s like I put on a different persona that is still somehow very much me,” Mx. Maraschino said.

“I can draw on different bits of my personality or different bits of my experiences and put that out in the world.”

“Being somebody who is queer, who’s worked in the sex industry, who’s got accessibility issues with my ear, I feel like burlesque is a way for me to express myself,” Ms. Schwartz said.

[1] Women who dressed up as men with exaggerated masculinity

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