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Life-long ‘Fan’

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

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Aretha Franklin, Columbia Records, gay news, Washington Blade

‘The Fan Who Knew Too Much’
By Anthony Heilbut
Knopf
$30
354 pages
anthonyheilbut.com

Aretha Franklin concert
Saturday, Nov. 17
7:30 p.m.
DAR Constitution Hall
1776 D Street, NW
$59.50-115.50
ticketmaster.com

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.

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Arts & Entertainment

Author Kenny Fries on being queer, disabled, and Jewish

How the three identities formed his rather irreverent take on life

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Kenny Fries is the author of several books, including ‘The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.’

(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled:  Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf/Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise — Marvin in the “Queer as Folk” reboot — and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the numerous queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its monthly, year-long series, “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these long un-heard stories.)

In 1991, when he was living in Provincetown, he agreed to be a model for a guide to “gay sex,” gay, disabled and Jewish author and poet Kenny Fries writes in his memoir “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.”

Fries, 62, who’s just been awarded a Disability Futures Fellowship by the Ford Foundation, has been disabled since birth.

His medical records say that he has “congenital deformities of the lower extremities,” Fries said in an email interview with the Blade, “Basically, I was missing bones in my legs when born.”

Sometime later, Fries learned that the medical term for his disability is “fibular hemimelia.” “There is no known cause,” he added, “and it is nothing a pregnant mother does or doesn’t do that causes this.”

Back in 1991 in Provincetown, the local artist who was working on the gay sex guide wanted to make sure that it would correctly portray a disabled man having sex.

Fries was pleased when the artist showed him the pictures he’d taken of him and his partner in the modeling session. “I recognize the images of myself in both the photos and the drawing as very beautiful,” Fries writes.

But a week later, Fries’s feelings of pride were dissed. The guide’s art director didn’t like how the drawing turned out, Fries recalled the artist telling him. “‘He said that in the drawing the disability didn’t read. He wants me to cut off one of your legs,’” Fries writes.

Coming out wasn’t that difficult for Fries. Though, “I’m sure at times it felt difficult,” he said. “I think it was the combination of being both gay and disabled that posed the most challenges.”

If you’re disabled, you’re likely to run into ableism in the form of inaccessibility, pity, employment discrimination, discomfort, and fear. Perhaps, most hurtful, especially if you’re queer and disabled, is what Fries calls the myth of “the ideal body.” (This reporter is queer and disabled.)

Anyone with a body that is perceived as different is up against this myth, Fries said. “Everyone is affected by this myth, even straight white men. They just don’t know it as much as we do.”

Though he’s been disabled since he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his disability is quite noticeable, Fries didn’t “come out” as disabled until he was in college.

Fries saw a psychologist after he began having panic attacks. “He did something not quite kosher,” Fries said, “making a deal with me that he’d come see the musical I was directing if I went to talk with Irv Zola, a disabled professor who taught at Brandeis, where I was an undergraduate.”

In those days, Zola was one of the very few disabled faculty at any college. “It was sheer luck that he was at mine,” Fries said.

At Zola’s suggestion, Fries got in touch with the Boston Self-Help Center, and, for a time, joined their peer support group. After grad school, Fries moved to San Francisco. There, he met Marilyn Golden, a disability rights movement leader. Meeting Golden, his first mentor, launched Fries’s disability rights journey.

Another important step for Fries in his “coming out” as disabled was when he took part in the Contemporary Chautauqua on Performance and Disability that was organized by Vicki Lewis at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1994. There, Fries met creative nonfiction and fiction writer Anne Finger, playwright Susan R. Nussbaum and other disabled writers. These writers became his “comrades in arms,” he said.

Golden and Nussbaum died earlier this year. It was “a great personal and community loss,” Fries said.

The apartment building where he grew up was like a “vertical high rise shtetl,” Fries said, when asked how being Jewish fit into his queer and disabled identity.

“An ex called me ‘the Nazi Trifecta,’” Fries said, “as Jews, the disabled and queers were persecuted and killed during the Nazi regime.”

Being queer, disabled, and Jewish – being triply “othered” has emphasized his “questioning,” Fries said, “especially of societal structures and institutions.”

Somehow, he believes, these three identities combined to form his rather irreverent take on things.

The writing bug bit Fries early on. “As a child, I was always thinking of plays,” Fries said, “and wrote some silly ones.”

Fries is one of our time’s most distinguished and important queer and disabled writers. He is the author of “Province of the Gods,” “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory” and “Body, Remember: A Memoir.” His books of poetry include “In the Gardens of Japan,” “Desert Walking” and “Anesthesia.”

If you’re visibly disabled, you’re stared at often by nondisabled people. 

Fries has helped disabled people, queer and non-queer, to reclaim the stare. He edited the groundbreaking anthology “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out,” in which writers, including queer icon Adrienne Rich, reflect on their lived experience of being disabled.

“I didn’t realize Rich was disabled (she had rheumatoid arthritis) until I saw her using a cane at a reading in the Bay Area,” Fries said.

Fries lives with his husband, who is Canadian, in Berlin. They met when Fries was in Japan in 2005 and married in 2007.

“Living in cultures other than my own, as well as travel, has always been a foundation of my work,” Fries said.

Occasionally, Fries has encountered “direct” ableism in the queer community. Such as the time decades ago when he wasn’t allowed into a gay bar in Florence, Italy. Or the “very rare” sexual rejection by a nondisabled person. “This harkens back to the ideal body myth,” Fries said.

More insidious to Fries is the ableism of inaccessible queer spaces and events and the lack of inclusion of disabled people on queer-related panels at readings and events.

Then, there are the apps, Fries said. “How many disabled guys does one encounter on Grindr?” he said. “Even the profile questions asked show the default is not to think of physical difference.”

Fries came to Berlin to do research for the book he’s working on “Stumbling Over History: Disability and the Holocaust” and his video series “What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?”

“The disabled were the first group to be mass murdered in gas chambers in Aktion T4, the Nazi program that killed 70,000 disabled persons,” Fries said.

“After T4 officially ended, 230,000 more disabled people were killed by gas,” Fries added, “as well as by other means, such as starvation, medication overdose and neglect.”

This is still a relatively unknown history to most people, even in Germany, Fries said.

Fries’s supply of energy is boundless. He has curated “Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer,” the first international exhibit on queer/disability history, activism, and culture. It opened at the Schwules Museum Berlin on Sept. 1 and runs through the end of January 2023.

The exhibit includes the work of more than 20 contemporary queer/disabled artists.

A major theme of the exhibit is “‘the ideal body’,” Fries said, “how this fantasy has pervaded both queer and disability history and lives, and how queer/disabled artists have counteracted this.”

Many people know Audre Lorde as a queer, Black icon. But most don’t think of her as having a disability. Yet, Lorde, who had cancer, was disabled. She is included in the exhibit.

“Lorde was a very important figure for the Afro-German women’s movement,” Fries said. 

Lorde wrote about having cancer in “The Cancer Journals.” She had an ahead-of-her- times view of disability, Fries said. “In an interview featured in the exhibit, she talks about a feminist book fair in London in 1984, which was held in an inaccessible space.”

It is important for all of us that such events be made available to disabled women, Lorde said in the interview, “and we should make sure they are announced in black women’s magazines.”

Lorde understood intersectionality before it became popular, Fries said.

For more information go to: kennyfries.com

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Out & About

10 LGBTQ events this week

‘Hocus Pocus 2’ and ‘Bros’ viewings, the B52s come to town among attractions

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From left, Tara Hoot and DJ Phil Reese host 'Broadway Brunch at Crazy Aunt Helen's, 'Eek! A Leatherman' leather social will be held at Uproar, and a screening of 'Hocus Pocus 2' will be held at JR.'s this week. (Washington Blade file photos by Michael Key)

Below are our picks for some of the most fun and creative things to do this week in the DMV that are of special interest to the LGBTQ community.


Monday Night Skating: Summer’s Song

Monday, Sept. 26
7:30-9:30 p.m.
Laurel Skate Center
9890 Brewers Court
Laurel, Md.
Facebook

Monday Night Skating celebrates a fond farewell to summer with beachwear and big hats with “Summer’s Song.” They encourage you to break out your summer beachwear, big glam shades, flip flops, pool noodles, floaties, and summer attire for a night of skating in Laurel.


Reign: Let the Good Times Rule

A drag performance at DIK Bar. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Monday, Sept. 26
8-11 p.m.
DIK Bar
1637 17th Street, N.W. (second floor)
Facebook

Logan Stone, Dabatha Christie and Hennessey host a fun-filled drag show at Dupont Italian Kitchen.


UTICA at Pitchers

Wednesday, Sept. 28
8 p.m.
Pitchers DC
2317 18th Street, N.W.
Facebook

Utica of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 will perform at Pitchers on Wednesday in a show hosted by Cake and Venus Valhalla. There will be a meet and greet hosted by Ba’naka starting at 9 p.m. at this free event.


Queens of King Street at the Movies: Bros

Billy Eichner and Luke MacFarlane in “Bros.” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures)

Thursday, Sept. 29
8 p.m.
AMC Hoffman Movie Theater
206 Swamp Fox Road
Alexandria, Va.
Facebook

Catch a movie with the Queens of King Street in Alexandria, Va. on Thursday. On the screen this week: the 8 p.m. showing of “Bros.”


Hocus Pocus 2 Watch Party

A drag interpretation of the witches of Hocus Pocus. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Friday, Sept. 30
9 p.m.
JR.’s Bar
1519 17th Street, N.W.
Facebook

Citrine hosts a watch party for the highly anticipated sequel to Hocus Pocus on Friday.


Crab Feast 8

Saturday, Oct. 1
12-3 p.m.
Washington Canoe Club
3700 Water Street, N.W.
$75
Tickets

The Capital Pride Alliance and the DC Preservation League present Crab Feast 8. Tickets include all-you-can-eat crabs, shrimp, corn on the cob, hot dogs and ice cream.


Eek! A Leatherman!

(Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Saturday, Oct. 1
9 p.m.
Uproar Lounge & Restaurant
639 Florida Avenue, N.W.
Facebook

The Highwaymen TNT invite you to a bar night at Uproar with treats and Jello shooters. It is a cash function evening.


The B52s at The Anthem

Saturday, Oct. 1
7:30 p.m.
The Anthem
901 Wharf Street, S.W.
$75-$175
Facebook | Tickets

The B52s & KC and the Sunshine Band perform at The Anthem on Saturday. get your tickets while you still can!


Domingø’s Got Talent Presenta: FABULOSÉ

Saturday, Oct. 1
11 p.m.
DC9 Nightclub
1940 9th Street, N.W.
$10 advance / $15 door
Facebook

Domingø hosts a night with music by La Sokko: a “latiné drag show and dance party celebrating the rich and vast diaspora of latinidad.”


Broadway Brunch

Tara Hoot and DJ Phil Reese (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Sunday, Oct. 2
10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Crazy Aunt Helen’s
713 8th Street, S.E.
Website

Join Tara Hoot and DJ Phil Reese for treats, toons and twirls at Crazy Aunt Helen’s Broadway Brunch on Sunday.


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Photos

PHOTOS: Virginia Pridefest

Richmond LGBTQ celebration held on Brown’s Island

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2022 Virginia Pridefest (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 2022 Virginia Pridefest was held on Brown’s Island in Richmond, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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