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Duplex Diner pioneer hands over the keys

Hirshfield sparked an ongoing renaissance on high-profile block

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Eric Hirschfield

Eric Hirshfield opened the 18th & U Duplex Diner in June 1998, which quickly caught on with gay patrons who dubbed it the ‘Cheers for Queers.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Eric Hirshfield, the founder and now former owner of 18th & U Duplex Diner, has proven to be, above all else, a gracious and dedicated gentleman entrepreneur.

His recent announcement that he had sold the business spread like a wildfire among the Duplex’s network of neighborhood patrons and gay community movers-and-shakers alike. An appropriate reaction for a venue attracting a bevy of local gay men and lesbians and their friends where a portion of deceased LGBT and AIDS activist and Clinton administration official Bob Hattoy’s ashes are kept in a martini shaker on a shelf behind the bar.

Following a 13-year anniversary “BAR mitzvah” celebration on June 25 heralding a month-long closure to “refresh” the venue and after a series of weekly “Road Trip” signature Thursday night events currently underway at neighboring establishments, long-time Duplex Diner bartender and new owner Kevin Lee will re-open the venue at the end of the month and continue the popular and well-regarded landmark enterprise.

Referring to his decision to quit his job sporting a pocket protector as a civil engineer to open a community restaurant and bar “a seduction” that began three years prior to the Duplex Diner’s June 1998 opening, Hirshfield jokes that the hospitality industry is the “world’s second oldest profession” — if not the first.

Like a teenager constantly riding his bike down the street in front of a cute neighbor boy’s house, Hirshfield would walk by the abandoned property just north of 18th and U streets at the intersection with Florida Avenue, N.W., on the way home from his downtown office, pressing his face against the glass and dreaming of what it would be like to feel passion, excitement and commitment in his professional life.

It didn’t matter to him that the object of his affection was more than a little rough around the edges. In fact, the conjoined structures at 2002 and 2004 18th St. had seen better days. The weeds inside the building would grow to the height and thickness of trees in the summer and the hollow shell was rapidly deteriorating.

As a young man intent on chasing his desires, Hirshfield threw caution to the wind and told himself that this was the moment to make his move.

Disapproving neighbors

But the challenges involved in consummating such a relationship in the District often prove to be a cruel mistress, indeed.

Despite the fact that he was proposing to rehabilitate a prominent eyesore located at the southern gateway to the Adams Morgan neighborhood where it rubbed shoulders with Dupont Circle, a small group of area residents was quick to disapprove of this new prospective venture.

In a scene re-enacted to this day across the city, they insisted on intervening in this affair. They knew that local tradition allowed them the opportunity to interrupt the courtship and bestowed upon them the potential to call the whole thing off.

Several years later, Hirshfield would join with hundreds of other local business owners in opposition to small citizens groups and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members advocating even more onerous restrictions on local businesses, describing the nearly two-year-long ordeal he had endured under the city’s cumbersome alcohol licensing process.

First testifying before the D.C. Council in 2004 during public hearings on the proposed Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) law revisions, Hirshfield captured the attention of city officials by detailing the outlandish elements of a lengthy so-called “Voluntary Agreement” he was forced to sign with a small group of liquor license protestants in order to move forward with his contingency lease and property renovation, eventually opening for business.

The document stipulated, among other things, the hours he could open the front windows facing the steady stream of buses, cars and trucks filling this major transportation artery and commercial intersection lest his patrons generate too much noise. It dictated the exact location of his trash containers and required that he install an “airlock” double entrance chamber leading into the small 1,000 square foot establishment.

Confessing his ‘sins’

Council members sat up in their seats in rapt attention as Hirshfield freely “confessed his sins” and announced in a characteristically devilish manner that he was in violation of a number of these stipulations.

His only defense: common sense.

Plus the fact no one had noticed, owing to the reality that these intrusive and nonsensical requirements clearly provided no real or ongoing benefit to those complaining about imagined problems in advance of their existence. Hirshfield learned first-hand that local hospitality business operators in Washington are deemed “guilty” until proven “innocent” in the eyes of the few neighborhood nannies necessary to manipulate and abuse the regulatory system and impose their will with ease, regardless of the actual merit or fairness of their supposed concerns.

Hirshfield went on to illustrate how the arbitrary sales percentage requirements dictating the amount of revenue derived from alcohol vs. food sales are counterintuitive to his business model as both a small neighborhood restaurant and bar.

Explaining that his patrons could order an entire homestyle meal for which the restaurant operation was well-known – with signature dishes like meatloaf and mac ‘n cheese and its popular tater tot side, of which a large number of patrons are worried will not make the new menu version (they will) – for a modest price, Hirshfield totaled the cost of an adult beverage with the meal and, heaven forbid, another drink (or two) at the bar either before or after.

A guest enjoying the evening and visiting with friends was, in fact, making it harder for the business to comply with the law the longer they hung around. All this despite the patron wanting to support this community business and help it succeed.

Although providing a robust and popular neighborhood eatery serving a wide swath of local demographics — Hirshfield often describes the actual bar top as being “not a gay bar, not a straight bar, but a curved bar” which, in fact, it is, and will remain — to this day the business struggles, along with many others, to meet these abstract revenue formulas.

Unintended consequences

Hirshfield’s impassioned public articulateness regarding the issues facing local community small business owners over the years has helped create a virtual industry standoff with alcohol licensing opponents. These efforts have contributed to a growing understanding among city residents that the entire license approval process has remained seriously out of whack.

Looking back on the licensing process he underwent, Hirshfield said that his naiveté was his most advantageous attribute, along with persistence and tenacity — otherwise, he might have just given up. After all, he now reflects, a rational businessperson would have simply moved on.

And therein lies the rub. For all the grousing about unruly crowds and late-night drunken revelers clutching pizza slices at the end of a weekend night overwhelming the sidewalks and spilling onto the streets of Adams Morgan, it is the extraordinarily obtuse and out-of-balance licensing process that discourages both sanguine and successful hospitality industry players from locating in the area.

Cumbersome licensing obstacles and hostile regulatory hoop-jumping required by groups such as the long-notorious Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and its miniscule active membership are the creators of these unintended consequences, according to Hirshfield. Add the small ad hoc license protest groups formed to oppose local business applicants along with neighborhood ANCs all too eager to extract their own pound of flesh — all wielding what he refers to as an “Involuntary Agreement” as their weapon of choice and demanding acquiescence to their demands — and soon seasoned and savvy community business operators begin looking elsewhere.

Hirshfield contends that it is these licensing opponents who have, in fact, “manifested what they sought to eliminate.”

Without a marketplace mix of hospitality businesses contributing to each other’s success and providing a blend of offerings, Hirshfield argues, those operating on the edges resort to cheap drinks, plastic cups, and college-age promotions to reap volume sales, larger margins and the ability to pay the bills.

Hirshfield points out — from his perspective as a neighborhood resident, consumer and business owner — that the diverse neighborhood enjoys a long tradition as host to a broad range of responsible establishments and a rich history offering an eclectic mix of cuisines and environments and continues to be a vibrant destination for well-regarded dining and entertainment options.

He believes that the neighborhood’s best days are yet ahead, and that the community will successfully confront the problems it is currently experiencing as a result of the misguided policies of the past.

You might think that a business owner would fear the presence of alternatives in close proximity or be concerned with competition from other establishments.

Not the case in Hirshfield’s mind, as he is quick to point out the long-time contribution that the also gay-owned L’Enfant Café and Bar French-inspired bistro with its comfortable outdoor seating area next door, the adjacent Bobby Lew Saloon on the opposite side, and the addition of several recently refurbished new businesses across the street, including The Blaguard and the Jack Rose Dining Saloon.

Hirshfield is proud to share in the ongoing development that has transformed this southernmost neighborhood area since those early days of entrepreneurial romance.

That is what it takes to grow a neighborhood and expand the amenities available to residents, Hirshfield said, quoting the adage “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Many would credit his vision and hard work and perseverance with being the anchor that has allowed this to happen over time along the once abandoned and neglected high-profile block that many now refer to simply as “LoMo” (for Lower Adams Morgan).

Hirshfield’s future plans

After taking some time off, Hirshfield plans to expand his involvement with business development activities in the area, sharing the lessons he learned the hard way and continuing to be an important part of the neighborhood he loves.

He takes some comfort in observing both that the city government has made progress in streamlining its business permitting departments and that the ABC Board has recently begun to cast a wary eye on those who seek to stand in the way of economic development and a fair and equitable application of alcohol licensing law without undue delay due to frivolous protests.

He hopes that Mayor Vincent Gray will encourage the continuation of these advancements when appointing new members to the ABC Board.

Although not yet detailing any specifics, what most excites Hirshfield is the opportunity to continue to be a part of a dynamic urban locale with a long-irreverent spirit and business camaraderie more akin to collaboration than competition.

In the meantime, his legacy will continue at the soon-to-reopen Duplex Diner under the stewardship of proprietor Kevin Lee — along with the familiar faces that have been key to the venue’s longstanding success continuing to serve appreciative “stakeholder” patrons. Both Hirshfield and Lee have been quick to assure inquiring customers that the popular and long-serving staff personalities “conveyed” with the sale.

New owner Lee has undertaken a “micro-renovation” to give the place a “Diner 2.0” facelift, some menu tweaks, and an expanded wine list. The “Tater Tot” lobby has proven as effective as any big-name K Street special interest advocacy firm, the Madonna-themed bathroom stays, and patrons are invited to submit suggestions on the diner’s Facebook page for a new theme for the other bathroom. Images of the venue’s renovation progress will be available on the Facebook page.

An excited Lee wants to honor the successful formula that Hirshfield introduced and nourished while adding some new touches and creating traditions of his own. Most of all he wants to continue what Hirshfield lovingly refers to as a “cool space at a great location, where a popular restaurant and bar happened along the way” — a sort of “Cheers for Queers” where everyone feels welcome and it doesn’t take long for them to remember your name.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

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Opinions

Urgent concerns arise when congressional staff face ethics investigations

We need safeguards to mitigate risk of unfair outcomes

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Congressional staff tend to avoid engaging in conduct that could reflect poorly on the members they represent or that which would otherwise bring them out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight.

Last week, however, was the second time in which I broke a story about a chief of staff on Capitol Hill who found himself the subject of a complaint to the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the body whose primary responsibility is investigating reports of unethical and unlawful conduct by America’s elected representatives.

In the first, Marjorie Taylor Greene filed a report against Democratic Rep. Jake Auchincloss’s top aide because he had placed stickers over a transphobic sign that the far-right Georgia congresswoman had displayed outside her office. 

The second complaint came from an official with the Biden-Harris administration over an especially combative and anti-trans email that was sent by the highest-ranking deputy in a West Virginia Republican’s Congressional office.

The two cases are not otherwise analogous. As the emissaries of lawmakers who are responsible to their constituents, staff should be held accountable for out-of-bounds behavior like sending offensive emails to harass colleagues on Capitol Hill or in the federal government. 

By contrast, decorating a poster in the Longworth House Office Building without permission is hardly a crime that should be escalated to the Ethics Committee, particularly not when the poster is offensive to members of a marginalized community and was hung in the first place to provoke a colleague across the hall who has a trans daughter.

If a monthslong probe exploring whether a career Hill staffer had brought discredit upon the House of Representatives with his stickers was not absurd enough, it was kicked off by none other than Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been guilty of that charge virtually every day since she was elected. (Recall, for instance, that she has called for violence against her political opponents, including by publishing a video on social media in which she said then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves the death penalty.)

A member of Congress wields a tremendous amount of power relative to even the seniormost Capitol Hill staff, a fact that was brought into sharp relief for Auchincloss’s chief of staff as he sought to defend himself against not just the committee’s investigation but also an affidavit by the Capitol Police in support of an arrest warrant along with threats and harassment so severe that his home was monitored by law enforcement.

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment when I reached out last week to confirm receipt of the complaint filed against the GOP staffer, just as they had refused to provide information about the status of the case initiated by Greene’s report.

The committee’s Senate counterpart is even more of a black box.

An article by the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government accountability group, notes that in the recent indictment of New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, “the shocking details revealed by the allegations seemingly had no end.”

The evidence against him was sufficiently flagrant and longstanding, the article argues, to “beg the question: Is the Senate incapable of finding and rooting out potential corruption before it becomes a crime?”

Part of the problem, according to CLC, is that the Upper Chamber’s ethics committee provides no means by which a complaint can be seen through to its investigation and resolution. The public knows very little about what the committee does, perhaps because the committee does very little: a study in 2023 found that none of the 1,523 reports that were filed over a period of 15 years resulted in any formal disciplinary sanctions.

Obviously, full transparency is impossible when sensitive information must be kept confidential to protect the integrity of an investigation. However, and especially if we are going to continue seeing complaints against Congressional staff rather than the lawmakers they serve, the committees should provide more insight into their processes and decision making.

Measures could include safeguards designed to mitigate the risk of unfair outcomes when investigations are brought by members of Congress and target those who have far less power. A mechanism requiring the investigators to share more information about cases under their review, to the extent possible, would also be wise — because even when the alleged conduct by a staffer may warrant a complaint, time and resources might be better spent rooting out misconduct by members of Congress, which is almost always far more consequential. 

We should also contend with the question of whether ethics committees are ever the appropriate place to explore and adjudicate allegations against staffers, since members are fully capable of enforcing the rules in their offices. 

As demonstrated by the long and tortured process through which George Santos was finally booted from Congress, getting rid of an elected lawmaker is far more difficult than, say, firing a chief of staff. 

Ultimately, perhaps the right question is: how can we hold elected representatives to a higher standard such that they model good behavior for their employ as well as for their constituents and Congressional colleagues?

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Opinions

Biden must be more direct when talking to young people

Educate them about futility of third-party candidates

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President Joe Biden (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Biden is doing a great job. But reality is, some young people are wavering in their support. I suggest when talking to young people, the president be more direct. What prompted me to write this was reading what some Morehouse College students are saying. Here is a suggested short speech.   

“I want you to know how honored I am for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will speak from my heart, and be very direct. I know you have disagreements with me. Some of you may even think I am actually too old to be president. But I am a candidate for reelection, because I believe I can still make a difference. I know you are very smart. You know only two candidates running have a chance to win. The next president will be either Donald Trump or me. 

You must figure out what issues are the most important to you. Then determine which one of us will be better for your future. Do the research on all the issues you care about. Recognize, no candidate is perfect, surely, I am not, but then no person is. I know many of you care about issues including climate change, student debt relief, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights. Issues like how the United States deals with the Israel/Hamas war, inflation, voting rights, abortion. Donald Trump and I disagree on how to handle each of those issues. We have vastly different views of the world. I believe the United States has a responsibility to lead. Our military, and our economy, are both the strongest in the world. We cannot hide, as he likes to say, behind the slogan ‘America First.’ We cannot close our eyes, and our borders, and pretend what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t impact us. 

I believe we must deal with the Iran-China-Russia axis. We must support Ukraine and continue sending weapons to help them win. If they do, we can keep our young men and women off the battlefield. Remember, we aren’t sending money, but weapons, which are made here, providing high-paying jobs to our own citizens. Some of you have issues with how I have dealt with the Israel/Hamas war. While I support Israel, I do hear you, and will do everything I can to move toward a free Palestinian state. Trump will not. He even moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to make that point. I am pushing Israel to change its tactics, to protect the innocent women and children, in Gaza. We must do that.

I know many of you want more progress on student debt forgiveness, on fighting climate change, protecting a woman’s right to control her own healthcare and body, and equality for the LGBTQ community. You want to see an end to the structural racism in our country. You must know by my actions that I share those goals with you. I also share the feeling all this is not happening fast enough. But you are all smart. You know our government was formed with a system of checks and balances; three branches of government — legislative, judicial, and executive. While I may want to wave a magic wand to make these things happen, no one can. However, I commit to you, I will fight for them every day. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Third-Party’ candidate. I ask you to remember, no third-party candidate has won since 1856, and our structure of the two-party system tells you one cannot win in 2024. In fact, for 36 years, none has ended up winning more than 5% of the vote. Then remember a few facts about Trump. He was found liable for sexual abuse. He has shown by words and actions, he is a racist, sexist, homophobe, who is also a climate change denier. He opposes student debt relief. He also tried to stage a coup after losing the last election. 

Again, like it or not, it’s either me or him. And again, while you may think I am too old, remember, he is my age. If you intend to vote for Trump, that is of course your choice. But if you don’t want him, and his MAGA cult, controlling your future, your choices are to stay home, vote for a third-party candidate, or vote for me. Two of those choices will help elect Donald Trump. So, I ask respectfully, after you do the research, that you give me your vote. Again, I am not perfect, but I will never stop working to make your, and your family’s, life better. I will always work for a more just, and safer world, for all of us.  

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Commentary

To comply or not to comply is not the question

Implementation of pro-LGBTQI+ rulings in Botswana and Namibia is unsatisfactory

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Over the past five years, the highest courts in Namibia and Botswana have made significant decisions in favor of minority groups’ human rights through favorable judgments and court orders. However, the implementation of these orders related to the rights of LGBTQI+ in Botswana and Namibia has not been satisfactory so far. 

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) after they had been denied registration based on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. In 2017, the High Court of Botswana pronounced that denying a transgender man legal gender recognition undermines their dignity and humanity and ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs to change his identity documents from female to male. In 2021, the Court of Appeal in Botswana decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions concluded outside Namibia, where same-sex marriages are legal in terms of the Immigration Act. While all these cases constitute landmark cases in securing and guaranteeing the rights of LGBTIQ persons, there is a growing trend of non-implementation when it comes to such judgements.

Government officials have partially or selectively implemented or completely disregarded the court decisions. In the LEGABIBO registration case, the Botswana Court of Appeal found that it is unconstitutional to deny registration under the assumption that LGBTQI+ are not recognized in the Bill of Rights and will offend the morality of the nation. The court found that LGBTQI+, like any other citizen or group of people in Botswana, have the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and issued an order for LEGABIBO to be registered, an order that was fulfilled promptly. However, seven years later, in March 2024, an LBQ group’s efforts to register are met with sentiments similar to those before the LEGABIBO jurisprudence. Senior public officials resisted the highest court decision to register this new group. Although their reasons are not stated as clearly as LEGABIBO rejection, government officials are still surreptitiously blocking the registration of LGBTQI+ organizations. 

Similarly, we have observed the selective application technique unfolding in legal gender recognition cases. In this case, the government officials have interpreted this as a single order that only applies to the applicants and not “all persons.” According to anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of individuals who sought legal gender recognition, they are instructed to acquire individualized court orders, a complete misinterpretation of the court’s instructions, burdening the courts to issue duplicate orders. This selective interpretation is a covert move by government officials to undermine judicial decisions and transfer the responsibility and burden of implementation to resource-constrained individuals, limiting access to justice. What is also curious is why the court system does not address repeat applications on the same issue. 

With the decriminalization court order, the attorney general acted in contempt of the judgment when he, instead of scrapping Sections 164 (a) and (c), blatantly ignored the court order and put a bill before parliament for debate. The highest court in Botswana had made a carefully considered decision to decriminalize, as indicated by a statement from SALC (Southern Africa Litigation Center) and by many contributors to this issue; there is no need to debate; the court has decided.

In Namibia’s case, compliance with the court order means recognizing foreign partners in same-sex marriages with their Namibian partners as spouses, thereby issuing them an immigration status that allows them to reside and work in Namibia. Despite the commitment by the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply, government Officials still refuse to respect the Supreme Court ruling, as indicated by Mr. Digashu’s experience: 

“In one of my many visits to the immigration offices, the officer informed me that the court order was only meant for the couples directly engaged in the court case, unaware that I was one of those couples. I got the impression that the immigration officials have adopted a dishonest tactic to deter other same-sex couples, letting them believe that the judgement does not protect them.”

One of the most significant contributors to non-compliance is the media. The media reports on the Supreme Court decision on the Digashu/Seiller-lilies matter ran with the sensational headline “Supreme Court gives legal status to same-sex marriages,” misinforming the public and fueling negativity. Misinformation affects not only the litigants and community members but also feeds the already hostile public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons. Members of parliament and religious communities put pressure on government officials. Unfortunately, parliament responded with a marriage bill that contradicted the judgment, Instead of clarifying what the ruling means and whom it affects. Public officials reflect legislators’ sentiments, disregarding principles of democracy, the rule of law, and justice for all, which are clearly stated in the constitution, and further undermining the independence of the judiciary. 

These are only a few of the many court orders that government officials have disregarded to the disadvantage and inconvenience of the minority who went to court to seek redress. For example, in the case of Mr. Daniel Digashu, he is given a visitor’s visa every time he leaves the country, which means he is forced to exit the country at its expiration date or face the wrath of the law. The cost of frequent travel and the personal emotional toll on himself and his family is insurmountable. Let alone constant dealings with questions, often followed by ridicule from immigration officials.

The question, therefore, is, what must happen to government officials who disregard court orders? 

The chief justice in Kenya offers a solution to this conundrum. Recently, the chief justice observed that senior government officials are guilty of defying court orders and suggested remedies such as impeachment of individual officers responsible. Botswana and Namibia must take a leaf out of that book.   

Of great concern is also that government officials are not transparent about the limitations of the court orders to enable the litigants and beneficiaries to seek clarification from the courts, nor are they open to engaging with civil society and affected communities to improve compliance. Are the court orders vague and, therefore, challenging to implement? Being transparent about implementation constraints will go a long way in guiding civil society on how they can support the government. Even in their resource-constrained status, CSOs must continue to monitor compliance and return to the courts for enforcement, including publicizing non-compliance in the media for public engagement. 

In conclusion, the rule of law requires that all court decisions be implemented promptly, thoroughly and effectively. The government has no choice whether to execute or not execute the court orders. 

The authors are consultants at the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC). SALC promotes and advances human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, primarily through strategic litigation and capacity-strengthening support to lawyers and grassroots organizations.

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