By: Kiam Marcelo Junio
“Everyone here seems so open and free. I just want to be a part of this community of
amazing people,” I said.
“You are already a part of it.” replied Vajaqueque Brown, the self-titled “AfroCubaRican” queer burlesque and performance artist and event organizer. I was immediately humbled and overjoyed.
It was only a few months after separating from the US Navy in the summer of 2011. I found myself at Salonathon, a cabaret that occurs every Monday night at Beauty Bar (1444 W. Chicago Ave). I was surrounded by beautiful people of all shapes, sizes, races, and gender presentations. The performances were entertaining, visually stunning, and conceptually challenging; they were loud, political, and bursting with glitter. Seeing this celebration of identities gave me a desire to present my own more fully, more bravely, than I had ever felt able to. While taking “boylesque” classes at Vaudezilla Studios last year, I was prompted to create a burlesque stage name. I knew I wanted to allude to my Asian heritage, as well as create a persona that would traverse gender norms and be equally comfortable in combat boots as well as in high heels. I decided on “Jerry Blossom,” a cheeky play on the generic Orientalist trope of cherry blossom trees as symbols of peace and beauty.
Jerry Blossom was born in consideration of the burlesque tenets of self-actualization; following an empowered body to seduce, captivate, and entertain an audience. Jerry Blossom emerged from these roots and began to integrate with my performance and visual art practice. My research into colonialism, diaspora, and gender theories opened up new avenues of self-reﬂection. Jerry became a not only an alter ego and peforming body, but a space for these explorations. Jerry took shape as a blondewigged, feminine spectrum, fun-loving, Tagalog and English-speaking individual. Encouraged by the community that ﬂocked to queer spaces such as Salonathon, Nuts & Bolts, Northern Lights, and Chances Dances, I began to appear as Jerry Blossom in various performances around the city. In this journey, I have formed bonds with friends and colleagues with similar goals, among them: Joe Varisco of JRV Majesty Productions, who documents queer performance events and curates LEX-I-CA, a showcase of performance art collaborations at Salonathon (occurring the last Monday of every month); Mister Junior, my burlesque instructor, art advisor, and current roommate; H. Melt, the proliﬁc trans-queer poet; and Jackie Boyd, founder of the Queer Choir, and organizer of various events and group eﬀorts.
I am a part of a larger network of queer-identiﬁed performers, many of whom are young artists of color, also making work about the politics of identity and representation. I am also an organizer for Subject to Change, a monthly queer-centric party that aims to raise funds for various local organizations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project, the Broadway Youth Center, and Red Door Animal Shelter. The work that my peers and colleagues do is a constant source of inspiration and mutual support. I am proud to be part of a community that honors individuals and creates spaces for emotional, artistic, and
Recently, an article on DNAinfo Chcago was written about my art work and my past career in the US Navy. I had a few problems with the article, but did not speak up at the time, thinking along the lines of “any press is good press,” and recognizing that the article had been written for a broad, non-queer audience. It took me some time and multiple conversations with friends, instructors, and colleagues to process my own thoughts. I’ve realized recently that staying silent is not my preferred approach, especially when words and intentions can become misconstrued, theories and lives reduced, and when systematic injustices, Western savior complexes, and fetishization are reinforced.
The original article begins with a problematic reading of Jerry Blossom as “a feisty Filipino woman… who also happens to be a man.” I would like to clarify that these are not the terms I would wish to describe Jerry Blossom. This reading reduces my intention of queering gender normativity through performance, and turns it right back into a binary of “men” vs. “women,” in characteristics, characterizations, and lived experience. I am not a woman. I do not claim to be. My body does not carry the narrative, the historical injustices, nor any of the associations, problems, victories, and subtleties of living as a woman – from being catcalled in the street, to being socialized to fear for my safety at night, to being pandered to by the media, or maintained oppressed and disadvantaged in a patriarchal system.
What I do claim to be, what Jerry Blossom characterizes, is my own journey as a Filipino, a bakla (a type of third gender identiﬁcation in Philippine society), an Asian American, a male-bodied, genderqueer being. Jerry Blossom is about the immigrant experience of being caught between here and there, between multiple worlds and intersecting aspects of identity. Jerry Blossom is about the colonial history of the Philippines and the eﬀect of over 400 years of cultural subjugation, primitivist dehumanization, and labor exploitation. Jerry Blossom is about the power dynamics inherent in negotiations across genders, races, skin color, and social class. Jerry Blossom is a refusal to adhere to gender and sexual binaries. Jerry Blossom is not separate from me. Jerry Blossom is not simply an act, a character, a fetishization, or an embodiment of man/womanhood. Jerry Blossom is the distillation of parts of myself –actions, vocal accent, mannerisms that have been subdued and assimilated through my own socialization – through family, religion, the immigrant experience, social norms,and military career. Jerry Blossom is about the instability of personhood. The ﬂux of identity as something learned and always in negotiation.
While I consider my self as a malleable entity, I also realize that some aspects of identity are much more distinct, especially in public interaction. Privilege, in many forms, is a considerable factor. As a male-bodied person, I have, among a plethora of privileges, the agency in taking up public space. As a gay male, I have the privileges of a visible demographic in mass media, and the historical narratives of HIV/AIDS, sexual revolution and activism. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, I am aﬀorded privileges as a voice of experience, and given a “hero” narrative of sacriﬁce and service for country. As an art school and college-educated person, I am given access to texts, theories that allow a close but oftentimes removed examination of social processes. As an able-bodied person, I can use my body in performance and presentation in ways
others may not.
My privileges are also a part of my socialization, as much as my experiences with oppression. All of these factors are considered in the way I make, display, share, and talk about my work. They color and reinforce my perspective in everyday interactions, and in the dialogues surrounding my work, my duty, my process, and my being. They mark my work as my own, but in the context of what my peers are doing, as well as the current state of politics and social climate.
A year ago, the proliﬁc queer artist Mark Aguhar passed away. I did not know Mark personally. I cannot even clarify what Mark’s preferred gender pronouns are, or who or how Mark was to their closest friends. But I see a queer community that Mark left behind as a testament to their work in using art and performance to challenge normativity, confront privilege, and to speaking with conviction – work which remains unﬁnished. As the most recent recipient of the Chances Dances Mark Aguhar Memorial Grant, a microgrant awarded to queer-identiﬁed, feminine-spectrum artists of color, I consider myself as someone who is helping to continue this work. But I am not alone. I am one voice of many voices of queer artists and people of color. We are out there in various spaces, fostering community eﬀorts, organizing, singing, dancing, vogueing, reading, speaking about our experiences, and simply living with and against oppressive and normative structures.
My work does not claim to represent anyone besides myself, or anything other than my own socialization. But I recognize and heartily promote the parallel eﬀorts of my peers. In representing my self, I hope to also support others and continue the dialogues we are involved and invested in, and promote the spaces that have supported, encouraged, and given me a voice. I consider this my duty, though I recognize that it may or may not be the same for others. But to those who share the sentiment, I’d like to share my belief in the necessity and the urgency to continue learning, to speak out loudly, to clarify, to take ownership
of our representations, and continue to share our journeys as we navigate the constantly-shifting ﬁeld of politics and identity.