this trans performance artist wants to fuck with you
A saviour of East London's queer nightlife scene, musician and artist Lewis G Burton is fighting back against oppression in grimy and glittery new ways.
It’s almost two in the morning in an East London theatre and Lewis G Burton -- performance art trailblazer, acclaimed techno DJ and politically-minded matriarch of the city’s queer community -- has just stepped into INFERNO. Draped in a floor-length fur (fake, naturally), their slicked-back, acid green hair pulses with light amongst the darkness of the dance floor at their legendary club night. As they make their way to the DJ decks, they hug and air-kiss sweaty revellers.
This reputation has taken almost a decade to build, but Lewis is now one of the most renowned names on London’s queer scene. Not only do they create safe spaces for queer youth to connect, experiment with fashion and lose themselves in pure hedonism, Lewis also makes vital performance art which unpacks the realities of being fat, trans and non-binary.
Now, they’re beginning a new career chapter by releasing their debut EP Pain Relief. “I had these notebooks of poetry I had been writing since I was sixteen,” Lewis tells me between bites of a vegetarian fry-up. “Those words became lyrics -- now I have this big, exciting EP full of material that I get to perform. It’s giving me more opportunities to make amazing music videos and collaborate again.”
The first of these videos is "Hermaphrodite", art directed by conceptual fashion duo Fecal Matter. By framing Lewis as an androgynous Greek deity strung in a hospital bed, the visual sends a powerful message about society’s obsession with medicalising trans bodies. Lewis chats candidly as we eat, covering everything from the importance of grassroots activism to the art of redefining beauty on your own terms.
You’ve dedicated so much of your life and work to creating new space in queer nightlife. What drew you towards it?
I think it was realising my own queerness growing up, and realising there were other people like me in the world. I discovered the likes of Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi, which really opened my eyes. They were these amazing queer people who were experimenting with their gender and identity -- I really gravitated towards that. So I found my way to London and, eight and a half years later, here I am! All I want to do is create spaces for people to experiment in the way I wanted to as a teenager.
INFERNO was shaped to disrupt mainstream gay nightlife. When you moved to London, what did that look like?
Every gay bar or queer venue was generally either playing disco or house music. It was becoming repetitive and monotonous, so INFERNO was about bringing something totally different. I trained as a performance artist before anything else. I constantly saw friends rejected by art institutions, so I also wanted to give them a platform and a space to create work -- and to pay them for it.
The "Hermaphrodite" visual is essentially a work of performance art, right?
Completely. This EP was about making space for myself, because I don’t get to perform as often as I want to; I’m either working with activists, running club nights or doing a million other projects. I had these notebooks of poetry I had been writing since I was 16. Those words became lyrics, and I collaborated with friends that I knew would help me push myself, and learn new skills.
What fascinated you so much about Hermaphroditus?
I was just obsessed with anything that could be considered as queer within mythology; I loved myths and legends growing up, and felt like they had such a strong female energy. With "Hermaphrodite", I had one longer song that I ended up splitting into two sections: that’s the first, and the second is called "Take What You Want". I was just unpacking my old books at my parents’ house, and it got me thinking: queer people have been around since the dawn of time, but our existence is so often erased. Society wants us to forget, but we won’t -- we’re not fucking going anywhere.
You’ve really become this kind of matriarch of the queer scene. Have you seen nightlife change for the better?
The scene in London has definitely evolved, progressed and changed for the better. When I was growing up, I literally didn’t know anyone that was gay on TV bar Graham Norton -- let alone trans or gender non-conforming! Now, young queer people can connect online. They have so many resources to delve into and can explore queer history with a simple Google search on their iPhone. Teenagers are being brought up without shame. They have more room to explore gender identity and presentation, and we’re seeing that reflected in this new era of queerness and gender-fluid creatives, who understand that sexuality and gender exist on spectrums.
This idea of making the world better for the next generation permeates your work -- for example, your role in Trans Pride 2020. When queer youth engage with your art, what do you want them to take from it?
I just want people to feel happy, loved and supported. My work has always been about creating the spaces I wish I had, and nurturing queer people in a way that I wasn’t. Trans Pride is important. Pride has been reduced to rainbow flags, cheap flyers and drunk, straight people screaming ‘Yaaaas queen!’, but Trans Pride is grassroots: it has the spirit of Stonewall. Trans people are being killed and persecuted worldwide despite starting the international gay rights movement in the first place. We need to stand loud and proud, and do more for trans people.
You recently protested against IGM (Intersex Genital Mutilation), and there’s surgical imagery in the "Hermaphrodite" video. Is there a connection?
We wanted to make two powerful statements: the first is that cis people are fascinated with trans bodies, to the extent that they constantly ask invasive, personal questions about genitalia and surgeries, so partly the video pokes fun at that. But it’s also a commentary on how procedures like IGM are forced on babies and justified as ‘corrective’ surgeries. People should be able to grow up and decide for themselves, rather than being mutilated as children.
Finally, your work has always been about claiming your beauty as a self-identified fat, queer, trans person. Was it difficult to be that bold, and to get to that point?
Because I discovered people like Leigh Bowery, who were so out there and extreme, I wanted to push boundaries the minute I moved to London. At the same time, I was carrying so much shame and self-hatred. I had no love for myself. In navigating through that shame, I got stuck in a dark spiral; I took drugs and partied a lot. I was experimenting and figuring my identity out, but it wasn’t until I came out at the other side that I fully appreciated myself.
When I was first on stage being garish and grotesque, I was shoving my ugliness in people’s faces. I was saying: I feel repulsive because you made me feel repulsive, so now you have to look at it. Now I see it differently because I think I’m fucking beautiful! It’s a new extreme now. It’s about showing that beauty to the world.
Featured image by Lewis G Burton