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Obstacles in the aisle

Local couple overcomes adversity, enters Crate & Barrel wedding contest

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Washington residents Jonathan Howard (left) and Gregory Jones are hoping to strike it big in a Crate & Barrel-sponsored wedding contest. (Photos by Heather Lyons; courtesy of Howard and Jones)

It began as little more than a lark, but a Washington gay couple entered a Crate & Barrel wedding contest and have been shocked to find friends and allies have catapulted them to the top of a huge list of nearly 200 couples hoping to nab the top prize of a $100,000 company-sponsored wedding.

Jonathan Howard, who’s 29 and just 11 days younger than his partner, Gregory Jones, discovered the contest in a Crate & Barrel e-mail. They moved to D.C. together in 2008 and got engaged in October when Howard popped the question. They’re planning to take advantage of the District’s new same-sex marriage law, which went into effect this week, but having an extra $100,000 would obviously sweeten the deal.

Howard and Jones were in second place as of press time with 5,906 votes. They’d previously been in the lead. A Chicago police officer who was paralyzed in the line of duty, Densey Cole, is in first place with Mary Cole with 10,677 votes, but they may be disqualified — they’re already married, having wed in the hospital when he awoke from a coma following the May 2009 accident. They’re hoping for an ocean-side ceremony to renew their vows. The rules state couples entering the contest must be engaged.

Howard says it would be amazing if they win.

“It would be great for us but more than that for the community to really say, ‘Hey, we’re a normal couple and we’re getting married and it doesn’t matter if it’s two men,'” Howard says. “This company is supporting us and it’s a great story, it’s a great step for marriage equality but in a completely different venue, not political at all. I would be shocked and amazed and overwhelmed and overjoyed and it would be just great for everybody involved.”

So how did these two average Joes convince nearly 6,000 people to vote for them? A lot of it stems from a tragedy they only hinted at in their 100-word online bio. Howard made a lot of friends and contacts in the gay community following an August 2008 hate crime attack. He and three friends were in Boston, where he went to college and lived at the time, when it happened.

“We were walking home and a group of four guys pulled up to us in a car,” Howard says. “I turned around to see what the commotion was and the last thing I remember is hearing, ‘Die, faggot, die,’ as they stomped my head into the pavement.”

Howard says he’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt in the attack. His attacker, Fabio Brandao, eventually pleaded guilty but received a two-year suspended sentence that let him get by without any jail time, an outrage, Howard says.

He met hundreds of gay activists and friends after the attack and was friends with many of them on Facebook. When they heard he and Jones were soliciting votes, they rallied in support. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation wrote about the couple spurring more votes and Jones’ brother’s fiance in Chicago, Katie Lindner, went on a mini-crusade of sorts helping them get the word out. She’s working on a graduate degree in Chicago on new media and says the Facebook phenomenon is fascinating to observe.

“People kind of think of [Facebook] as this thing that doesn’t seem important, that wastes your time and fills your day, but it gives me chills to see how much support there’s been for them,” Lindner says. “It’s bigger than any one individual could achieve.”

“I think people see our story as a nightmare with a fairy tale ending,” Jones says. “We went through this horrible thing together and it made us better, stronger people and brought us closer to each other.”

Though the votes are important, it will ultimately be up to a panel of judges to decide who wins. Several prizewinners will be selected from among the top 50 vote getters by Crate & Barrel employees.

Is it realistic to hope the company might select a gay couple for one of the top prizes, even the $100,000 grand prize? Vickie Lang, manager of public relations and community affairs for Crate & Barrel, says it’s certainly possible and that the gay-friendly company is open to it.

“Ultimately our role is to be a resource to any couple celebrating a wedding, a commitment ceremony or any of that,” Lang says. “As part of that, we’re celebrating inclusiveness and we’re excited about that. … We’re looking for couples who really reflect the Crate & Barrel lifestyle, whether they’re same-sex couples or heterosexual couples.”

And just what is the “lifestyle”? Lang mentions “Timeless, classic, high quality, clean, vibrant and comfortable — things for a warm, approachable lifestyle.”

There’s been an ugly side to the contest, though. Anonymous Chicago blogger Detective Shaved Longcock, who knows and supports the Coles, wrote in comments that have since been removed from his blog: “A gay couple is giving Densey and Mary Cole a run for their money? Let’s really get the vote out for one of our own. … I am not politically correct and never will be. Period! I am not going to let this fruit loop couple beat one of our own!”

That posting inspired a litany of anti-gay anonymous posts against Howard and Jones including, “these are all guys who can’t please a woman,” “faggots deserve to die,” “Homos are as sick as child molesters and rapists,” “I hope they all catch HIV,” and more.

But there’s also been an upside. Jones says he’s heard from people who harassed him with anti-gay slurs in school who’ve now voted for he and Howard to win. One even apologized.

“I can’t even put it into words,” Jones says. “It’s a warm and amazing feeling.”

A handful of other same-sex couples are also in the contest. One couple, Ed and Erwin, who have two adopted sons, are facing Erwin’s terminal lung cancer and hope to wed before he dies. They have more than 1,000 votes.

If they win, Howard and Jones would like to wed on their anniversary — Oct. 10 (10/10/10). If not, they’ll likely bump to April 2011.

Regardless of how it turns out, they’re happy to have found each other and thrilled that they can marry in Washington.

“It is so affirming that this is our nation’s capital and this happening right here around people making our rights, laws and liberties,” Jones says. “It also makes a huge statement that Congress had the ability to veto this and they did not. It sends a really positive message that this needs to be accepted and that we are equal and deserve every right that every other couple in this country deserves.”

To vote, go to www.ultimateweddingcontest.com and register an e-mail address. Howard and Jones are couple number 22682.

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Virginia

Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video

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Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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Fairfax schools returns LGBTQ-themed books in high school libraries

Review found ‘no pedophilia’ in texts as critics claimed

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(Book cover insert courtesy of Amazon)

The Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Tuesday that following a detailed review by two committees appointed by school officials it has returned two LGBTQ themed books to its high school libraries that had been temporarily withdrawn after being challenged by critics who claimed they included sexually explicit content inappropriate for students.

The two books, “Lawn Boy,” a novel by author Jonathan Evison, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is described as an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe, each contain descriptions of sexual acts.

But supporters of the books have argued that they have won praise by literary critics and, while describing intimate relationships, they tell stories that do not fall into the category of pornography.  

Fairfax County Public Schools, the name used for the county’s public school system, on Tuesday said in a statement that a thorough review of the books by two committees consisting of educators, school officials, parents and some students found that neither book contained content that could be considered to depict pedophilia as claimed by some parents and others opposing the two books.

School officials announced they had temporarily withdrawn the two books from school libraries following a Sept. 23 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board where strong objections to the two books were raised by parents.

“Two books that were subject to formal challenge have been deemed appropriate for high school readers following a two-month review process and will be reinstated to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) libraries,” Tuesday’s statement by the school system says.

“The decision reaffirms FCPS’s ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters,” the statement continues. “Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journey,” the statement says.

The statement says the final decision to reinstate the books was made by Noel Klimenko, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for its Instructional Services Department.

The two books have received favorable reviews in various literary publications. Both have received the American Library Association’s Alex Award, an annual award that recognizes the year’s 10 books written for adults that the association says have a special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.

“The robust committee process took place over several weeks and considered whether the books flouted regulations by being obscene or harmful to juveniles as defined by the Code of Virginia,” the school system statement says. “The members also considered the work in line with an excerpt from the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook pertaining to possessing obscene visual imagery as defined in the Code of Virginia,” the statement says.

“After careful consideration, neither books were deemed to have fallen foul of these regulations,” it concludes.

The decision by Fairfax school officials to reinstate the two books came about six weeks after more than 425 LGBTQ students and allies from over 30 Fairfax County public high schools sent a letter to the school board and the school system’s superintendent urging them to reinstate the two books.

The Pride Liberation Project, a coalition of LGBTQ and allied students in Fairfax County, organized the joint letter.

“Student representatives from over 30 schools, including nearly every high school in Fairfax County Public Schools, have signed this letter, and many of us are students of color, low-income, gender expansive and not out to our families and communities,” the letter states.

“We are writing to ask you to reject calls to remove Maia Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer’ and Jonathan Evison’s ‘Lawn Boy’ from Fairfax County Public Schools libraries,” the letter says.

It points out that “hundreds of books in our schools already depict heterosexual relationships and physical intimacy,” and says singling out LGBTQ themed books with similar stories of intimacy for rejection is unfair.

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Transgender Zimbabwean woman in Md. wins asylum case

Mattie Tux Horton lives in Rockville

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Mattie Tux Horton, right, with her lawyer Ankush Dhupar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Mattie Tux Horton/Facebook)

A transgender woman from Zimbabwe who lives in Rockville won her asylum case in late October after living in the U.S. for the past five years. 

Mattie Tux Horton was represented by Ankush Dhupar from the Los Angeles law firm Paul Hastings LLP.

“I feel at ease,” said Horton. “Although a lot is going on in the [United States], it’s [significantly] different compared to where I’m coming from.”

Horton said that she now considers the U.S. to be her home. 

Although she has been living in Maryland for a while now, receiving asylum stripped away the anxiety associated with returning to Zimbabwe had the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency denied her request. 

With protection from the U.S. government, Horton gets to live in a safe environment and without the vile treatment she encountered in Zimbabwe because of her transness.

In her hometown of Bulawayo, Horton faced constant public humiliation and was once fired from her job as a graphic artist because of her dress presentation, according to an interview she did with Medium. 

She was attacked by a violent group of men in 2014, and was outed later that year following a holiday trip to South Africa, according to the interview. 

This incident garnered media attention and The Sunday News, a Zimbabwean newspaper, published an article in which it misgendered Horton throughout the entire piece. 

This prompted Horton to apply for a U.S. visa so she could attend an LGBTQ leadership conference in D.C. and remove herself from the cacophony in her town.

The Sunday News later ran a story about Horton’s departure in which they misgendered her again and referred to her as a “transgender man” and “alleged gay.”

Horton arrived in D.C. in December 2016 and began her asylum process there. 

While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, she connected with the city’s Human Rights First chapter that referred her to Dhupar, who represented her pro bono. 

Dhupar is a labor and employment law attorney at Paul Hastings LLC and he volunteered to work on Horton’s case as part of his firm’s partnership with Human Rights First to do pro bono LGBTQ advocacy work.

Horton’s asylum was his first ever immigration case.

While the legal underpinnings of immigration were new to him, Dhupar did not struggle to situate his modus operandi because of how compelling Horton’s case was.

“I always referred to the facts of the case because the law is geared towards helping situations like [Horton’s] where someone fears for their life in their home country,” said Dhupar. 

Dhupar also added that Horton’s case was a prime example of why the asylum process exists.

Horton submitted a psychological evaluation in February 2021 that would expedite her asylum case and grant her an interview notice sooner than usual. 

At that point she had lived in the U.S. for more than four years, but she still had to wait a couple more months before she was called for an interview. This caused Horton to feel trepid about whether her case was strong enough. 

“I went through depression and had psychological breakdowns,” said Horton. “I have friends who were called in for an interview months after moving here and didn’t have to wait five years [like I did].”

This hurdle, however, gave Horton and Dhupar adequate time to build an indisputable case. The two built a personal relationship that kept them vigilant despite the abounding uncertainty. 

“She was a perfect advocate for herself and took the initiative to make sure the case did not fall on the backburner,” said Dhupar. 

Now that she has won her case, Horton is taking time to relish on her recent success. 

“I’m going to take a breather,” she said.

She also plans to secure full-time employment in 2022 and build a makeup brand. Horton currently works part time as a steering committee member — a role she says is fulfilling — at the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project- Transgender Law Center.

There, she links Black trans and gender nonconforming individuals to education, employment, legal and healthcare resources.

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