Performers in the D.C. Weirdo Show know the power of reclaiming words and art forms traditionally used to subjugate.
The show started at the Palace of Wonders on H Street in 2006 as a place for sideshow performers, a type of performance Michelle Carnes says has “a violent history of appropriation and displaying people of color as oddities and freaks in mythologized and racist ways, such as savages, wildmen, orientalist swamis, etc. Sideshow served to reassure white middle-class folks of their normalcy, supremacy and privilege.”
But it also “offered a place for marginalized people who are different and usually stigmatized to have a voice, a platform to represent their experience and have greater understanding and empathy from the world around them. That is the tradition we are committed to preserving at D.C. Weirdo Show,” she says.
“Weirdos for Life! A Benefit for Trans Lifeline” is Friday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. at 1523 22nd St., N.W. Tickets are $16 in advance or $20 cash at the door. The event is a benefit for Trans Lifeline, a peer-supported hotline staffed for and by trans people. Details at dcweirdoshow.com.
Carnes, a 42-year-old Indianapolis native, holds a Ph.D. and works in the federal government as a public health anthropologist by day. She hosts and is the lead creative producer for the Weirdo Show, held monthly except December. Her alter ego Dr. Torcher — her sideshow specialty is fire manipulation — started three years ago. She’s also a musician, comedian, drag performer, storyteller, emcee and clown. She’s learning to juggle and play the violin. She came to Washington 15 years ago to study at American University.
Carnes is in a married/poly relationship with Mark Anduss and Melissa Kaplan, who both work on the shows with Carnes. They live together in Bethesda. Carnes enjoys reading, writing, painting and creating in her free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I came out when I was 16 to my friends; to my family when I was 18 and already at college. The hardest person to tell was also the easiest, my dad. Hardest because it would have devastated me if he had rejected me over it but also, easiest because I think, deep down, I felt confident that wasn’t how he would react.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Dr. Evelyn Blackwood. She was my queer anthropology professor at Purdue and she believed in my ability to leave Indiana, get an education and do something with myself. My life would be very different and much, much worse if she hadn’t found me when she did and I am grateful.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Where the baseball stadium is now, there was a complex of amazing warehouse-style clubs in D.C. Wet was at L and Half Street, where Miz Vicki’s party, “Soft and Wet” used to happen. It was the longest running black lesbian strip party in the country, I will never get over it being gone and fuck baseball.
Describe your dream wedding.
I got married in Las Vegas by a gay Elvis in a pink Cadillac. It took 15 minutes and 25 of our favorite people were there. That was literally perfect.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
I was going to say mental health but that’s an LGBT issue. Frankly, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a non-LGBT issue since we’re everywhere and part of the world.
What historical outcome would you change?
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Tina Fey’s amazing Sarah Palin spoof on SNL, which many people believe significantly helped derail Palin’s career. I love the power of comedy and satire. That’s a beautiful thing.
On what do you insist?
Performers of color, queers, trans artists and womxn taking up space in the sideshow art form, despite its misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
Something about D.C. Weirdo Show because our show is coming up soon!
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Shelly Bean” (my dad’s nickname for me growing up)
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Find out who paid for that research to be done and ask why they wasted resources on something so unnecessary. Culture is what needs to change, not us.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I’m an atheist. This is it, y’all. Let’s make it count!
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
My advice is for cis white folks in the movement: Intersectional politics are not optional. Learn to be accountable when you mess up. Step aside as needed. Support quietly without expectation of credit or reward. Embrace your humanity so that you may better embrace and care for those around you. Stop calling the cops. Stop asking me to speak on all-white panels about queer stuff. Stop defending rich white queers’ bad behavior because they fund your non-profit or they’re a “good customer.” Pay queers of color as much as you can, as often as you can.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
I’ve walked on broken glass barefoot on stage for $100 so how does $150 sound?
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
That homophobic people are all just secretly queer and will miraculously transform into a nice person if they come out. Yeah, none of us are immune to this internalized homophobia and lateral violence. Queer people struggle with it and it bothers me when folks implicitly (or explicitly) claim that queerness “prevents” us from doing this harm to each other. It’s bullshit.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
The “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror.” It feels like a movie to me and I love it.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Going around to say goodbye to everyone at large gatherings. It was good to see you and I won’t interrupt your current amazing conversation to tell you that. I also like the implication that I will simply see you again, which I hope is true.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Getting my Ph.D. 10 years ago taught me that no title, award, degree will satisfy anyone who already believes I am unworthy without it, including myself.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That my life won’t always be survival and it’s OK to look forward to that and to be willing to rest sometimes, when I need it.
This place needs more weird to help us get through it all, together. Don’t you think?