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Festering frustration

Activists say police abuse is common link to gay, black riots

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Baltimore riot, gay news, Washington Blade
Baltimore riot, gay news, Washington Blade

Some in the LGBT community questioned why Baltimore black youth would riot in their own neighborhoods, ignoring their own community’s history of rioting against police injustice. (Photo by Victoria Macchi/VOA News public domain)

The Stonewall riots triggered by a police raid on a New York City gay bar in 1969 and three other lesser known gay riots in San Francisco were reactions to police abuse and perceived societal oppression, according to LGBT activists familiar with those incidents.

San Francisco gay and AIDS activist Cleve Jones, who witnessed two of the gay riots in his city in 1979 and 1991, is among those who say there are similarities between the police abuse experienced by young gay men back in the 1960s and 1970s and young black men today.

Jones and other LGBT activists point to the incident involving 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray, whose death on April 19 from a severe spinal cord injury he sustained while in custody of Baltimore police triggered riots and looting.

Officials with several national LGBT rights groups, including the National Black Justice Coalition, have joined African-American civil rights leaders in denouncing the action by six Baltimore police officers who detained and arrested Gray on a charge of possessing a small knife that was later found to be legal to carry.

The groups said Gray’s death in a police-related incident, after officers reportedly ignored his pleas for medical treatment while being transported in a police wagon, highlighted similar instances of reported abuse by police against young black men in Baltimore and other parts of the country, including Ferguson, Mo.

“Where you can draw a parallel is with police relations,” Jones says. “I think to be a young gay person in San Francisco in the late 1970s, you would have many of the same kinds of feelings as young African Americans feel toward the police today.”

“When I got to San Francisco, the cops hated us. And they made it very, very clear every day,” Jones says. “I’m an old white man and unlikely to be singled out for my appearance for abuse by the police. But my memories of it from my youth are fresh.”

Jones was a student intern working for San Francisco Board of Supervisors member and gay rights advocate Harvey Milk in November 1978. It was at that time when Dan White, a disgruntled former police officer who had just resigned from his position as one of Milk’s fellow supervisors, shot Milk to death in Milk’s office at City Hall.

White killed Milk minutes after assassinating pro-gay San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in the mayor’s office in a fit of rage over Moscone’s refusal to reappoint White to his supervisor’s seat. White had announced he changed his mind and wanted to remain in office. Milk was among his fellow supervisors who urged Moscone not to reappoint White, who was part of a conservative faction on the Board of Supervisors that opposed Milk on many policy matters.

In May 1979, gays and other San Franciscans became outraged when a jury ignored prosecutors’ calls for convicting White on a first-degree murder charge and instead found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the most lenient possible charge for shooting two people to death.

Similar to the turn of events in Baltimore 36 years later, gays responded by holding a protest rally in the gay Castro neighborhood, which was Milk’s home base. They marched peacefully through the streets as the crowd swelled from about 500 to more than 1,500 people, according to news media accounts.

When the gathering of mostly LGBT people reached City Hall its ranks had increased to about 5,000, and violence broke out.

Police cars were set on fire, windows of nearby buildings were smashed and overhead wires for the city’s street cars were pulled down. Some of the rioters took tear gas canisters from damaged police cars and threw them at police, who initially stood on the sidelines at the direction of the police chief, again similar to the Baltimore disturbances this year, before the chief directed them to confront the rioters and force them away from the City Hall area.

About two-dozen arrests were made and more than 140 protesters and as many as 60 police officers were injured, news media reports said. The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage to the City Hall building and nearby buildings and vehicles.

Jones, who was present when the rioting unfolded, said the longtime police hostility toward the gay community combined with the shock of a lenient jury verdict for the man who murdered Milk, a gay icon, prompted normally peaceful gays to embrace violence.

“I saw people who were known to be very well mannered who were completely consumed with rage and hatred of the police department,” he said. “It was a real desire to fight back, a sense that we had taken this kind of crap for far too long. … I think the LGBT people who were there that night — within all of us — the memories of prior abuses, the reality that we had been beaten up and called names and put down for so long — and then it was the last straw — that this all white, straight jury basically gave him a slap on the wrist.”

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot pre-dates Stonewall

New York’s Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, where gays and transgender people fought back against a police raid, is considered the historic development that started the modern LGBT rights movement.

But three years earlier, in August 1966, a confrontation between a police officer and a person witnesses described as a drag queen inside Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin section erupted into what has become known as Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.

Transgender historian Susan Stryker, who co-wrote and co-directed a documentary film about the incident in 2005 called “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” is credited with helping piece together a comprehensive report on what happened.

LGBT activists are now calling the incident one of the first known transgender riots in U.S. history based on reports that Compton’s was a hangout for people who today would be considered transgender women.

Also patronizing Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin were the trans women’s gay male and lesbian friends. Nearly all of them, the documentary film says, were struggling to survive at a time when they were considered outcasts. Most lived in nearby cheap rooming houses and many engaged in prostitution. Most were also often harassed by the police at a time when cross dressing was against the law, Stryker reports in the documentary film.

According to the film, the riot started when a police officer threatened to arrest one of the male-to-female cross dressers inside Compton’s and she threw her coffee in his face. People interviewed in the film, which can be viewed on YouTube, said a melee then broke out among police and as many as 50 people inside the establishment, with windows shattered and dishes and furniture tossed around the room.

The fighting soon moved outside the restaurant, people in the film reported, creating a disturbance considered a full-fledged riot on the street.

“The violent oppression (and riot) of transgender people at Compton’s Cafeteria did not solve the problems that transgender people in the Tenderloin faced daily,” said transgender activist Autumn Sandeen in a 2010 article about the incident in gaylesbiantimes.com. “It did, however, create a space in which it became possible for the city of San Francisco to begin relating differently to its transgender citizens — to begin treating them, in fact, as citizens with legitimate needs instead of simply as a problem to get rid of.”

AB 1 Riots triggered by veto of gay rights bill

The fourth known gay riot in the United States took place in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 1991, after then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 1, a gay rights measure that called for banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.

The bill had been stalled in committee for years before both houses of the legislature finally passed it in September 1991. Gay activists and their supporters in the legislature were outraged over Wilson’s veto, saying he acquiesced to the anti-gay faction of the state’s Republican Party.

“As was the case in the White Night riots, a large crowd assembled in the Castro and stormed the civic center,” says Jones, who was present as the crowd grew and became increasingly angry. “But instead of stopping at City Hall they went to the state building and did their best to set it on fire.”

A short documentary film on the AB 1 Riot, which included TV news footage of the incident, says about 2,000 protesters marched to the state building, where Wilson had an office. Protesters can be seen in the film using sections of metal barricade fences as battering rams to smash through the building’s glass doors.

The film also shows a protester using a large pole with a rainbow flag attached to it to smash through the glass doors on the building. It says the rioting caused over $250,000 in damage to the building, but no arrests were made and no serious injuries were reported.

‘Intersection’ between Baltimore and LGBT rights movement

Officials with some of the national LGBT groups talked about what they called the intersection between the Baltimore riots in late April of this year and the LGBT civil rights movement.

“The recent events in Baltimore and throughout the nation have been emotional, hurtful and even traumatic for so many in the black community,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT civil rights organization.

“At the National Black Justice Coalition, we are dedicated to changing the mainstream narrative around socially marginalized black people, especially young people, because issues like police brutality and economic injustice are also LGBT issues that disproportionately impact LGBT people of color.”

“Black LGBT people cannot separate their blackness from their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity,” she says. “Issues that confront black people — like structural oppression, classism and racism in America — impact black LGBT people twofold.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says transgender people often face “brutal victimization, mistreatment and violence at the hands of law enforcement.”

She says NCTE works to address police abuse not only for transgender people but for everyone in its quest for “a more just society.”

According to Keisling, at least one transgender woman who was arrested during the Baltimore disturbances was placed in a men’s jail after police learned she was transgender. She was “forced to remove her undergarments and made to reveal her body to officers,” Keisling says.

“Our hearts go out to the family of Freddie Gray and to those people whose hearts are broken with grief,” says Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Police-related killings of young black men have become a regular occurrence across our nation. So in a very real way what is happening in Baltimore is a predictable reaction to appalling injustice, deep mistrust of police and a real sense that nothing will be done about it.”

“The beauty and responsibility of the LGBT community is that we’re at the intersection of everything,” says Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz. “We’re black, Asian, Latino and everything in between.

“Because of the stigma we face and the lack of legal protections, LGBT people are also more likely to face economic disenfranchisement,” he says. “What all of this means is that this must be a shared struggle and we also have a responsibility to make life better for all Americans.”

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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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