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Queer Pole: An Interview with Liz Kinnmark

By on March 27, 2018

As polers, we live and play inside a rather niche community. It can seem small at times, but there’s a huge amount of diversity within our world,, including a strong LGBTQ presence. Last year, I heard about the creation of an online group for LGBTQ polers, and I thought it was an awesome idea given that inclusivity is a self-proclaimed cornerstone of the pole community. I recently sat down with the group’s co-founder, Liz Kinnmark, to talk about the group and her experiences within the community.

Bad Kitty: Can you tell us a little more about the group and the Queer Pole movement?

Liz Kinnmark: Queer Pole is a private Facebook group that anyone in the pole community who is Queer and/or Questioning can join by reaching out to me or Iris Sparrow. Queer Pole had its first in-person meet-up last September at Pole Expo. Our next in-person event will be at this year’s International Pole Convention in Orlando, FL. There will be a showcase performance of all Queer Polers on Friday, June 1, 2018, from 9:30-10:30am on the Main Stage.

BK: How would you define queer? (Or, what is the commonly accepted definition of queer?)

LK: Oh boy. This is both the simplest question and the hardest one for me to answer. So, Queer is the “Q” at the end of LGBTQ. For a long time, queer was used as a derogatory term, but has since been reclaimed by many as a sort of umbrella term. It encompasses all types of gay-ness, non-binary gender-ness, and hopefully includes anyone who feels “other” than a 100%-male-or-female who is only attracted to those who are 100%-the-opposite-gender.

BK: What do you think about the pole industry’s tolerance for the queer community? What are we good at? Where do we need to improve?

LK: To me, this is the million-dollar question. I think the pole community is great at being incredibly open about sensuality, sexuality and body-positivity. But at the same time, not so great at being open and supportive of non-traditional gender roles, non-traditional expressions of sexuality, and non-traditional relationships. This definitely varies in different parts of the pole community and different parts of the country. But there is a somewhat cookie-cutter ideal of what “sexy” looks like. I think this is why groups like Dangerous Curves and Black Girls Pole have completely taken off and built such strong communities – to start to smash those standards. Because feeling beautiful and sexy in your own skin is not dependent on size, shape, color, gender, or any other standard that supposedly defines beauty.

BK: Why do you think it’s important for Queer Polers to have this space?

LK: Before I found pole, I was *so* disconnected from my own body and sexuality. I felt that I wasn’t ever going to look like society’s standard of beauty, and for that reason I had completely given up on even trying. But then, through a convoluted journey of discovering the Burning Man community in New York City, and then the aerial arts community, and finally trying pole classes, I found myself taking class from pole dancing instructors who were unlike anyone I’d ever met before. And suddenly it was like, WOW. Hold on. There are people like this out there? Very androgynous and very confident in just being themselves, without fitting into any kind of box. Their classes were a space where I finally felt at home and like I could let myself out. I started lifting weights and acting more confidently “masculine” in ways that I had always felt. I started caring a whole lot less whether or not I freaked other people out.

This is a journey that has taken me *years*. I started pole 7 years ago. To people who know me now, it’s inconceivable that I was once the shyest person in basically any room I walked into. My closest friends knew that I identified as androgynous and more masculine than feminine, but I would have absolutely died of embarrassment before talking about it publicly. The pole community finally gave me a safe space to explore that. And yet… only up to a certain point.

In 2014, I put together a competition piece called “The Strong Man.” It started as a joke – I’d gotten a lot of feedback at previous competitions that I didn’t look strong out there on stage. Strength moves were always my nemesis and I progressed slower than all the other students. So, for this piece, I decided to jump into my weakness and fake it ’til I made it. Dressing up like a circus strong man wielding a fake barbell, I flexed a bunch and did all the “strong-looking” things I could think of that were not the tricks I couldn’t pull off yet. And the amazing thing was… it worked. I owned it. I felt amazing. I started learning everything I could about the world of Drag Kings and performing other drag acts. I felt like I’d finally found a way to exist as my true self – not fully transitioning to “male” with surgery and hormones, but getting to visit that side of myself and show it to the rest of the world.

Liz as Strong Man at Pole Theatre USA. Photo by Nina Reed

Liz as The Strong Man at Pole Theatre USA. Photo by Nina Reed

 

Until, somewhere along the line, it started to get “too real.” In the beginning, it was fine, as an amateur comedy act. But the more I started really living in that gender-bending space, and talking about what it meant to me, the more support started to dry up. I started deeply feeling the gender divide that lives in the pole world, and especially the pole competition world. If you’re a male pole dancer, you dance this way. *Cue all the flags and Iron-Xs and warrior moves.* And if you’re a female pole dancer, you dance this way *Cue the fluidity and ballet and contemporary dance.* Do something else, and receive some surprisingly non-supportive feedback.

At first, I thought it was just me, as I was by no means competing flawless routines… But then I started hearing very similar stories from other people on both sides of the gender divide, getting knocked for essentially not fitting into the gender roles from the 1950s. There was one time that is burned into my memory when I was just straight-up told that my movement was completely not sexy. And another time where I was told I needed to put on makeup. And it was like this bubble, the pole bubble and family that had been my safe space for so long, just completely burst. It had taken me to a certain point of self-expression, but suddenly myself was too far, too weird, too much. Just like in the “real” world. It was very jarring and caused me to pull back and question a lot of things.

BK: How did you decide to create the group?

LK: Somewhere in that time of questioning everything, I had a very memorable conversation with my roommate. I was lamenting how I didn’t feel like I had role models I could look up to anymore. And he just looked at me and said, “Maybe it’s time that you have to step up and be your own role model.” It’s taken another couple of years, but I think I finally have found a place where I’m willing to own this. If it doesn’t exist yet, that means someone has to make it. I’m trying to create a safe, supportive space for others that feel the same way that I do. And the more conversations I’ve had, the more I’ve been surprised by how many people share the same frustrations and are totally on board to make this movement for queer inclusivity happen.

Last summer, Iris Sparrow and I were teaching at Sergia Louise Anderson’s Pole In The Wine Country Retreat in Sonoma County. We were chatting at dinner about how we had similar frustrations with how the pole world treats gender roles. It was *so* cathartic to have someone else to talk to, and not feel completely alone. Which led to the thought of, how many other people feel this way? And how can we have these supported conversations more often, when we don’t get to see each other in person? Iris had the idea for the Facebook group and went home and put it up, and we both started inviting people.

BK: What are some of the early reactions, positive or negative? Can you talk a little about the forum and what sort of things someone could expect from it?

LK: It grew really fast, with all kinds of unexpected people requesting to be a part of it. The first week we had the group up, so many different people shared their stories and struggles. And Iris and I kept messaging each other, “Is this really happening? Is it really possible that this much awesomeness is happening all at once?” It finally felt like some of the safety I used to feel in the pole community was restored.

My whole life it’s been very isolating to try and explain what my gender and sexuality is. I am legitimately scared that having these conversations and putting this side of me out publicly will keep me from getting jobs, from being a part of my community, from being accepted by my family, and from having intimate relationships. So, the Queer Pole community is really a whole lot less about pole, and a whole lot more about having a safe space with people with similar interests who also struggle with some pretty fundamental issues in a non-accepting society. The conversations that people have started are so incredible and so real – from people “coming out” for the first time, to people asking questions about how to navigate queerness and polyamory in their relationships. It has been incredibly inspiring and mind-blowing how open and vulnerable people are willing to be, when they finally have a place to let it out.

BK: What gap does this fill in the pole world?

LK: How is it possible, that as such an incredibly progressive community in so many other ways, that being inclusive of queerness and non-traditional gender roles has gotten left behind? I think the gaps we’re trying to fill are the in-between spaces between male and female, between gay and straight, and breaking down the idea that people are only one or the other. Whether or not you identify as some form of LGBTQ, everyone has some amount of both male and female characteristics in their personality. Dance is an incredible way to explore both of those sides of ourselves, and balance them within us, and rebalance those energies in our lives and relationships outside of the pole studio.

Photo by JM Warner Photography

Liz performing with a partner in the Poleluminati Valentine’s Day show, Memphis, TN. Photo by JM Warner Photography.

 

BK: Are Allies welcome, or is this a Queer-only space?

LK: We’ve described it as a group for people who are Queer and/or Questioning. To me, “Questioning” means Ally, but an ally who is willing to participate. In the same way that having people in a pole class who are not participating is discouraged, I would discourage people who are not willing to question their own gender and sexuality from joining. Having people in the room who are not participating can make everyone else feel judged. It makes it difficult for everyone else who is participating to fully explore and open up. So if you are in any way interested in learning more, please join, but please be willing to examine yourself and your own relationships. Just because you are participating and questioning, doesn’t mean that you are queer. I truly hate labels – to me queer means “the label that is not a label.” It’s a sort of broad category for people who accept the idea that gender can be fluid and is not limited to our genitalia.

BK: What role does empowerment play in the queer pole community?  Are the non-queer examples of sexual empowerment which we hear about so often in the pole community incorporated and adapted into the queer community? Are there other, queer-specific examples of sexual empowerment in the pole world that we should know about and follow?

In the non-queer pole world, I believe empowerment focuses on coming to love your body, to connect with it, to heal past pain through movement, and to awaken and channel your sexual energy in a healthy way.

In the queer pole world, I think we’re backing up a whole lot, and just trying to address and move past the fears of not being loved, accepted, or allowed to live as our true selves. The empowerment focuses on strength in numbers, and trusting that when we let ourselves “out,” we won’t be fundamentally rejected by the people around us. Society may not have caught up yet, but by having a safe space to begin to these conversations, we can become empowered enough to continue the conversations, educate, and lead out in the rest of the world.

BK: How can studios, competitions, and other pole-related businesses be more inclusive?

LK: This is the point where I start to feel a little like a fraud – I’m definitely not an All-Knowing Guru of Queerness with all the answers. Hopefully other people can jump in and comment with their own experiences, stories, and suggestions. I think we’re at a baby, fledgling point right now where even gathering together to have these conversations is breaking new ground. But based on my own journey, I would say the #1 thing is just to never make assumptions about someone’s gender and sexuality. Do not assume that the way someone presents themselves on the outside is how they feel on the inside. Educate yourself on the theory that gender is a spectrum between male and female and be aware that you don’t know how much of each quality any given person identifies with. Being in pole class and being on stage at a pole show or competition is a place where people are exploring their bodies, and perhaps facing this balance for the first time in their lives. Let people explore safely. Do not assume that all the women want to be ballerinas and all the men want to be warriors. Support students and performers in exploring all types of characters and movement and see where it takes them. It may end up surprising us all just how much beauty and strength every single person is capable of.

Thanks to Liz for sitting down to chat! You can catch the Queer Pole Showcase at International Pole Convention in Orlando, FL, on June 1, 2018, from 9:30-10:30am on the Main Stage. Performers include Liz (Bendy Beast) and Miss Mae, Shay Williamson, Kate E. Gaga, Lisa Michelle, Ashlee Della-Franca, Mrs. Fakenamington, Rida Strange, Mel Hyde, and Jessica Anne, with MC duties by Brian Wolf. If you live near Memphis, TN, you can also catch Liz in Poleluminati, a variety show that she produces a few times each year.

Photo by Mohammed Al-Taher.

Liz performing with a partner at the Poleluminati Valentine’s Day show. Photo by Mohammed Al-Taher.

 

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Danielle C.

Danielle C.

Creative entity, cat mom, dog auntie, consumer of too much sugar. Pole and lyra enthusiast, amateur foodie, local explorer. One half of Poleitical Clothing. Read my musings at www.poleitical.com.
Danielle C.

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