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Life-long ‘Fan’

Gay writer explores, Aretha, gays in black gospel and more



Aretha Franklin, Columbia Records, gay news, Washington Blade

‘The Fan Who Knew Too Much’
By Anthony Heilbut
354 pages

Aretha Franklin concert
Saturday, Nov. 17
7:30 p.m.
DAR Constitution Hall
1776 D Street, NW

Aretha Franklin, Columbia Records, gay news, Washington Blade

Vintage early ’60s promo still of Aretha Franklin during her Columbia Records years. (Photo courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment)

In a roundabout way, there’d be no rock music without gays and lesbians.

That’s the assertion of gay New York-based writer/historian Anthony Heilbut. In a sprawling, juicy tome that’s as gossipy and anecdotal as it is academic, he writes in “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” that there would have been no golden age of black gospel music (roughly1945-1960) without gays. He, and other rock historians also assert there’d be no mainstream rock and roll without classic black gospel influence.

Anthony Heilbut, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay author Anthony Heilbut says Franklin’s underrated work at Columbia Records is her best, contrary to popular opinion, which venerates her later Atlantic Records period. (Photo by Stephen Ladner)

“It means a lot to me that gay people know about this,” Heilbut says during a lengthy phone chat last week. “Gospel is really the most essential American music. Everyone sort of understands that black church singing, it’s really been the center of American singing since the 19th century. It follows through in jazz as well. It’s a great gay contribution.”

Though white and an atheist, as a teen, Heilbut went to hear the great R&B and soul acts of the day at the Apollo in New York. He was often the only white person in the room. He got a heads up from the ushers.

“I think they kind of took pity on this lone white boy,” he says. “They said, if you dig this, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, the gospel shows are so much better. The showmanship, the vocalism. I came to know almost all the singers and became absolutely enthralled. They were so much more dynamic than their secular counterparts. You just cannot imagine rock and roll and R&B without the influence of these singers.”

Aretha in concert at Wolf Trap, summer 2011, the last time she played the D.C. market. (Blade file photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Heilbut’s book, out earlier this year, is a collection of lengthy essays. Subtitled “Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church and Other Meditations,” it includes a lengthy essay on how many black gospel legends — figures like James Cleveland, Clara Ward and others were either gay, lesbian or bi. In the essay “Aretha: How She Got Over” he explores how the soul legend — in town this weekend for a concert at DAR Constitution Hall — integrated the styles of the gospel legends she admired as a teen into the hit secular records she later recorded at Columbia and Atlantic. Though Franklin’s gospel roots are well known, Heilbut extrapolates the richness of those influences in unprecedented ways.

Other essays explore writer Thomas Mann (“The Magic Mountain”), the phenomenon of the male soprano and late soap opera maven Irna Phillips.

One senses, however, that despite Heilbut’s many interests and decades — he’s 71 — of following the careers of many, his heart is most deeply rooted in the gospel music of his youth. He eventually produced records for some of his favorites and writes and shares movingly of not only their great talent, but the hypocrisy with which the church has dealt with — often with scorn and outright condemnation — the contributions of its gay musicians.

Typical of many of the “old school” black gospel establishment, Heilbut quotes the legendary Shirley Caesar as “beseeching the ‘sissies and bull daggers’ to ‘come up and be saved,’ and warning that homosexuals were ‘stealing our children.’”

More analysis than biography, though, Heilbut illustrates how a lifetime of following a singer or musical phenomenon can result in an uncanny insight that the subjects themselves are often loathe to discuss — Franklin, as journalists and long-time fans know, is famously prickly and evasive on many topics.

For the record, Heilbut says Franklin and her legendary father, Rev. C.L. Franklin who became a mid-century legend as pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church — were way more accepting of gays than many others in the era.

The Fan Who Knew Too Much, Anthony Heilbut, Aretha Franklin, gay news, Washington Blade

Cover art of Anthony Heilbut’s new book. (Cover image courtesy of Knopf)

Heilbut says Franklin, though not as vocal as some, has made her gay support known in several ways — from singing at a recent same-sex wedding to inviting gay-welcoming clergy (Bishop Carlton Pearson) to comment during a Whitney Houston tribute she hosted during a concert at Radio City Music Hall while Houston’s mother, Cissy, stuck with old school, anti-gay leaders (TD Jakes, Donnie McClurkin) at her daughter’s funeral.

“Aretha does these little things without really saying a word,” Heilbut says.



New book explores why we categorize sports according to gender

You can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think



‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’
By Katie Barnes
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/304 pages

The jump shot happened so quickly, so perfectly.

Your favorite player was in the air in a heartbeat, basketball in hand, wrist cocked. One flick and it was all swish, three points, just like that, and your team was ahead. So are you watching men’s basketball or women’s basketball? Or, as in the new book, “Fair Play” by Katie Barnes, should it really matter?

For sports fans, this may come as a surprise: we categorize sports according to gender.

Football, baseball, wresting: male sports. Gymnastics, volleyball: women’s sports. And yet, one weekend spent cruising around television shows you that those sports are enjoyed by both men and women – but we question the sexuality of athletes who dare (gasp!) to cross invisible lines for a sport they love.

How did sports “become a flash point for a broader conversation?”

Barnes takes readers back first to 1967, when Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both ran in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time women had audaciously done so and while both finished the race, their efforts didn’t sit well with the men who made the rules.

“Thirty-seven words” changed the country in 1972 when Title IX was signed, which guaranteed there’d be no discrimination in extracurricular events, as long as “federal financial assistance” was taken. It guaranteed availability for sports participation for millions of girls in schools and colleges. It also “enshrine[d] protections for queer and transgender youth to access school sports.”

So why the debate about competition across gender lines?

First, says Barnes, we can’t change biology, or human bodies that contain both testosterone and estrogen, or that some athletes naturally have more of one or the other – all of which factor into the debate. We shouldn’t forget that women can and do compete with men in some sports, and they sometimes win. We shouldn’t ignore the presence of transgender men in sports.

What we should do, Barnes says, is to “write a new story. One that works better.”

Here are two facts: Nobody likes change. And everybody has an opinion.

Keep those two statements in mind when you read “Fair Play.” They’ll keep you calm in this debate, as will author Katie Barnes’ lack of flame fanning.

As a sports fan, an athlete, and someone who’s binary, Barnes makes things relatively even-keel in this book, which is a breath of fresh air in what’s generally ferociously contentious. There’s a good balance of science and social commentary here, and the many, many stories that Barnes shares are entertaining and informative, as well as illustrative. Readers will come away with a good understanding of where the debate lies.

But will this book make a difference?

Maybe. Much will depend on who reads and absorbs it. Barnes offers plenty to ponder but alas, you can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think. Still, if you’ve got skin in this particular bunch of games, find “Fair Play” and jump on it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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An exciting revival of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre

Out actor Caesar Samayoa on portraying iconic role of President Perón



Caesar Samayoa (center) and the cast of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by DJ Corey Photography) 

Through Oct. 15
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.

When Eva Perón died of cancer at 33 in 1952, the people’s reaction was so intense that Argentina literally ran out of cut flowers. Mourners were forced to fly in stems from neighboring countries, explains out actor Caesar Samayoa. 

For Samayoa, playing President Perón to Shireen Pimental’s First Lady Eva in director Sammi Cannold’s exciting revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a dream fulfilled. 

As a Guatemalan-American kid, he had a foot in two worlds. Samayoa lived and went to school in suburban Emerson, N.J. But he spent evenings working at his parents’ botanica in Spanish Harlem. 

During the drives back and forth in the family station wagon, he remembers listening to “Evita” on his cassette player: “It’s the first cast album I remember really hearing and understanding. I longed to be in the show.”

As an undergrad, he transferred from Bucknell University where he studied Japanese international relations to a drama major at Ithica College. His first professional gig was in 1997 playing Juliet in Joe Calarco’s off-Broadway “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Lots of Broadway work followed including “Sister Act,” “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” and most significantly, Samayoa says, “Come From Away,” a musical telling of the true story of airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. He played Kevin J. (one half of a gay couple) and Ali, a Muslim chef.  

He adds “Evita” has proved a powerful experience too: “We’re portraying a populist power couple that changed the trajectory of a country in a way most Americans can’t fully understand. And doing it in Washington surrounded by government and politics is extra exciting.” 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you tap into a real-life character like Perón?

CAESAR SAMAYOA: Fortunately, Sammi [Connald] and I work similarly. With real persons and situations, I immerse myself into history, almost to a ridiculous extent. 

First day in the rehearsal room, we were inundated with artifacts. Sammi has been to Argentina several times and interviewed heavily with people involved in Eva and Peron’s lives. Throughout the process we’d sit and talk about the real history that happened. We went down the rabbit hole.

Sammi’s interviews included time with Eva’s nurse who was at her bedside when she died. We watched videos of those interviews. They’ve been an integral part of our production. 

BLADE: Were you surprised by anything you learned?

SAMAYOA: Usually, Eva and Perón’s relationship is portrayed as purely transactional.  They wrote love letters and I had access to those. At their country home, they’d be in pajamas and walk on the beach; that part of their life was playful and informal. They were a political couple but they were deeply in love too. I latched on to that. 

BLADE: And anything about the man specifically? 

SAMAYOA:  Perón’s charisma was brought to the forefront. In shows I’ve done, some big names have attended. Obama. Clinton. Justin Trudeau came to “Come From Away.” Within seconds, the charisma makes you give into that person. I’ve tried to use that.  

BLADE: And the part? 

SAMAYOA: Perón is said to be underwritten. But I love his power and the songs he sings [“The Art of the Possible,” “She is a Diamond,” etc.]. I’m fully a baritone and to find that kind of role in a modern musical is nearly impossible. And in this rock opera, I can use it to the full extent and feel great about it.

BLADE: “Evita” is a co-production with A.R.T. Has it changed since premiering in Boston? 

SAMAYOA: Yes, it has. In fact, 48 hours before opening night in Washington, we made some changes and they’ve really landed. Without giving too much away, we gave it more gravity in reality of time as well as Eva’s sickness and the rapid deterioration. It’s given our second act a huge kind of engine that it didn’t have. 

BLADE: You’re married to talent agent Christopher Freer and you’re very open. Was it always that way for you?

SAMAYOA: When I started acting professionally, it was a very different industry. We were encouraged to stay in the closet or it will cast only in a certain part. There was truth in that. There still is some truth in that, but I refuse to go down that road. I can’t reach what I need to reach unless I’m my most honest self. I can’t do it any other way.

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Out & About

HRC’s National Dinner is back

LGBTQ rights organization’s annual gala features Rhimes, Waithe, Bomer



Actor Matt Bomer will be honored at the HRC National Dinner.

The Human Rights Campaign will host its annual National Dinner on Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The dinner’s honorees include world-famous producers, actors and entertainers whose work spotlights the fight for civil rights and social justice, including Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe and Matt Bomer.

A new event, as part of the weekend, — the Equality Convention — will take place the night before the dinner on Friday, Oct. 13. The convention will showcase the power of the LGBTQ equality movement, feature influential political and cultural voices, and bring together volunteer and movement leaders from across the country to talk about the path ahead.
For more details about the weekend, visit HRC’s website.

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