When did you know you identified as queer? How did you handle coming out?
Ashlee: I’ve know that I liked girls since I was about 5. The first person I wanted to kiss was a girl. I knew I liked boys too, but I didn’t have a reference point for what bisexuality was. I had no role models for what that looked like, and on the rare occasions it would come up on TV or in social conversations it was labeled as “confused” or “perverse.” Growing up, “gay” was always talked about negatively. It was a slur, a sin, something to be avoided at all costs.
I definitely felt confused when I hit puberty and realized that I still wanted to kiss boys and girls, because I didn’t know that it was okay to like both. In the small town I grew up in, being a gay woman was often equated with hatred of men, not with love for women. There were a few out lesbians that I knew of, but when they weren’t around, people would talk about how they just hated men and that’s the only reason they were with women.
I also struggled a lot with my feelings because I didn’t want to face rejection from my family or friends. I saw kids at school being bullied just for the suspicion of being gay, and I retreated inside myself. The possibility of being rejected and unwanted because of who I wanted to kiss was not something my heart could handle. It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle at age 25 that I really became comfortable embracing all of me.
Sean: My story is really different. I went to very Catholic schools growing up, and sex was demonized. I didn’t even know what “gay” was. When I was 13, my grandpa gave me a totally gender-neutral sex talk. He explained all about protection and safety but never said anything about the gender of “the person you’re with”. This was well before I even knew I was gay!
It was my mom that saw my search history and confronted me. She could tell that I was heading towards a life of being in the closet, and she just yanked me right out of it. She explained to me that “most boys don’t search for what you search for, they want to look at other things.” She explained that if those are the things I was interested in then I might be what people call “gay.” She said that there was nothing wrong with that, but that a lot of people don’t understand it. She was so accepting and matter-of-fact. I had it really good, but still it wasn’t perfect. My dad freaked out, was in denial, and I clung to my mama bear as she defended me.
Being in gymnastics, male gymnastics is hyper-masculine. Any sort of femininity was ridiculed and marked as weak. “Boys don’t put their hands on their hips.” “Boys don’t talk like that.” “Boys don’t hug.” I labeled myself as awkward and delicate because I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until much more recently I realized I’m not awkward or delicate, I’m just kind of gay! I guess my life shows what a transitionary period we’re in. I had it so easy compared to those before me, but we still have a long way to push for those that come after us.
Maggie: For me it really wasn’t a big thing coming out as bi, because my older sister is a lesbian, and when she came out it was not really a big deal in my family. I wasn’t really worried about how my family would react after that. I also have a younger brother who’s bi; out of four kids there’s only one straight one.
It was weird for me coming to terms with bisexuality because it was always presented as “oh, those people are confused,” or “you’re just doing it to get attention from guys,” that sort of thing. Because of that I didn’t really think of myself as bisexual for a long time, mostly because I didn’t really think bisexuality was real.
I also think that, going back to childhood, girls are allowed to have much more intimate relationships with each other. It’s totally normal to have girl crushes and spend all of your time with another girl, you can play with each other’s hair and hold hands and snuggle and no one thinks anything queer is going on. It’s a totally different standard for men and women. On the other side of that, because that sort of behavior is so normalized for women, it took me a really long time to figure out that I wanted more than what was “normal.”
Even nowadays, our culture really overlooks lesbian relationships. You’ll see in celebrity news that so-and-so was spotted with her “gal-pal” and they’re obviously a couple, but no one acknowledges that, they’re just “really close friends.” I didn’t really know anything was different about me until I started going out with my friends to gay bars and I realized that I was interested in women and wanted to explore that, but away from the public eye. It wasn’t a performance for someone else, it was just me.
Let’s talk about pole dance. How did you find pole, and what does pole give you that keeps you coming back?
Ashlee: I discovered pole because I saw a friend stripping in Portland. She was strong, confident, fit, naked, in control of the whole room and she was scraping up tons of money off the stage after her set. I wanted to know what it felt like to be her: confident, powerful, comfortable in my own skin. I thought she was a total badass. She is bi and out and she didn’t seem to care what people thought of her. I wanted to know what all of that felt like. Pole seemed like a really big part of what gave her that power, so I enrolled in a beginner pole series. And I was bad, I was so bad! But I desperately wanted to be good, so I kept coming to class. I couldn’t do anything. I stubbed my toe in a fireman spin, I couldn’t do a pirouette. I would leave class and cry at home because of how uncomfortable I felt in my body. I always had this idea of myself as really girly and feminine, and this was supposed to be the ultimate in femininity and I felt like I was failing so hard at it. That shook my self-image at first, but the community at the studio was supportive nurturing and refused to let me stew in my own self-loathing.
Maggie: I remember when you started. You weren’t that bad
Ashlee: I was so bad! Mostly because I was so unhappy in my own skin. I wasn’t fully committing to the movement. As I started to feel better about myself, I learned how to relax and explore being present in my body instead of comparing myself to other dancers. I also realized as I started to feel better about myself and had that beautiful community supporting my heart, that the person I was with became increasingly unhappy and that I needed to walk away from that relationship.
Sean: I started pole because I was going through a really bad rejection.
Ashlee: You were my pole baby!
Sean: You remember that?
Ashlee: Of course! You were such a good student! You listened well and encouraged those around you.
Sean: At the time, I felt undesired and not sexy enough to have gotten what I wanted. I felt like pole would make me sexier and more desirable and make me feel sexy and desirable. And it did that! But actually, I found a performance art form that I fell in love with. I feel like I no longer need pole to feel sexy, I have much more self-confidence. Now I love pole as my performance medium of choice. I can do it in a sexual way or I can do it in a non-sexual way, I just want to get really good at it.
Maggie: I feel like my story is like intensely uninspiring compared to everyone else’s. I hear so many stories about how pole saved someone or saved their lives, and I’m just not that interesting. I had this friend who wanted to get into shape and she asked if I’d take a yoga class with her. I really didn’t want to take more yoga classes, so I told her “yeah, no. Let’s take a pole dancing class instead.” The day of the class she cancelled on me at the last minute and I turned to my roommate and said something like “Hey, I signed up for two people, I don’t think they care who shows up, do you want to go?” And she was like “Yeah I do!” So, we went. And then we went the next week and the week after that, and we just kept going. It was fun.
I feel like pole is really meditative, especially when you’re freestyling. You’re in the moment, you’re feeling the music and you are just inhabiting the present. You’re really present. That’s what I love about teaching, too. I could be having the worst day- and this has happened- but the minute I walk into the studio, I’m there for my students. Whatever you’re going through, you leave it outside. Lord knows it’ll still be waiting for you! But when you’re there, you’re there for them, and you’re present and you don’t think about all of that other stuff. That’s what pole is for me: being present for myself and for others and shaking off all of the bad stuff, even if it’s just for an hour or two.
Describe your experience being out in the pole community. How do those worlds intersect for you?
Ashlee: I truly started to embrace my sexuality through pole because I was given a safe space to explore and express my sexuality outside of the male gaze. I never had this opportunity before. I started with ‘pole fitness’ and quickly migrated to exotic style and sensual movement, where I still feel most free and empowered. My whole life, self-care and expressing sexuality was treated as performative for men. But here, I could finally be sexy for me, or for anyone I chose, which my community not only accepted, but boisterously encouraged!
Sean: To me, pole is not intersecting very much with my gayness. Aside from the fact that it’s very unexpected seeing a guy pole dancing- and I enjoy breaking that barrier- in my day-to-day I don’t think it really comes up. I think that pole is very welcoming, but I don’t think it’s really a subject that comes up much. Pole is a great sport. Also, I am gay. That’s how they interact.
Maggie: I think that’s great, though, that’s sort of the mark of true acceptance. So many times, there can be this kind of tokenism of like “he’s the gay one,” or “that’s my gay,” and not just in pole, but you sort of become the mascot. To be able to walk into a space and be the only guy- and be the only gay guy- and not have it be a conversation is great. Like, being gay is a part of who you are, but it’s not all you are or all you have to contribute to the world.
Sean: Right. It’s been really great to be welcomed and accepted without being expected to be like super feminine or sassy.
Maggie: Like performative gayness.
Sean: Yeah, like all the time. Like, I don’t have to wear heels or prance around, I can just be myself the same as everyone else. Like a straight guy could come into the studio and do all of the same stuff as I do and be treated the same way. I’m not any different.
Maggie: I feel the same way. It’s not like I’m in the closet to my students or anything, it just doesn’t come up very much. And when it has come up, it’s just not a big deal. No one is shocked or worried that I’m going to start hitting on them or something, which is something that I’ve had happen outside of pole. And that’s frustrating because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, but most of the time you are in no way interested in them like that. At all.
Sean: Yeah, I’ve had the same thing with straight guys.
Maggie: So it’s really nice that it’s just not a big deal. I’ve had students who are lesbians, bi, gay, trans, and I hope that I am helping them to feel comfortable and welcome in class, but honestly, I don’t think I can take much credit. The whole community is really awesome and supportive no matter where you’re coming from.
Seattle celebrates Gay Pride this week. What does Pride mean to you?
Sean: I had it really great growing up, and Pride for me is an opportunity to celebrate that and be thankful for all of the people who worked so hard to make it so I could have it so good. We still have a long way to go,
Ashlee: Yeah, I didn’t really have the struggle of coming out as a teenager. The door to my closet was broken. Embracing ‘bi’ was hard because of the lack of representation and visibility. I often didn’t feel queer enough for queer spaces, nor was I totally comfortable in straight spaces. It’s definitely been a journey. Everyone has an opinion on how you should present yourself, right?
Sean: Yeah, I’ve definitely felt like I wasn’t gay enough for Pride. I’ve never done Pride before because I didn’t feel gay enough. My mix is definitely more masculine than feminine. But now as an adult I see that Pride is a celebration of our progress and a reminder of how much work we have to do. I’m excited to participate now.
Ashlee: For sure.
Sean: Yeah, and that’s why I never had felt gay enough for Pride, because you watch the videos and it’s like really gay. Like I never really felt like I would be welcome there.
Ashlee: As an adult I can see that Pride is all about self-expression and smashing boundaries. It has the intention of being welcoming because those gender and sexual norms are silly and ultimately, shouldn’t matter. But I can see how that would be hard if you were outside of that bubble and didn’t have people educating or including you. I didn’t have that growing up, either.
Sean: As good as my mom was and as much as she was supportive and saved me from a life of being in the closet, she’s never been a part of the gay community, she doesn’t know anything about being gay, so she couldn’t share those things with me.
Ashlee: Yeah, and it’s not a fault, it’s just the way it is.
Sean: Right. And she did her absolute best.
Ashlee: It sounds like she did an amazing job. What about you, Maggie?
Maggie: For me, before I even figured myself out, the gay community in Seattle was so welcoming and open. I moved here- I lived on Capitol Hill back when it was the 2nd gayest neighborhood in the US- and everyone made me feel right at home. I quickly made really strong friends for life, and for me Pride is about celebrating those friendships and our milestones along the way. Even more than my identity as being bi- because I really don’t feel like that defines me- again, it’s something that just doesn’t come up that often. For me, pride is about being a good ally. I have a lot of privileges and opportunities being bi and straight-passing that a lot of my friends don’t, and as such it’s my responsibility to use my privilege to advocate for them and their rights. Pride for me is about celebrating making it another year with my chosen family, and promising to make it the next year, too.
We hope that you enjoyed hearing the stories from our amazing community members and encourage you to share your own experiences in the comments. No matter how you identify, we hope you have a safe and happy Pride. We made it another year, let’s dance!
Check out our PRIDE playlist below!