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Burlesque Helped Me Realize, Acknowledge, and Embrace My Bisexuality

The first woman I kissed was another burlesque dancer. I’d known her for years but we’d just recently become friends. She’s a dynamic performer, a stunningly beautiful woman, and proudly queer.

Still, in those moments before the kiss, I was a nervous wreck. I’d been a professional burlesque dancer for almost four years, had bared it all countless times, but even after a lifetime of knowing I liked women as well as men, I was afraid.

The first time I admitted that I liked women out loud was surrounded by women in varying stages of undress and glitter application. By this time, I’d been performing burlesque professionally for over a year, inducted into a sparkling sorority of badass chicks who bared their breasts on the regular and didn’t take any guff from men trying to cop a feel or scream an obscenity. I’d doffed my clothes, licked a dildo in front of a cheering crowd, and once, flipped off a very rude audience member.

And yet, until this very moment I was afraid to acknowledge that I was queer.

“I think I like girls.”

Upon hearing my admission, the other women barely looked up from twisting around to fasten their bras, buckling up their high-heeled shoes, stretching out so as not to pull a muscle while stripping. (Because that’s what we are: strippers. We may not perform in clubs, but we, too, proudly take our clothes off for money.)

“And?” one woman cracked. “What’s your favorite color?”

I could have taken this to heart. Instead, I reveled in the normalcy of it all. Granted, what’s “normal” to a burlesque dancer can be considered “insane” to the rest of the world, but hey, I’d just verbalized a desire for women that previously dared not speak its name. And no one blinked. We had a show.

Mind blown, I headed out the dressing room door, getting ready to shimmy out of a red satin gown. My shoes sparkled with rhinestones, my lipstick was bright. I’d confessed to liking women and the world went on–more vivid and glittering than before.

Where I come from in God-fearing downstate Illinois, “God made Adam for Eve, not Steve.” Even at my liberal urban university, one was either straight or gay. Out bisexuals were few and far between, and though I was always interested in Sapphic sex, multiple viewings of The L Word assured me that women who weren’t all about women were decidedly unwelcome. Not to mention bi erasure is still an issue, and one can’t swing a dick or a bra without someone wanting to explain their sexuality away. I loved men, dated men, slept with men. I still do. My attraction to women was present from an early age, but I kept it buried deep within.

At age 30, I took a burlesque class for fun, and found myself lusting after sequined gowns, feather boas, and the exhilaration of shedding it all in public. Burlesque dancers were gorgeous, proud of whatever shape and size they presented, goddesslike but accessible, giving everything but not taking any shit. I longed to be among them, which led to more classes, then auditions. Suddenly, I was one of them.

In my first weeks as Emma Glitterbomb, I was tongue-tied around other dancers. The word “inhibition” wasn’t in their vocabulary. They were so certain they wouldn’t have wardrobe malfunctions or trip onstage–and when they did, they laughed, had a drink, and moved on. (I, on the other hand, cried for days when I didn’t get my panties off in time.)

Backstage was even more intimidating. Most dancers talked freely about their sexuality and their sex lives. Some liked their same gender, others the opposite, and some went for any person they found cute. I envied this last group most of all, the way they sported their sexuality like a badge of honor with extra bling. How could I get there too?

It didn’t happen overnight. As I grew more comfortable with my physical self, clothed and not so much, I realized I could be comfortable with what my body and mind wanted as well. That burlesque isn’t perfect, but it’s a safe space. That even though I wasn’t staring at my fellow naked women in the dressing room, like some kind of terrible stereotype–I take consent ethics very seriously–I could admit my attraction to all sorts of humans and the answer was a smile, a shrug and best of all, a “So what?” To me, bisexual means “like me” and “not like me” and I love the freedom to be who I am, both in the wider world and this strange, vibrant society of performed sexuality.

I don’t limit my partners to the community, but I don’t find it a coincidence my first words and acts of queerness were in the presence of fellow sparkly folk. Because once I could bare it all on stage and in bed, I knew I’d come home.

Images courtesy Emma Glitterbomb