On Owning My Shit and Quitting Burlesque (CW: SA)

I’ve been involved in burlesque since March 19, 2010. I’ve been a stage hand, backdoor bouncer, stage manager, performer (solo & group), MC, coach, and producer. Anyone who has done the math knows that the ROI is low in burlesque. The same people who have done that math also know that we don’t care about the money (that much). Sure, we want to see a financial return when we pursue ambitious things like producing a show in a strange city. However, I’m often happy to perform a local gig for a payout that is < the cost of my costume. Why? I love the ability to create art from start to finish without anyone standing over my shoulders telling me how to express myself. I think that’s why a lot of people love the burlesque scene, the autonomy to create one’s own vision without governance. I’ve asked burlesquers if they feel there should be a governing body in the world of burlesque. No matter how I ask that question, the answer is always a clear NO! As artists, we wish to keep that creative autonomy. I agree with that. However, whether we want to or not, producers end up being the governors of our shows. This tends to manifest as performer A coming to a producer and stating that they take issue with performer B. The producer is then left with choices as to how they’ll handle said issue. The list of potential responses can be as long as the issue is complex. There’s no hard/fast set of rules in such a case. I’m using the expression “take issue” because I’m not talking about crimes. I’m not talking about sexual assault. I’m just talking about ruffled feathers. More than once, a performer has approached a producer about firing a crew member because that performer and that crew member had a Facebook disagreement. Yep, a goddamned Facebook fight. If they can’t figure out basic conflict resolution, it’s not the place of the producer(s) to act as an older sibling on the playground of social media. As a producer, it’s not on me to resolve your conflict. However, if you’ve made an attempt at conflict resolution and I can speak above board with full disclosure about why performer A doesn’t wish to involve themselves with performer B then I’m happy to land on a decision (even if it must be punitive). Whatever decision I make as a producer will involve open honest communication with all parties involved. Even when the issue is more significant than just a disagreement between performers.

Humans all fuck up from time to time. I’ve certainly made mistakes when interacting with other performers. However, I always own my shit.  I will forever be grateful to [redacted] who initiated a clearing conversation with me after we had a bad miscommunication. There’s no need to retell the story. But, as 2019 began, they had made a resolution to resolve past conflict. They came to me with the details of what had been bothering them and how I’d fucked up. We had a sit down via Facetime and I listened. By the time they were done, I was overwhelmed because I had no clue that our interaction had hurt them so much. I apologized. I made it clear that I understood why I was apologizing (instead of just seeking forgiveness). I spoke to how I would do better going forward. We mended our relationship and that may never have happened were it not for them initiating the conversation. I can only own my shit if I know what shit is to be owned.

This was me screaming into the void of #Twitter as I worked through my shit.

I’ve practiced anger management since 1999 when I made a conscious decision to let go of anger and do better. I use the word practice because I still fuck up at times and the only way for me to do better beyond that fuck up is to own my shit. However, I can’t respond to a punitive reaction to an unexplained offense. Like, I can’t apologize if I don’t know what I did. Imagine getting fired* from a gig you’d been discussing for a year and then being denied an explanation of what you actually did.

Before I invite you to read on, I want to address the phenomena of an offender “not knowing” what they did or how they violated. I’ve heard stories of people in the burlesque scene being cancelled and, let them tell it, they had no idea what they’d done. As details unfolded it became clear that you can’t NOT know that being naked when models arrive at your studio for a photoshoot is a violation. Come on, Bruh! As details (of another case) unfolded it became clear that you can’t NOT know that pinning someone against a wall, kissing them, and reaching down their pants (all without consent) ON MULTIPLE OCCASIONS was a violation. Come on, Bruh! So, it’s easy to call bullshit when some offenders claim they have no idea what an accusation is about. Sometimes, encounters aren’t that flagrant and one person may not realize they’ve created an uncomfortable space for another person. (Much like the aforementioned clearing conversation.) Sometimes we don’t know when we’ve harmed others, when that happens we need conversations, not cancellations.

The following exchange is a big part of why I quit burlesque.

On Aug 18, 2019, at 16:28, HBF wrote:

Hi Jet,

As planning has accelerated for the Humboldt Burlesque Festival for 2019, we have been discussing lineup options. At this point, we are moving in a different direction than originally thought. We appreciate your willingness to participate but will no longer need your attendance at this year’s festival, as a performer or a judge. Thank you for your consideration.

Warm regards,

Humboldt Burlesque Festival Board

On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 5:34 Jet Noir wrote:

Good Morning!

While I appreciate this advanced communication, I am curious as to why there’s been a shift. Basically, I’m asking if there was something that I did/didn’t do.

Was it my porn?

Was it something I posted on social media?

Was it just me?

I get it, it may just be (as you stated) that the board decided to go in another direction. I just want to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently upset anyone. We all work in the same circles and may end up sharing a backstage. So, I just want to make sure no one’s upset with me. Please advise.

Peace,

Jet Noir

On Aug 19, 2019, at 12:54, HBF wrote:

Hi Jet,

Thank you for reaching out. It was brought to our attention that there was an incident backstage at another venue involving you and another performer. That other performer then did not apply to our festival to avoid another interaction with you. 

HBF strives to create a safe, inclusive space for our performers and we respond to issues that could jeopardize that safe environment. We determined that the best course of action in this situation was to select a different guest judge and go without a second headliner. 

Thank you for your time,

HBF Board

On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 3:06 PM Jet Noir wrote:

Board,

Thank you so much for getting back to me. This creates a difficult situation. As a producer, I strive to create safer environments backstage. My immediate thought is that I get it. I’d do the same thing if I was producing this festival. 

However, this doesn’t really feel like a conversation. It just kinda feels like belief without vetting or due process. I’m aware that due process may not be a requirement for how the board makes decisions. No one owes me an explanation, I get that.

I assume this person wishes to remain anonymous, please let them know that I’d be open to a mediated conversation. I would be willing to pay for that mediator. I’m not looking to explain anything, I’m just trying to listen. I, legit, have no idea what happened, when it happened, or who feels this way about me. I want to be clear that I’m open to reaching a resolution instead of just being “cancelled” (which is what this feels like.)

I hope someone will give me a chance to listen to them. I just want to know what I did. Not looking to get re-cast or anything. Just trying to understand what’s being said about me. 

Jet Noir

On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 8:12 PM HBF wrote:

Hi, Jet – 

We understand that this seems like a harsh decision. We chose not to go through a vetting or due process for multiple reasons:

1. This was brought to our attention through a private communication with a Board member from the performer in question. We are not requiring that performer go through a specific process to make their concerns heard.  

2. Our decision was centered mainly after the realization this performer would be uncomfortable. There does not need to be a jury determination for a person to feel uncomfortable around another person. It was enough for us that there would be negative emotions surrounding our festival if all parties were participating. 

3. We felt that by privately communicating with you and severing the connection this year quietly, it was the best solution for all parties. Our intention was not to “cancel” you. We are not saying we never want you to attend HBF again. It is simply not the best direction for this year’s festival and we hope you understand that. 

We will communicate your willingness to mediate with the other performer. We feel that is the extent to which our participation would be appropriate. 

We appreciate your feedback,

Humboldt Burlesque Festival Board

***

Before I go any further, I want to address the aforementioned anonymous performer. On some level it brings me sadness you felt enough discomfort to not even attempt direct conflict resolution with me. (I’m saying that you made no attempt because I genuinely have no idea who you are or what this “incident” may be, like I can’t think of any backstage happening in ten years that hasn’t been resolved.) On some level this brings me anger because it feels like you just “went to management” and got me fired* (what did you think was going to happen) instead of even reaching out to me for a clearing conversation. I’m willing and eager to listen so that I can grow. I want to grow and do better. But, I have to know how I fucked up before I grow. None of that matters at this point. Peace and blessings to you. I hope that you’ll give me that chance to sit and listen to you at some point.

I’m frustrated with the HBF’s handling of the situation. This post is not intended to “call them out” because I expect no answer from them. As noted in our email exchange from above, it’s clear they’ve done all they’re going to do and telling me what I actually did isn’t on their list of priorities. No, this is not a call out. There are two points to this post.

1.) I want to share the effect this has had on my mental health and what this experience has done to my trust issues.

2.) I hope that no other producer handles any similar situation with disregard to what it creates for ALL parties involved. Don’t send anybody else through this madness of knowing they’ve been accused but not knowing what for.

I’m an educator and organizer in a few different sex positive communities. In those communities, we practice restorative justice. There’s that word again, practice. We don’t always get it right. But, one way that we try is by trying to get out in front of potential fuck ups. On the application to be a speaker for ConvergeCon, the following is noted.

“As conference producers, we must take any allegations of misconduct by our speakers seriously. If you were selected to be a presenter at Converge, and someone came forward with information about a consent violation they had experienced, do you have any procedures in place to address it? This could look like an accountability pod, a way for people to contact you directly or anonymously, or some other measures you have taken. For a really great example of this, feel free to check out the website of one of our previous speakers, Victor Salmon: https://goo.gl/pHtwTF” 

Take a look at my friend Victor’s website. I love all of that so much because it gives us a chance to own our shit and be held accountable to do better in the future. To inflict a punitive response (firing* me) without even explaining the misstep/offense doesn’t help me (or anyone) to do better. 

*-Full disclosure, we had no contract written or verbal that noted I’d been hired as one of their 2019 headliners. Therefore, they did not fire me and they were not in breach of contract. However, casual conversations had been happening between me and a board member since November 2018 specific to me being a headliner for 2019. When I use the word fired it’s just short hand, not literal.  

I’m a part of another sex positive group and the following is a requirement for being involved in that community. “In a community this large, it is inevitable that conflicts, misunderstandings, or hurt feelings happen. [Sex Positive Community] emphasizes and provides community support for clearing conversations and resolutions to enable us to continue to share space and participate in community despite tensions. In the event that tensions or conflicts arise, we provide both [support] at events and a [team for peer resolution] to assist you.”

^This. This is what I want to be common in burlesque. Humans will rub each other the wrong way. We need to acknowledge that and make room for conversation, not conflict avoidance.

I have no idea what I did, therefore I could end up doing it again. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine how many times similar situations have been handled in this “quiet” manner and how many people went on to fuck up again and again. Now, before anyone in burlesque reading this starts to shake their heads about “not my job” then whose job is it? Whose job is it to hold someone accountable for their actions, in a community? It’s the community’s job. If we’re going to call this a burlesque community, then we must uplift each other. Hold me accountable, help me do better. Encourage people to solve their own conflicts with eye contact and conversation more so than typing at each other in comment boxes or going to management. 

The greater challenge for me has been the not knowing what’s being said. So, I’ve scanned my brain for every fuck up since 2010 that could cause anyone to feel uncomfortable around me. All I had to go on were the key words incident, backstage, and venue. If I was unaware when the incident happened, that could mean every time I’ve been backstage at a burlesque show in ten years. In that time, I’ve come up with once that I’ve upset someone. So, this is me owning my shit and airing out my laundry. I had sex backstage once. Our play (kissing & rubbing) began in plain sight and then we disappeared into the restroom for other activities that require clothing removal. After that show, the producer reached out to me and we had a clearing conversation. They mentioned what I did, because someone else brought it to their attention, and I knew that I had fucked up. I understood why, we didn’t have the consent of our onlookers before our play began. They didn’t sign up to see that and I could understand how that would be upsetting to someone. I apologized to the producer, made it clear that I understood how I fucked up, and made efforts to do better. So, maybe that was the “incident” that got me fired* in 2019, the thing that happened in 2015 that I thought had been resolved? Maybe that was it, but I don’t fucking know! And that’s why I began to go a little crazy.

The email exchange left me shook because it pulls the thread on one of my greatest fears. As a Black man in America, one of my top three fears is being wrongfully convicted or falsely accused. Google Carolyn Bryant Donham if you don’t immediately understand why that’s a fear of mine. Read the novel “If He Hollers Let Him Go” by Chester Himes if you don’t immediately understand why that’s a fear of mine. Watch this performance where I try to explain why that’s a fear of mine.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the accusation of some “incident backstage” is false. I can’t say that because I have no idea what happened. (If it seems like I’ve mentioned that 10 times it’s because that’s the big issue here, I don’t fucking know. I’ll mention this 10 more times before the post concludes.) 

The not knowing sent me down a spiral of fear where I began to question what was being said, maybe it was false, was it going to get me killed because someone hearing their story decided to WhiteKnight the situation and come do me harm, I didn’t know. I began to lose sleep. I began to stare at walls in deep contemplation of my own fate. I began to go on walks for miles just to assuage my fears around potential harm that could come my way due to this mysterious allegation. I began to fear any unfamiliar face in a backstage/burlesque environment. Was it them? Did I upset that person who I don’t even remember meeting? I even went down the, surprisingly frequent, path of mistaken identity. As in, I’ll get a friend request from someone who swears we had a whole ass conversation in Kansas that one time. (I’ve never been to Kansas, not even on a layover.) Any Black burlesque performer will tell you that we often get mistaken for one another. So, yeah, I even questioned if that was the deal in this case. (Before you laugh at that, keep in mind that I’ve had people yell at me IRL because I didn’t accept their friend request. My reason for not accepting was that I didn’t know them and they got mad because THEY knew ME and not the other way round. Let that sink in.)

The nagging question I had was if anyone on the HBF board stopped to ask, on my behalf, “Hey! Did you attempt to resolve this incident with Jet after it happened and before you came to us?” Did anyone ask that? About a year back, a performer was getting dragged in a private FB group. I asked if anyone had talked to them about their transgression. No one had. I sent them a text, jumped on a call, and in 15 minutes they were made aware and they made the effort to make it right. None of that would have happened were it not for SOMEONE asking, “Hey! Did anyone talk to the source of all this?”

I want to circle back to the email exchange and address some text.

“We appreciate your willingness to participate but will no longer need your attendance at this year’s festival, as a performer or a judge.”

Note the use of the words participate and attendance. This makes the letter look like they’ve uninvited me when it was supposed to be a paid gig. They fired* me from a paid headlining spot in a festival. I’m not trying to go after them for money or anything. I was just annoyed at how laissez-faire they were about firing* me. A headliner gig ain’t easy to come by and I’ve worked for years to land such gigs.

“Thank you for reaching out. It was brought to our attention that there was an incident backstage at another venue involving you and another performer. That other performer then did not apply to our festival to avoid another interaction with you. HBF strives to create a safe, inclusive space for our performers and we respond to issues that could jeopardize that safe environment.”

Firing* your headliner on behalf of one potential applicant doesn’t feel like creating an inclusive space for your performers. It sounds like getting rid of a bad PR situation. Call it what it is.

“No one owes me an explanation, I get that.”

I want to address the word owe in case anyone reading this feels that I feel owed an explanation. Don’t nobody owe me shit. I just think it would be kind to tell people why you’re firing* them. Again, not owed, just kind.

“I’m not looking to explain anything, I’m just trying to listen. I, legit, have no idea what happened, when it happened, or who feels this way about me. I just want to know what I did. Just trying to understand what’s being said about me.” 

I did not think this was an unreasonable request. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t going to try to “well, actually” my way out of it. I was not seeking “proof” or any bullshit like that. I just wanted to listen.

“We are not requiring that performer go through a specific process to make their concerns heard.”  

Not what I was asking. I just wanted to hear what was being said about me.

“Our decision was centered mainly after the realization this performer would be uncomfortable. There does not need to be a jury determination for a person to feel uncomfortable around another person.

Circling back to my “I Am Not A Threat” performance, uncomfortable could come from many places. I’ve been described as intense and intimidating my whole life and it’s usually by people who never made an effort to talk to me. There’s prolly 20 people who are uncomfortable around me and I’ve never even met them. Also, my reference to due process wasn’t literal. I wasn’t suggesting a jury.

“We felt that by privately communicating with you and severing the connection this year quietly, it was the best solution for all parties.”

Bullshit. This was a PR move. Fuck your quiet. Fuck sweeping this under the rug. Fuck your “best solution for all parties”. When I was pacing around my apartment and crying at all of the fear this brought up for me, it didn’t feel like any sort of “best solution for all parties”.

I can’t begin to describe to you the spiral of fear that began when I was fired*. I don’t need to share every dismal thought here, just know that it had me all the way fucked up. Check on the strong Black men in your life, we carry loads heavier than most of y’all realize. August 21st was my 42nd birthday and I was dealing with some challenges. I had just lost a lot of money on my passion project burlesque show, The Black Manifest. I had just found out my position at work had been eliminated a few weeks prior. Then came this mysterious allegation. I decided to quit burlesque.

When I told a few colleagues, the responses were mixed. Some people gasped. Some seemed indifferent. Some people said some variation of, “Shit, I don’t blame you!” Most of them asked how they could support me. I told them that I planned on writing this post and I gave them all the same request. I wanted them to avoid respectability politics. People shouldn’t have to find me respectable in order to provide me with open honest communication.

Don’t be out there telling people, “Jet’s always been nice to me! He’s so respectful backstage.” Nah, don’t tell them that. I don’t need you to convince people that I’m nice. Instead, when you see anyone typing about me, ask them if they’ve actually talked to me. “Did anyone talk to Jet about this?” Because being conflict avoidant has caused harm to someone else’s mental health. 

After witnessing enough debates on similar subjects in the burlesque scene over the years, I know that if one festival will do this then every show has the potential to do it. Yeah, no thank you. I don’t wish to endure this fear/stress cocktail ever again. I decided that my last day in burlesque will be March 19, 2020, my 10 year burlesqui-versary.

Eleven days later…

…August 30th, 2019 happened. The progressive rock band TOOL released their first album of new material in 13 years, Fear Inoculum! At the time of this writing, I’ve listened to the entire album no less than 35 times. Listening to that album reminded me of unfinished or as yet unpursued burlesque ambitions. I started dancing again. I mean dancing through the aisles at the grocery store dancing. I began creating new choreography again. I mean “I’ll never be able to afford this elaborate group number in my head” choreography. I began my work/trade program with Shawl Anderson Dance Center (SADC). Then I began to consider how I’ve changed since 2010, both as a person and as a performer. For many years, I was afraid to call myself a dancer. Sure, I danced. But, I never felt like I was the “doing 8 hours of rehearsal for the big show” type dancer. I always felt more like the “pretty poses on beat” type dancer. It wasn’t until I fell in love with Jazz dance that I began a different kind of movement training. SADC feels like church to me these days! The dance sessions we have in the Sunday class fill my cup. My cup gets filled up with all of the beauty of expression that we share as a form of communication. If I’m cleaning a dance studio, dancing with a mop to Fear Inoculum on my AirPods, then my cup gets filled with the energy of all dancers who were there before me. If I’m dancing at the lake as my means of rehearsing in a large space, my cup is filled up by the potential I imagine for each act I’m creating. With that creative life breathed back into me, I started to ask myself some questions.

Questions I Asked In The Mirror

Why are you a burlesque performer? I need young Black men to see that it’s okay to get on stage and be a fucking weirdo wearing a Gumby costume. I need other Black men who fear self-expression because of the threat of toxic masculinity to see my CisHet ass out here wearing eyeliner and getting mani/pedis. I do this for every Black boy who was afraid to wear heels because he was already getting his ass kicked in the schoolyard. This is why I produced a show celebrating the full spectrum of Black masculinity. I need the world to see our range instead of only seeing what the media shows us. I need the world to know that we’re not a threat. So, I’ve made it a practice to get on those stages where there would otherwise be no representation of anyone like me. I’ll be a token if it keeps us from being erased.

Yeah, but what if you couldn’t? How bad would you want burlesque if someone/thing were actively blocking you from doing it? I would fight against and move forward. I use the hashtag #GetUp because that’s the only option if you get knocked down. The only fucking option is to get up.

So, yeah. I’m still here. Now that this post has stirred up some shit and highlighted practices that some wanted to handle quietly I’m sure I’ll deal with the fallout from this. Fuck it. What’s a career without a little controversy, right?

TL;DR

~More often than not, people want to do better. You have to allow the space for them to do that by (at the very least) telling them WTF they did.

~Encourage people to resolve their own “uncomfortableness” because #adulting .

~Before you consider a decision that is best for “all parties involved” make sure you’ve considered how your actions could potentially harm any one of the parties involved.

~I quit burlesque because mysterious allegations can get my Black ass killed. Anyone who thinks that’s an over reaction can take a seat and read several history books.

~Then, after about two weeks, I didn’t quit burlesque. Ten years in and I’m just getting started! I want to bring the practices of communities into the burlesque scene. I’ll keep on teaching the workshops on consent. I’ll continue leading discussions on being appropriate backstage. I’ll always be open to clearing conversations when they’re presented.

My motive for writing this was to discourage this sort of incomplete communication in the future. I wrote this to encourage a community to take care of each other, even when we fuck up. Don’t sweep transgressions under the rug. Resolve your own conflicts, bring a professional fighter with you if you’re afraid to talk to someone. Don’t tell people something was said about them without telling them WTF was said! If the result of this is that no future performer has to go through the madness of not knowing what’s being said about them (while knowing something is being said), then I’ll be grateful for that much.

Peace,

Jet Noir

ETA: p.s. Please read the partner piece found here.

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8 thoughts on “On Owning My Shit and Quitting Burlesque (CW: SA)

  1. Thank you for this deep post. I’m really sorry to hear about how this was handled. We all need to continue to do better.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Jet. I am sorry this situation happened. I am in awe of your process and how you’ve chosen to come through. You are divine! I thank for your vulnerability, transparency, honesty, and your art. Thank you

  3. Thank you so much for your honesty and bravery in talking about this. I’ve watched this sort of thing happen to others and been too afraid to speak out for fear I would be “canceled” next. I hope your words help create change in others. I know I personally can do better.

  4. Sorry this happened… This is a big part of what annoys me in the burlesque “community” … As fun and amazing as it can be.. It can also be pretty dang ugly and it can leave you feeling terrible. We also currently live in a culture full of cry babies and people with no backbones… Its silly and sad. Thanks for having the courage to write this article. The burlesque world lost a great performer.

  5. Pingback: Friday Tip | Oh, The Glamourous Life!

  6. Pingback: Opening the Door for (Burlesque) Conversations | Jet Noir Weekly

  7. I am not in your community and have never met you or seen you on stage, but am a sometime attendee to these events. After reading your well written and thoughtful post I had a couple of thoughts. First, what a disappointment this lack of process is to people, like yourself, that take the “community” aspect of something like this seriously, people that want to build a community, create a practice and actually strive to improve themselves. Small group dynamics are a piece of every work place and endeavor, and it seems like you take those dynamics and your part in them seriously. I found your thoughts on this inspiring and your attempts to work with HBF admirable. Second, there are many chicken shits in this world, but you, sir, certainly do not seem to be one of them.
    Keep doing you. The world needs your honesty and positive intention.

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