It means the world to me to work on a fundraiser for this museum. I’m not here as a representative for the museum, so don’t read this that way. I know a lot of people think I have some larger stake, and even though it would be silly to say I don’t have access and input, I’m not on the board, I’m not on staff. I’ve just been an admirer and a volunteer for over 15 years.
The first time I went to the ranch and saw what Dixie Evans had been preserving, and saw her love for it, and heard the story of Jennie Lee, who was a sex worker’s rights activist before the term “sex worker” was even created, I cried.
Imagine being a stripper for decades, being talked over and ridiculed, insulted and condemned, policed and harassed, simply for being a stripper. There wasn’t a burlesque scene. I didn’t know anything about sex worker activism. All I knew was that I deserved respect and compassion and I was getting the opposite. I had expected it, but I refused to accept it.
I was in survival mode from the start. I had been bullied and assaulted in high school for being queer. I found some comfort in gay bars and Rocky Horror events, but it was in strip joints that I really began living my queer life with joy and freedom. I wouldn’t say a strip joint was a safe space, not by a long shot, but I can honestly say I felt safer there than in high school, where I was bullied, and at home, where I dealt with stuff I don’t want to talk about at the moment because it becomes a very long story very easily.
I had always wanted to be a stripper because it LOOKED like freedom to me. I saw images of burlesque performers from the past and they seemed to crackle with energy and joy. I have met many of the very people I was admiring then, and they have led challenging lives, but the joy and vibrancy I saw in those photos and film clips was very real. While other people used those performers as the butt of jokes, and used their images without naming them, erasing their identities and accomplishments, on cocktail napkins and ashtrays, I knew them in my soul as people who made glamour out of adversity.
I knew that would be my path to survival. It wasn’t the destination -- it was the route. And that has been true for me and for so many of the people I've worked with.
Dixie Evans celebrated the art form, the accomplishments, the humour, the glamour, THE PEOPLE, without denying any of the difficulties of that world. I knew, as I stood in her museum on a ranch in the middle of the desert, that these performers and this art form deserved that museum, and I had to tell the world about it. She told me over and over that the most important thing to her was that people learn to respect burlesque as part of our culture -- not something outside of or adjacent to the arts and theater, but as something at the very heart of it. Strippers were performers and artists and workers and she knew it and I knew it, and making much of this museum made sense. We deserved a museum.
This museum was created by strippers to celebrate strippers, and all the other performers in the field of burlesque who make the shows into showbiz. Strippers created it -- before there was a clear division between burlesque and strip joints, when cops were busting burlesque shows so regularly they had special stage lights to alert the performers that cops were in the house -- strippers created it!
To have the museum become celebrated in Las Vegas has been huge. There’s a long way to go, and all museums constantly evolve and rediscover what they thought there was to study, collect, and display. There’s no rest. I, for one, am hoping to add more of the history of strip joint strippers and feature dancers to the museum. There is so much more to burlesque than the timeline I learned 15 years ago! Thank goodness for all the people who also care enough about history to add to this resource, to critique and support, to challenge and to contribute. Every time someone says what matters to them, what they want there that they don’t see, it’s a gift. It can’t stay relevant without input from everyone. When I was still in survival mode I didn’t realize that, but now I understand that there are so many things equally or more important as the erasure I saw of burlesque history when I was young, and I’m passionate about it.
It took decades to get to where this museum is, and it survived the pandemic. It’s a huge, huge accomplishment, one that many people would have bet was never going to happen. I’m excited to help fundraise this year. I’m excited to celebrate the past, the present, and the future -- I’m excited for tradition AND innovation, I’m excited for teaching AND being taught.
Think about what this museum, and other projects about this topic, can mean to people, how it can open the eyes of people who never thought past the dirty jokes. I had never seen anything like it, back when I first visited the ranch. It was a miracle to me to just to see a framed g-string on the wall with a name on it, celebrating the stripper who wore it. I want everyone to feel as appreciated as I did at that moment -- not as an individual, since no org can validate everyone in that way, but as a human being who is part of something that deserves to be honored and loved. It made me see the beginnings of a possible future where people learn to respect what they thought was just a last resort for criminals and losers, not as a drain on the resources of decent society (and fuck decent society anyway), but as both a reflection of and a creator of culture. This is an ongoing opportunity to provide paradigm shifts through entertainment. How far can it go?