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Images from the Deep South

A photo essay documenting LGBT life in rural Miss., Ala. and La.

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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The True Gospel Church of God in Christ is near Jackson, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Blade reporter Michael K. Lavers and I earlier this year pitched the idea of going to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to see what LGBT life is like in the South. Living in D.C., we wanted to see for ourselves just how different the experience was for our brothers and sisters who make their homes in places not known for LGBT inclusiveness. Our editor sent us out to gather stories and pictures. We had absolutely no idea what was in store for us.

The Dandelion Project

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Dandelion Project founder Brandiilyne Dear met with the Washington Blade in Laurel, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Our first stop after landing at Medgar Evers International Airport in Jackson, the Mississippi state capital, was in Laurel, Miss. where we met with Dandelion Project founder Rev. Brandiilyne Dear. She told us about her life: how she had been addicted to meth, but then found a calling to the pulpit and got sober. She founded a ministry to help the many addicts who live in the Mississippi Pine Belt. Despite all that she had done through the years for her church, when it was found out that she was a lesbian, everyone — even her own family — turned against her and she “lost everything.”

Dear found her calling elsewhere with the Dandelion Project, a social support group and activist organization for LGBT people in Mississippi. She explained that dandelions are seen as weeds; something to be destroyed, yet are beautiful, ubiquitous and “a good thing.”

We spoke with members of the Dandelion Project, including several gender non-conforming youth who were eager to share their stories of social isolation and the violence and hatred they face.

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Members of the Dandelion Project meet in Dear’s Mississippi home. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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Members of the Dandelion Project gather to discuss issues in a home in Laurel, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite the daily discrimination they all said they experience, most members of the Dandelion project were proud to continue the fight for equality in their home state. One young person, however, who had just been through a harrowing run for her life from a group intent on doing her harm wished for Mississippi to “fall into the Gulf” of Mexico.

Mississippi Delta

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One of the many ruined structures along Main Street in Yazoo City, Miss. stands as a monument to the tornado which passed through the city four years ago. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Our next stop was in the verdant but poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta. After passing small farming towns and long stretches of countryside, we arrived at the “Gateway to the Delta,” Yazoo City, where we had an appointment with the newly elected Mayor Diane Delaware. A cosmopolitan woman who had worked “all around the world,” Delaware told us that she had “no problem” with same-sex marriage.

Yazoo City, and indeed the entire Mississippi Delta, seemed to have much bigger things to worry about than marriage equality. Abject poverty was compounded with joblessness to make for a grim future for many residents. A tornado had passed through Yazoo City four years before, leaving vast swaths of the city in ruins. The city didn’t have money or private investment to repair its downtown.

Yazoo City Boys & Girls Club. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Ten Commandments marker stands in front of Yazoo City Boys & Girls Club. Such markers are fairly common in Mississippi. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A street in Yazoo City, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Several homes in Yazoo City, Miss. remain shuttered. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Main Street, Yazoo City, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Blocks of Main Street, Yazoo City, Miss. remain largely abandoned. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Main Street, Yazoo City, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A tornado devastated Main Street, Yazoo City, Miss. four years ago. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We drove deep into the Mississippi Delta to Greenville on the the Mississippi River. There, we met with an out school teacher, Ryvell Fitzpatrick.

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Ryvell Fitzpatrick is a teacher in Greenville, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The reluctant pioneer described his life to us as someone who has managed to thrive, despite the difficulties.

We Don’t Discriminate Campaign

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A Mississippi law that opponents argue allows business owners to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs took effect on July 1. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Back in Laurel, Dear pointed out the “We Don’t Discriminate” signs on select local businesses. The signs had been placed in store windows following the passage of SB-2681 — the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or so-called “Turn Away the Gays Bill.”

We went to Jackson to track down the organizers of the We Don’t Discriminate Campaign.

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Campbell’s Bakery owner Mitchell Moore is the founder of the ‘We Don’t Discriminate’ campaign. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We spoke with the founder: a self-described “straight, married, Republican, Christian” entrepreneur named Mitchell Moore who was disgusted that his bakery, the only wedding cake bakery within the Jackson city limits, would be used as a rallying cry for homophobes in the state Senate to justify the anti-gay bill. Following the interview, Moore gave us a large box of confections.

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Eddie Outlaw owns a barbershop and salon in Jackson, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

My reporter traveling companion got a beard trim as he interviewed salon and barbershop owner Eddie Outlaw. Outlaw and his husband Justin McPherson, the subjects of the documentary, “A Mississippi Love Story,” told us about their involvement in the campaign.

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Justin McPherson Outlaw and Eddie Outlaw, owners of a hair salon and barber shop in Jackson, Miss., married in California last year. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We met with a group of LGBT rights advocates who spent their evening drinking beer, eating hors d’oeuvres and stuffing envelopes with “We Don’t Discriminate” stickers.

Activists in Jackson, Miss. fill envelopes with 'We Don't Discriminate' literature. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Activists in Jackson, Miss. fill envelopes with ‘We Don’t Discriminate’ literature. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

They were all excited by the success of the campaign in generating buzz around the nation, and hopeful about change to come.

Late at night, we met with performance artist Constance Gordon in the dressing room of a club frequented by LGBT people of color. She explained to us the intersection of race, class and gender and other dynamics in play in Mississippi. Like most we spoke with, she was proud to be from Mississippi, though she acknowledged the rampant discrimination that LGBT people face in her home state.

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Constance Gordon is a performance artist and promoter in Jackson, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The next day, before moving on to Louisiana, we met with HIV/AIDS service providers and advocates at Open Arms Healthcare Center in Jackson. We met the “AIDS Lady,” as she referred to herself, Charlotte “Dot” Norwood. She told us of the struggles that many clients face, including accessing healthcare, finding jobs and even getting enough to eat.

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Charlotte “Dot” Norwood has spent years in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We also had the pleasure of meeting client-turned-advocate Antwan Matthews. He related to us his story of being a great student but being kicked out of his home when his family found out that he is gay and HIV positive. Despite all of that, he managed to become a peer HIV educator and put himself through college. He is looking forward to graduating with a degree in biology soon.

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Antwan Matthews is a student and peer HIV educator. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Baton Rouge

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Carol Frazier, on upper right, greets fellow LGBT rights advocates at a restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., on July 12, 2014. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We left Mississippi behind and drove south to Baton Rouge. We stopped at Bistro Byronz to meet with members of PFLAG Baton Rouge, Equality Louisiana, Louisiana Trans Advocates and Baton Rouge Pride. Michael tried to start the interviews, but the ebullient Carol Frazier of PFLAG insisted that in the South, people eat together before they get down to business. We polished off our crawfish étouffée and listened to stories from the gathered activists about their lives and work.

Many of those gathered at our table struggled with poverty and employment, like transgender woman Ksaa Zair who had difficulty in finding a job because of her gender presentation and had to resort to illegally attaining hormones over the Internet because she could not afford proper medical care in the U.S., or her roommate Sergio Oramas who worked as many overtime hours as he could at a warehouse, yet struggled to pay rent.

Other advocates we spoke with dealt with loss, like Frazier: her gay son had committed suicide. She then dedicated her life to helping LGBT people as the president of PFLAG Baton Rouge until health issues forced her to take a less active role.

All of the assembled activists had come together as a close-knit community. After Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of people moved to Baton Rouge and the nascent LGBT community began to solidify. The city’s first Pride celebration was held in 2007, organized by Tom Merrill and other members of Baton Rouge Pride.

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From left; Tom Merrill and Rick Cain are organizers of Baton Rouge Pride. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

After many hugs and farewells to our friendly dining companions, Michael and I left the sweltering heat of Baton Rouge and drove through the swamps of Louisiana to New Orleans.

New Orleans

After spending an evening touring the French Quarter and sampling crawfish pie and signature “hand grenade” drinks on Bourbon Street, Michael and I got some much-needed rest.

Gay life in the South

The St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter of New Orleans is a spot popular with tourists. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The next day, we met with activists in Metairie, La. who told us of the ups and downs of LGBT life in the New Orleans area. PFLAG New Orleans Co-President Julie Thompson, who had lost her gay son due to a medical emergency in the middle of a hurricane, beamed proudly about the time she went to Southern Decadence with him and how nice everyone was to her at gay bars. She, and the others gathered, spoke of how different everything was after Katrina and how the once-vibrant LGBT community of New Orleans was only now getting to where it was before the levees burst.

Hurricane Katrina

Co-President of PFLAG New Orleans Julie Thompson recalled many happy memories with her late gay son. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Louisiana Trans Advocates President Elizabeth Anne Jenkins told us how the destruction of the city meant the wholesale dismantling of an infrastructure for support for the local trans population, from doctors to support networks.

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Elizabeth Anne Jenkins is the president of Louisiana Trans Advocates. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael and I wanted to see the devastated Lower Ninth Ward for ourselves. There were rows and rows of foundations with no houses, empty streets with only weeds on the block. But there were bright spots. The Make It Right Foundation had rebuilt a portion of the neighborhood with gleaming, eco-friendly, hurricane resistant homes.

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Several eco-friendly homes have been built in the Lower Ninth Ward. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

But, it only took a trip across the bridge to the Upper Ninth Ward to see that the region is far from recovered. Many homes remain boarded shut, overgrown with creeping vines.

Hurricane Katrina

Several homes remain shuttered in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans nine years after Katrina. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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Homes in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans have been reclaimed by nature and sit abandoned. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

HIV in New Orleans

That evening, we met with peer educator Timothy Thompson of the New Orleans AIDS Task Force for dinner in the French Quarter. He told us of the problem of the stigma of an HIV-positive diagnosis driving many to avoid being tested. Many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS persist among people that Thompson had met with, including fears that HIV could be spread by sharing a meal.

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Timothy Thompson is a peer educator with New Orleans AIDS Task Force. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the morning, we made our last stop in New Orleans: Belle Reve. Belle Reve is a residence for people with HIV that provides medical care and helps residents to get back on their feet. Vicki Weeks, its executive director, told us of all of the programs offered at the center and proudly guided us around. She, and other staff and residents, had been through a traumatic several months living as refugees in the aftermath of Katrina. But the center is now restored and provides life-saving treatment to people who are often at the end of their rope.

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Belle Reve Executive Director Vicki Weeks shows photos of the hurricane damage to the Belle Reve facility. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

One such resident was Carl Green who had lost his job after it was discovered that he was HIV positive. He became homeless and without access to medical treatment, deteriorated rapidly. Belle Reve took him in and nursed him back to health.

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Carl Green is a resident at Belle Reve. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We also met with Miss Eddie who had ridden out Katrina in New Orleans before becoming a resident at Belle Reve.

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Miss Eddie told the Blade, ‘It’s a great blessing being here,’ in the Belle Reve facility in New Orleans. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Gulf Coast

We left New Orleans and drove to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Where houses once stood along the shore, now only foundations remained. Many had rebuilt, but the scars of the hurricane were ever present.

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Foundations are all that remain of many homes along the Gulf Coast in Gulfport, Miss., destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Our first stop on the coast was to meet Jeff White and John Perkins, co-founders of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Lesbian and Gay Community Center. We shared queso and a margarita with them at a Mexican restaurant in Gulfport. They told us of how it was difficult for LGBT people to be out in any capacity in the area. They were even worried that the people in the restaurant might be looking at us. White then related a horrifying story about how he had been repeatedly raped by a teacher at his private Baptist school as an openly gay teenager to make him “hate men and change.”

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Jeff White and John Perkins are the co-founders of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Lesbian and Gay Community Center. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

We drove along the coast to a mall in nearby Biloxi, where we met with Jennifer and Jena Pierce and a trans man who preferred to remain anonymous. The Pierces married in Connecticut last December, yet lived in Mississippi. They had considered moving to a place more accepting of their relationship, but decided to stay for the sake of their young daughter who is in school. The married couple had faced discrimination on a number of occasions. Jena Pierce told us that an employee at the DMV office loudly gathered her coworkers and told her she could not change the last name on her driver’s license because the state would not recognize her marriage. The DMV worker proceeded to publicly embarrass her, leaving her sobbing in her car.

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Jennifer and Jena Pierce are a married couple in Biloxi, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Jennifer Pierce had also experienced discrimination when trying to take a family leave day to take their daughter to the doctor’s office. Her workplace wouldn’t let her go because their daughter isn’t her biological daughter — even though the people making the decision had been guests at the Pierces’ wedding reception.

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A trans man on the Gulf Coast preferred to remain anonymous but spoke to the Blade about his experience as a trans man living on the Gulf Coast. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Alabama

It was in the early evening when we pulled into the parking lot of Laps on the Causeway, a sprawling restaurant along a thin stretch of land in the middle of Mobile Bay. Michael and I battled a swarm of gnats to meet with Lane Galbraith on the outdoor deck of his favorite restaurant. The trans man who had founded LGBT Wave of Hope, a Mobile LGBT advocacy organization, told us of the pervasive closet of Alabama and the struggles of the LGBT people who live there.

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Lane Galbraith is the founder of LGBT Wave of Hope in Mobile, Ala. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Our final leg of the trip was something that I had been looking forward to for weeks. We drove to Montgomery, Ala. to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). There was as much security at the SPLC as one would expect at the White House. After passing through many checkpoints, I wasn’t even allowed to take pictures inside the massive building. The SPLC’s precautions were well-founded however, as the watchdog organization had been targeted many times by hate groups resulting in fire bombings. We visited the Civil Rights Memorial and got background on the SPLC’s LGBT-specific cases. We met with SPLC lawyers David Dinielli and Sam Wolfe who specialize in LGBT issues.

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Southern Poverty Law Center Deputy Legal Director David Dinielli and lawyer Sam Wolfe met with the Washington Blade at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

After meeting with the lawyers, we were granted a visit to the SPLC’s Civil Rights Museum. Upon seeing a display that related the horrifying death of a man in an anti-gay attack, my traveling companion started sobbing. I felt a strange confluence of emotions from the mental and emotional toll our trip had taken as well. After we left the museum, we walked in silence around Montgomery. Signs of the Confederacy were all around us, including the Confederate “White House” of Jefferson Davis.

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The circular Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. lists martyrs to the cause of civil rights, with a blank spot left for people who came before and those who are yet to come. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

On the last day of our trip, Michael and I were both mentally exhausted, but we had one more important person to talk with. Kathie Heirs of AIDS Alabama met us in her offices in Birmingham to talk about the strides made in combatting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the state.

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Kathie Hiers is the CEO of AIDS Alabama. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael and I dropped off the rental car at the airport in Birmingham and had a silent drink together while waiting on our flight back to D.C. The many stories I had heard were swirling around in my head and I was too close to it then to make sense of it. I did know two things: I would never take living in a place like Washington for granted again and I would never again succumb to the comforting lie that our full equality had already been won nationwide. The people we had met in the South were amazing and courageous and had built a community in difficult circumstances. Most all of the people we had spoken with had a sense of pride of place and felt a duty to make their town or city a more welcoming home for the next generation of LGBT people.

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Corcoran Street Group: LGBTQ lobbyists fighting for our rights

‘The most pro-LGBTQ+ thing you can do this election is to vote Democrat’

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Brad Howard is founder and president of the Corcoran Street Group

We often hear the term lobbyist associated with negative connotations. Think oil and gas initiatives that often seek to curtail environmental protections to further their industries. Consider “big pharma,” which is often vilified for keeping healthcare costs high. However, there are lobbyists fighting for our rights – not just LGBTQ rights, but human rights as well. Brad Howard, founder and president of the Corcoran Street Group (CSG) is one such out, gay lobbyist advocating for equality and equity. 

To start, Howard shares his definition of a lobbyist, which transcends the stereotype that the term originates with politicos literally waiting in D.C. hotel lobbies hoping to hobnob with politicians to foster their interests, often with cash in hand.

“Understanding how government works can be incredibly difficult, even to those on the inside,” he shared. “Lobbying is a constitutionally protected right explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment – the right to petition our government. At its most basic level, lobbying is essentially contacting a public official to express your opinion or ask them to take a certain action. So, if you have ever emailed or called your city council rep or Member of Congress – or even tagged them on social media – you lobbied.”

Howard, who came to Washington from a conservative background in Arkansas, had a journey from working with Republican leaders and causes to being more libertarian before eventually joining with the Blue Dog Democrats. This is quite a change for a young man who founded a teenage GOP group in high school, chaired the college Republicans group at Hendrix University, and became vice chair of Arkansas College Republicans. 

So, how did a nice conservative Christian Republican whose parents voted for Ross Perot instead of Bill Clinton from the Bible Belt end up as a gay lobbyist? 

“I was subconsciously rejecting any attempt to live my life the way someone told me to … a Libertarian streak if you will,” Howard said. “I was always pro-choice and pro-marriage equality as I didn’t want the government anywhere near me. Throughout all of this, I was starting to understand that I was gay and what that meant for my future in politics, it was bleak. Then the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 started pushing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in states across the country to drive evangelical turnout. That ran counter to my politics – to the basic principle of promoting individual liberty. So I left the party then and graduated college as an independent in 2006 with the goal of moving to Washington as quickly as possible.”

By 2007 he was living in Washington, D.C., interning for Simon Rosenberg’s New Democrat Network, and pursuing a master’s from American University. Coming out for Howard happened on the first day he entered college, quite a “daunting and scary” task summed up by him as: “I have blue eyes. I love playing cards. I’m a terrible, but very confident karaoke singer. Oh, by the way, I’m gay.”

The “it’s part of me, but not my whole identity,” is often expressed by those on the – shall we say – cusp of coming out. He cites a Foundry United Methodist pastor’s message as impetus for coming out as a defining part of his identity. 

“That seed of shame you feel for being gay – that was not planted there by God; it was planted there by the church, and I’m sorry,” here he’s referring to a sermon by Pastor Ginger Gaines-Cerelli. “I can’t describe what it [felt] like to be 33 years old and have your world completely upended like that. It wasn’t just the statement, which answered a question that had long haunted me; it was also the apology. I didn’t even know that I needed an apology, but I did, and it worked.” 

Before starting CSG, he worked at a bipartisan lobbyist group and was mentored by former Chief of Senate Staff Bob Van Heuvelen. Howard describes his mentor’s approach to lobbying as guided by a strong moral compass, and seeing people as people, not transactions. 

The way it should be: Since corporations are not people.

Howard also sits on the board of directors for Q Street, as treasurer. Q Street is an LGBTQ lobbyist organization. Yesenia Henninger, the out queer president of Q Street since January of this year – and board member for five years – explains in further detail what her group does to foster queer rights. 

“Q Street is the nonprofit, nonpartisan, professional association of LGBTQ lobbyists and public policy advocates. Q Street was formed to be the bridge between LGBTQ advocacy organizations, LGBTQ+ lobbyists on K Street,” District lingo for queer lobbyists, “and our colleagues and allies on Capitol Hill. Q Street has more than 3,000 recipients of our monthly newsletter, hundreds of attendees at our receptions, and our monthly luncheons have featured speakers such as Members of Congress, campaign managers, activists, plaintiffs in the most important LGBTQ+ Supreme Court cases of our time, and the Secretary of the Army. Q Street hosts nearly 25 receptions, lunches, and professional development events every year. Our goal is to provide the best networking opportunities and professional development trainings so our members continue to grow within the ranks of their field.”

According to Henninger there has been a growing population of queer lobbyists since the Obama years. Marriage equality, an impetus for Howard to perhaps “come out politically” equally spurred their growth. After Obama, this presence fought to maintain rights gained. This is amazing growth considering at one time people working for our equity did so in an almost secretive fashion. 

An aside here, Sean Strub the founder of POZ Magazine, wrote a powerful book in 2014 called “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival,” which chronicles advocacy in D.C. in the years after Stonewall.

The majority of these K Street lobbyists are in their 30s and 40s. Although Henninger shares there are more junior and more senior-ranking lobbyists in terms of age or career. 

What do they do? Is it office-to-event, sleep, repeat? Henninger explained that a queer lobbyist’s lifestyle varies depending on the issue area they focus on. Her organization has lobbyists working in policy as well as members who focus on energy and transportation issues, and topics all across the spectrum.

“The lobbyists and advocates whose roles require them to engage in political activity may also have different lifestyles than those that do not. They likely have fundraisers (sometimes one, sometimes multiple) that they attend after work with Members of Congress or other politicians. However, we also have many public policy advocate members who spend their day talking to Members of Congress, or administration officials, trying to achieve their policy goals that do not have any fundraiser-related obligations. Q Street hopes to provide a great space for our members to network with one another and unite their social and professional experiences in the district.”

We are all aware what is at stake in the upcoming presidential election in what can only sadly be described as a deeply divided nation. What role will LGBTQ lobbyists play, I asked Brad Howard.  

“If you vote third party, if you leave the race blank, or if you stay home, you are helping to elect Donald Trump,” he said. “You are not punishing Joe Biden, you are punishing the millions of Americans, the millions of aspiring Americans who face deportation, millions of women who depend on access to reproductive health, and so many transgender young people who need protection – all of these people will be punished in a Trump presidency. And, Joe Biden is going to need a Democratic Congress – or we’ll need a Democratic Congress to stop Donald Trump. So to me, the most pro-LGBTQ+ thing you can do this election is to vote Democrat…because the choices have never been clearer.”

Visit Corcoran Street Group and Q Street to learn more about their work.

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Rehoboth’s Purple Parrot still soaring after 25 years

Owners Hugh Fuller and Troy Roberts reflect on keys to their success

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Longtime Purple Parrot employee Chris Chandler. (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

Two buildings, one romance, and 25 years later, the Purple Parrot is busy as ever. 

If the tropical purple paint covering the outside with rainbow flags and walls covered with love notes, affirmations, and drunk wishes scribbled on dollar bills don’t indicate it already, the Purple Parrot is an institution in Rehoboth. The gay-owned and operated fixture is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 

The Blade sat down with owners Hugh Fuller and Troy Roberts of the Rehoboth establishment to discuss the past 25 years and plans for the future. 

Fuller and Roberts, both gay, have been working together since before the Parrot was even an idea. Fuller was a co-owner of the Iguana, another restaurant and bar in the town.  

“I was in the Iguana first with another business partner,” Fuller said. “I was going to get out and move up to Pennsylvania with him [Roberts]. He decided that he was going to come down and said, ‘Well, what if I go in with you at the Iguana and we do it together?’ And I was like, ‘Alright,’ so we did, and it just snowballed from there. We were always in the restaurant business together from the beginning.” 

“Yeah, that was really luck, too,” Roberts began. “Because-” 

“Because Grindr wasn’t around then!” Fuller interjected, laughing as Roberts began to roll his eyes and smile. 

“I had a small place up in York,” Roberts continued. “Selling that kind of gave us some money to buy the other guy out. We just had friends supporting us and helping us along the way and it just kind of worked.” 

“Kind of worked” would be an understatement. The pair moved on from the Iguana and opened the Parrot. Then, after opening the Parrot, they decided to shift locations to a larger location down the street to accommodate the growing demand. Then in 2010, the Parrot expanded again, adding the land behind the Rehoboth Avenue location, which provided an additional 950 square feet as well as giving patrons access to Wilmington Avenue. 

The bar and restaurant, which serves American cuisine with a beach flair, has always focused on being a welcoming space to all regardless of sexuality, gender, race, nationality, or identity. This, the duo explains, is one of the reasons why the restaurant has had such a lasting impact on the Rehoboth restaurant and gay communities. 

The Purple Parrot (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

“Back in the ‘90s when we first opened up, the amount of straight crossdressers that would come were like, ‘Oh, are we allowed to come in? Are we welcomed into a place like that?’ And we were like ‘Everybody that walks on this planet is welcome here!’” Fuller said. “Those are the kinds of things, you know, where people just felt comfortable. They would get stared at out on the street, but inside they would walk around and feel like they were in their own skin. It was just really cool to see.”

The feeling of acceptance has been a crucial part of the Parrot’s success.

“I got an email a couple of days ago — probably two weeks ago about a woman bringing her daughter down,” Roberts said. “She’s 16 and was bullied through school — hard times, depression, tried to harm herself a couple of times. It was just really sweet that she reached out and she’s like, ‘My daughter was a completely different person when I brought her into your bar. Everybody treated her nice — the bartenders, the waitstaff, I mean, everybody was friendly. She just doesn’t experience that often being an out 16-year-old lesbian. We just can’t even thank you enough.’ It’s those kinds of things that we get often.”

“[The mother] mainly wrote it because we put the Pride flag on the Parrot’s Facebook wall,” Fuller added. 

The colorful lights, disco balls, and staggering number of dollar bills stapled to the walls highlight that the Rehoboth community has embraced the Parrot. It’s not uncommon to see a group of gay patrons sitting at the bar in bathing suits sipping on orange crushes and talking about their day at Poodle Beach while a bachelorette party belts out Lady Gaga on karaoke night in the room next door. That is the vibe Fuller and Roberts have curated — a fun and friendly tropical oasis in the middle of Rehoboth Avenue.  

A crucial element of this curated vibe, the pair point out, is treating employees and guests with respect. When asked what they have learned that helped them be so successful over the past 25 years, Fuller and Roberts said the same thing.

“Patience, organization, and treating people well,” Roberts said.” I think that’s probably one of the bigger of the three — you treat them well and they treat you well. I think it’s just a mutual respect.” 

 “It took me about 30 years to learn that it’s not just all about work,” Fuller said. “I used to bust my butt in there all the time and the focus was [on] the restaurant. I know [Roberts] said patience, I would say mine was being patient too because I learned going in that it’s easier to deal with your employees without shouting at them. It took me a little while to get through that.” 

He added that compensating staff fairly was also one of their keys to success. 

 “Before we take a nickel out of our business, we put $1 back into our employees’ pockets,” Fuller said. We want the business to survive and it has been incredible.”  

Fuller added that this sentiment, of having patience and treating everyone with respect, goes both ways — it applies to the Parrot’s patrons as well. 

“If you leave the Parrot angry, it’s your own decision,” Fuller explained. “If we don’t make you happy there, it’s because you’re choosing not to be happy. We will go out of our way to correct anything and everything that we can. So if you leave [unhappy], it’s not because we couldn’t do it. It’s because you didn’t want us to.”

The two discussed their history together — anyone who has them interact can see their spirited energy and appreciation for each other. 

 “Troy and I used to be a couple when we first opened, and we were together for about 10 years,” Fuller said. “And then we kind of went our separate ways, but the restaurant kept us in very close contact. Sometimes I think we’re probably closer than most couples are because of the way that the restaurant has us tied together.” 

“Even during the worst of it, we never stopped communicating on a daily basis,” Roberts added. “Obviously, you can tell by his personality why that all went south,” he said laughing. 

“Well, you can tell by the way that he looks why it went south.” Fuller jabbed back, also laughing.

“Hey!” Roberts replied. 

“I wasn’t gonna continue dating my grandfather!” Fuller joked. 

Despite the end of their romantic relationship, there was still clear evidence of perpetual good energy between the business partners. The two then started to reminisce about the past 25 years and the struggles and successes they overcame to reach this milestone. 

The pair mentioned the two biggest struggles they have faced in the past quarter century. One was when Rehoboth Avenue was dug up for the Streetscape improvement project, and the second was the 2008 recession. 

“We were refinancing our houses several times to keep it afloat there for a little while,” Fuller said. 

“But hey, we got nice sidewalks now!” Roberts added. “So that’s good.”

 It’s not just the customers who grew up with the Parrot; so did the staff.

“I mean one of the kids who bussed for us is now our dentist,” Fuller said.

“One of the busboys from the Iguana days, he’s our dentist now,” Roberts explained. “They actually started dating in high school while working together at the Iguana. One of them followed us to the Parrot and her daughter just worked for us two summers ago as a host. He’s our dentist, and they’re still local. We just sold him a house over in Lewes, because we’re both Realtors on the side. When you look back at that, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you were just a kid. And now you have a kid graduating college!’ It goes fast.” 

It seems that many of the staff have a soft spot for the Parrot, and for good reason. An important aspect of keeping their employees happy is supporting them. At first, it was trips to Disney World with some of the servers and renting out the local waterpark to give kids time to enjoy the summer. Then it became Christmas bonuses, which are not common in the food service industry. 

The Parrot helped raise more than $10,000 for one of their employees dealing with fallout from the war in Ukraine. 

“One of our bartenders being from Ukraine, when all that went down, amazingly, how he was able to bring a lot of his family over,” Roberts said. “And until they actually got grounded, he had places for them to stay all lined up.”

“The reason that he was able to get them over is because we did a fundraiser at the restaurant and our customers raised over $10,000 to help sponsor his family and one of our other employees’ families,” Fuller said. “They brought them all the way up through Mexico and into the country and now they’re here with citizenship cards and working for us. We got them houses and apartments too.” 

“We don’t care what they are, whether they’re straight, Black, Chinese, Mexican. It’s like the Benetton of Rehoboth in here,” Fuller added. “It’s the United Nations. We support everybody and we’re not afraid to show our support for everybody.”

In addition to reminiscing about some of the good things the restaurant has done for its employees, they both talked about notable guests of the Parrot. 

“My mind went right to the guys from Manhattan, who would always come down,” Roberts said when asked if any guests have stuck out to him over the past 25 years. “They just happened to find us. They had never been to Rehoboth before. They walked into the original Parrot and had every single year after that until two of them passed away. It just became like a yearly week, then it turned into two weeks, and then it turned into two times a year. And it was all just because they came to one bar, and had so much fun. They would sit there all day, all night, go home take a nap, and come back for dinner. And it was just their place.” 

They have faced some objections from those who were not as receptive to their tolerance of different people.

“We get the same hate that everybody else does — the same hate that the city got when they put the rainbow crossings in and the flag up,” Fuller said. “I was just telling Troy about a conversation I had yesterday with a guy. The front of our business for Pride month has flags on it and says ‘Happy Pride.’ And he said, ‘I was going to come in here but I see you’re supporting the gay community with your rainbow flags.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t see why you don’t have flags for veterans.’ And I said,’ Well, as a veteran, I can tell you that we don’t serve to be recognized, we serve to protect and to give you guys your freedom. It’s not something that we want recognition for. But there is a flag, the American flag, that flies over the top of our business every day to represent the veterans of this country.’” 

Despite the opinions of some who are less than welcoming of the LGBTQ community, the Purple Parrot will always be a safe space to celebrate, the two affirmed. And celebrate they will. 

The Parrot already hosted one party to celebrate the milestone of the bar early in the summer, but will throw an even bigger bash at the end of the season to commemorate the history and hard work that has gone into making the Parrot ‘fly.’

“On May fifth we had a big party,” Fuller said. “We’ll have another one at the end of the summer in September. We did one at the beginning and then we’re going to do a really big one at the end of the summer. The first celebration, that weekend, turned out to be a little rainy, and misty so it wasn’t as big as it could have been. It was packed inside but it wasn’t packed outside like it normally is. We usually do a full cookout barbecue, all that stuff and we’ll do that again at the end of the summer. We’ll have another one of those with DJs. I am not sure about a drag show, but we’ll probably have something because the girls are trying to get something together. We don’t want to spoil anything but there will be a surprise.”  

When asked to give their final thoughts on owning and running one of Rehoboth’s most successful businesses as gay men, the two made it clear that it has to be a safe and welcoming space for all for it to succeed. 

“I think you have to be all-inclusive,” Roberts said. “I don’t think in today’s world you can just really limit it to the gay community. You have to be gay-friendly, and accepting as well. And I think that helps because it gets non-gays in there and everybody just starts to get along. It becomes more accepted and then becomes the norm.” 

Fuller agreed but emphasized being true to one’s character in collaboration with being inclusive is the key to their success.

“Being gay isn’t who we are, you know, it’s what we are,” Fuller said. “You can’t be afraid to be you. … If you’re going to open up a business, you want to make sure you lean on the community, because the community is going to be your biggest support. And that’s how we definitely lean on the gay community.”

The Purple Parrot is located at 134 Rehoboth Ave. in Rehoboth Beach and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Sundays. For more information, visit their website at ppgrill.com.

Purple Parrot (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Queer TV anchors in Md. use their platform ‘to fight for what’s right’

Salisbury’s Hannah Cechini, Rob Petree are out and proud in Delmarva

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Hannah Cechini and Rob Petree anchor the 5:30 p.m. newscast at WMDT 47, the ABC affiliate in Salisbury, Md. (Photo courtesy WMDT)

Identity can be a tricky thing for journalists to navigate. The goal of the job is to inform the public with no bias, but this is difficult, if not impossible, to do in practice. Everything from your upbringing to the books you read can impact how you view and cover the world. But sometimes these factors can help shine a light on an underrepresented community or issue.  

Two broadcast journalists in Salisbury, Md., are using the subtle, yet impactful choice of sharing their queer identities to strengthen their reporting and connection to the community. 

Hannah Cechini, who is non-binary, and Rob Petree, who is gay, co-host the 5:30-6:30 p.m. newscast for WMDT 47. They are the only known anchor team that are not only both queer, but also open out about their identities on air and, as Petree put it, “always use [their] platform and power that [we] have to fight for what’s right.”

Cechini’s passion for journalism played an important role in the discovery of their gender identity. They knew they were meant to be in the newsroom before they figured out they were non-binary.

“I was doing this job before I started to identify as non-binary,” Cechini told the Blade. “I’d always watch the evening news with my dad growing up and thought it was the coolest thing. And throughout high school, I worked on the school paper.”

After graduating from Suffolk University in Boston, Cechini’s passion for journalism only grew as they began to work in the world of news media, eventually ending up in Salisbury. As they honed their writing, editing, and anchoring skills at WMDT, Cechini also started to take an introspective look into their gender identity.

A little more than two years ago Cechini came out as non-binary to their coworkers in the newsroom and was met with support all around. “It was definitely smoother than I anticipated,” they said.

“It is very freeing to be able to do this job as a non-binary person because I haven’t really seen much of that representation myself.” 

Petree, on the other hand, knew he was gay right around the same time he became interested in news media, at age 14. He started working for his high school news show and used it as a way to be open about his sexuality rather than hide it. 

“I broke into broadcasting doing the morning announcements,” he said. “I did the weather and started doing a segment called issues and insights,” Petree said, explaining his introduction to the news. Eventually, students would ask him questions about his sexuality after seeing him on the school TV. “It had gotten to the point in school, that if you’re going to come up and ask me if I’m gay, well shit, I’m going to tell you!”

To him, this was the exact reason he had come out. Petree wanted to motivate others to live honestly. 

“There are a lot of people who will spend most of their lives not being out so if they can see someone like me, who’s out and proud doing his thing, so to speak, then maybe that’s the inspiration for them,” Petree said. “To search their own soul, find out who they are, and live their full life.”

Petree explained that he got his start in a space that was not always welcoming to his queerness. This tested the delicate balance between being a journalist and holding your identity close.

“I’ve always been out and it was a challenge because I got my start in conservative talk radio,” Petree said. “I’m going to be honest, some of the things I heard from people I’ve worked with, from the callers to the radio stations were absolutely abhorrent. But I never let it discourage me. It made me work that much harder.” 

Cechini highlighted the same sentiment when explaining why it’s important to have out LGBTQ figures in news media. They want to show everyone that it is possible to be openly queer and successful.

“I just think that representation matters because if ‘Joe,’ who’s never seen a transgender person before, sees a transgender person or a non-binary person, doing a job that they’ve only ever seen straight cis people doing before, it kind of creates that understanding or bridges that gap,” Cechini said. “It’s like, ‘OK, maybe they’re not that different from me.’ And that facilitates being able to connect among different communities.”

Both Cechini and Petree agree that having a queer coworker has made their bond stronger. 

 “It’s great to have someone else next to me who I can relate to and work alongside,” Petree said. “And they’re a joy to work with, they really are. There is a tremendous amount of things that we relate to together — like we both share and have the same affinity for Lady Gaga,” he said laughing. “Although they’re more of a Lady Gaga fan than I am.”

“Hannah is a tremendous journalist who really goes out of their way to make sure that the stories that they do are on point 100% of the time,” he added. “They’ve been great to work with and to learn from and to grow alongside. I’m very happy to have them as my co-anchor.”

Cechini explained that the relationship between two co-anchors can make or break a newscast, and having Petree as their partner on air is a major part of the show’s success.

“Co-anchoring is not just the relationship that you have on camera,” Cechini said. “It’s really, really important to have a good relationship with your co-anchor off-camera as well because you have to have a level of trust between you.”

Cechini continued, saying that this relationship is crucial to working together, especially when things don’t go as planned. 

“Not everything always goes to script,” they said. “Sometimes you have to be able to work together without even really talking to each other and just kind of know what to do. When you have a relationship like that with someone who identifies similarly to you or has had similar life experience, I think that just only strengthens that [relationship].”

Although they have had similar experiences being from the LGBTQ community, Petree said it was a change for him to use “they/them” pronouns on air.

“Prior to working with Hannah, I’ve never worked with a non-binary individual who went by the pronouns ‘they/them,’” Petree said. “It was new for me to not use traditional pronouns on air, but I can say that I have never misgendered them on air and never will. You get conditioned to using traditional pronouns and it’s easy to make that mistake, but I never have.”

At the end of the day, they both explained, it is about doing the job right. For the duo, a part of that is understanding the diversity of people and issues in the community. 

“When you come from a more marginalized community, I think that kind of helps to inform you a little better as a journalist because you have a better understanding of what it’s like to be ‘the other guy,’” Cechini said.

“Our talent and our drive for journalism speaks for itself,” Petree said. “And that resonates with people. Have we shown ourselves to be an inspiration to the LGBTQ+ community here in Delmarva? Yes, we have. And that’s something that I’m proud of.”

The primetime nightly newscast with Hannah Cechini and Rob Petree airs weeknights from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on ABC affiliate WMDT 47.

From left, Rob Petree and Hannah Cechini. (Photo courtesy of WMDT)
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