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Obituary: Vann Chen, 52

Friends describe him as “icon” of DC gay nightlife; talented tailor and designer

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Vann Chen, a longtime D.C. resident and self-employed tailor and clothing designer, died March 31 at his Dupont Circle area apartment. He was 52.

Danny Aviance, his close friend and roommate for 17 years, said Chen died in his sleep. He said the city’s Medical Examiner’s office was still in the process of determining the cause of death.

Aviance said Chen was the youngest of nine children born and raised in Vietnam to Chinese parents. He said Chen arrived with family members in the U.S. in 1979 or 1980 on the West Coast. Aviance said Chen initially moved to the D.C. area to help his sister operate a family-run restaurant in Falls Church, Va.

During the years that Chen shared an apartment with him on 16th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle, Aviance said Chen established a following as an acclaimed clothes maker who enjoyed making a living sewing.

“He had a style like nobody else,” Aviance said. “He did everything from wedding dresses to throw pillows. He literally threaded his way into people’s lives.”

Aviance and Chen’s friend Eileen Rappoport said Chen also was well known in the 1990s and early 2000s as a popular figure at D.C. gay nightclubs, including Tracks and later Velvet Nation before the two clubs closed to make way for real estate development.

Rappoport called Chen an “icon” in the D.C. area to those who were regulars at some of those clubs, especially Tracks.

“When Vann arrived, it was a party,” she said. “His talent in bringing life and light to anywhere he went is legendary.”

Rappoport added, “He was also a talented designer and seamstress. Many a bride walked down the aisle in a Vann Chen original. And like his work with fabric, Vann weaved himself into my life and the life of many creating a family that celebrated the best of life and grieved when the worst occurred. He was there to support each and every one of us and made us better people along the way.”

Aviance said he remembers Chen as “the funniest, kindest, sweetest person” he ever knew.

Chen’s friend David Delatour said Chen excelled in interior design as well as clothing design and the term “tailor” by itself wouldn’t do him justice.

“Vann was a high-end artist. His canvas was the human body and the home, and his paint was fabric and the needle,” said Delatour. “I have never seen anyone do what he did with his craft.”

Delatour and Mark Lee, a nightlife advocate and former owner of the gay nightclub Lizard Lounge and other venues, said Chen was also a generous supporter of community fundraisers at the clubs, especially those for AIDS- and LGBT-related causes.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, April 28 at 9 p.m. with midnight toast on Chen’s birthday, at Townhouse Tavern Upstairs (next to Cobalt), 17th and R streets, N.W. In accordance with his wishes, Chen was cremated, with his ashes to be sent to Vietnam, where they will be buried at the site of his parents’ interment, Aviance said.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Barry Schreiber

    April 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Less than fifteen minutes ago, when calling Van’s apartment to check on him and Danny (roommate of 17 years) like I had every month or so and was informed that Van Chen had passed away approximately two weeks ago. I am in utter disbelief. I have had a friendship with Van more than 20 years that has never waivered or diminished with time. He was one of a kind and though distance separated us over the last 7-8 years, we still saw each other a few times a year in person and talked on the phone many times a year. The memories of him stretch from attending a Chinese wedding in Philadelphia (more than 20 years+ ago) (with a pit stop at Tracks New York) to him designing vests, shirts, pants for me and stretching as far as him designing window treatments, accessory pieces for residences from New York to Miami Beach. He even made custom (one of a kind) jackets for my dogs! I am literally heartbroken and in a seeming state of denial. A truly talented individual was lost on that fateful night of March 30-31, 2012 and he will never be forgotten! I WILL LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER VAN TRAN (CHEN) AND MISS YOU TILL THE SUN STOPS SHINING. YOU AND YOUR TALENTS AND KINDHEARTED NATURE WILL BE WITH ME FOREVER! YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN! HIS DEATH IS A LOSS TO EVERYONE’S LIFE HE EVER TOUCHED (AND THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE IS INCALCULABLE)! LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER, BARRY (CUDA).

  2. George Rowles

    April 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Icon, is not a word I use very often when talking about people, but that is exactly what DC lost with the passing of Vann. My he rest in the great peace he deserves.

  3. AQS

    April 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    So sad. He designed my bridesmaid dresses and I just rememeber his as being a funny, kind, generous (always packed me food to take home!) person who just brought a smile to your face. RIP Van.

  4. David Swift

    April 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    What a special human being! His great talent was so obvious . Beautiful Style , anything he touched . He made my drapes so beautifully. I remember knocking on his door a couple of years back to pick up a cake he made for our good friend Doug. The cake was so big and Heavy ,and the flower work on top was incredible , obviouly a master baker . It was raining and i had two blocks to walk with the cake. Vann gave me an umbrella to protect his work and me! Style is the word that comes to mind when i think of Vann , but more than that , Gentle, He was the most gentle and kind of human beings. Small in size, but a GIANT among men!

  5. André

    April 28, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    The times that I spent in the company of Momma Vann are some of the most vivid memories I have of gay DC night(and morning)life. Fierceness is always welcome under the mirror-ball where the dearly departed and eternally loved angels of our community continue to dance among those who remain. Shine on, Vann.

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LGBTQ Democrats briefed on D.C. ranked choice voting bill

Council may already have enough votes to pass it

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Stein Club, gay news, Washington Blade
Jatarius Frazier of the Capital Stonewall Democrats was among officials briefed on the ranked choice voting bill. (Photo courtesy D.C. Government)

Members of D.C.’s Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, received a briefing Monday night from the chief of staff for D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) on a bill she introduced in July calling for a “ranked choice” voting system for D.C. elections.

The bill, called the Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act of 2021, calls for D.C. to join about 50 other jurisdictions across the country, including New York City and San Francisco, in giving voters the option of ranking up to five candidates for a particular office in the order of their preference.

Under the ranked choice voting system, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the “first choice” votes, the candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate receives greater than 50 percent of the first-choice votes in a race where there are three or more candidates, the system provides an instant runoff.

“The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate will have their votes count for their next choice,” according to a statement released by Henderson at the time she introduced the legislation. “This process continues in rounds until there’s a majority winner,” the statement says.

T.J. Maloney, Henderson’s chief of staff, told Capital Stonewall Democrats members during a virtual Zoom meeting that studies of the ranked choice voting system in jurisdictions where it has been adopted show that overall voter turnout has increased and, following a voter education process, voters appear to adjust and support the system.

Six other D.C. Council members joined Henderson in co-introducing the VOICE ranked choice voting bill, indicating it may already have a seven-vote majority in its favor on the 13-member Council. However, Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) does not support the current version of the bill, according to spokesperson Lindsay Walton.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee where the bill was sent, has not scheduled a hearing on the bill, even though Allen is one of the bill’s co-introducers.

Last week, the D.C. Democratic State Committee, which is the governing body of the D.C. Democratic Party and of which the Capital Stonewall Democrats is an affiliated member, voted to oppose the VOICE Act legislation. Some of its members said they believe a ranked choice voting system would be beneficial to the city’s smaller political party candidates, including Republicans and Statehood Green Party candidates, and would place Democratic Party candidates at a disadvantage.

Gay Democratic activist John Fanning, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat in the 2020 D.C. Democratic primary, said he favors a simple runoff election system over a ranked choice voting system in cases where multiple candidates run, and none receive at least 50 percent of the vote.

Among the ranked choice bill’s supporters is gay Democratic activist Austin Naughton, who serves as chair of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee. Naughton told the Washington Blade he is not an expert on the ranked choice voting system but his initial research into the system leads him to believe the system has the potential for providing a greater electoral voice for minority communities, including possibly the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ candidates who run for public office.

Capital Stonewall Democrats President Jatarious Frazier said the group was in the process of learning more about the ranked file voting system. No one raised the issue of the group taking a position on the legislation at Monday night’s meeting.

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Lesbian D.C. housing director to retire

Polly Donaldson worked to expand affordable units

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Polly Donaldson, housing, gay news, Washington Blade
Polly Donaldson (Blade file photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Polly Donaldson, who has served as director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development since 2015 as one of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s first high-level LGBTQ appointments, announced on Sept. 10 that she will leave her position at the end of this month to retire.

A statement released by the mayor’s office says Donaldson has led the design and implementation of the mayor’s housing initiative that has produced more than 14,250 units of affordable housing with another 12,300 units under construction or in the planning stages.

“When I came into office and committed to investing at least $100 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund every year, I knew we would need a leader with a true passion for affordable housing to get those funds out the door and into the community – and Polly was the right person for the job,” Bowser said in the statement.

“Then, two years ago, when we set a bold goal to build 36,000 new homes by 2025, with at least a third of them affordable, I was confident that Polly would have a plan to make that happen,” the mayor said in her statement. “She leaves D.C. government with our city on track to meet that goal, and for that we are grateful, and we celebrate her service to our city.”

At the time Donaldson began her job as the city’s housing director she was a recognized expert in affordable housing and homeless related programs. She had served since 2004 as executive director of the Transitional Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless people and develops programs for transitioning them into permanent homes.

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HRC endorses McAuliffe, Ayala, Herring in Va.

Advocacy group on Tuesday announced statewide endorsements

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Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade, Equality March
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday announced endorsements for three Virginia candidates on the statewide ballot in November.

These endorsements include Terry McAuliffe for governor, state Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William County) for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for reelection as attorney general.

“All Virginians deserve leaders who will fight for their rights to achieve health and success regardless of who they are or who they love,” said HRC in their press release. “The Human Rights Campaign is proud to endorse incredible champions who have spent their careers delivering on that promise of equality.”

McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014-2018, signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ state employees and vetoed every anti-LGBTQ bill that came across his desk during his tenure.

“Every human being deserves to be treated equally, live free from fear, and thrive regardless of who they are or who they love,” McAuliffe said. “I am grateful for the support of the Human Rights Campaign, and together we will continue to ensure Virginia remains open and welcoming to all.”

Herring, a vocal supporter of LGBTQ equality, in 2017 joined 18 other state attorneys general in calling on Congress to block then-President Trump’s ban on transgender service members openly serving in the military.  

Ayala, a state delegate since 2018, similarly co-sponsored and voted in support of numerous pro-equality bills, including the landmark Virginia Values Act, a bipartisan measure that made Virginia the first state in the South to extend nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

If elected, Ayala will become the Virginia’s first female and woman of color lieutenant governor.

Virginia’s statewide general election is Nov. 2. Early voting begins Friday.

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