My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C.
by Craig Seymour
Published by Atria Books (reprint edition)
Published August 4, 2009
256 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
August 5, 2017
I’m not sure why it took me so long after buying it to take the 2008 All I Could Bare off the shelf. When finally I did, I found that had nothing about what I expected and wanted to read about—closeted George W. Bush regime patrons of the southeastern D.C. strip clubs—but was a fairly charming memoir, at least until the “last hurrah” of the pink zone, bulldozed for Nationals Park.
Moreover, it provided an ethnography lite account by a participant observer of the male strip clubs back in a day when patrons were not just allowed but encouraged to grope the crotches of the performers.
Growing up in D.C., a very light-skinned and unself-confident African American, Seymour (born in 1968) was astonishingly late in having any sexual experience during his teens. De facto, he married the first man with whom he had sex, Seth, and they remained together for seven years until Seymour sort of had sex with a man in a bathhouse under the guise of teaching him how to use a “female condom” (that is, finger-fucking through latex).
Craig had persuaded Seth to accompany him in his first visit to a strip club, where he cupped the testicles of his idol (as someone who projected enjoying being penetrated) porn star Joey Stefano (1968–94) at La Cage aux Folles in 1990. Craig was thrilled by that and fascinated by the spectacle of male strippers and their male admirers. A graduate student in American Studies at the University of Maryland (about 14 miles away), he began interviewing strippers for his M.A. thesis.
He was sort of dared to become more of a participant—that is, to go up on the bar, strip, and be pawed. He had no illusions about having any dancing talent but craved being considered attractive after a lifetime of doubting he was. It is clear to me, though perhaps not to him, that in addition to an intriguing look (most everyone guessed he was Latino) it was his BBC that drew gropers. The money, mostly tips put in his tube socks, became his only source of income (he stopped being a teaching assistant at UMD). Getting money for flaunting his body and erect penis was validation of being desirable, but he increasingly did it for what he considered “easy money.”
Seth was uneasy, but he also enjoyed an enhanced standard of living while pursuing his own graduate studies at UMD.
Craig talked to regular patrons. The most extensive portrait of a consumer is Dave, who had been in a monogamous relationship with a woman for 21 years. When she left him, he started patronizing strip clubs, where he could fondle the genitals of attractive young men. With great patience, he even managed a relationship of sorts with a favorite.
Many of the other dancers considered themselves “gay for pay,” straight by preference. (They viewed female audiences as more rapacious and less generous with tips.) One construction worker who had been teased as a “pretty boy,” Jake told Craig:
I’m straight, but I’ll say I’m bi because the customers like to think there’s a chance. And in a way I am, because there’s no way I could get up on the bar like that and let hundreds of men touch me if I wasn’t. I mean, it’s a sexual act because people are are stroking me. It’s not oral or anal, but still it’s sexual. So basically, I guess I’m bisexual although I’ve never done it with a guy and don’t think I would.
Others went further for pay. I think Seymour overgeneralizes his own craving for validation as desirable, though I don’t think that is an uncommon component of stripper motivation.
He burned out from heavy scheduling in multiple clubs and the permissive legal environment suddenly changed (after Mayor Marion Barry was busted for crack usage). Customers could no longer touch the genitals of the “dancers,” and the performers could not even rub their own. Tips plummeted and attendance dropped precipitously.
The last third of the book is not about “my life in the strip clubs” but about Seymour becoming a music journalist. He makes a connection in asserting that the self-confidence that was enhanced by his success as a stripper helped him in asking questions of celebrities that most other journalists were reluctant to ask (“the ease I had asking celebrities extremely personal questions, especially those having to do with sex and relationships… [’cause] when someone is playing with your dick in public, it’s not only potentially awkward for you, the one being played with, it can also be weird for the person doing the playing, because he is exposing his desires so nakedly in front of other people.”).
I have no difficulty in believing that his experiences made him bolder and less inhibited, but his M.A. research (his thesis, Desire and Dollar Bills: An Ethnography of a Gay Male Striptease Club in Washington, D.C., was filed in 1994) does not seem to have involved asking prying questions of either performers or patrons. He writes that many customers had “lives that had been full of secrets and compromise” but, other than Dave, does not provide details (offering none of the exposé I initially expected from the subtitle).
The charm of his self-portrait as a dancer who couldn’t dance and a sexual retard ebbs away into what seems like bragging about what a great interviewer of music stars. Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Mary J. Blige interviews are rehashed at length, but there is no mention of his failure to get an answer about his sexual orientation from Luther Vandross, who became the topic of Seymour’s 2005 UMD Ph.D. dissertation, Searching’ for Luther Vandross: The Politics and Performance of Studying an African-American Icon and first book, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross (2005).
Though I’d have liked more ethnography and less memoir, I came away still charmed by Seymour’s earnest account of his positive experiences as a sex object (back in the first Bush’s presidency, ethnography can quickly become history, and the anything-goes scene was already history when Seymour’s M.A. thesis was filed in 1994).
©2017, Stephen O. Murray