I have been a burlesque performer for over a decade, and began before my physical transition. In the beginning, constructing my acts always involved an artificial silhouette and never a stripping out of a binder. My stage name is Lewd Alfred Douglas, a nod to Lord Alfred Douglas; a figure of queer Victorian scandal whose most lasting legacy was writing “the love that dare not speak its name.” Despite the best efforts of some, the phrase remains a lodestone for love that is considered profane.
People tend to understand the physical transition of a transgender man as female to male—and all that they assume it entails. A transition from femininity to masculinity. A transition from softness to hardness. Tender emotional openness to stark stoicism. Sensuality to functionality. All these manufactured opposites that have been piled on to the strict and untenable idea of a binary. My physical transition was none of these things. Above all else, my body transitioned from a source of pain to a source of pleasure. My burlesque became more and more flamboyant.
As a teenager, I knew that I was in pain. I knew that embracing and expressing my maleness would ease that pain. I knew that physical transition would also bring help for that pain. But I didn’t know exactly what else it would do.
I eased my pain by wrapping my body tight in suffocating bandages. On stage, I never showed the skin of my chest, even during a striptease. I took great comfort in a kind of Victorian standoffishness, the artificial silhouette of arched shoulders and corseted waists, going so far as to enjoy the feeling of tightly buttoned spats limiting the mobility of my ankles. All this I perceived as pleasurable to me, because it staunched the flow of pain, and gave me a sense of control. I depended on a Victorian sexlessness which limited what was comfortable for me to do in bed with my partners. This is just the way I am, I thought. And it was true, for the time being.
After my physical transition, and most remarkably after my top surgery, my maleness was not just better expressed on the outside. It was like being shown a whole new wing of a house you didn’t know was there. My body was not just relieved of pain, it was an undiscovered country. Contrary to those narrow opposites of the sensual female sexual energy and the aggressive male one—I discovered that being closer to my maleness took me to the full potential of my sensuality.
When my scars were still relatively fresh, I used makeup to cover them, thinking they would distract from the character I was trying to present; but I stopped almost immediately. Instead, I created characters for whom scars would be relevant. Soon, my own scars were imperceivable under stage lights and those characters needed scars drawn back on. Life imitating art, imitating life, imitating art.
Hidden histories always provide inspiration for creating a new dance. Looking for trans male ancestors in the post-Christian and post-colonial eras always leads to stories of the violated and murdered. Even triumphant stories of adventure and survival are framed as stoic and sexless. Those who are known to have sexual partners are never seen as sensational. Perhaps these grandfathers wore the heavy trappings of binary maleness for the purposes of their safety. Perhaps that is just the way they were, and these are the stories that survived. Perhaps it is the unforgiving hand of history through a cis lens. With these ancestors, it is easy to believe one is destined for a quiet and functional life of proving your worth as a man with grim, expressionless tenacity. To me, this would have been a life of suffering. Because as surely as I know I am male, I also know that I was not put on this earth to be functional. I am exquisitely useless, driven to decoration and poetry in all its forms. I have no strength to wield, no courage to prove, and no field to conquer.
After my own personal transition was complete, my expression through performance art changed utterly. Instead of tightly corseted automatons, I play satyrs, sorcerers, pirates, sword dancers, forest spirits. My body changed from something I strapped down, suffocated, and hid away, to something I unveiled like a new work of art, before cheering crowds. I am rewarded in more ways than I can count for the art I make with my own body, and not simply from cis people’s approval or rooms of paying strangers. Trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people have rewarded me with their confessions: that my performance unlocked something inside them, or told them they were not alone, or showed them something they always wished to see. This is my loving manifestation of what all my ancestors deserved—not simply tolerance, but unbridled celebration.
The perception I had was that it was possible for me to feel pleasure in spite of my body. Now, I feel pleasure because of it. It is my unique maleness that I have fought for, created, discovered, and always had.