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Queery: Don Michael Mendoza

The visionary behind a new Black Fox Lounge cabaret night answers 20 gay questions

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Don Michael Mendoza (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Spoken word performance and musical theater may seem like distant cousins at best to some, but not to Don Michael Mendoza. Sensing a gulf between the two performance worlds, he and friend Regie Cabico created a space for the two worlds to come together.

They co-host La-To-Do, a cabaret series that runs every Monday night at Black Fox Lounge from 8:30 to 10 p.m. It launched in January and, according to Mendoza, has been a hit.

“We’d done a show together last summer at the Fringe Festival and just started a conversation about how there’s really no cabaret culture in D.C.,” Mendoza says. “We wanted something more than just an open mic, where anyone can just go up there and it’s not always the best quality. We just found there is a lot of misunderstanding between the two worlds. Musical theater types think the spoken word people are just strange people who studied English and sit at home all day like Sylvia Plath and the spoken word people think the theater folks are just doing mass-produced stuff like ‘Wicked.’ We’ve found there’s a lot more to both worlds.”

Mendoza and Cabico, both gay, co-host the series and take turns performing. The show spotlights two guest entertainers each week as well, mostly volunteers whom the two co-hosts have vetted. They’re also hoping to make the event a hot networking spot for local artistic types.

“We’re still kind of figuring it out,” Mendoza says. “We’re not trying to change the world or anything. Just trying to provide some fun and entertainment on a Monday night where people can go there, be themselves, see good art and also perform.”

There’s a $10 cover to attend, which includes a drink. Visit the group on Facebook for more information.

Mendoza, a 23-year-old Pittsburgh native, came to Washington in 2006 to study at American University. He graduated with double majors — broadcast journalism and musical theater. He worked for the college in media relations after graduating but went to Vida Metropole on 15th and P about six weeks ago for a change of pace. He’d eventually like to do something full time in performance but is still figuring that out.

Mendoza is single and lives in Logan Circle. He enjoys working out, travel and theater in his free time. (Blade photos by Michael Key)

How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?

I’ve been out since I was 20, so three years, and the hardest person to tell was my mother. Even though she always told me it would be OK if I ever were, I knew that it would still flip her world and image of me upside down.

Who’s your LGBT hero?

MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts because he’s the first news anchor to publicly come out in a world that usually masks LGBT people behind a straight news persona. His coming out was due to a tragic personal event, but he didn’t let it ruin his determination. He was not afraid to be who he is and strive for journalistic excellence at the same time, which got him to where he is today, and I hope to follow the same ethical and moral path in what I do.

What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present? 

Not to be biased, but I really love Black Fox Lounge because of the calm, jazzy atmosphere, good food and drinks and the friendly owners and staff.

Describe your dream wedding.

It will be a big wedding. I want my partner and I to be surrounded by everyone who matters most in our lives. I want it to be at a location in the countryside and it will be the definition of class. Everything would be tasteful and well thought out.

What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?

Representation for D.C. residents in Congress. I maintain my Pennsylvania license because I like voting in a state where my voice matters and until D.C. residents have full voting rights, I refuse to become a full resident of the District.

What historical outcome would you change?

The results of the 2000 presidential election.

What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?

The tragedy of  9-11 because, like the JFK assassination was for my parents, I will always remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment I heard the news.

On what do you insist?

That the dishes are washed and the apartment is clean for the many friends I always have over for dinner parties.

What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?

“Smiling is an understatement for me these days. Ah, me. :)”

If your life were a book, what would the title be?

“I’ll be your fortune, cookie!”

If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?

I wouldn’t do it. It took me 20 years to figure it out what makes me happy! Why would I ever want to change it?

What do you believe in beyond the physical world? 

I believe that there is a God, but that all the religious tension and conflict stem out of people’s imposed beliefs on something that none of us really understand.

What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?

Keep on doing what you’re doing. Any and all progress is good.

What would you walk across hot coals for?

I like the soles of my feet, so I don’t think I would do it for anything.

What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?

That if you’re lesbian you have to be butch and if you’re a gay man you have to be feminine. Your sexual preference has nothing to do with the way you carry yourself.

What’s your favorite LGBT movie?

“The Weekend” because I think all gay men, single or in a relationship, need to watch it for the lessons it has to offer, especially in a city where finding a stable relationship is difficult to pursue.

What’s the most overrated social custom?

Playing hard to get when you start seeing someone. Just be honest about what you’re doing. It makes everything less complicated.

What trophy or prize do you most covet?

It’s not really a trophy or a prize, but I would like to be on the cover of GQ one day. I’ve enjoyed the magazine since I knew how to dress well, and to be featured in a fashion spread in that publication would be amazing!

What do you wish you’d known at 18?

That life after college brings so much unexpected crap and that nothing can ever prepare you for the joys and pains of adulthood no matter how much advice you receive ahead of time.

Why Washington?

It was always a second home to me since we moved to Pittsburgh when I was a toddler because we visited so often. I chose to come to college here and when it came to deciding on where to start my adult life, I couldn’t see any other option.

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Music & Concerts

New dance single pays tribute to Town Danceboutique

Local musicians pen ‘Town’ in honor of shuttered club

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Bryce Bowyn (Photo by Clarissa Villondo)

The closing of the LGBTQ nightclub Town Danceboutique in the summer of 2017 was heartbreaking to local musician Bryce Bowyn. He and his Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter friend Lexie Martin decided to honor its legacy in their new single, “Town.”

For Bowyn, who moved to the District about a decade ago to attend school at American University, the memories he has from Town Danceboutique are endless. And when it closed, it was a massive loss to Bowyn and many others. 

“It was such a cool space,” Bowyn said. “It was just disappointing to see a place that brought so many people together become part of the landscape again.” The building Town Danceboutique used to be housed in is now home to upscale apartments and a CVS. 

Town Danceboutique was a formative place for Bowyn and Martin, and it was Bowyn’s first experience in an open and accepting LGBTQ environment. His favorite memories at the club were always on Halloween, he said. Patrons, including Bowyn, would go all out with their costumes to look their very best. 

Bowyn and Martin met while they were both in the musical theater program at American University. Despite their years-long friendship, “Town” is the first song they have written together. They sat down over FaceTime and got to work. It was Martin’s idea to pay homage to Town Danceboutique, and the song follows the story of pre-gaming, going out, and hitting the dance floor. 

But the single also serves as a hype song for going out in any city, at any place. 

“It was important to me for the song to remain relatable and accessible,” Bowyn said. “So the whole foundation of the chorus, ‘Let’s go to town,’ can either mean Town Danceboutique, or painting the town red and having the night of your life.”

Bowyn started writing and producing his own music in 2018. He released an EP titled “A Rosy Retrospect” in 2022, and most recently released a single “A Bridge Burned Down” in June. His music is inspired by late 2000s pop and ‘80s synthpop, influenced by stars like Madonna and Charli XCX. Lexie Martin released her self-titled EP in 2019 and most recently came out with her single “SUPERPOWER” in 2021. 

Bowyn has been a lifelong pop music enthusiast. He distinctly remembers watching Britney Spears perform “Oops!…I Did It Again” at the MTV Video Music Awards when he was a kid and thinking “That was what I wanted and what I was set to do in life.”

“My heart was always with pop music,” Bowyn said. 

“Town” is available now for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud.

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Movies

Bernal shines as real-life gay wrestler in ‘Cassandro’

A polished, engaging film about a real-life figure that carries message of hope

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Gael García Bernal in ‘Cassandro.’ (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

For most Americans, any knowledge of the Mexican wrestling style known as lucha libre is probably limited to what they gleaned from the 2006 Jack Black comedy “Nacho Libre,” which (it should go without saying) is not a movie that anyone should consider “factual.”

Now another movie about the subject has arrived, and this time it’s not an anything-for-a-laugh fantasy but a biopic about a real luchador who rose to international fame in the 1980s and remains one of the most celebrated and popular figures in Mexican professional wrestling to this day.

The luchador in question is Saúl Armendáriz – better known to his fans as “Cassandro” – and the eponymously titled movie about his ascendency begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 22 after a limited theatrical release on Sept. 15.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who may not be a household name but has the distinction of being the first Black director to win an Oscar, thanks to the 2009 win of his “Music by Prudence” for Best Documentary Short), “Cassandro” stars Gael García Bernal – a longtime ally who became a queer fan-favorite thanks to his work in films like “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education” – as the openly gay Armendáriz and tells the story of his rise to fame in direct defiance of the culturally reinforced homophobia that permeated the professional environment of his field. Set in the 1980s, it follows the future superstar from the early days of his career, tracing his steps as he forges a path to success as an exótico – a wrestler who assumes a flamboyant persona based in queer (and largely homophobic) stereotypes – while simultaneously rising above the stigma of his sexuality and his impoverished upbringing to become a pioneering force in LGBTQ+ acceptance within the deeply traditional Latino culture to which he belonged.

Like most biopics, it also focuses on the personal: much of the film’s first half is dominated by the relationship between Armendáriz and his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a professional “good-time girl” whose acceptance of his queer identity is absolute yet tempered by her fear for his well-being. There is also a long-running thread about his desire for approval from his father – a married man with a “legitimate” family in which he is decidedly not included – and the pattern in his personal life of repeating that same dynamic in romantic relationships with lovers like closeted big-name luchador “El Comandante” (Raúl Castillo) and an apparently fluid but firmly “on the DL” associate named Felipe (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny for those unfamiliar with his “real” name) who clearly meets more than just his need for a reliable supplier of cocaine – it is the ‘80s, after all – while maintaining a strict-if-not-quite-convincing “no homo” stance.

Ultimately, though, as presented by first-time narrative feature director Williams (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague after previously covering Armendáriz’ story in the 2016 documentary short “The Man Without a Mask”), “Cassandro” is driven by a narrative about overcoming and reclaiming the pejorative cultural tropes around queer sexuality and turning them on their ear as a means toward fully inhabiting queer identity. Blessed with a relatively supportive mother – a plainly-implied career sex worker who is depicted as much as a kindred spirit as she is a maternal figure – and comfortable enough in his own skin to flaunt his “deviance” in the public eye, the film’s version of Armendáriz moves through a clearly defined arc toward self-acceptance on his own terms.

Much of this is mirrored, of course, in the tale of his accelerated rise to stardom, in which he wins the hearts of lucha libre fans enough to subvert the accepted formula that the exótico is always the loser, and reinforced by the ways in which he responds to the various long-term relationships in his life – some nurturing, some toxic – as his career trajectory helps him to recognize his own worth. In this way, “Cassandro” becomes a true-life tale of queer affirmation, the saga of a person who overcomes hardline traditional expectations and deep-rooted social prejudice to use his own queer identity as an avenue to personal empowerment.

That, of course, is exactly what it sets out to be: it’s an unabashedly pro-queer narrative that brings the highest level of professional artistry into the mix, using it to convey that subtle blend of aloof observation and emotional engagement that can sometimes win viewers’ hearts and minds.

In recognition of that artistry, the foremost acknowledgement must go to Bernal, who turns in a career-highlight performance as both Armendáriz and his over-the-top titular alter-ego, which requires an impressive display of physicality in addition to keen emotional intelligence. The actor is more than capable on both fronts, and while it would frankly be nice to see one of our queer heroes portrayed in a mainstream film by an actual queer actor, it’s hard to complain when the actor is someone like Bernal, who finds within his own lived experience the authenticity to make it all ring true. Kudos are also deserved for both De La Rosa, who establishes an emotional core to the story that endures even after she leaves it, and openly-queer actor Roberta Colindrez as the trainer (and friend) that helps “Cassandro” conquer the world of professional lucha libre wrestling by literally flipping the script.

Still, though there is clearly a heartfelt desire to inspire behind the movie’s portrayal of its hero’s unlikely rise to glory, “Cassandro” doesn’t quite deliver the kind of unequivocal “feel-good” validation for which it aims. There’s something rote about the story as it’s told to us; Armendáriz’ success seems a foregone conclusion, and his personal struggles – though impeccably acted and depicted with sincerity – feel somehow manufactured for the sake of a desired emotional response. There’s a sense of “Hollywood” about the film’s approach, a deliberate framing of the material which makes this real-life success story seem much too easy, its subject’s struggles too much like tropes to deliver the kind of authentic satisfaction the movie clearly aims for. Built on familiar formula, it all feels a little too predictable to ring true – especially for a saga centered in such a messy, wild-and-wooly environment as professional lucha libre. Yes, it inspires, but much of that is accomplished by playing to sentiment, by what seems a deliberate effort toward building and reaffirming a legend rather than revealing the real human experience behind it, and many details of Armendariz’ real story are left out  – a suicide attempt, a struggle with substance abuse, even the origin of his iconic stage name as a tribute to a brothel-keeper of whom he was fond – that might have made for a less-sanitized and much more interesting story.

Such quibbles, however, are probably a moot point for most viewers; while “Cassandro” might feel a little too hollow to satisfy completely, it’s a polished, entertaining, and engaging film about a real-life figure that should – and does – carry a message of hope and transcendence for queer audiences.

Why would we ever complain about that?

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Sports

Celebrating sports history: DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season

Head of District’s premier league says it’s ‘groovin’ to its silver anniversary

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The DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season is underway. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

What started when gay football fans got together in the 1990s to play their favorite sport is now a D.C. institution with 270 players in 20 teams spread over three fields, playing in both fall and spring. 

“Get off the bench,” shouts the slogan on the league’s website. “Get in the game!” 

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League turns 25 years old this month and is considered not only the premier league of its kind in the District, but is recognized across the country for its players, organization, and spirit.

“The way we run our league and the way we compete make us stand out relative to the rest,” DCGFFL Commissioner Logan Dawson told the Washington Blade. 

For those who don’t know flag football from any other kind, the difference is easy to spot: There’s no contact allowed. As the rules say, “That includes tackling, diving, blocking, and screening. Instead, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. To ‘tackle’ the person in possession of the ball, the opposing team needs to pull one or both of their flags off.” There are a lot more rules, but that’s the one that really sets it apart from tackle football. 

The sport itself dates back to World War II and its origins have been traced to Fort Meade, Md. 

What’s the secret to the league’s longevity? “I think we attract and hold on to great athletes who are highly competitive, not only on the field, but also, in our professional and personal lives,” he said. Dawson, 32, plays flag football as well as manages the league. He’s currently single, but says his first love is the weather. 

“I knew in second grade that I wanted to be a meteorologist,” said Dawson, who moved to the District to be a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. 

A prolific swimmer since high school, he came out as he started grad school at Purdue University in Indiana in 2012. In an op-ed appearing in Outsports in 2014, Dawson wrote about competing in his first Gay Games in Cleveland along with a group of other gay swimmers from Colorado, and left that experience determined to join a gay sports league. 

He found it in the fall of 2018 in the DCGFFL, the same year the league’s Generals team won Gay Games XVIII. The league supports up to five travel teams, which take part in annual tournaments nationwide. It also hosts a summer tournament each year in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“There’s a good amount of participation by people who played in the league from the very early days,” Dawson said. “I think we’re just in the sweet spot, where we have a lot of the original participants, a lot of new players, and we’re just kind of grooving right now.”

The first group gathered at Francis Field near Dupont Circle in 1994. Three years later, another group formed to play just steps from the Washington Monument Mall. They came together in 1998 to form what is now the DCGFFL. 

“For the majority of those seasons, we mainly had one division that played that was co-ed,” said Dawson. “This is our second season that we’ve had a Womens+ Division made up of [cisgender] women, trans and nonbinary individuals.” The Womens+ teams are called the Senators. 

Jayme Fuglesten is director of the Womens+ Division and has played in the league in most seasons since 2011.

“The DCGFFL has been a major part of my adult life,” she says. “I came out while playing in the league in no small part because of the love and support of this community.”

Why does she think the league has been such a success to have lasted 25 years?

“I think the league has been so successful because of its focus on inclusion and community,” she says. “I remember being so surprised in my early years when JJ and so many others would just come right up to me, hug me, and welcome me. And that really hasn’t changed in the 20+ seasons I’ve been around. It also continues to grow and respond to the needs and desires of our players. One example of that is the new Womens+ division, which gives an additional space for people who identify as womens+ to play and cultivate stronger relationships.”

DC Gay Flag Football plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Next month, the DCGFF will send both Generals and Senators to Gay Bowl XXIII in Seattle. “That’s going to be the first time we’re going to have two Womens+ teams at the Gay Bowl,” Dawson told the Blade. “It’s reflective of the new generation of the league.” 

Earlier generations had trouble attracting new players. As the Blade reported in 2019, what had been a steady number of 20 to 22 teams dropped dramatically to 14, its lowest roster since 2011. The league’s leadership turned it around with new recruiting events, new sponsors, changes in their social event locations, changes to their player draft and a change of venue for league play beyond Carter Barron fields in Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. 

Brentwood Hamilton Park in Northeast Washington is now home to the recreation division and Randall Field south of the Capitol is the league’s third venue. 

Just like every facet of society, from coast to coast, what happened next hit the league hard. “COVID happened in spring of 2020,” recalled Dawson. “Everything shut down, and we did not play for what amounted to three full seasons for a year and a half.”

But once the world emerged from quarantine and lockdowns, flag football players started flocking to the DCGFFL. “We’ve had probably over 150 new players join our league in the last two years,” he said.

One thing is certain, said Dawson: Despite the name, not everyone who plays in the gay flag football league is LGBTQ+. 

“It’s a really great community. There’s a straight couple that’s married and will be soon having a child in the next month or so,” Dawson said. “They met playing in the league, just like we’ve had gay couples who meet in the league and eventually get married and have children.”

Prominent among the league’s many sponsors is the NFL hometown team, the Washington Commanders. “They are highly supportive of us, not just financially, but also publicly supporting what we are, and our mission,” Dawson said. 

This current NFL season is the first since 2021 without an out gay player on the gridiron. That’s when Carl Nassib became the first active pro football player to come out as gay. 

(Washington Blade file photo by Adam Hall)

While Dawson said, “I’m sure there are more out there” who have not yet come out, Nassib’s retirement makes this anniversary of the DCGFFL even more significant. 

“It’s unfortunate people still feel they cannot be out while they’re playing and doing what they love, but that’s the reason why something like the D.C. Gay Flag Football League is so important,” he said. “To show that there are gay and trans athletes who exist and love playing sports.”

The league plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23 starting at 8 p.m. Check the website for ticket information.

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