It was just a month ago when Landon Shimek took his clothes off onstage for the first time.
It was at Stag, one of Portland's two gay strip clubs, as part of the second edition of T-Bone, a night exclusively for transgender dancers who identify as masculine. He says being a patron at the first event inspired him to try stripping for himself. Now, he's hooked.
"I'm excited about it because I'm finally feeling comfortable within my own body and confident with myself, and I finally have the body I've always envisioned in my head," says Shimek, 28, who works as a Starbucks barista by day, and is also a member of the Army Reserve. "The reason I [dance at T-Bone] is I want to show off that body. Because trans bodies are beautiful."
Portland ranks No. 1 among U.S. cities for the most strip clubs per capita. But even here, it can be difficult for transgender strippers to find welcoming venues. That's starting to change.
In March, Stag launched Trance, a monthly event that features trans femme dancers. Soon after came T-Bone, with a spotlight on trans masc performers. Those are in addition to the longer-running Velvet Strip night at swingers club the Velvet Rope, an event that features dancers of all genders.
Clubs that host trans strip nights are rare. Portland's are some of the only ones in the nation. Dancers from across the country say Portland's events create spaces to be seen, supported and celebrated—and that stripping is a powerful outlet for feeling confident in their bodies.
Bambiana, a San Francisco performer who helped launch Trance, says she knows of only three venues outside Portland that cater specifically to trans performers.
"There's one club in Miami and two in San Francisco," Bambiana says. "Apart from that, there's nothing else left in the country. You almost have to go to the clubs and ask for work. Even for go-go dancer positions, people won't give you the time of day to give you a job, because you are trans."
Bambiana is one of five trans women featured on the docuseries Transcendent, which follows the women's lives and work at San Francisco's AsiaSF Cabaret and Restaurant. Since March, Bambiana has been traveling between California and Portland to dance.
"[These events] are opening the doors," she says. "That's what we need. We need exposure and inclusion."
Others say the current events don't do enough to be inclusive of nonbinary dancers. Last month, a former Stag employee wrote on Facebook about reservations about the party "[showcasing] trans people who aspire to pass as cis." The person, who requested to have their name withheld from this piece, confessed to being let go from Stag for stealing money from a co-worker's bag, but wrote that there were "red flags about the club and its inclusiveness," with the owner allegedly wanting to feature dancers who are "further along in their transitions." (They declined an interview for this story.)
Taylor Snider, Stag's new event producer, contests the critiques.
"I was never not going to hire someone because of passing privilege," Snider says. "That [suggestion] is obscene. It's disgusting. The intent of the events was to create a space for trans people to strip, shake their ass, make some money and have everyone have a good time."
It's unclear if or how Stag's events will evolve to welcome nonbinary dancers in the future, but Snider says: "I want constructive criticism. I want to see these things grow."
Growth is necessary in any new venture, and Stag should both be pushed to respond to concerns about inclusion of nonbinary dancers and lauded for starting conversations about trans visibility in queer and sex worker spaces.
One T-Bone dancer, Kyle Guillory—who recently moved to Denver from Portland but still travels here to perform—says friends in other states and countries who follow him on social media have started reaching out, asking how they can get involved with Stag's events.
"They're like, 'That's so amazing. They're offering you a sex-positive platform where you can be who you are, in your skin, and people there are appreciating you,'" Guillery says. "That is exciting. Not dancing. Not the money. Being able to help my friends and family get noticed in a way they feel they need to be noticed and to be comfortable, that's the most amazing to me."
Guillery, 30, works as both a stripper and dog walker. He says he's been dancing most of his life and decided to get onstage about eight years ago.
"Our trans community is getting a lot of awareness now because we have a trans-exclusive event, and it's inclusive to all of the trans and gay community," Guillery says. "We're getting the safe space that we deserve in this industry."
Earlier this month for Pride, Stag combined its Trance and T-Bone events into one party called the Stripper Circus. Club regular, out sex worker and porn star Viktor Belmont was one of the dancers in the lineup. He says he travels from San Francisco to Portland frequently because of the city's sex positivity.
"Cis-male gay bars aren't always the most welcoming spaces," he says. "[But] Portland has a really great culture around sex work and strip clubs, and people really value performers. I never thought I'd dance at a trans masc space, and to have the opportunity is incredible."
SEE IT: For upcoming editions of Trance and T-Bone, visit stag-pdx.com.