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Danger ahead?

Signorile on victory blindness, Aaron Schock and the path forward

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Michelangelo Signorile, gay news, Washington Blade
Michelangelo Signorile, gay news, Washington Blade

Michelangelo Signorile says LGBT advances are at a dangerous place. (Photo by Jayne Wexler; courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Michelangelo Signorile

 

‘It’s Not Over’ book tour

 

Wednesday, April 22

 

Politics and Prose

 

5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

 

7 p.m.

 

free

 

signorile.com

 

With even anti-LGBT forces conceding a turning tide against them in the marriage wars, gay rights activists are in a place they like with same-sex marriage support polling higher than ever (only 33 percent oppose according to last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) and marriage equality in 37 states plus D.C.

But marriage, of course, isn’t the only issue and radio host and author Michelangelo Signorile says the movement is in danger of succumbing to “victory blindness,” a phenomenon wherein “we’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur.” In his new book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia & Winning True Equality,” a wide-ranging book culled from years of activism and insight gleaned from his long-running eponymous show on Sirius XM radio, Signorile warns of potential dangers ahead.

Dubbed both “a wake-up call” and “a battle plan for the fights to come,” Signorile, who’ll be in Washington to promote it and sign copies at Politics & Prose next week, says there’s much work to do. Though he makes a compelling case, we played devil’s advocate with him by phone for an hour last week. His comments have been edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: The book is so timely and full of up-to-the-minute developments. Aren’t you concerned it will be outdated very quickly?

MICHELANGELO SIGNORILE: It’s the nature of our entire communications industry that everything moves so quickly and books occupy a different place than they used to. They have to do something different. What had continued to strike me over the last few years is that although we kept having these victories, the facts on the ground weren’t matching the celebrations and there was still a lot of discrimination. That was something that was remaining true regardless of what the latest victory was …. so it was really an issue of which examples to use. Some of the older ones, I just decided not to use. There were newer ones that would carry the basic idea through.

BLADE: In the last chapter you outline what you feel is the best way to proceed from here. Nobody has a crystal ball, but with the information you have, how likely do you feel that scenario is?

SIGNORILE: It’s hard to know because if you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago, how soon we would have full marriage equality, I would have said 25 or 50 years, something like that, so I think it could happen a lot quicker but a lot of it really is related to how kids are taught about gender and sexual orientation, that really is key. … In terms of getting full civil rights, who knows when Democrats will have full control again. I almost see that as taking longer, maybe 10 years or more.

BLADE: You write about the dangers of “victory blindness.” Do you see any parallels or mistakes at comparable points in the African-American civil rights movement or the women’s movement that we can avoid? Do any of the rumblings that still bubble up in society on those issues stems from issues of victory blindness their respective leaders might have succumbed to at comparable points to where we are now?

SIGNORILE: Yeah, we’ve seen victory blindness with every group and every civil rights movement. There’s a point where there’s a major win and a lot of people become complacent and apathetic and pull back and it’s really the worst time for that to happen because that’s really when the opponents really begin to organize in a fierce way and take advantage of that apathy and we have certainly seen that with women’s rights. If you go back to the ‘70s, … there was a real cultural shift and the sexual revolution and then people kind of thought it was over, we’d arrived. People don’t anticipate the backlash, often in the form of a religious revival, which we saw in the ‘80s with the Christian evangelical revival, which has happened at various times all throughout history. … Now we’re seeing the Voting Rights Act stripped away, another clear example where people don’t anticipate the backlash. You can change the laws, but it doesn’t change the attitudes and you can’t just say it’s over.

BLADE: But couldn’t that be construed as an argument in favor of the incrementalist approach you argue against in the book? If you don’t come in like such a barnstormer, wouldn’t it stave off some of the fervor of the backlash?

SIGNORILE: I think you do have to come in like a barnstormer and demand full equality and then stick with it. The problem is people get a part of it and may even get much of it, but then don’t stick with it for further change. Whether you do it incrementally or not, your enemies will still organize against you. I don’t think you’re taken seriously when you just ask for a little bit or crumbs and I don’t think it really energizes and captivates your own people and the larger public when you do it that way. You have to really demand that full equality and whatever you get you get, but then you have to stick with it and keep fighting for it. … The lesson for a minority is that you’re always going to be fighting. The roots of bigotry go very deep.

BLADE: So is it a mistake for groups like Freedom to Marry to say they’ll close if the Supreme Court rules in our favor?

SIGNORILE: I think it depends how they’re talking about it. Evan Wolfson has been very clear that the fight is far from over. … The bigger problems are the groups that only like to focus on winning and see it as a downer or not good fundraising to focus on losing. That’s the real problem because then you look like you’re not taking up a fight, like you’re in denial. None of us can still figure out why HRC was silent through the entire period when Arkansas passed that law that rescinded all the civil rights ordinances. Yes, the local HRC chapter said a few things but we heard nothing at all from Chad Griffin, no national press release, nothing. I don’t know what to conclude from that but it seems they gave up and thought, “Well, it’s a loser.” Then a couple weeks later, they were focused on the religious liberty law in that state which they were able to beat back. It just seems they were picking what they could win … but I don’t think it does us any good when it looks like we’re running away from battle. (HRC declined to comment.)

BLADE: You’re gay and include some biographical passages in the book. Might it be more compelling to the moveable middle if there was somebody out there who was making these points who didn’t have a proverbial dog in the fight? Is anyone doing that?

SIGNORILE: I don’t really see this idea of more objectivity in journalism as something that really furthers discussion because you can’t really claim to be objective but you can be fair and open and you can entertain the thinking of those who disagree with you. … There are people like Rush Limbaugh who have their own point of view and just shut everybody else out and then you have the New York Times that claims it’s objective but that’s really impossible because even what you omit from a story requires subjectivity. I would prefer outlets that say, “This is our opinion, but let’s entertain their thoughts and see what they think.” That’s what I try to do on my show. I always try to talk to people who are oppositional. I may have arguments and it may get passionate, but I don’t shut them out. Actually people who call my show who are on the opposite side are more likely to get on because I think we need to have a discussion.

BLADE: You never hear anybody arguing against our issues that it’s not one step removed from some sort of religious argument. You never hear of an atheist arguing against gay rights but nobody really seems to point that out. Why?

SIGNORILE: I’ve made that point sometimes. Somebody always comes forth and mentions some obscure historical figure who was an atheist but was supposedly still anti-Semitic or anti-gay but I do believe whether someone is religious or not, the ideology all stems from religion. I don’t think there’s any natural aversion to homosexuality. What religion has done to modern society is really demonize homosexuality and in that sense it really is all religion-based. A lot of the media have a hard time having any kind of discussion about it without bringing some religion person on and I think they need to stop doing that because if that’s your religious belief, that’s the end of that but if you want to argue with two people coming at it from a scientific point of view, they can’t seem to find anybody because it’s all religion-based.

BLADE: Why don’t we have more Republican allies? With Republican ideals of less regulation, freer trade, fewer embargoes, why doesn’t some of that brand of thinking trickle down to more personal freedom on our issues?

SIGNORILE: There are some free market fiscal Republicans who are not anti-gay themselves and do not agree with those who want to ban marriage or throw gays out of a restaurant or whatever, but the short answer is that it’s because the religious right still has such a stranglehold on the party it has to contend with so I still hold those other people accountable if they’re still comfortable being in that party and still vote with those who have an anti-gay point of view. It becomes a bit more difficult for the party because they can’t stomach any more blatant ugly homophobic language so they have to adapt the language a bit. It still slips out every now and then, like with women’s issues when somebody says “legitimate rape” and it ruins everything again. But instead of trying to shun those people, they try to rephrase and rebrand those arguments so others will be more comfortable being in the party. Now they’re going with the religious liberty argument hoping that will stick.

BLADE: You write about the spillover into pop culture and the ramifications of that. We have strong representation on hit shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But invariably shows like “Duck Dynasty” and the Duggers’ show “19 Kids and Counting” come along and go through the roof becoming a mega cultural phenomenon. Are we going to look back in 20 years and see them as cultural anachronisms a la “Amos ’n’ Andy”? When attitudes are clearly changing in our favor, how do these kinds of shows get such traction?

SIGNORILE: These shows are a reflection of where the culture is and it’s quite clear there are millions of people out there who connect with these shows. Don’t forget that even though the people who run the industry might themselves be described as liberal, they know where the money is and where it isn’t and where it isn’t is in portraying LGBT people in a more realistic way. I think we’ll look back on “Modern Family” and say, “OK, why did these people never have any real connection.” There isn’t any discernible sexual energy between them. It’s been sanitized … to be more palatable to a mainstream audience in a way that won’t scare them.

BLADE: You say Aaron Schock should have been grilled and investigated a lot harder on possibly being a closet case. Lots of people argued there was no smoking gun and that everybody was just speculating based on tired stereotypes like the way he dressed and decorated his office. Short of some gay sex tape leaking, which is highly unlikely, these kinds of things become very hard to prove and any discussions end up being based on innuendo and stereotype. Is that unfair? How acute or fair do you feel the public’s overall gaydar is?

SIGNORILE: Well, what’s been forgotten in all this is the Itay Hod story …

BLADE: Well that sounded really wobbly — a second-hand thing where he didn’t even say for sure whom he was talking about.

SIGNORILE: He now has confirmed that’s who he was talking about and so while yes, it’s a second-hand source, it’s not something based on how he dresses or looks, but a second-hand account based on a sexual interaction. All of these issues are troublesome because they’re treated differently than they would be with any other story about a public figure. All of a sudden if it’s a gay rumor, we have a much higher burden of proof than we have with anybody else. Why didn’t anybody go investigate this? Why didn’t anybody go to Iowa? Why didn’t anybody go to Dupont Circle and start asking around? We have no problem going through Ted Cruz’s records. Why was this treated differently?

BLADE: How do you know that didn’t happen? Perhaps nothing was found.

SIGNORILE: I don’t think it happened. I asked specifically if people were looking into it and it seemed reporters were just not interested. They saw it as some sort of prying. What’s wrong with us talking about it? People go digging into Rand Paul’s background and he was maybe using a bong in college or whatever. Nobody attacks them as invading his privacy but with Schock, it’s a case of unless you have the proof, you can’t even talk about it. We take tips from visual cues all the time. The whole story of his downfall came from a visual cue, the way he had his office decorated which looked like excess and like maybe he was spending public money. Nobody had any proof, but they started looking into it and they found that he was doing lots of things that were very lavish and getting them paid for in all kinds of creative ways. … On this issue, they treat it differently and it’s not something they want to look into or talk about and I think what shows is that they’re still very uncomfortable talking about the issue of homosexuality.

BLADE: Have we ever really dismantled the slippery slope argument against marriage? We tend to laugh it off and say we’re not marrying our daughter or an animal, yet it still seems to play so well in the heartland and in the South. What’s our best response to that and what does it mean for the poly-inclined among us?

SIGNORILE: I think it really is kind of a ludicrous argument because we’ve changed marriage probably a thousand times over the last several hundred years and we always change it in the way society comes to believe it should be changed, at least in a democratic society. We’ve shown before how it was unfair to women, unfair to children, that women should have more rights and rights to divorce as well to make it easier to get out of abusive marriages. Now we’ve made the argument of why gay people should be included. The polygamy argument was made a long time ago by the Mormons and it didn’t take off and the Supreme Court didn’t go with that. When they keep saying, it’s going to lead to polygamy and all that, well, the Bible has that. That’s what it was and you know, it just seems to me they keep grasping at straws every time they argue that. There is no movement of people in this country who want to marry animals, there’s no organizing around that that has tried to capture the public imagination. They say, “Well, once the door is open …,” but the door is always open on every institution for rational change and marriage has changed too. We’ve made it better.

BLADE: How did you feel about John Aravosis ending AMERICAblog?

SIGNORILE: I think it’s a tough time for blogs as social media has become the real force. John was at the forefront of so much activism, particularly in the early years of blogging … in the way people now do on social media. I think he and others used that forum for activism in the best possible way you could at the time and I think the forum shifted and it has become more difficult to do that and to sustain it, so hats off to him for the work he did in those years. I’m glad he was able to transition.

BLADE: What would happen in our worst-case scenario? Say we get a Republican president elected to two terms who gets to appoint several Supreme Court justices who really bring out the guns. Do we have enough groundswell support to combat that in any substantive way and if so, what does that even look like? Would everything just get pushed back a generation or could some extreme scenario play out where the whole movement has to go underground?

SIGNORILE: It’s so hard to tell and I think any of those things are possible. We talked about how I think the arguments made to the general public are weak, but what the general public thinks often doesn’t matter because it becomes about who’s on the court and who’s lobbying and who’s in Congress and where the money is. The majority of the public believes we should have tougher gun laws but we don’t because of the NRA. And most people think Citizens United was a terrible decision and we could make the argument in the court of public opinion, but what most people don’t realize is that we’re likely going to get marriage equality because one man on the court (Justice Kennedy) thinks gay people should have some protection. He may now get another man on the court to agree with him, but he’s thought that for a while. Not in the same way legal progressives have, but he’s thought that. He’s made terrible decisions on women’s rights and terrible decisions about voting rights. It’s all so precarious and arbitrary and that’s what people don’t get. They think there’s some sort of natural thing going on, some sort of natural evolution toward justice that’s happening but what we’re dealing with is a Supreme Court that by the luck of the draw on this issues, has the five votes and may convert a sixth but we all know that could change at any time. If there’s a Republican president to replace Justice Kennedy and more gay rights issues come up, who knows what could happen. I think a lot people aren’t really thinking about how precarious this all really is.

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Meet the LGBTQ leaders behind D.C. statehood fight

‘We’re still second class — it’s just so unfair’

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From left, Bo ShuffBarbara HelmickJohn KlenertMonica Hopkins and Phil Pannell are leaders in the fight for D.C. statehood. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the nation’s capital, home to one of the country’s largest LGBTQ populations and where more than half of the citizens identify as people of color, residents have no voting representation in Congress. LGBTQ statehood advocates have been fighting for decades to expand voting rights, autonomy, and representation to Washington’s 700,000-plus residents. 

Philip Pannell moved to the District from New York City in 1975 to work for the D.C. Council. As he made his way through his new home, he said he was immediately struck by the lack of representation. He felt then, and still feels today, like a second-class citizen, he said. 

“For us to be here in the District of Columbia, to be living in what is essentially a colony, is unconscionable,” said Pannell, 70, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. “We’re still second class. It’s just so unfair.”

LGBTQ statehood advocates Bo Shuff, Barbara Helmick and John Klenert of DC Vote; Monica Hopkins of ACLU; Stasha Rhodes of 51 for 51; and Pannell all have two beliefs in common — a hope statehood will become a reality someday, and that the movement is intertwined with LGBTQ rights and racial justice.  

Residents pay federal and state taxes, serve on juries and register for the draft — but don’t have the same liberties as those who reside in the 50 states. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District in Congress but as a non-voting delegate.

Statehood is supported by the Biden administration and by Democratic representatives in the House and Senate. 

Bo Shuff, executive director, DC Vote 

Bo Shuff (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Shuff, who identifies as gay, has long worked on the frontlines of LGBTQ policy, including the fight for marriage equality. He became involved in the statehood movement when working as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s campaign manager. 

Statehood first appeared on the ballot in 2016 when Mayor Bowser called for a districtwide vote on whether the nation’s capital should become a state, Shuff said. Before that, statehood was introduced in Congress but never brought forward and other solutions were considered.

The bill for statehood has passed the House twice and was discussed in the Senate. But Shuff, 48, said legislation moves slowly and he expects statehood to take time.

“It is simply a large hill to climb,” he said. “And if you’re climbing Mount Everest, you don’t always make it on your first try.”

The current system where Congress oversees the District, which has no voting representation on the federal level, is “textbook racism,” he said. 

“You have a majority white body, the United States Congress, making decisions and passing all of the laws that impact a majority Black community,” he said. 

Other voting rights bills, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, are essential, and statehood should be considered when crafting legislation on voter suppression, Shuff said. 

Education around these bills across the country, including statehood, is important, he said. Including statehood in this advocacy educates those outside the area that statehood is, at its core, a voting rights issue, Shuff said. 

Philip Pannell, executive director, Anacostia Coordinating Council 

Phil Pannell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Pannell works in the revitalization of Washington’s neighborhoods east of the river and has led the Anacostia Coordinating Council for 25 years. The organization has accomplished much for Wards 7 and 8, including garnering community support to build the Anacostia Metro stop. 

Currently, Pannell and the council are sponsoring a poetry contest for middle and high school students on why statehood is important to them personally. 

“They understand what the issue of statehood is all about,” he said. “It’s just so encouraging.”

If statehood passes, the District would be home to the highest percentage of people of color in the United States. That in itself makes the movement a racial justice issue, he said. 

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. 

Pannell has been arrested at several LGBTQ and statehood protests, including a

statehood rally in 1993 with then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and many others for blocking an intersection near the Capitol.

“Being involved in the statehood movement means just as much to me being involved in the struggle for LGBT rights,” he said. 

Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager, 51 for 51 

Rhodes, who identifies as queer, initially moved to Washington from Louisiana to work in gun violence prevention, but was struck when congressional Republicans sought to roll back measures.

“I was a little confused about how Republicans would be able to do that, considering they were local laws, and learned what lack of statehood meant for residents of D.C.,” she said. 

Now, as the campaign manager for 51 for 51, an organization advocating for statehood, she said she sees the movement as “the most intersectional work of our time.”

During a time when voting rights bills are being debated at multiple levels of government, statehood should be a priority, Rhodes said. 

“If we truly want to live up to the ideals of our democracy and fight the current wave of voter suppression sweeping across the country, D.C. must be granted statehood and D.C. residents must be given full voting rights,” Rhodes, 34, said. 

Rhodes comes from a family of advocates stretching back generations. Her grandparents, who lived in rural Louisiana, were active in the early days of the civil rights movement. They would help register people to vote and worked as key organizers in the area, she said. 

“I sort of had the bug early,” she said. 

Barbara Helmick, director of programs, DC Vote 

Barbara Helmick (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Helmick, 70, moved to the District in the late ‘70s. Her first brush with shortfalls due to the lack of statehood was when sodomy was decriminalized in 1981 but quickly overturned by Congress. It was not until 1993 when it was legalized. 

“That was a wake-up call — Congress wouldn’t let this jurisdiction, our locally elected officials, deal with that,” Helmick said.

The District’s lack of power and autonomy is inefficient, she said, and restricts the area from easily drafting and applying laws that work best for the community. 

But press coverage of statehood is a hopeful sign, as well, Helmick said. Activity in the House and Senate is also positive, she said. 

“I am extremely optimistic,” Helmick said. 

Monica Hopkins, executive director, ACLU DC 

Monica Hopkins (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Hopkins, who identifies as bisexual, began leading the District’s ACLU chapter seven years ago after running ACLU Idaho. When she moved to Washington, she said she immediately felt a disconnect because of the lack of federal representation. 

“I don’t think that you can live in D.C. and not feel that disconnect of not having a voice,” she said. “It’s very disempowering.”

Hopkins, 48, said statehood is integral for the District for many reasons. More power would be allotted in approving and crafting budgets, and oversight without congressional votes would end, for example. 

The District’s lack of statehood has intersected with LGBTQ equality issues through the years, she said. In the ‘80s, the District attempted to start a needle exchange program to curb high rates of AIDS. In 1998, Congress banned the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs because of fears the program would encourage drug use. Local municipalities could still use their own money to pay for the program — except the District.

The ban was lifted in 2007, but Washington still sees the ramifications of nixing the program today, Hopkins said. 

“We couldn’t, at the time, do what D.C. residents wanted to do with our own taxpayer money,” she said. 

The District also has no control over its own National Guard, which was highlighted during the Jan. 6 riots when Mayor Bowser was unable to call in reinforcements and was forced to wait on approval from the Pentagon. This showed the rest of the country the issues in the District’s governance, Hopkins said. 

“Some of the most devastating sorts of things can happen when we don’t have control over our own state,” she said. 

John Klenert, chair, DC Vote board 

John Klenert (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Klenert, 72, developed his interest in the movement after writing a paper on voting rights in the District and the 14th amendment while at college at the Catholic University of America. He’s been involved on the fringes of the movement since then and joined DC Vote 10 years ago.

His gay identity is “the icing on the cake” in his advocacy for statehood, he said. 

A scholar of constitutional history, Klenert said statehood is essential in upholding democracy in the United States. 

Other solutions to the lack of representation have been attempted, but he believes statehood would be the most successful avenue in expanding protections to District residents. 

“We live here in the District of Columbia, many, many of us are citizens of this country, which means that we belong to a constitutional democracy,” he said. “And yet, we have no say in how this government is run.”

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D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art

A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up

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After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.

Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com. 

A scene from 2019’s Awesome Con. This year’s event is slated for the weekend of Aug. 20. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information. 

The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.

The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com. 

Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com. 

FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information. 

The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.

 After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out. 

Bob Mould, gay news, Washington Blade
The Bob Mould Band plays 9:30 Club on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup. 

Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.

“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”

Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”

“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.

The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.

Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.

Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).

Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.

“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”

Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”

The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.

Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.

“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.

The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.

“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.

But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?

As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.

“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”

Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.

“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.

“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”

Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”

“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.

The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.

Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.

“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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