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Whitman in Washington

New book from local historian honors late great gay poet

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Walt Whitman, Garrett Peck, gay news, Washington Blade
Garrett Peck, gay news, Washington Blade

Washington-based author Garrett Peck on the Dupont Circle North entrance escalator where a quote by Walt Whitman is prominently inscribed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Author speech and signing

 

One More Page Books

 

2200 N. Westmoreland St. No. 101

 

Arlington, Va.

 

Tuesday

 

7-9 p.m.

 

 

Politics & Prose

 

5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

 

April 19

 

5 p.m.

 

For other events including upcoming Walt Whitman walking tours hosted by Peck, visit garrettpeck.com.

 

Local author and historian Garrett Peck has been on a huge roll in the last few years. His first book, “Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t,” came out in 2011. Since then, he’s published five more. His latest, “Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.,” was published last week by the Charleston, S.C.-based the History Press.

Peck, who works by day as a global market intelligence analyst for Verizon, admits it’s been an intense pace. The last few years have brought “The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet” in 2009, “The Potomac River: a History & Guide” in 2012, “Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry” in 2013 and last year’s “Capital Beer: a Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.”

“I’d just long wanted to publish,” Peck, 47, says. “I just love research, love writing, love giving the talks and doing the promotional stuff. I just kind of fell in love with the process so I kept doing it. I have a list running down my arm of ideas I want to pursue. A book a year is pretty aggressive. I’ve been told it’s insane and it kind of is, but it’s more my own pressure. I’ve got so many topics I want to pursue.”

He’s been gaining traction and good reviews. The Hill praised “Capital Beer” for Peck’s “brisk and lively prose” while the Lit Pub said he “seizes on important moments in history and livens them with 21st century insight.” He says he’s sold about 10,000 copies of his various titles so far.

The Whitman book, an idea Peck had for many years, was timed to coincide with this year’s 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, significant because Whitman highly revered the president and wrote a series of poems about him.

“He really adored the president,” Peck says. “Strongly admired him and saw him many times, though they never got the chance to actually meet. They were even in the same room once but the president was in a conversation with someone else and they didn’t actually get to meet.”

Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War and beyond, from December, 1862 until June, 1873. Here initially to find his brother George, a Union officer wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman sensed a need and worked as a hospital volunteer — not a nurse, Peck says, as has been widely thought — who made an estimated 600 visits to between 80,000-100,000 soldiers and also continuing his legendary poetry writing including two further editions of his trademark work “Leaves of Grass” and others including “The Wound Dresser” from his work “Drum-Taps,” an 1865 publication that established him as poet laureate of the Civil War.

“It was an enormously important time in his life,” Peck says. “He was kind of infamous in a way for ‘Leaves of Grass’ by that point, but not necessarily famous. The Civil War gave him a more humanitarian purpose.”

Although scholarship widely acknowledges Whitman as a gay man now, Peck says it remained a challenging topic in his research since the word homosexual wasn’t used in print until 1892, the year of Whitman’s death.

So what was gay D.C. like then? Peck says despite there being no Dupont Circle or similar gay mecca, gays somehow managed to find each other nonetheless.

“There were bars where people would congregate and people had relationships,” Peck says. “It’s very interesting to see how these relationships developed, for instance with Walt and Peter Doyle, the … love of his life … Walt was 46 and Peter was 21, yet it was Peter who approached Walt. They were cruising each other on a streetcar, so people had ways of finding each other, even then.”

Peck says another challenge was determining to what degree, if any, Whitman was out to his friends and family, including his mother, with whom he was close. Peck says his mother “surely knew,” and argues that his closest friends “must have known.” The degree to which it might have been discussed, Peck says, is unknown.

And yes, there was straight washing happening, as one might expect. Peck points to a biography of John Burroughs, a Whitman friend in Washington, written by Burroughs’ wife, Clara Barrus, who went out of her way, Peck says, to point out — without ever saying exactly what she was talking about — that certain Whitman “controversies” were not true.

“I asked (other historians) what she was talking about,” Peck says. “They all said, ‘She was denying that Walt was gay.’ I’m like, ‘You’re shitting me.’ She was married to Burroughs, so she had access to all this great, first-hand information, yet she felt the need to address this. All the information about Peter Doyle and Walt was right there in front of her, so it’s very much like you hear people talk about global warming today not happening or the earth being only 6,000-and-some years old. People are often blind to the facts that are right there in front of them and ultimately they believe whatever they want.”

Peck says that although many books have been written on Whitman, none had focused exclusively on his Washington years. He says Whitman’s appeal and popularity remains strong because he’s widely acknowledged as “one of our classic poets” who has an “international reputation.”

“There’s a tremendous universality to what he wrote,” Peck says. “‘Leaves of Grass,’ the Lincoln poems, the more homoerotic works like “Calamus,’ and beautiful works like ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ which if you’ve ever got 10 minutes, look it up and read it. It’s about the Lincoln funeral. Though it never mentions Lincoln, it totally captures this moment and is just devastating, probably his last great poem, which he wrote right here in D.C.”

Walt Whitman, Garrett Peck, gay news, Washington Blade

Walt Whitman in 1869 during his years in Washington. (Photo from ‘A Life of Walt Whitman’ by Henry Bryan Binns via Wikimedia)

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Tagg turns 10

D.C. magazine thriving post-pandemic with focus on queer women

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‘Tagg is a form of resistance,’ says editor Eboné Bell. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a 10-year-old YouTube video, owner and editor of Tagg magazine, Eboné Bell, — clad in a white cotton T-shirt, gray vest and matching gray fedora — smiled with all her pearly whites as a correspondent for the magazine interviewed her outside now-closed Cobalt, a gay club in downtown D.C. that hosted the magazine’s official launch in the fall of 2012. 

“I want to make sure that people know that this is a community publication,” Bell said in the video. “It’s about the women in this community and we wanted to make sure that they knew that ‘This is your magazine.’”

As one of just two queer womxn’s magazines in the country, Tagg has established itself as one of the nation’s leading and forthright LGBTQ publications that focuses on lesbian and queer culture, news, and events. The magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

Among the many beats Tagg covers, it has recently produced work on wide-ranging political issues such as the introduction of the LGBTQ+ History Education Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court’s assault on reproductive rights through a reversal of its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling; and also attracted the attention of international queer celebrities, including Emmy-nominated actress Dominique Jackson through fundraisers.

“Tagg is a form of resistance,” Bell said in a Zoom interview with the Washington Blade. “I always say the best form of activism is visibility and we’re out there authentically us.”

Although the magazine was created to focus on lifestyle, pressing political issues that affect LGBTQ individuals pushed it to dive deeper into political coverage in efforts to bring visibility to LGBTQ issues that specifically affect queer femme individuals. 

“We know the majority of our readers are queer women,’ said Bell. “[So] we always ask ourselves, ‘How does this affect our community?’ We are intentional and deliberate about it.”

Rebecca Damante, a contributing writer to the magazine echoed Bell’s sentiments. 

“The movement can sometimes err toward gay white men and it’s good that we get to represent other groups,” said Damante. “I feel really lucky that a magazine like Tagg exists because it’s given me the chance to polish my writing skills and talk about queer representation in media and politics.”

Tagg’s coverage has attracted younger readers who visit the magazine’s website in search of community and belonging. Most readers range between the ages of 25 and 30, Bell said. 

“[The magazine] honestly just took on a life of its own,” said Bell. “It’s like they came to us [and] it makes perfect sense.”

Prior to the magazine becoming subscription-based and completely online, it was a free publication that readers could pick up in coffee shops and distribution boxes around D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. 

Battling the pandemic 

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, newsrooms across the world were forced to function virtually. Additionally, economic strife forced many publications to downsize staffs and — in some cases — cancel entire beats as ad revenue decreased, forcing them to find alternative ways to self-sustain financially. Tagg was no exception. 

“We didn’t fly unscathed,” said Bell. “[The pandemic] took a huge emotional toll on me because I thought we were going to close. I thought we were going to fail.”

However, the magazine was able to stand firm after a fundraiser titled “Save Tagg Magazine” yielded about $30,000 in donations from the community. 

The fundraiser involved a storefront on Tagg’s website where donations of LGBTQ merchandise were sold, including a book donated by soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. 

There was also a virtual “Queerantine Con” — an event that was the brainchild of Dana Piccoli, editor of News Is Out— where prominent LGBTQ celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Lea DeLaria and Kate Burrell, gave appearances to help raise money that eventually sustained the publication. 

“There was a time where I was ready to be like ‘I have to be OK that [Tagg] might not happen anymore,” said Bell. “But because of love and support, I’m here.” 

While the outpouring of love from community members who donated to the magazine helped keep the magazine alive, it was also a stark reminder that smaller publications, led by women of color, have access to fewer resources than mainstream outlets. 

“It’s statistically known that Black women-owned businesses get significantly less support, venture capital investments, things like that,” said Bell. “I saw similar outlets such as Tagg with white people making $100,000 a month.”

Bell added that Tagg had to work “10 times harder” to survive, and although the magazine didn’t cut back on the people who worked for it, it ended free access to the magazine in the DMV especially as the places that housed the magazine were no longer in business. The publication also moved to a subscription-based model that allowed it to ameliorate printing costs. 

Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Tagg remains steadfast in its service to the LGBTQ community. The magazine hired an assistant editor in 2021 and has maintained a team of graphic designers, photographers, writers and an ad sales team who work to ensure fresh content is delivered to readers on a regular basis. 

For Bell, Tagg mirrors an important life experience — the moment she discovered Ladders, a lesbian magazine published throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. 

“To that young person coming up, I want you to see all the things that happened before them, all the people that came before them, all the stories that were being told” she said.

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs]

BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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