Once a month, crowds pack the Oakland Metro Operahouse to watch Jesi Ringofire and about ten other men take off their clothes. The group is kind of like the Chippendales, if the Chippendales were queer, trans, and nonbinary. “They scream, they go nuts, and throw lots of money,” Ringofire told me. “We get a very diverse crowd, be it gender identity, sexual preference, or race. I've even had straight men and lesbian women come and tell me they had a blast... I think we have the greatest, loudest, best audience in the Bay.”
Originally from the midwest, Ringofire grew up far from the Oakland strip scene. He discovered his love of performance at an early age, singing in church, doing high school theater, and “whatever I could do to be on stage,” but bullying from his peers made him reluctant to pursue it further. “I was told all the time I was a ‘fag’ because of who I was, but it was so confusing because I knew my attraction to women wasn't a cover,” he said. Ringofire identifies as pansexual, but as a young person, “I had no clue that bisexuality and pansexuality even existed.”
When Ringofire moved to the Bay Area, he found a thriving burlesque community where he felt more comfortable dabbling in a wider range of gender and sexual expression both onstage and off. “It wasn't until I really started expressing all the parts of me onstage that I started exploring them offstage,” he said.
However, he found few opportunities for male strippers that weren’t “gay shows aimed at gay men, or straight shows aimed at cis women,” he said. “There was not much in between, and especially not much space for different body types.” Most male revue shows Ringofire saw leaned heavily on gender stereotypes and rigid masculine ideals, and most typical Bay Area burlesque shows tend to feature women. “While we love these performances and the people doing them,” performer Jack Thompson told me in an email, “you can see women performing burlesque or stripping in the Bay Area any night of the week and at multiple shows.”
Ringofire reached out to a wide variety of performers in the area who “were down to do a more sensual, sexualized version of their current discipline,” he said, “reaffirming [with them] from the beginning that we were taking aim at the toxicity of the masculinity we had been raised in.”
The group eventually became Manarchy Male Revue, which the organizers describe as “a new kind of male revue stripping away toxic masculinity.” Almost two years ago, Ringofire, burlesque performer Jet Noir, and a few other dancers booked a spot at the Mitchell Brothers Club in San Francisco. They performed two sold out strip shows a month before moving to their current home at the Oakland Metro, with occasional appearances at other local venues like Hubba Hubba Revue, Bootie SF, and Folsom Street Fair.
“I started Manarchy because I wanted something new for male identified folks, and those who enjoy them,” Ringofire said. “A space that celebrated everything healthy masculinity is and can be. That has only grown with Manarchy, and the freedom our stage affords us all.” Onstage, he added, “we all are not only free, but pushed to test our ideals of self, gender expression, and sexuality, even if those tests continue to confirm what we already know.”
Manarchy isn’t a typical strip show—it’s a celebration of unapologetic, shameless queer sexuality and deconstruction of cisnormative gender expression. Performers are all masculine identified, but they represent a broad spectrum of masculinities, including queer, trans, and nonbinary dancers showcasing a variety of different talents. “We have B-boys, aerialists, pole artists, clowns, musical theater actors, fire performers, belly dancers, contortionists, straight men who gladly put on sparkly heels and makeup. It's really just a little bit of everything,” Ringofire said. Most notably, the show centers masculine bodies—all in various states of undress—that audiences wouldn’t generally see during a conventional male revue. “Manarchy is different and we want to keep it that way,” Thompson said. “It’s a show you can’t get anywhere else.”
Thompson’s first time performing with Manarchy was also his first time “going ‘full monty” on stage. “I have stripped before, but I always stopped at my underwear because of the venues I’ve worked in,” he told VICE in an email. As Manarchy’s first transmasculine performer, Thompson remembers feeling excited and a little anxious. “Once I got up there and saw all the friendly faces in the crowd, I just let it go and had a good time,” he said. “I love seeing the faces of people in the audience smiling, laughing and going crazy over me (little old me) taking my shirt or pants off. I have had insanely low self esteem my entire life and doing drag and performing with Manarchy has helped that immensely.”
Manarchy is “all about shutting down toxic masculinity,” Thompson said, challenging heteronormative ideas of what it means to look and act like a man, and who gets to define manhood more broadly—which can sometimes come from within queer communities.
“There is no right way to be a ‘man’, but there are a lot of wrong ways. Most of us have learned the wrong ways, so it's nice to have a platform to try everything else out there. That's what we offer,” Ringofire said. “Honestly it's a constant unlearning process. I still fuck up. I do my best to own it, to learn, to grow, and to try and make amends. It's a never-ending process.”
For Thompson, the applause, wolf whistles, and dollar bills from the audience make him feel seen—and sexy. “It feels good to be seen and appreciated as a performer. To been seen as me, a performer, and not just a trans performer.”
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