Conversations with LGBTQ+ Circus Folks

Part One, by Revely Rothschild

I was lucky to have the opportunity to interview Autumn Wheeler (from The Circus Project in Portland, Oregon) about their experience as an LGBTQ+ circus coach, student, and performer.

Autumn Wheeler

So, first off, if you could just introduce yourself? Specifically, what pronouns do you use, and what circus experience do you have? 

I use she pronouns or they pronouns. I’ve been doing circus for a really long time, actually– I started at a summer camp when I was twelve or thirteen, and I’m twenty-six now, so I’ve been doing it for like half my life. I started with fabric and hoop, and then I moved into more tumbling and hope and more-ground based stuff. And then I did a training program with The Circus Project, which is an organization in Portland… I did rope, hoop, again… and then prior to the pandemic I was doing the pro-track program at NECCA and I majored in Chinese Pole and minored in hand-balancing. So I’ve really been all over the place. 

So, what do you do now, are you teaching, or coaching, or studying, too?

Throughout the pandemic I’ve continued training handbalancing, just cause I didn’t need to go anywhere to do it, doing online lessons, or on my own… I’ve been coaching, I coach sling, which is kind of random, I haven’t trained it a lot… Chinese pole, hand balancing, “slumbling,” which is something I think is just something made  up at NECCA, it’s kind of dance-y tumbling, not like power tumbling, just linking moves together. Oh, and I totally forgot to mention, I have my undergrad degree in theater, like clowning, so I also coach theater. 

That’s super cool! So, you were mentioning that you’ve worked with some different circuses, and I was wondering how you’ve seen different studios interact with LGBTQ identities in different ways? And also, because you’ve been a part of the circus world for so long, whether you’ve seen those interactions change with time?

I think yes to all of those things. I remember, when I first started circus, I didn’t even know I was queer, or really identify as queer in any way. I remember I had one queer coach, but it was very different than it is now. It was very under-the-table, and we didn’t talk about it. I’m sure it’s different there– it was also a small town, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot. But looking back, it… didn’t feel super inclusive.The Circus Project, in Portlamd, in my experience has felt very welcoming of all different kinds of queer identites. I was able to train with other queer people who were really open about their identities for the first time, and that was super awesome. I also coach there for a program called Voice Project, which is specifically for youth with different marginalized identities. So that is awesome and has been so rewarding for me to coach queer youth and make a space for them in ways that I don’t really like I really had– although, like I said, I wasn’t really identifying as queer at that time. And then at NECCA, I don’t know, I think it sort of depends. I had some trans friends at NECCA that really struggled with people getting their pronouns right or… understanding them and their experiences. But then I had some gay friends, more on the spectrum of sexual orientation than gender identity, who felt really included. 

Yeah, for sure. That leads really well into one thing that I was wondering about– do you think there’s a difference between how circus approaches gender identity versus how it approaches sexuality, and if so, why is that? 

That’s such a good question. I feel like – at least the coaches that I’ve had who don’t themselves identify as queer – it’s been much more easy for them to be more accepting of different sexual orientations, and gender… it’s really been hit-or-miss. And I feel like maybe that’s just cultural, in terms of people still getting on board with pronouns or transgender people’s experiences more broadly. But I don’t know! I wish it wasn’t that way. I have noticed a difference in terms of gender and sexuality. 

I totally know what you mean. Recently, I was reading a book about the history of circus for this blog, and there were female circus performers whom men would describe as having really big muscles, but those women still had to act very feminine in certain ways. I think in some ways, circus is so geared towards working beyond the normal limits of what we think is possible, but then in other ways it’s rooted in some strict history– for example, the tradition of having a male person as a base and a female person as a flyer in an act together. I don’t know if that’s exactly a question, but I’m curious what you think about that, generally?

Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about a lot, especially since I’ve done a lot of basing as a woman (though I identify as nonbinary and a woman, because of the way I look I’m often viewed as a woman). But as a woman, basing, I feel like that’s something that’s been encouraged as a way to resist stereotypes. But then I don’t know… at one point I shaved my head and was looking a lot more “masculine,” and I felt like there was more uncertainty around that in certain ways, versus if I was being perceived as a woman doing things “outside of the norm”, if that makes sense. Also I’ve thought about, like, I was saying that there’s been a lot of inclusion of people of different sexual orientations, but I still notice the disconnect in the acts that are being performed. Like I had two gay guy friends at NECCA, and they did perform together once, but much more often they would perform with a woman. So even if the people were queer the acts weren’t. 

Mhm. I think it’s so interesting to think about how circus is for you as a person in the community, versus how audiences perceive it– and not only in terms of sexuality. So I was also wondering whether you think people perceive circus as welcoming or not so much, towards the LGBTQ community?

Yeah, I think about this a lot. I think that on a surface level people really assume that it is really inclusive of all sorts of different people, whether that’s race or gender or different ability– I think people assume that because circus is so creative and out-of-the-box, it will be. But then as I’ve gone deeper into the industry, and this could be just my experience, I’ve noticed that it’s still pretty strictly adhering to norms, if that makes sense?

Yeah, I’ve totally noticed that, especially in terms of body positivity, for example– like yes, to an extent circus is for anybody and any body, but then at the same time there are so many prejudices, but also the reality that your physical abilities do affect how well you can “succeed” in circus, because the idea of “success” is still overwhelmingly present in circus. 

Yeah, totally! 

Can you think of any times when you’ve noticed that sort of contradiction come up, in regards to any LGBTQ stuff?

I think sometimes, in the ways that circus schools advertise themselves as super inclusive, even when that’s not people’s actual experience in terms of microaggressions or daily interactions that make you question whether that message of inclusivity is really true. 

And then on the flip side, are there any really positive experiences that you’ve had? I think we’ve talked about how circus can be a bit contradictory, but I’m also wondering what some of your positive experiences have been?

I’ve had realy positive experiences with queer people leading circuses. For example, I’ve worked with Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus– which, I don’t know if you know what that is, but it’s a circus that’s run by Jack, a trans circus artist, and he brings together people with different queer identites and we make stuff! It’s really fun, and I feel like having someone in leadership who’s familiar with the queer experience is really awesome. Yeah, I really think that by doing circus with other queer people– whether that’s a student or a coach– it’s really great to have that shared experience with other people in the room. 

Totally. This might sound too personal, which I don’t mean it to be, but if it is, you don’t have to answer at all of course, but are there any specific stories of people or things that have helped you along your… for lack of a better word, your journey as a queer person? Specifically, in terms of circus?

Yeah, I think specifically working with Jack and Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus. I didn’t meet him through that, we were part of my same training company at The Circus Project, so he was just my fellow student. But I think that seeing him be so forward about that part of his identity, made me feel really encouraged to bring that part of myself forward. And I think that that inspired me to be the same person for other people– like when I started at NECCA, I was really forward about that part of my identity as queer, and not many other people were at the beginning, but at the end of the experience a lot of other people were coming out as queer as well. I’ve gotten a lot of people saying, like, “You really encouraged me,” and I was like “Oh I had no idea, that’s awesome!”

That’s so inspiring. Do you notice that same sort of thing happens, either between you and the students that you teach, or within the groups of students that you’ve taught?

Hmm. Well, I actually struggle with this, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, because I never know how to out myself to students, because right now, with how I look right now, with  long-ish hair, people might not perceive me as having a queer identity. And I don’t want that, because it’s not my experience, and I also want to be a queer person in leadership for other people. What do you think?

I don’t want to go too in-depth because this is my own experience, but I’ve done circus camps since I was about six, and I’ve had a couple of circus friends throughout that whole time, and by now, almost all of us identify as queer in some way. And I think that one thing that has made us all feel so comfortable is that we’ve had a couple of nonbinary coaches. Especially, I work with one coach right now who uses they/them pronouns, and whenever we work with little kids, we explain to them what pronouns are and have them share their own pronouns. So I think that sharing pronouns can be a good way to both share your own identity in a very open way, but also help younger students understand more about gender fluidity. And like you were saying earlier, I think that’s something that has sort of changed with time, as well. 

Yeah, for sure. That’s something we do as well, I totally agree. 

Unless there’s anything else you’re wanting to come back to, I think my last question is sort of related to that– we’ve talked about how circus has improved some, and now I’m wondering how you think circuses can continue to improve in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusivity?

Yeah, one of your other questions is making me think, too… I feel like as a queer woman, doing Chinese pole was a very affirming experience because having a circus school like NECCA, and my coach there, Sandra, was amazing because her experience learning pole was that she was told she couldn’t do it… and she did it anyway and she was in Cirque du Soleil. But it was awesome to be supported to learn a discipline that was typically more men, and have a space where that wasn’t the expectation. So in terms of improving, I think there needs to be a lot of attention given to trans experiences in circus, like in terms of using the pronouns that people ask for. I think there can also be more coach training, and also learning how to include different bodies, in terms of spotting or the language that we use to refer to different body parts. 

Another thing that I’ve heard you mention a bit, and this is just my re-phrasing, but the idea of “paying it forward”? Like, there’s kind of the institutional level of coaching and the organization’s goals, but then there’s also the individual level of personal relationships that we form as LGBTQ+ circus artists, and those can be really empowering and formative, too. 

I think so, yeah. And that’s part of why I wanted to do this interview– other queer circus people have been so important to me, and I want to help to share that with other people, as well. 

Would you be open to me including your email at the end of the interview, just in case people have further questions or want to reach out to you to talk?

Yeah, totally! 

For anyone who is interested in reaching out to connect about Autumn’s experiences as a queer person in circus, their email is autumn@thecircusproject.org. Thanks for reading, and Happy Pride Month!

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