Venus’ first job as a stripper started with a high school breakup. She was 18 and looking for a job that allowed her to make her own schedule and be her own boss, and “one day in high school I just said, ‘Fuck this, I’ll be a stripper,'” she told me.
Her girlfriend, however, wasn’t thrilled. “She had a huge problem with me taking my clothes off to make money,” she said. Once they’d officially broken up, Venus landed her first gig.
“I should’ve never let some bitch that wouldn’t even matter to me in a year dictate how I made my money,” said Venus, who’s using her stage name to protect her privacy. Her mother kicked her out of the house immediately after she started stripping, but her only regret, she said, is that she didn’t start sooner.
Venus appreciates the financial independence and job flexibility that working in a club allows, but it’s a tough job, especially as a gay woman. “I always thought [being a gay stripper] was way harder than being a straight stripper because we gotta lie and be fake way more than the straight hoes do,” Venus said. “I would hear girls talk about how hot costumers were and I’d be like ‘I just lost out on a dance because the dude I was sitting with was watching me not give a single fuck about him while my jaw was on the floor watching the stage.”
Though most strip clubs are traditionally known for being aggressively heterosexual environments, some queer-friendly cities like Portland attract a lot of dancers like Iris. She explained that working in a club not only offers financial freedom, but affirms her identity and place in the local queer community. “As a queer dancer, I’m in the majority! Almost all of the Portland strippers I’ve met are queer, it's amazing!” said Iris, who’s also using her stage name to protect her privacy.
With so many queer dancers on the scene, there isn’t much of a noticeable distinction between queer and straight strip clubs in Portland. As with any job, Iris said she has good days and bad days, and doesn’t think being queer makes her job easier or more difficult. It all depends on “the quality of the customers,” many of whom are queer women themselves. “I love when queer clients see my shaved head and hairy armpits—they can totally tell I’m queer and give me the wink like they know what's up,” said Iris. “They are usually highly complimentary. They compliment me on my armpit hair, and are very fun to dance for because I'm usually attracted to them too.”
Outside of queer hubs, many queer and lesbian dancers build their own communities within the strip clubs where they work. “Being a queer stripper is a special experience,” says Gia Fagnelli, a stripper and drag performance artist based in Pittsburgh. As a stripper, she’s worked in a variety of clubs that cater to typical male clientele, and “at least a third of the dancers I've worked with in clubs across the country are LGBTQ,” Fagnelli said. “It adds a level of camaraderie the same way any other marginalized identity finds comfort in finding each other. I've had the joy of working with queer customers, and most of those experiences have been powerfully subversive in a (seemingly) heteronormative space.”
Fagnelli found stripping “like everyone else—as a concept in pop culture.” She remembers growing up fascinated by Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer,” and once sneaked a few episodes of HBO’s G String Divas. “I was a freshman in high school when two of my senior friends started dancing, and I heard some of the ups and downs of their experiences," she said. "I had an instinct all along that it was something I could do if I needed to.” Years later, Fagnelli said, she needed to. After leaving an abusive relationship and moving across the country away from her friends and community, Fagnelli said she needed “real money, real bad.” Landing a job at a small club allowed her to start fresh and begin a new chapter of her life, she said. “I found friendships, sisters, a whole new struggle, a transformative outlet for my creative energy in the stage work, and an opportunity to reclaim my body and my voice.”
Though she’s found community among other queer and lesbian dancers, Fagnelli said some friends and peers in her local queer community haven’t always been supportive or understanding of her career. “It shows up as a generalized discomfort, or as assumptions about what my life is like. That it's easy or consistent money, that I'm either pitifully vulnerable or perfectly empowered by my position in this industry,” Fagnelli said. During the three years she’s been dancing, Fagnelli said many of her partners and dates have also been intimidated by some aspects of her work, but she’s “learning how to most effectively communicate and enforce my boundaries in unapologetically living my life, to find the folks who want to embrace the full dynamic of my spirit, and to embrace them in turn.”
As Fagnelli explained, working at a strip club can be “much more psychological, intellectual, and emotional work than people realize.” Her work requires her to carefully navigate the boundaries between her personal life and her male customers’ fantasies in order to protect both her privacy and physical safety, and “everything is a flow of boundaries and instincts.” Most of the time, this means keeping her gender identity and sexual orientation private.
Stripping primarily requires “selling an illusionary experience,” said Fagnelli, and maintaining the fantasy is just part of the job. “Each customer is going to get the finessing they're signaling that they're looking for.” Fagnelli decides how much information she’ll share “on a case by case basis,” like when a particular customer won’t stop bothering her, but doing so can be risky. “Sometimes when I'm telling someone I won't go on a date with them and I want them to drop it, I tell them I gotta get home to the (fictional) wife,” she explained. “This can either be a smooth maneuver or a trap for further harassment.”
Both inside and outside the club, being a stripper can be taxing for anyone regardless of their sexual preferences. “It's a really complicated experience,” she said, “but it's mine.”
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