By Craig Seymour; Atria Books; 243 pages
Craig Seymour was a graduate student in the University of Maryland in the 1990s, when he decided to write a thesis on the strip clubs of Washington D.C and become a stripper. He did this partly to pay his bills, partly to be an informed researcher, and perhaps mostly because stripping allowed him to explore facets of his sexuality that had never seemed possible, even as an out gay man. According to Seymour, who”ll be joining Northern Illinois University as an Associate Professor of Journalism, the job requirement of complete physical and psychological exposure also led to greater confidence in his pursuit of a later career interviewing celebrities like Janet Jackson.
The clubs that Seymour writes about, with names like Follies, Heat, Wet, and Secrets are lost to gentrification. Perhaps they”ve been replaced with sleeker, hipper, and more sanitized clubs, the kind where straight women love to bring their dates. Fortunately, Seymour’s prose keeps them alive.
All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.Csuccessfully blends genres. It’s a memoir, history, and ethnography, told with the vivid details and sharp pacing of a novel. We learn about the rules governing D.C. stripping, which allow touching and fondling. Until, that is, D.C’s alcohol board cracks down and forbids physical contact between customers and dancers. Seymour complains, “Not to be touched, fondled, fingered, or stroked. What are we supposed to do – dance?” The regulations are enforced despite numerous customer complaints. On one website message board, one leaves a plea that Chicagoans will appreciate: “Can”t someone be bribed or something?” But the end was nigh, and “The Rule,” as this crackdown came to be called, signified the end of an era.
Interestingly, it’s in this oh-so-gay world that Seymour learns about the blurred distinctions between gay and straight. Sex, it turns out, says nothing about sexuality. That’s a lesson queers have known for years, but one we are apt to forget in an age when essentialist categories come with identity-based “rights.” Straight-identified dancers dance for men, and even have sex with men. Sometimes that’s a form of “gay for pay” but sometimes it’s something that’s still a part of their identity as “straight.”
The book reveals the subterranean economy sustained by strip clubs, one beyond even the sometimes thin line between stripping and sex work. This economy includes the panhandlers hired for a few dollars to watch the cars of dancers as they work and the corner stores that stay late with a supply of Elbow Grease, an oil-based cream used to soothe the ache from too many hands pulling on penises. Seymour is refreshingly non-judgmental about all this. And he doesn”t see forms of attachment/cruising in terms of hierarchies. For some spectators, the contact with dancers is efficient, circumventing endless cruising at bars. For the most part, the relations between gawked and gawkees are cordial and even affectionate – even when people disappear for months or forever.
We learn about the sexual economy of race and ethnicity. Seymour’s parents are both black, like most of his ancestors, but he was born with “toffee-colored skin,” making him racially ambiguous -- a fact that could be a disadvantage, as he writes with dry wit: “… I was the tragic mulatto of dick dancers – too brown for “Vanilla Shake Mondays,” not brown enough for “Hot Chocolate Wednesdays.””
Intercut with all this are Seymour’s relationships with men, especially with Seth, a long-time partner. Seth is devastated when Seymour decides to experiment with other sexual partners, even though he initially agrees with the change. In true queer fashion, Seth remains his closest friend even after they break up (the book is dedicated to him), and Seymour’s account of their complex relationship adds depth to an already textured book. This is a deftly written and very funny account of the places you could go as a gay stripper, and it demonstrates that neither “gay” nor “stripper” are easily understood categories.