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Gender Blender

The People Behind the Charm City Kitty Club Talk About Politics, Art, and Freaking People Out

Uli Loskot
HOES: (clockwise from left) Jay Brooks, Rahne Alexander, Grady Challis, and Jody Andrade dig deep into contrarian notions of gender and sexuality via the Charm City Kitty Club.

The Queer Issue 2005

Oops, We Did It Again City Paper’s Second Annual Queer Issue

Gender Blender The People Behind the Charm City Kitty Club Talk About Politics, Art, and Freaking People Out | By Bret McCabe

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Build Your Own Baltimore Girlfriend | By The City Paper Queerleaders and Emily Flake

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Yanks for the Memories A Look Back at Baltimore’s Now-Defunct Gay Strip Club Atlantis | By Gadi Dechter

Gay Old Time Your Guide to Pride 2005

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/15/2005

New York performance artist Beth Smulyan is a self-identified “queer, third-gendered, sex-positive Jew.” She also calls herself the “fattest person she knows.” Smulyan came onstage this past May for the Charm City Kitty Club’s Escape to Mortville at the Creative Alliance in nothing but a body stocking. When she slowly removed it while speaking candidly about her body and what it’s like to live in and with it, the experience unnerved some members of the audience.

“One of the best things about this past show was being outside after the show on Saturday night and talking to an audience member who I’ve seen at practically every Kitty Club show, who said to me, ‘That show was really too much,’” Jody Andrade says. Sitting next to her roommate and fellow Kitty performance artist and musician Rahne Alexander in their Charles Village rowhouse, Andrade gets visibly electric remembering the post-performance glow.

“And I said, ‘Thanks,’ And she said, ‘No, it took me places I really didn’t want to go.’ And I was like, ‘Outstanding.’ And she said, ‘ No, I think I need therapy.’ And I was like, ‘Awesome!’ And she looked so physically rattled, and the more I realized that she was rattled, the more excited I got.”

Butches and femmes, andro dykes and baby butches, pre-, post-, and no-op transgendered and polyamorous, queer breeders and glamour butches, lipstick lesbians and diesel dykes, welcome to the Charm City Kitty Club, Baltimore’s 3-year-old, quarterly cabaret. It was started by local artists Andrade, Catherine Pancake, Gretchen Heilman, Kristen Anchor, and Megan McShea to showcase and celebrate the creative energy of queer women and their allies, but its germinating seed was a growing dissatisfaction with queer activism and fringe art communities in which the Kitty founders had matured. Individually, the men and women of the Kitty Club were aging out of their liberating 20s and found nothing after that in which to invest their creative, political, and activist energies. And if they wanted to continue growing in all those areas, they were going to have to create a space for it themselves. In the process, what the Kitty Club forged is a boldly ambitious cultural laboratory that dissects contemporary gender theory and identity politics with a seriously unserious silly streak.

“What was interesting about that [performance] was that there were people who found viewing a nude superfat woman so utterly shocking,” Andrade says. “And I’m thinking, I’ve been on that stage in various states of undress. We’ve had Betty Cocker strip while hula-hooping in high heels, which, by the way, is an amazing sight to behold.”

“We had Joe Meduza dry-hump a toilet,” Alexander adds.

“And this was the thing that was basically sending one of our audience members into therapy,” Andrade says. “And I’m thinking, This is what we were meant to do.”

 

A desire to disturb their own core community didn’t happen overnight. It grew slowly through the Kitties’ separate experiences in activism, avant-garde art, and identity-based politics. Rahne Alexander moved to Baltimore three years ago from Santa Cruz, Calif., where she was active in queer activism as president and board member of the LBGT Community Center. But she found the road to progress stifling.

“I found it very easy organizationally to give a lot of lip service to things like having the queer community deal with racism and classism and sexism and never ever really getting anything done ultimately,” she says. Tall, lithe, and fiercely intelligent, Alexander chooses her words carefully, as if she’s thought about these issues many times before. “You can’t really just set a policy to change things—if it were that easy, this would be a different world. So it was a lot of my discomfort and even rage, really, that fueled my desire to drop out of that particular way of doing things and try to find a different way.”

The frustration wasn’t mere bureaucratic stagnation. Now 35, Alexander was an undergraduate during the late ’80s/early ’90s, a time when gay and lesbian student groups actively enlisted young people into political processes as queer-activist groups lost momentum and members. “That was kind of the time when ACT UP and Queer Nation were beginning to kind of lose a lot of steam and a lot of power and turn on each other,” she says. “I don’t really know what happened in every chapter, but I was suddenly ready for these organizations and they were no longer really there.”

Alexander’s experience isn’t unique. In the course of speaking with six Kitties similar themes emerged from each one’s personal narrative. Whether it was tiring of the repetitive nature of activist politics or an art scene that wasn’t very gay-oriented, each of the men and women interviewed realized that something needed to bring their political life and their creative life closer together.

Local performer Grady Challis spent a year in Washington, D.C., co-chairing a national transgender conference, and he just became tired of being mad all the time. “That was the first time that I ran into a few trans performers, but—and I feel horrible saying this—they were so awful,” he says over a beer at a lower Charles Village leather bar. “This was a very youthful and very angry space, and it just sort of sucked me out of it. I didn’t feel like there was a space for something that wasn’t angry. Not that there’s nothing to be angry about, but after a while I just don’t want to kick and scream anymore.”

Local filmmaker, musician, and Kitty Catherine Pancake experienced this shift from the art side. She moved to Baltimore in the early 1990s and involved herself with experimental music and underground culture, a world that was and is predominantly heterosexual and male.

“I wouldn’t even try to explain what I was doing at the Red Room,” she says. “Some people [in the gay community] had some concept of it, but in terms of what I was trying to accomplish in improvised music and what that meant to me personally, that sense of liberation, there was really no discussion about that. Two totally different worlds—but I always wanted to bring them together. I wanted to find a way to bring them together. And many women and much of the gay world are really put off by underground culture and threatened by it. They’re trying their best just to survive, they don’t necessarily want to be shown something disturbing. They think that their life is disturbing.”

It’s a testament to the founding spirit of the Kitty Club that its organizers haven’t turned their backs on their personal histories but challenged themselves to rekindle the visceral energy and creative floods of their 20s through different means. Giving a synopsis of what goes on at a Kitty Club event is virtually impossible without going through each and every performance, which wildly range in subjects, medium, and tone—from Montreal’s Lesbians on Ecstasy’s spazztastic danced-up versions of standard lesbian anthems and comedian Kelli Dunham’s stand-up to Wednesday Matinée debuting her queered-up Tin Pan Alley songs and Challis’ Greetings From Trannyland slide performances. About the only thread running through its three-year history is a blithely anarchistic spirit that doesn’t believe that anything is too sacred for spirited ridicule.

It’s a considerable turn away from the sober identity-based thinking that dominates minority politics. Andrade was involved with very mainstream queer and LGBT activism during the 1990s, the coordinator of Colorado Anti-Violence Program, the first gay and lesbian organization to receive federal victim’s-assistance funds. “It’s almost as if once you kind of start to be seasoned and reach your late 20s and early 30s and it’s almost as if there’s a choice,” she says. “Either grow up and become a gay person who donates activism or donates gay money to gay causes and do [Human Rights Campaign], or even [National Gay and Lesbian Task Force], or . . . big question mark.”

 

That big question mark is exactly what the Kitty Club wants to answer. “There’s got to be more to life than going to [Human Rights Campaign], [National Gay and Lesbian Task Force ], Pride of Maryland—all of which are absolutely laudable experiences,” Andrade says. “But there wasn’t an alternative to that. We bonded over this experience of knowing we wanted something that was about queer activism and social justice and also art and creative energy. My experience in the capital-L Lesbian community, when there’s art that is influenced by or projected through activism, it’s spoken word and spoken word and maybe some more spoken word. And when I go to avant-garde or performance art, there are no dykes. So we . . . want to set a queer aesthetic, and not have it be identity-based, and that’s a challenge. Because if you do something queer, is it going to read as capital-L lesbian, womyn with a y?”

That Andrade self-consciously recognizes this reality says as much about her as it does about what she envisions the Kitty Club can do. Spend one second in conversation with Andrade, Pancake, Alexander, or Challis and you immediately recognize charismatically self-confident and articulate adults. These are college-educated people rooted with a decade or more of highly specialized accomplishments, comfortable with who they are and what they want to do. And not every queer—not every person—has reached such a level of interpersonal security.

“The label thing, that’s a totally white phenomenon,” says Julie Christopher, a biracial lesbian who performs with her trans-identified husband, Jay Brooks, as Jay and Julie. “You will not go into a black club or a roomful of black women or men and start talking about trans identity or hormones or surgery—all these issues that are coming to the forefront of the queer community. Black people don’t like making it obvious that they’re putting out that much effort.”

“And she doesn’t mind a sweeping generalization,” Brooks immediately chimes in, laughing. “We will speak for people.”

Sitting in their Charles Village apartment, Brooks and Christopher bat ideas at one another in playful inquisition, cutting serious questions of each other with belly-laugh quips. Married last year, Christopher and Brooks report that they, as lesbians of color, have been feeling alienated from both their lesbian and black communities since they began their relationship—identifying as transgendered being read as too pretentious or white to blacks, and willingly entering a traditional male-female dyad as retrogressive to lesbians. Even so, they both acknowledge the welcoming power of the Kitty Club’s label-dismantling efforts, and want to see more people of color in its predominantly white audience to better reflect Baltimore’s blackness.

But it’s a hard sell. “I’ve tried to bring a couple of my black friends to the Charm City Kitty Club events,” Christopher says. “And not black as in I went to the Ivy League and grew up in all-white neighborhoods, but actually black from black areas of Baltimore. And they left, they were just not able to get into it. And when I asked, ‘Why couldn’t you even make it through the whole show?,’ I heard, ‘It’s just too in-your-face.’

“The silliness and the unguarded exposure that’s become the hallmark of the Kitty Club, that level of trust to perfect strangers, that level of complete lack of self-protection,” she continues. “I don’t think that a lot of people of color feel that safe that they’re able to fully get involved with that kind of exposure like that. There’s less of that I trust the whole world, I trust that everybody has what’s right for me in mind, so I’m going to put myself out there, expose myself, and expect that it’s going to be well-received and I’m going be well-treated.”

That’s going to be the biggest challenge the Kitty Club faces: overcoming the doubled-bladed burden of identity politics. “I really hate to say it because I sound like a 22-year-old, but I don’t believe in the binary gender system, in that I don’t believe that we’ve got to be so freaking uptight about it,” Challis says. “On one hand, I don’t want to get pigeonholed and only have to do trans stuff for the rest of my life. But at the same time, I think the basics of everything I end up writing about are really parallel feelings for anybody that’s queer or gay-identified or not—worrying about your body or your acceptance or your family. I talk about having my chest surgery, and then waking up and looking down and thinking, Oh my god, when did I get a pot belly? I spent $7,500 for really good view of my pot belly. I think everybody worries about where they will or won’t fit in at some point, and my spin on it is having these experiences because I’m trans.”

And the current Kitties remain undaunted in their efforts to dismantle queer as often as possible, and not just onstage. Andrade remembers being asked by a gay newspaper if only lesbian performers were going to be onstage. “I said, ‘No, queers are going to be onstage,’” she recalls. “‘There are some lesbians who are not queer who are onstage, and there are some heterosexuals who are queer as hell who are onstage.’ And I happen to know some queer breeders—I guess I can’t even call heterosexuals breeders anymore, can I?”

“There are some queer breeders,” Alexander confirms.

“That’s right, God bless those three people,” Andrade continues. “And, honestly, I was having so much fun yesterday. I was Googling all these different definitions of queer. My favorite one is ‘slightly nauseous,’ which is now what I’m going to go for—slightly nauseating.”

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