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Is overly sensitive the new intolerance?

D.C. Office of Human Rights denigrates equality law and free speech

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Should popular community venue Nellie’s Sports Bar be forced by the District government to change its name?

If a recent edict by the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) is any indication, the owners of the gay eatery and drinking establishment at 9th and U streets in Northwest Washington might want to start thinking about a replacement commercial moniker.

Tony Tomelden, owner of casual neighborhood bar The Pug on the burgeoning H Street, N.E., nightlife corridor popular with hipster residents, would likely offer that advice following a startling run-in with the agency earlier this month.

He has good reason. The city government doesn’t.

As first reported by Washington Post columnist Mike DeBonis, Tomelden had since April featured a vodka drink called “Marion Berry’s Dirty Asian Summer Punch.” The beverage, also known as “The Ward 8 Special,” was launched as a social commentary mocking D.C. Council member and former four-term mayor Marion Barry’s highly controversial remarks the same month regarding Asian business owners and what he called their “dirty shops,” as well as bemoaning the number of locally employed Filipino nurses.

It wasn’t until Sept. 5, perhaps due to DeBonis stopping by the prior evening and tweeting a photograph of the chalkboard sign advertising the drink, that regulators got involved. The next day Tomelden received a letter from OHR declaring the sign “racially offensive” and ordering that it be removed and the item taken off the menu. Otherwise, he would be hauled before the D.C. Commission on Human Rights and charged with violating the city’s Human Rights Act, facing a fine of up to $10,000.

Of note, Tomelden is part Filipino, offspring of Irish and Filipino heritage.

The agency acted utilizing an interpretation of its authority to regulate commercial speech in places of public accommodation. Given the absence of discriminatory policies or behavior, many residents were shocked that OHR dismissively characterized applicable First Amendment protections.

OHR director Gustavo Velasquez wrote Tomelden in bureaucratic boilerplate indicating “we believe that such a sign is not demonstrative of the shared values and practices that make the District a fully inclusive environment for all residents and visitors.”

The anti-discrimination law includes a provision prohibiting the right to “print, circulate, post, or mail, or otherwise cause, directly or indirectly, to be published a statement, advertisement, or sign which indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodation will be unlawfully refused, withheld from or denied an individual; or that an individual’s patronage of, or presence at, a place of public accommodation is objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable.”

Is the agency’s questionable interpretation that a politically satirical drink name and promotional sign violated those provisions legitimate? Or are misguided administrators overzealously hyper-reacting in an inappropriate and constitutionally offensive manner?

Equally important, does such heavy-handed regulatory intrusion undermine support for the admirably full-throated legislative protections for an expansive complement of protected classes against real and actual discriminatory practices?

Have we become so thin-skinned that previously protected speech is now subject to regulator evaluation lest someone take offense?

Public reaction to the government’s action has not been kind, or supportive. Local blogs quickly filled with disdainfully critical commentary. A self-inflicted lowering of agency esteem making mockery of the law in many a formerly supportive mind was the unfortunate result.

Tomelden chose not to tortuously pursue the expensive path of fighting city hall, citing responsibilities operating a small business as being more important than taking on the local thought police. “It’s clearly frustrating, and it is what it is,” he lamented.

Since the cocktail and sign are now relegated to local folklore, there is no impetus to prompt resolution as to whether the city exceeded its authority or acted as a wrongful bully.

The unpretentious bar is decorated with eclectic artifacts, including an “Irish Need Not Apply” sign presumably in jest of Tomelden’s ethnic progeny. “I wonder if they are going to make the Irish bars take down the leprechauns,” he queried.

Or begin trolling comedy clubs to monitor comic content emanating from the stage.

Is commanding Nellie’s to desist offending effeminate members of the gay community next?

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

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My suicide ideation: A journey to self-love

It is much harder for those of us on the margins

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Jessica Arends is a writer who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

(Editor’s note: This piece is a response to last week’s Blade cover story by David Lett recounting his suicide attempt. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, call 988 or one of many LGBTQ-specific advocacy groups offering support. If you would like to share your own story of overcoming isolation, depression, or suicidal ideation, email us at [email protected].)

Perhaps it was the grinding loneliness of the pandemic, but about two years ago my fantasies of being with women became daily distractions. I could not be fully present with my husband and felt a constant tug for something more, something outside of a life I had spent 18 years cultivating. I lived in a constant cycle of fantasy, guilt, denial, back to fantasy.  

My supportive husband was willing to try an open marriage, but non-monogamy did not agree with my Christian upbringing. Then, as most stories go, I met someone. She was funny, attractive, and OK with the situation, so we gave it a shot. Each date sailed me up into unprecedented heights and hollowed out an equally deep pit of despair. “Yes! I am like this. . . Oh, dear God, I am really like this!” It was like coming home to who you knew you always were only to find you were now among those most judged, wicked, and despised. With each queer book we read and lesbian drama we watched, I discovered deep and integral parts of me debilitated and atrophied by shame. They started to heal.

The more these parts of me solidified, the more other parts unraveled. A cascade of questions and doubts plagued me. If I was not heterosexual, what else was not true about me? Was my life just a string of acts meant to fulfill social expectations? My career, education, even my friends. Was I me or just performing someone not me for others? The great irony of living by the rules of others is that we live for no one. Without the willingness to bravely share who I truly was, no matter how broken, that primal quest for connection, love and belonging would never be satisfied.

Hence I navigated that precarious path of how out to be — how to stay honest to myself but not cause discomfort. My husband remained open, but my late nights and emotional distance took a great toll on our relationship. I would return home to neatly folded laundry, well-prepared meals and enormous guilt. It was liberating and devastating all at once.

Staying with my husband seemed impossible, but the fear of being alone and rejected from family at age 45 was unbearable. This innate thing inside of me was destroying my life. I imagined cutting myself open and tearing out those parts, but when I looked closely I found they were inseparable — my queerness is fully entwined with my heart, head, and gut. I broke under the weight of this agony and spent weeks in and out of crying spells.

One day I found myself down by the tracks. The sound of a train thundering by broke through my numbness. With a few steps, I could surrender and be free from this torment. I stepped through the thin line of brush that separated me from the tracks. They seductively glistened in the sunlight. Relief. Yes, the final silence of death could take away everything.

Another train raced by, the horn deafening. The blast of wind pushed me away. I collapsed sobbing. I needed help if I was going to survive this. 

Thanks to therapy, acupuncture, yoga, LGBTQ support groups and caring friends and family, I am slowly opening the door to self-love. It is much harder for those of us on the margins. The love from others is no substitute, be they a long-time partner, new girlfriend or family member. Unlearning my self-hatred meant letting go of the deeply held but deeply flawed promises of the straight life: be they heteronormativity, monogamy, gender conformity, the picket fence  — you name it. I had to break my own heart. Only then I could truly love myself.

Jessica Arends is a writer and artist.

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Left-wing candidates hurt Democratic Party

We will lose more elections if we nominate socialists

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran for and lost the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. President. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

We are seeing time and time again how left-wing candidates are hurting the Democratic Party. While I agree with much of what some like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are supporting, we are seeing left-leaning candidates supported by them losing in the general election in most of the country. 

While Trumpers are so much worse in what they stand for, the one similarity we are seeing, as we did in the mid-term elections, is these candidates also can’t win a general election.  The reality is, the majority of the country is moderate. In fact, in many areas the general election voter is moderate-leaning right.  

We witnessed that last year in the Buffalo, N.Y. mayor’s race where a Democratic Socialist won the Democratic primary, and then was defeated in the election by a write-in moderate Democrat. In New York City the moderate candidate, Eric Adams, won the mayor’s race. 

In the mid-term elections we have seen the same thing. A left-wing candidate can win a Democratic primary, then lose in the general election. James Hohmann recently wrote about this in the Washington Post in a column titled “The Democrats have a ‘candidate quality’ problem, too.” He wrote, “Consider the 5th Congressional District of Oregon. Leading Republican and Democratic operatives agree that Rep. Kurt Schrader would have handily won reelection if he’d made it to the general in a district Biden carried by nine points. But he didn’t. Instead, a more liberal Democrat, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, won the nomination in May and then lost the seat to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer last week by 8,500 votes.” Another example he uses is “Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) narrowly beat back a primary challenge from his left in the primary and then easily won in the fall. In a neighboring district of the Rio Grande Valley, however, outspoken liberal Michelle Vallejo beat a moderate by just 30 votes in a primary runoff. Then she lost to Republican Monica De La Cruz by nine points. The GOP picked up a number of seats in New York state under similar circumstances.” I would propose Alessandra Biaggi’s primary against Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), supported by AOC, cost him the seat in the general election in the new 17th district in New York. 

It’s good that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will most likely be the new Minority Leader, is a moderate. There is a story on ABC News about the potential new leadership of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives. “Jeffries, first elected in 2012, has long been considered Pelosi’s heir apparent, rising through the ranks to land a perch in the party’s House leadership.”

In a statement after Pelosi’s speech on Thursday, he called her “the most accomplished” speaker in the country’s history but did not allude to his own plans. A 52-year-old descendant of enslaved people, Jeffries could be a potential history-maker himself if Democrats retake the House in future cycles: He would be the first Black speaker. Jeffries has a reputation as a capable operator inside the conference with sharp media skills to sell a Democratic message to the public (and a penchant for referencing Biggie Smalls in floor speeches). However, he could face some opposition from the most vocal progressives in the House, who labeled him a centrist. “I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now. That’s been my career, that’s been my journey and it will continue to be as I move forward for however long I have an opportunity to serve. There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” he told The Atlantic last year.”

It could easily be concluded Democrats lost the Wisconsin Senate seat because the disgusting incumbent, Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), could tie his Democratic challenger to the ‘Squad’ and bring up his original support of the slogan ‘defund the police’. While some will say newly elected Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman was also tagged with the left, he was lucky he had such a crazy Trump supported Republican like Dr. Oz to run against, and a moderate Democratic candidate for governor, Josh Shapiro, on the ticket who won big. 

If Democrats are to retake the House and win the presidency in 2024, we will need moderate congressional candidates and a moderate to head the ticket. He/she/they can be for moving forward legislation on climate change, LGBTQ equality, choice, and a host of other issues that progressives like; but they can’t be seen as left-wing or socialist. If they are, Democrats will lose. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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A tribute to our LGBTQ bars

From Pulse to Club Q, these spaces are sacred

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A memorial to Club Q was set up outside As You Are Bar on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

(Editor’s note: I wrote this piece in 2016 after traveling to Orlando to cover the Pulse massacre. Sadly, its message is newly relevant today after the horrific events in Colorado Springs.) 

ORLANDO, Fla. — The world watched in horror this week as the proudly resilient LGBT community here coped with unthinkable tragedy.

Sadly, our community has a lot of experience with such things.

From the AIDS crisis in which we fought an indifferent government and hostile neighbors. To an untold number of previous attacks on our bars and clubs, including the 1973 firebombing of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans that killed 32 gay men. To enduring the playground taunts and everyday slurs that go along with being “different” in this country.

We were horrified, too, about what happened at Pulse, though not as shocked as our straight counterparts. They will never know what it’s like to walk through life with a permanent target on your back. To pause before each touch; to hesitate before exchanging a hug or kiss with a partner or spouse. To calculate before coming out at work. To endure the judgmental stares when checking in at a hotel or booking a restaurant reservation on Valentine’s Day. To walk around the block, scanning the scene before mustering the nerve to walk into a gay bar. To be insulted, mocked, beaten up just for loving someone of the same sex. We’ve all been there.

So much has been written in recent years about this “post-gay” world in which we supposedly live. A world in which there’s no need for LGBT-identified spaces like bars, clubs, coffee shops, bookstores and, yes, newspapers, because we’re “integrated” and “accepted” now.

What happened in Orlando is a heartbreaking reminder that there’s no such thing as “post-gay,” and that our spaces are sacred. Where outsiders see only a bar or club, we see a community center or the place where we formed our closest friendships or met our significant others. Our bars and clubs have played a heroic role in supporting the community, serving as gathering places in times of triumph and tragedy and helping to raise countless dollars to fund our causes, to fight HIV, to aid our own. When the government turned its back, the first dollars raised to fight AIDS came from the bar and club scene.

The attack in Orlando was an attack on all of us because there’s a Pulse in every city in this country. A place where we can let our guard down, be ourselves, embrace our friends and kiss our partners openly. We need those places because regardless of whether you live in Dupont Circle or rural Alabama, there is a risk in engaging in public displays of affection if you’re LGBT.

A look at the public response to the Orlando massacre reveals just how much work lies ahead. The Florida governor has tried to erase LGBT identity from the attack. We can’t even get validation in death in some quarters. The lieutenant governor of Texas tweeted homophobic Bible verses on the morning of the attack yet somehow still has a job. Last week, before the attack, Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) read a Bible verse on the U.S. House floor that calls for the death of gay people. Shortly after, the House voted overwhelmingly to reject a spending bill that included discrimination protections for LGBT workers.

Even those Republicans who have issued milquetoast statements offering “thoughts and prayers” are left to reconcile those sentiments with their own voting records hostile to LGBT causes. The presumptive GOP nominee for president, whose name I can’t bear to include in a tribute to Orlando, claims to care about what happened, yet has pledged to nominate Supreme Court justices committed to overturning the marriage equality ruling.

Hillary Clinton is right — this isn’t the time for politics. As we struggle with how to respond to the massacre and to those who would demonize and discriminate against us and cast us back into the closet, we should resist the urge to lash out and respond simply with love.

It’s been humbling to be here in Orlando this week, watching members of our community cope with such grace, dignity and determination. They didn’t shut down the community center in fear, instead they opened the doors wide to all while working tirelessly to raise money for the victims, collect donations of water and supplies for blood centers overwhelmed by volunteers, negotiate deals with airlines to fly loved ones to town for unexpected funerals and more.

One of the remarkable people I’ve met here this week, Pastor Brei, said it best:
“Have faith and believe that evil and hate can be eradicated one person at a time. How do you treat someone? How do you embrace someone who treats you wrong? We all bleed, laugh, hope and have great victories and major defeats. And so, you know me, even if you don’t know my name — I’m you.”

Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected]

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