What do Rocky Horror, Hulk Hogan, and consent culture have in common? That would be the fierce, funny, and bi activist and dancer Bitsy la Bourbon. A trailblazer in melding the worlds of burlesque and survivorship, la Bourbon is the brain behind the wildly successful Los Angeles show Cabaret Consensual, a recurring vaudeville-style outing with an emphasis on teaching and exploring enthusiastic consent and eradicating rape culture.
Recently I spoke with the More Than No founder about her favorite dance numbers (they may — nay, will — surprise you), what it’s like to get shadowbanned, and how she found her call to action — which now includes helming survivors’ retreats for bi sex workers — and much more.
JENNIE ROBERSON: How did you come to identify as bi or queer?
Bitsy la Bourbon: I came out specifically as bisexual when I was 13. It was the ‘90s [laughs], and I came out kind of matter-of-factly to my dad.
I don’t feel like I have those stories of like, “Oh my gosh, I have crushes on this type of person, this type of person, whatever.” It was more just I kind of knew. Although I guess I had a crush on T-Boz from TLC.
I had a crush on Chili from TLC!
BLB: Oh my God, that’s so funny. Yeah, I feel like T-Boz was a better choice [for me.] I also, when I was little, really liked Hulk Hogan. It’s like, wow, that’s a really extreme crush to have!
But I wasn’t super into crushes. You know how people have little boyfriends, girlfriends, [or] whatever? I didn’t really do that as a kid, but I somehow just knew. I can’t remember where I heard the word [bisexual,] but I told my dad first, and I was very nervous to tell him. But he was really sweet about it. We were raised Catholic, and both of my parents ended up not making us continue to go to Catholic Mass [laughs] because of my queerness. My mom still is religious, but they were like, “Yeah, this is not gonna be great for you to keep going.” So we didn’t.
You sort of discovered a “Get-Out-of-Mass Free” card.
BLB: I know! Yeah, it was great!
What has your experience been like being out as a bi artist and activist?
BLB: I think it’s been a little difficult to find footing as a performance artist. People see me as being in between lesbian and straight, which is of course not how I see myself. It would be nice if it didn’t matter, but there is definitely performance art that is very geared towards queer people, and then performance art very geared towards straight people. So finding a middle ground has always been a bit interesting and a little difficult.
But I do think that’s one of the reasons that vaudeville-style cabaret is a great place to be when you’re bi, because there are all different kinds of art, and I feel like that is conducive to bisexuals and the bi+ community.
How do you see yourself as an educator, activist, and performer, and how does being bi fold into that?
BLB: So my nonprofit, More Than No, is specifically for trauma survivors, sexual assault survivors. And on top of that, it’s also just about discussing consent. Roughly 1 in 2 bi or bi+ people — that includes anyone who identifies as pansexual or queer, or even people that might say “heteroflexible” or whatnot — are more likely to be sexually assaulted. When I started my nonprofit, I didn’t know I was specifically catering to my own community. [laughs] But you can see the response we get, and the people that come to the shows, the people that are most involved — and are often trauma survivors — are the bi and bi+ and queer community.
So that’s been really awful to see that reality, that we are such a target. I think a huge part of that is we are seen as the “party girls” or the “party boys” or the “party people”, because we’re “flip-floppy" and "we don’t choose”, and we’re kind of a “party trick” kind of thing. So I think that leads to a stigma of us being more sexualized against our consent.
Yeah, I think the fetishization feeds into the dehumanization that can lead to that kind of assault.
BLB: Yeah, exactly.
So adding in my art and performance art is really great for me because I always thought of performance art as very healing and very cathartic. And on top of it, to give people a space like a cabaret that we do to talk about consent and to explore trauma — not necessarily with their words, but with their bodies... explore overcoming trauma and really taking back their space and taking back their body, is really invaluable to a lot of peoples’ growth and healing.
Anything about yourself that you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?
BLB: Ooh, that’s a good one! That I want people to know?
I’m super-duper into herbs. Not marijuana, unfortunately; I think it’s fine, I’m not against it. But I’m super dorky about herbal supplements and vitamins, magnesium and cleanses, things like that. I’ve become the most Southern California person. But I’ve got probably three hundred bottles at my house of different herbal supplements for different ailments.
Wow, that’s impressive!
BLB: Maybe not three hundred. Maybe a hundred. It’s a lot. Like, a ridiculous amount. But I haven’t been sick for a year and a half, so it seems to be working.
How did you yourself get into performing burlesque?
BLB: So I, like many burlesque dancers, started in the Rocky Horror Picture Show [midnight screenings] way back in the day when I was 18. So the first time I did burlesque was actually [as] a performer in Rocky Horror. I kept doing Rocky Horror; we would have three shows and stuff like that. The person in the shadow cast that dances to the lips in the very beginning of the movie is Trixie, so I was Trixie a lot of the time.
So I got my feet wet with that. And then I was like, “Ooh, this is really fun.” It felt really good to be naked on stage. I don’t think I knew I was reclaiming my body in front of people, but that is exactly what I was doing. I was like, “Why does this feel so good? I love it so much.”
So I kept going. I’ve stripped before in regular clubs. But I’ve gone in and out of regular burlesque performance and done more performance art pieces, and ended up going to UCLA for theatre. A lot of dramatic, modern dance and burlesque was done there, surprisingly, because UCLA is pretty progressive.
Right. Some combination of Twyla Tharp and Dr. Frank-N-Furter was in order, I’m sure.
BLB: Exactly, exactly!
Speaking of which: Do you have a few favorite characters, personalities, or songs with which you love to perform burlesque?
BLB: The one I still do and love to do is — well, actually, technically I only did it twice, but I’m like, “Ugh, when can I do it again?” — I do a Macaulay Culkin act to “How Does It Feel?” By D’Angelo. But as Kevin from Home Alone. And I end up sitting in pizza. There’s this whole snow situation, and then I have a light-up hat and there’s snow, and I’m stripping out of big flannel when he’s all dressed up for the snow. And then I end up getting a pizza, and then sitting in the pizza.
“A lovely cheese pizza, just for …” your butt!
BLB: A lovely cheese pizza, just for my butt and my face.
And then I have this weird, bloody act that I do — not real blood, corn syrup blood — that I do to “Possum Kingdom” by the Toadies. I’ve done it in a couple different ways, but my favorite way to do it was with a — spoiler alert — diva cup at the end, and I would drink the blood out of the diva cup. But it’s so funny, because straight people were just like [screams] And then all the queers were like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool!” [Laughs]
Tell me a little bit more about More Than No was founded.
BLB: So it was kind of founded out of a frustration.
I was a commercial actor and dancer for a couple years, and I wasn’t doing bad. But a lot of stuff — and this was pre-Trump — a lot of stuff kept surfacing in the media that made me really upset about sexual assault. There were specific sexual assaults [covered] that, for one reason or another, were really sticking out to me in horror, and related to my own trauma. There was one day where I was like, literally, “I have to do a thing for this. I’m not a police officer, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not people that make laws … I am an artist, and I can help people see things differently with things that I make. That’s my power.” I was like, “Okay. I’m gonna take all this dance-y, act-y energy I have, and I’m gonna make something that discusses consent. And that talks about sexual trauma and about how to heal from it.”
So I think the first thing I made was a very short, very tiny, not-amazing short documentary that discusses why sexual assault wasn’t a topic people could handle, the shame around it, and the fact that even news and media outlets didn’t know how to talk about it. They would all say the wrong words and victim-blame. And then afterward, I started making fake PSAs that were humorous, kind of in a Samantha Bee, tongue-in-cheek style. [They] were pretty dark for someone who’s maybe never been assaulted or even thought about assault, but for anyone that has ever been traumatized, they’re the best thing ever because they’re a release. That weird, sad relief of, “Oh, God, I’m not the only one.” So I made a couple of those.
And then I got the idea for one of the burlesque pieces I do that is about sexual trauma, and I got the idea for the show, Cabaret Consensual.
Yeah, tell me about Cabaret Consensual.
BLB: So it is a cabaret vaudeville-style show, meaning it’s not just burlesque. It’s burlesque, it’s someone on a xylophone, it’s a sword-swallower, it’s a stand-up comic, it’s a musician. It’s anyone that wants to bring their act up on stage. But the catch is they have to find a way to relate it to consent and/or body positivity, and it can also relate to survivorhood.
The one thing I ask people before [performing in] the show is to not recount their trauma. So basically it is a very uplifting space where people come and celebrate their survivorship and their body, and come and celebrate that they are still here and still happy and alive and doing well.
So it ends up being a night of a lot of bisexual people, because unfortunately a lot of bi people are trauma survivors. So it’s actually kind of by accident become a pretty bisexual, queer show because of the nature of the show itself.
It sounds dark, but it’s really fun. It’s really uplifting because none of us are being sad about what’s happened to us; we’re just gathering and holding space for each other, celebrating each other’s bodies and minds, and the fact that we are all still here and doing well.
You’ve recently dealt with More Than No getting shadowbanned on social media. How does that feel for you as a sex-positive activist?
BLB: It’s like someone’s punctured an artery. Or letting the air out of your sails.
We had such good reach for such a long time — we have over 12,000 followers on Instagram and over 17,000 followers on Facebook — and now our numbers aren’t growing at all. It’s very clearly because we are sex-positive, we are body-positive and sex-worker positive, so we accept and appreciate sex workers of all kinds. And Instagram does not even like nipples. [Laughs]
So it has really stunted our growth. And they can say that it’s because of nipples or sex, or whatever. But a lot of bisexual people’s culture does have to do with sex. A lot of sex workers are bisexual. A lot of artists are fluid, and do artwork that often revolves around their sexuality because they’re not straight people; they don’t have their sexuality hand-fed to them on every ABC and CBS show. They have to figure it out. And art is our way to figure it out.
So really, honestly, by shadowbanning communities like ours, they’re actually specifically targeting queer people. And not just bisexuals, but also gay people, and trans* people. Anyone that’s not a straight person is being targeted through shadowbanning.
But of course, Instagram thinks they’re not targeting, because it’s just: “Oh, we don’t allow it.” Yes, but that is actually part of our culture. It might not be part of their culture, but it is actually a huge part of our culture and what we literally have to do in order to maintain our healthy sexuality, or else we’ll go into a downward spiral of sexual shame.
So to me, it feels like a deliberate[ly] biphobic, homophobic, transphobic action that they cut us off like that.
What goes into creating an atmosphere where enthusiastic consent is the norm?
BLB: A huge part of it is — and I think a lot of people think this would be nerdy — presenting people with a place where consent is the sexy norm. I know that some people are like, “Consent shouldn’t be sexy; consent should be mandatory.” And I get that! But also: making things sexy has never hurt anyone. [Laughs] It’s never a bad idea in adult situations to make consent sexy. Especially when you’re talking about a show.
One of the ways Cabaret Consensual has worked is because we create a very sexy but approachable atmosphere. We lay on the sexiness, for sure, but we also lay on the fun. We’re very fun, very light-hearted. Even after the most sultry, sexual situation on stage, I will pop up and make a very Alice Pieszecki-style joke, just to calm the room down and get us all on the same page. Because if the whole show was just dripping with sex, it would be a little verbose and a little overwhelming, and probably for people that came who were trauma survivors having a hard time, it would be a little much. But if you have a good balance between heavy sexual and then fun and light and maybe even funny [elements], and then sometimes even nerdy [elements] — we’ve sometimes gotten very nerdy onstage, introducing historical facts — having a nice mix of all those feelings really helps people understand it’s a safer space or an aware space for them to be.
Also [it works] just to talk about the different types of consent. And not even really to talk about them, but to make an example of them. So at the beginning of the show, a lot of times people will want to take pictures. And on the microphone, I’ll say: “Remember, there’s no pictures [taken] here by audience members. There’s pictures from photographers. Can I have the photographers raise their hands?” And whoever’s taking photographs or film will raise their hands. People don’t realize it, but... when you’re taking a photo of performers without their consent, that’s a very simple consent violation that happens all the time.
Then when we do the raffle, I make a lot of the topics on raffle about consent, and I’ll bring in different elements of consent. Like someone will be holding the raffle box full of tickets, and I’ll be like, “Katie, can I take a ticket?” And she’ll be like: “Yes.” And we’ll make a little joke about it. It’s funny and silly, but people are getting the idea: “Oh yeah, maybe I should ask before I touch someone,” or yada, yada. So doing even the smallest examples of showing consent really do stick with people.
Are there any Cabaret Consensual acts coming up we can go see?
BLB: We have a date for the next Cabaret Consensual [show] in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 4th at Smith’s Olde Bar.
You recently ran a survivors’ retreat. How did you come up with that idea, what was that experience like?
BLB: The retreat we did last time was specifically for the queer community. The reason I wanted to do it was because I had been to one before that had its benefits, but was not geared towards the queer community, and was not sex-worker friendly.
I’d always wanted to create one because they’re desperately needed. And I wanted to create an affordable one, because the ones that exist mostly are thousands of dollars per day. I wanted to create one for queer people, and then also could be for sex workers, because those are two minorities that really need extra help. I wanted it to be affordable and intersectional. We had all bi+ people [attend.] Everyone that signed up was bi+. We had bi, pansexual, queer [people.] And then we did have some sex workers.
It was amazing. It was run by myself and Dr. Karen McDowell, who is a queer and sex worker-friendly therapist and doctor working out of Denton, Texas. She’s incredible and has worked with people who experienced trauma for a long time. And so she, for three days, was able to sit us down and break down what happens in the brain and the body after trauma and also during trauma. So it was actually a really great science lesson. Which was awesome, because [with retreats] you think of going to therapy and whatever — I’m sure a lot of the people thought it was gonna be a lot more woo-woo and a lot more feelings and stuff, and [McDowell] was like: “I”m a doctor, and this is what’s happening to your brain.” It was actually so helpful for us to see like, “Oh, this is real, I’m not crazy. PTSD is a thing, and this is how it actually works when you break it down.”
I feel like a lot of people think sex workers and especially people who are maybe uneducated wouldn’t appreciate that [approach,] and that’s not the truth. Having that [scientifically] broken down for all of us — some of us who were college-educated, some of us who weren’t — was absolutely incredible and invaluable to understand. Because it takes the fear out of it. “This is your brain, and it’s working differently than it used to before, and that’s okay, you just need to understand how and why.” And you don’t have to be an actual doctor to understand it; you just have to have a doctor explain it to you.
So that was incredible, and is something I really want to give other people, and more queer people.
Do you have any more retreats coming up in the future?
BLB: So we’re gonna have our next retreat in the fall, probably September [or] beginning of October 2020. It’s gonna be in Southern California, and this one’s specifically going to be for sex workers.
More often than not, sex workers are bisexual/queer partly because of their jobs; sometimes they might not even truly know if they are, or they at least experience the same stigmas of being bisexual because they are for work. So we will definitely be catering towards the bisexual community. Dr. Karen McDowell is coming out again. We’re hoping to add one more day, and possibly have more survivors this time than we did in our pilot program. So we’re really excited.
“More Than No” recently broke the news it is a recipient this grant cycle with the Effing Foundation for Sex-Positivity. What does that mean for a nonprofit like your own?
BLB: It means we get to have a retreat for bisexuals and sex workers and a lot of other minorities. We’ve got two slots for people of color that will be paid for; they won’t have to pay for their retreat spot because of the Effing Foundation.
We’ve actually been denied grants before because of our sex-positivity. Of course, they never say that, but you can look at the things that they fund; they’re not burlesque dancers and they’re not strippers and they’re not verbose bisexuals like myself. ‘Cause I can write a helluva grant. [Laughs] But the Effing Foundation is awesome because obviously, as the title says, it’s about sex and about sex-positivity. This is the second time we’ve gotten a grant from them, and we’re really excited and proud that they’re able to help us continue our work.
Finally: Do you have any advice for those who are newly identifying as bi or queer, and/or any advice you wish you could have given the younger version of yourself before you came out?
BLB: Find real bisexual and real queer books, movies, and porn. [Laughs] Because there wasn’t enough when I was [growing up], and there’s so much more now. There’s so much more to read and see and participate in that can help you know yourself just by seeing someone who’s more like you, and has similar desires and lifestyle you might want to have.
I think what was hard for me as a young, queer person was there were no bi examples — except for Prince, but he was super-rich and a black man. So I don’t know; I was like, “That’s the only one I know.” Now there are so many [examples], just through Instagram and Twitter and all of that. So find bi art, and immerse yourself in it.