Exvies Try Stuff: Burlesque Show

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Growing up Evangelical we had a lot of rules. There were shows and movies we couldn’t watch, music we couldn’t listen to, toys we couldn’t play with, and people we couldn’t hang out with. Now that I’m no longer an Evangelical, I decided it’s time to try new things and break the rules. Welcome to Exvies Try Stuff.

This month I saw a burlesque show and interviewed fellow Exvie and burlesque performer, Fosse Jack.

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I was feeling a little queasy as I entered the Theater off Jackson and took my seat for Sinner Saint’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Reverie.” The idea that I was going to sit in a room full of people and watch other people get nearly naked was pretty uncomfortable. Wasn’t sex something we did behind locked doors and never EVER talked about?!

If you grew up Evangelical like me, odds are you grew up in “purity culture,” with rules and guidelines governing all aspects of behavior surrounding sex (including what you wore, how you walked or sat, what you looked at, and what you thought about).

As women in purity culture, our bodies were never just our bodies, but always an enticement to sin. No matter how innocuous something was, it could always be an opportunity to arouse the opposite sex, intentionally or not. We were often warned not to be “stumbling blocks” for our male counterparts. And female sexual desire? As I’ve written about previously, that was largely ignored.

As a result of all that, I’ve always felt that my sexuality is not really my own, but something I produce—a consumable for men, and specifically my husband.

But as I’ve continued down this road of deconstructing my faith, I’ve come to realize that I need to make a lot of changes, including in the bedroom.

Thus I sat, waiting for the burlesque show to begin. The stage was nearly bare, holding only two small sections of wall on casters. The theater filled up quickly around me, everyone was dressed to the nines and seemed to know each other. I felt a little conspicuous sitting alone in my plain black dress. A steampunk-ish couple sat down next to me and started to chat with me, a behavior that’s fairly uncommon in Seattle. The audience seemed to have a very community-oriented vibe. In front of me I heard several people discussing their experiences growing up Catholic and how it made for a very kinky sex life. How did they manage that? I wondered.

The lights dimmed and the actress playing Puck took to the stage, dressed like a phallic leprechaun. Thumping dance music played and Puck danced and grabbed at her crotch before finally stripping down to shamrock pasties, a garter belt, and a green codpiece. The audience around me whooped and hollered in a way that felt somewhat performative. I took a deep breath and waited for Shakespeare’s familiar text to orient me to this strange and uncomfortable world.

The performance followed the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a few major changes. Some of the text was replaced by burlesque numbers, and in the end instead of two hetero couples, we wind up with one lesbian couple and one gay couple.

As the scantily clad figures gyrated before me, one thing I was struck by was the complete boldness of it all. In America we are used to seeing Halle Berry or Kate Winslet naked, but rarely do we see “average” bodies on display. On our beaches we wear t-shirts and shorts or very modest one-piece bathing suits. And while Purity Culture spins this modesty as “honoring our bodies” it seems to me that modesty has more to do with shame.

At the end of every number the performers stood there, arms to the side as if to say “behold my body!” It was a celebration of the inherent goodness of bodies in a way I had never experienced before. It struck me then, that as campy and wink-wink-nudge-nudge as the numbers were, they were also strikingly earnest.

I wanted to know what it would feel like to own my sexuality. I was curious about people who can pull off a striptease without giggling like a lunatic. Luckily, I had an in.

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James Oestreich, aka Fosse Jack, and I worked together in the costume shop at Seattle Pacific University, a small Free Methodist college. Back then he was an ostensibly straight theology/theater double major with a passion for dance. Now he is a gay, polyamorous burlesque performer. I watched this transformation through the distance of Facebook, but I was dying to know how he had come to discard his Purity Culture baggage and own his sexuality.

Oestreich’s theology education actually opened the door for him to realize who he was. While SPU was not then, nor is it now, an affirming institution,* Oestreich’s studies of the Bible lead him to reject the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and take a closer look at how Christians cherry pick the Bible. He realized that God is bigger than what he’d learned growing up.

In fact, the first time Oestreich slept with a man was the night before he had been asked to guest preach at his family’s church. That morning he could’ve woken up feeling ashamed, but instead he felt liberated. His gaze fell on a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a favorite of his. He turned to the de-dragoning of Eustace. It felt like a spiritual message meant just for him at that moment.

Oestreich’s journey hasn’t been easy. He was estranged from his parents for about a year after he came out. He’s struggled with depression and anxiety. But he feels at home on the stage and has found community with his fellow burlesque performers. He has two wonderful and supportive boyfriends whom he lives with.

He no longer identifies as a Christian, but of Jesus he says, “I try to live a life that that first-century itinerant preacher would approve of—or at least find interesting.”

And his advice for Exvies struggling with their sexuality?

“Every human is greater than the sum of their parts. They’re stronger than what the church throws at them. They’re also fragile. It’s OK to feel the pain…Find people you can talk to. Learn about who you are, try new things. Don’t feel that you have to be one thing or one stereotype. Basically, try some weird shit!”

I decided to take Fosse Jack’s advice to heart.

Next month on “Exvies Try Stuff” Katy takes the plunge and does Burlesque.

*an SPU representative stated that the university “affirms all our students, including those who identify as LGBTQ.” However, the university’s “Statement on Sexuality” indicates that “sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman” within the context of marriage.