Miterrez “Mighty” Brown took a deep breath at the top of the stairs at the Gentlemen’s Gold Club in Armistead Gardens, a neighborhood just northeast of downtown Baltimore.
She wore a sheer black mesh shirt over pasties, loose jeans that barely clung to her hips, and a pair of black combat boots. “Focus” by H.E.R. blasted through the speakers as Brown, 27, pushed her locs over one shoulder and made her way down onto the stage, each of her movements measured and deliberate. She flashed a sultry smile at a woman sitting next to the stage. A disco ball spun slowly above her head.
But Brown, a former resident of Warrington, Pa., who works as an exotic dancer and identifies as gender-fluid and lesbian, does not consider herself your run-of-the-mill stripper.
Not only is she a “stud” — a woman with masculine ways — but Brown, who has since relocated to Washington D.C., chooses to work at events tailored exclusively to women, queer and straight alike. When she’s not performing, she broadcasts her dancing on Instagram to her largely female audience.
“I use the phrase ‘exotic dancer’ because I do something that you don’t normally see,” she said. “You don’t usually see a female dressed in male attire, advertising masculinity with a splash of femininity, saying, ‘I’m here to behave as a male and I’m here to do whatever I want.’”
In the world of live adult entertainment for the LGBTQ community, events for queer women have traditionally flown under the radar. In recent years, major lesbian nights and bars have closed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. Philly has been without a lesbian bar since Sisters closed in 2013. Former Sisters general manager Denise Cohen opened Toasted Walnut in 2017, but has stayed away from labeling it a lesbian bar.
When Brown lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, she didn’t have many opportunities to perform here, and has remained affiliated with Lyfe Lounge, an LGBTQ strip club that rents space from the Gentlemen’s Gold Club. Before this, she danced with City of Doms, a group of New York City-based female “dom” dancers who were recently featured in a Vice documentary. City of Doms and Lyfe Lounge both host events in rented venues, which draw hundreds of women.
“We don’t really have a huge gay community,” Brown said of Philadelphia. “What we have is downtown and it’s mostly men.”
Amber Hikes, the former executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, said the high cost of renting venues is one reason why events for queer exotic dancers don’t have as great a presence here. She also allowed that there might not be strong demand for those events at the moment.
“It’s not that they don’t happen,” Hikes said. “But we have a problem with consistency in events. Folks will get really excited and create an event that does really well for six months, maybe a year, but then it’ll burn out. The situation will stay the same if no one tries to create an event that’s similar to what City of Doms does.”
As a kid in Woodbury, N.J., Brown would mimic Michael Jackson’s moves, but she began dancing seriously in high school, after her mom went to serve in Iraq for two years. Stuck with a guardian who was neglectful, she and her brother went without food, heat, or medicine when they got sick. She couldn’t even call her mother.
Dancing was a distraction from all that.
“I began uploading videos of me dancing — mostly goofy stuff, because I was still a minor at that time — onto YouTube," Brown said. "I used my fear of what was going on with my mom in Iraq and just redirected it in a healthier way.”
Brown’s videos became so popular — gaining more than 80,000 subscribers — that YouTube began paying her. When she turned 18, she pivoted to exotic dance.
When her mom returned from Iraq, Brown deleted her YouTube page. She began dancing again about a year later on social media platforms, and that’s when Brown told her mom and explained how it was a coping mechanism.
“I would never want my mom to find out that I was a dancer on someone else’s terms," she said. "It was like, ‘Look mom, I’m bad! And I’m good at being bad, but you can’t see all that stuff.’”
Brown’s dancing videos found a wider audience on Facebook and, later, Instagram Live. Eventually a follower directed her to City of Doms.
“All my life as a dancer, I just wanted to do dom dancing,” she said. “I just didn’t know it existed or what to search to get started."
City of Doms was created by Cameo Kyle, an event organizer who started hosting male entertainment shows in 2004. A decade later, he attended a show in New Jersey that featured a stud, which inspired him to invite one to perform at his next show.
“When I first started promoting the show, all the girls were like, ‘Ew! I don’t want to see that!’” said Kyle, who identifies as straight and cisgender. “I got a lot of flak. I was getting worried. But on the night of the show, when [the stud] performed, she captivated the straight girls and the curious women.”
After the show, a handful of guests asked him if it was possible to have a show with all studs. Kyle reached out to dancers he found on social media and eventually built a group with a loyal following. Today, City of Doms has roughly 14,000 followers on multiple Instagram accounts.
Amela “Body Hunter” Hunter of West Oak Lane began dancing with City of Doms last winter, after Kyle found her Instagram page, where she posted videos of herself working out. Since then, Hunter has picked up gigs at parties for queer women of color, including GUSH, a monthly gathering in New York that charges $5 for femmes and $75 for straight men.
“To me, it was pretty easy to decide to join,” Hunter said. “It seemed pretty easy and I didn’t have any nervousness. I love it, I have a great time, I go there for a job. I don’t go there for a party.”
Even though the group draws mostly lesbians, Hunter said that she hopes in the future to see more diversity in the audience. She’s been trying to invite her friends who identify as gay, bisexual, and transgender.
“It’s hard to reach out because they’re like, ‘Are you doing porn? Are these porn parties? Are these orgies?'” Hunter said. “You can see people opening up to it a little more and realizing that we’re not just go-go dancers, we’re strippers but only for the LGBTQ community. It makes it more special.”
In 2014, the group sold out its first show in the Bronx, where audience members were privy to performances by at least a dozen dancers. The entirely female audience showered their favorite dancers with dollar bills and participated in boisterous contests, like who gave the best lap dances. The dancers were a mix of studs and “femmes” — women who present as more traditionally feminine.
The dancers frequently travel for performances, and this past year, their shows, often rowdy and crowded, were held in D.C., Denver, and Chicago. Kyle also hosts a sellout cruise event each summer.
“There’s not a lot of spaces you can go where you can see women dancing for women,” Kyle said.
Dominique “Poetry” Brooks had toyed with the idea of an LGBTQ-focused strip club for a decade before founding Lyfe Lounge. Now, her vision was realized.
“I felt like they need their own safe space — a nice, beautiful one that they could be proud about," said Brooks, who identifies as polysexual and teaches pole fitness and dance. "Somewhere where they could do their own thing without anyone judging or harassing them.”
Last winter, Brown had a group of studs mocking her during one of her first performances at Lyfe Lounge. Her commitment to professionalism kept her dancing. But then Brooks went over to the hecklers and asked them to stop.
“I was so shocked and happy,” Brown said. It was an uncomfortable incident at City of Doms that led her to stop performing there. “She basically said to them, ‘Hey, we don’t do that at Lyfe Lounge.’ No one had protected me like that before.”
Spaces where members of the LGBTQ community can express themselves sexually while feeling supported and accepted are incredibly important, Brooks said. She’s hoping to eventually build Lyfe Lounge into a physical club with three floors, including one for gay men.