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Protesters return to Smithsonian after ban lifted

‘Censored’ video triggered action; ‘Hide/Seek’ closes Sunday

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Two activists detained in December after protesting a decision by the Smithsonian Institution to remove a video from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit about gay art in America were officially permitted to return to the National Portrait Gallery, site of the exhibit, for a private tour sponsored by Washington Blade on Feb. 3.

After intervention by the Blade, David Ward, co-curator of the exhibit, agreed to seek an official end of the enforcement of any “ban” by Smithsonian security officials barring the two protesters — videographer/photographer Mike Iacovone, who is straight, and Mike Blasenstein, who is gay — from entering any Smithsonian museum. The two were detained following their protest of a decision in late November by Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to remove a four-minute video, an extract from a longer video by the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1993, showing for a few seconds ants crawling on a crucifix, imagery that a right-wing group, the Catholic League, claimed to be anti-Catholic.

They were detained when Blasenstein and Iacavone entered the National Portrait Gallery and Blasenstein displayed the video on an iPad hung around his neck. He was also holding a stack of fliers with text explaining his protest at the video’s removal from the exhibit. Iacaone was then also detained by Smithsonian police for filming Blasenstein’s run-in with security. Each was released but only after being made to sign letters pledging not to return to any Smithsonian facilities.

Explaining his decision to protest, Blasenstein later told the newsletter ArtInfo, that he joined in actions critical of the removal of the video because, he said, “I just felt this was an important issue.”

“I’m not really an artist or an activist,” Blasenstein said, “but when I heard that they took it down, it just seemed to send such a clear negative message. So I thought to myself, I would send my own message and bring this art back into the museum.”

Blasenstein later told the Blade that they were not only banned from the museum but during their detention they were “forcibly stripped of our materials, handcuffed, dragged into a stairwell, and told to sign papers thrust in front of us or be arrested.” They were then escorted from the building, he said, “without being given copies of what we had signed.”

Ward, an historian at the Portrait Gallery and co-curator of the exhibit with Jonathan D. Katz of the State University of New York in Buffalo, told the Blade that the ban was actually “never imposed” by the Smithsonian, but was instead “done by D.C. Metro,” the city’s police force, which was called to the scene, “without our knowledge or acquiescence.”

“They then passed the buck back to us to make us ‘lift’ a ban that wasn’t our doing,” he said. Ward personally welcomed both Iacovone and Blasentein to the exhibit for the private tour on behalf of the Blade, saying, “I hope this is the end of it.” He also stated he wanted to “move on” from the entire controversy over the edited video, one of 105 items in the exhibit, which opened in late November, and closes on Feb. 13.

Blasentein told the Blade that he never felt the ban was purely a paper reprimand, saying, “let me tell you, when everyone around you is wearing guns, nothing about the process feels ‘bureaucratic.'” He said that though “you could spend hours untangling this thing” Ward was correct to insist that the so-called ban was really triggered by the city’s police, but he added that “the sergeant I spoke to at MPD was pretty clear in his opinion that MPD doesn’t ban anybody, but merely enforces a ban on behalf of the property owner.” He also stressed that the Smithsonian management “to the best of our knowledge” never insisted on barring them from the museum. That action, he believes, “was solely a decision of Smithsonian police.”

Blasentein said that “the story here is not primarily our ban,” but rather the act of official censorship itself. However, he insists that “had we been allowed back into the building,” after the incident with the iPad and the leaflets, “our protest would have been a lot different.”

“The only reason a trailer is parked outside the National Portrait Gallery is because that was the closest we were legally allowed to get to the building. If the Smithsonian had let me stand there for seven and a half hours with the iPad, we would have mobilized volunteers to do the same every day until Feb.13,” the day the exhibit closes its doors.

Instead, Iacovone and Blasenstein secured paperwork from the city to park a trailer directly in front of the museum at its entrance in the 700 block of F Street, N.W., where what they call the Museum of Censored Art — to show “the art the Smithsonian won’t,” will remain open until Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even though they can now legally enter the museum, Iacovone said their counter-exhibit in the trailers will continue to remain open, staffed by 12-15 volunteers through Sundayt.

Iacovone said they have spent more than $6,500 so far on trailer and parking space costs and for powering batteries to run the video player. He praised two art galleries — the Hamiltonian and Flashpoint, as well as two others, Transformer and Civilian — for assisting them in various ways. More than 4,000 people have entered the trailers and viewed the video, he said, noting that “our biggest day so far was over 500 people,” and he thinks by the time the Museum of Censored Art shuts down they will reach the 5,000-visitor mark.

The exhibit is the first on the subject of same-sex desire in American art and shows the work of noted artists Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent as well as more recent icons such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, the latter a photographer whose photo images showing explicit male sexuality caused the Corcoran Gallery to halt the exhibit planned of his work more than 20 years ago.

Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough, the official responsible for the decision to order removal of the video, part of a larger work in 1987 called “A Fire in My Belly,” meanwhile, has been the target of calls for him to resign in the wake of that decision. Last week, about 30 protesters rallied outside the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall during a quarterly meeting of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, to demand that they fire him.

Organized by Art+ (positive), a New York City-based group that fights censorship and homophobia, and backed also by the activist group, People For the American Way, protesters declared that Clough had given in to right-wing pressures and should step down. They chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Clough must go!”  and “Ants in my pants, fire in my belly — Clough has got to go!”

The regents, however, announced after their meeting that they supported Clough, though even he subsequently acknowledged that perhaps it had been made in haste and that he would respond differently in  the future.

“I’d like to think I’m a little wiser than I was six months ago or three months ago,” he said at a news conference following the meeting with the regents, which reviewed the entire controversy and then issued a statement backing him. However, a three-member panel reporting to the regents implicitly criticized the way the censorship decision was made and communicated. And regents repeatedly asked by reporters whether Clough had made the right decision refused to answer directly.

Another rebuke, this time more direct, came from the board of a Smithsonian member institution, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, that met last week and issued an open letter, saying they were “deeply troubled by the precedent” of the November decision to pull the video from the show.

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West Virginia

Eastern Panhandle Pride brings celebration to rural W.Va.

‘Martinsburg is an inclusive city’

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A scene from Eastern Panhandle Pride on June 4. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Smiling faces spilled into downtown Martinsburg, W.Va., on June 4, welcomed by booths swathed in rainbow colors lining the road.

The historic sight marked the first time that Martinsburg welcomed an official Pride celebration to its streets — but not all residents viewed the new event favorably. As the celebration came into full swing, two protesters marched straight to its center, carrying a sign with homophobic slurs and a seven-foot cross.

The protest quickly turned the heads of passersby. As more and more people approached the demonstration, a group of more than 30 attendees formed a circle around the protesters, separating them from the event. Some joined hands and, attempting to drown out the protesters’ hatred, chanted: “Love wins!”

When Joe Merceruio began working at Eastern Panhandle Pride nine years ago, he set out to help unite the community of West Virginia’s easternmost region, working with fellow organizers to create Pride celebrations in a Shepherdstown park.

But when assuming the role of president in 2019, he never anticipated that just three years later, the organization would be invited by the mayor of the panhandle’s largest city to throw a celebration in the Berkeley County, W.Va. seat. “We’ve never had a city reach out to us and ask us to do Pride, it was always the other way around,” he explained.

Born and raised in Martinsburg, Merceruio was moved by the way his community came together at this year’s Pride celebration. After two years of restricted celebrations due to public health concerns, seeing so many people celebrate in person, including many allies, was deeply meaningful, he noted.

Beth Roemer, who helped organize this year’s festivities, said she was especially proud of the way her community peacefully organized against the protesters — especially those young people she credited with leading the charge. The group was “surrounding them in a very passive way so that they couldn’t do any more damage,” she recalled.

Participating in Pride each year has shown Merceruio and Roemer alike the ways their community is changing, fueled by advocacy from LGBTQ individuals and allies within it.

Berkeley County is known for being more conservative, which meant that Roemer “wasn’t sure” exactly “how far we had come” in accepting the LGBTQ community. But her hopes for inclusivity were quickly realized when she saw how many people supported this year’s celebration.

“We had a local business downtown reach out to Joe and I, and he said he just never believed in a million years that we could have Pride downtown,” she added. “He was super happy.”

According to Merceruio, Pride offers an opportunity for community building especially important to rural West Virginians.

“I think you can let the stereotype of West Virginia interfere with the reality of the West Virginia that’s really out there,” he explained. “There is ignorance, there is hatred, but there’s also a tremendous amount of love and support.”

“It really gives people who want a community a chance to see that there is a community in Martinsburg,” Roemer said. At this year’s celebration, Roemer added that she met an 18-year-old woman who was able to attend Pride for the first time after her parents did not support her desire to go growing up. “She goes, ‘Now I have a community,’” Roemer recalled.

As an organization that serves a primarily rural region, Eastern Panhandle Pride operates differently from many Pride organizations in major cities. Merceruio noted that there are some challenges associated with organizing Pride in a rural area, like receiving less attention from sponsors and having to work harder to find and provide resources.

Still, Merceruio said rural Pride celebrations have a certain charm that major Pride celebrations cannot always replicate.

“I have people that have texted me and said, ‘We’re so excited to do this, our 11-year-old daughter has been waiting for this,’” he explained. “I think you get more of a family atmosphere in rural areas.”

Some of Merceruio’s favorite moments from this year’s Pride included this type of “personal interaction” with community members, he added. “I guess that’s a bit more of what you get from a smaller town for Pride.”

At this year’s Pride, Martinsburg Mayor Kevin Knowles spoke directly to attendees, welcoming the celebration to the city’s streets and reading a proclamation officially recognizing June 2022 as Pride month for the city.

“Martinsburg is an inclusive city. We include everybody, no matter where they come from or what they do,” Knowles said at the event. “The city of Martinsburg is moving forward.”

In the near future, Eastern Panhandle Pride hopes to continue to offer programming for the local LGBTQ community and its allies, and to further support community needs through advocacy. For Merceruio, this work is an important part of giving back to the place he calls home.

“I love being from West Virginia. Our culture and our society and our neighbors,” Merceruio said. “It’s got its problems, but it is awesome.”

See photos from the event here!

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Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth’s anti-climactic election raises concerns over process

Incumbent Chrzanowski criticizes delay in candidate’s filing

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Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election in Rehoboth Beach’s June election. (Photo via Facebook)

It was an anti-climactic election in Rehoboth Beach, Del., last month, when only two candidates emerged for two city commissioner seats.

Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election and Francis “Bunky” Markert was named to fill the open commissioner seat being vacated by incumbent Susan Gay. While the uncontested races meant no official election was held in the beachside city this year, the proceedings were not devoid of controversy. In a conversation with the Blade, Chrzanowski voiced concerns with this year’s election proceedings.

At the beginning of the day on June 6 — the deadline to file for the election — Chrzanowski was the only candidate to formally enter the race for commissioner, motivated by his desire to see through ongoing infrastructure development plans, he said. At the time, Gay, the other incumbent commissioner whose term ended this year, had made no official statement regarding her candidacy, and no other candidates had filed for election.

But by the end of the day, Markert — who ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2014 — was nominated for election in a petition submitted by Jan Konesey, a circulator. The next day, Gay announced she would not seek reelection due to family health concerns. “I am not leaving Rehoboth Beach,” Gay said in the June 7 statement, but “I have decided not to seek re-election.”

With only two candidates in the running, Chrzanowski and Markert were exempt from participating in an official election. Chrzanowski, who is gay, noted he was “very glad” that he would not “have to campaign,” but criticized his colleague’s behavior surrounding registration for the election. In a conversation with the Blade, he alleged that Gay deliberately waited to announce whether she would seek reelection, which meant prospective opponents were unaware of the vacancy and therefore less likely to enter the race. He also suggested that Gay encouraged “one of her friends” — Markert — to file his candidacy in her place, without opposition.

“I’m very disappointed with what my colleague who decided not to run for reelection (did),” Chrzanowski said. “I announced my candidacy pretty early on to allow the public to absorb that. If someone wanted to run against me, I’d obviously give them the chance to do that.”

The idea of his colleagues “playing behind the scenes” left him feeling “disappointed,” he added. “Given the person that is running, or now will walk in as a commissioner, I would have much preferred there be an election and that person be challenged.”

But Gay and Markert both deny that they coordinated their decisions regarding the election.

Gay said she had initially planned to seek reelection, but a “change of plans” caused by family health circumstances made her feel she could not faithfully carry out the position for another consecutive term. “It was actually very last minute,” she said. “In fact, I had an (election) petition all set to go.”

“I realized that I could not devote the time that I needed” to the position, Gay explained. “I take the work very seriously. I wanted to be able to devote my full attention to it, and I just cannot right now.”

“It was a very, very, very difficult decision,” she added.

Markert said he presumed someone else would run in the election, so an uncontested race did not influence his candidacy.

In 2014, Markert was appointed to the city’s planning commission. He said his experience both as a resident of Rehoboth Beach and as a volunteer in local government led him to want to serve the city further by guiding its development as a commissioner, moving Rehoboth Beach forward while also preserving its unique character and qualities.

Gay said that waiting to the end of the allotted window to announce candidacy in the commissioner election was not unusual in city politics. In previous years, candidates often submitted their petitions on the very last day allowed, she explained.

“There’s a tradition here, and Ed should know this because he did it himself,” Gay said. “I went and ran three years ago. There were two candidates that announced in advance, and then the last four — Ed was one of them — turned in their petitions” on the latest day possible.

In an email to the Blade, Rehoboth Beach communications specialist Lynne Coan confirmed that in the 2019 election, when Chrzanowski and Gay were most recently elected, they both filed their petitions less than an hour before the deadline.

Gay added she was traveling when Markert’s petition was submitted, and was therefore not immediately aware he was an official candidate.

“Every year, we never know until the last minute who (the candidates are) going to be,” she said. “I don’t think anybody’s decision to run should be dependent on anybody else, and it certainly wasn’t for me. If people want to run they should step up.”

Regardless of the circumstances that brought them to their positions, Chrzanowski and Markert received approval from the city’s Board of Elections and are slated to serve as city commissioners. Reflecting on this year’s proceedings, each expressed mixed feelings about the lack of a formal election.

For Chrzanowski, who previously won a contested race for city commissioner, avoiding the “divisiveness” of a local election was advantageous. But he added that there was something lost without formal proceedings, which offer the public an opportunity to challenge candidate platforms and even enter the race should they feel their views are unrepresented.

For Markert, running uncontested removed significant monetary and time constraints. Still, a formal election would have helped him connect with the local community, and their support would have granted “ a certain level of legitimacy” to his representing them in city government.

“I would prefer to be up there, elected … (but) I’m a qualified candidate,” he explained. “In three years time, if I was to run again, and I plan to run again, maybe I’ll be able to be elected.”

According to Coan, the Board of Elections will meet on July 12 to finalize the 2022 election. Chrzanowski and Markert will begin their terms on Sept. 16.

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District of Columbia

D.C. house with rainbow Pride flag set on fire

Investigators seeking help from public in search for suspect

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A Pride flag remained displayed at the house in Shaw this past Sunday, one week after the fire in the rear of the house which fire officials have listed as arson. (Washington Blade photos by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has classified as arson a June 19 fire at a two-story row house on the 1800 block of 8th Street, N.W. in the city’s Shaw neighborhood that had an LGBTQ rainbow Pride flag prominently displayed on the front of the house.

A Fire & EMS Department spokesperson said the fire was ignited in a detached wooden garage in the rear of the house accessible only through an alley, and fire investigators have yet to identify a suspect or a motive for what evidence shows was an intentionally set fire.

Although the front of the brick rowhouse where the Pride flag was displayed was not damaged, the fire in the garage spread to the rear of the house, destroying a wooden outdoor deck, and caused extensive damage to the kitchen, bathroom, and second floor bedroom. Fire investigators have sealed the house, requiring its three occupants to find a temporary residence as the investigation continues.

One of the three occupants of the house, who was the only one at home when the fire started at about 2 a.m., escaped without injury, according to sources who know the occupants.

“The Pride flag on the front of the house was present at the time of the fire,” Jennifer Donelan, director of communications for the Fire & EMS Department, told the Washington Blade. “We do not have any information, at this time, that suggests the arson was related to the presence of the flag, however we are still working on the case,” she said.

“We are aggressively working to identify a suspect and a motive,” Donelan said. “Until such time, we won’t be able to make a determination as to whether or not this was a hate crime.”

She said the Fire & EMS Department is seeking help from the public in its effort to identify one or more suspects responsible for the fire. Anyone with information that could be helpful to the investigation is asked to call fire investigators at 202-673-2776.

The fire at the D.C. house with the Pride flag took place less than a week after Baltimore police said a house in that city’s Waverly neighborhood on which “Pride décor” was displayed was set on fire on June 15, causing extensive damage to the house and nearby houses.

Baltimore police and fire department officials said a Pride flag on a house across the street from the house set on fire was also ablaze when firefighters arrived on the scene. Two men were hospitalized in critical condition and a woman was listed in serious condition because of the fire ignited in the house.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott released a statement saying fire department officials had yet to determine a motive for the fire.

“At this point, we cannot confirm that this was a hate crime,” Scott said. “However, my agencies will bring every appropriate resource to bear to get to the bottom of this tragic event,” he said. “I continue to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community.”

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