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The soul of Rob Bell

Pastor, author finds life beyond strictures of conservative Christianity



Rob Bell, gay news, Washington Blade
Rob Bell, gay news, Washington Blade

Pastor/author Rob Bell says the Bible must be understood as a human book written in specific historical contexts. (Photo courtesy the Bohlsen Group)

Rob Bell


Everything is Spiritual Tour


The Fillmore Silver Spring


8656 Colesville Rd.


Silver Spring, Md.


Wednesday, July 22


8:30 p.m.




Once one of the darlings of white evangelical America, Rob Bell drew strong condemnation when he veered off script with his 2011 book “Love Wins,” a New York Times bestseller in which he dared to suggest hell isn’t the literal fire-and-brimstone torture chamber fundamentalist Christians have long claimed.

He left Mars Hill Bible Church, the Grandville, Mich., church he started at age 28 in 1999, in 2012 and has pursued several ventures since from a book with his wife Kristen (“The Zimzum of Love”), a tour with Oprah Winfrey (the 2014 “Life You Want Tour”) and more. Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2011, Bell’s own “Everything is Spiritual Tour” comes to Silver Spring, Md., next week. Bell is an LGBT ally and spoke with us by phone this week from New Orleans to talk about trends in contemporary U.S. Christianity, how he feels the Scriptures have been abused on all kinds of topics and what message he feels God has for LGBT people. His comments have been slightly edited for length.


WASHINGTON BLADE: You write a lot in your book “Velvet Elvis” about the work of binding and loosing and wrestling with scriptural texts. What kind of binding and loosing work are you doing on your tour?

ROB BELL: I’m trying to give people a new story, a story that helps them see that science and spirituality are long-lost dance partners and because of what we know about the universe and the fact that it’s an expanding universe, along with what we know about how our hearts work, I feel there are endless connections between the two. So that’s what I’m doing — asking some questions about what is this thing that keeps unfolding and moving forward … and what does it look like to have an integrated view of your life in the world so that it’s not just random fragments, but you have a sense that the whole thing is going somewhere and you’re going somewhere with it.


BLADE: How’s it going?

BELL: Oh my word, it’s so much fun. I just love this. … It’s kind of somewhere between a one-man show and a tent talk and a recovery meeting and hopefully an inspiring sermon in there too. It’s like a mishmash of art forms and I just love doing it.


BLADE: As you’ve veered away from traditional evangelical Christianity, who is your audience now? Are you finding acceptance among mainline Protestants?

BELL: I always thought the word evangelical meant good news, so I always thought it meant a joyous announcement that we are all loved and are all brothers and sisters and all in this together and let’s all work to deal with the suffering and the real problems in the world. So the idea of a subculture that liked to claim that word sort of always seemed ridiculous to me. … I didn’t grow up with any denominational affiliation, so I was dealing with this stuff kind of all across the spectrum whether it be Eastern Orthodox to Catholic to Christian to whatever, I was really talking about what it means to be human.


BLADE: Yes, but when we talk about voting trends and demographics and so on, evangelicals are counted separately from mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Do you not think in terms of these spheres?

BELL: No. I just never knew what they were talking about really. I mean I was always pro science. When they’d talk about these different groups, I’d be like, “Well, I’m not in that group, they’re saying crazy things.” But I did notice definitely from early on that I endlessly found myself discovering people who were on the same journey from all across the spectrum and to be honest with you, early on I found that all those labels just meant nothing. I’d end up in some setting and I’d be like, “Wait, these people are having the same discussion over here.” Mennonites are having a non-violence discussion, Catholics are talking about the importance of creativity in art, the Eastern Orthodox are talking about the centrality of mystery in faith … There was a through-line through the whole discussion so that even when we were pastoring (Mars Hill), we never saw it as putting together a religion. … When I hear people talk about these people vote this way or those people vote that way, I’m sure there’s some truth in those things on a general level, but they were never very interesting to me.


BLADE: So are you averse to “we-they” thinking in general?

BELL: Yeah. It just never seemed like a very interesting discussion.


BLADE: You took a lot of heat for daring to suggest a different view of hell in “Love Wins.” How much of that did you anticipate?

BELL: I did a series of sermons on women’s equality probably in 2002, so I had experienced this kind of unique venom that religious people spew when they believe they’re defending God. I had done a series of sermons questioning the war in Iraq, my first book had apparently made some people upset so while “Love Wins” was louder, the knobs were turned up, it was really a natural ongoing progression of what I’d been experiencing for over decade. … It’s interesting to see how many people aren’t familiar with the fact that nothing I’m saying in that book is really new. These ideas have been present in the Christian tradition for a number of years.


BLADE: Did you fear getting pigeonholed as “Rob Bell, the guy who says there’s no hell”?

BELL: (laughs) It’s not something I even think about. You can’t take people where they don’t want to go. Some people when they talk about faith, what they’re really talking about is fear. They’re not interested in expanding or growing … so I don’t use much energy thinking about it.


BLADE: Your critics seem to have pegged you as somebody who wants to have his cake and eat it too. What’s the biggest misconception about you?

BELL: What does that even mean?


BLADE: Well, broadly speaking, the criticism seems to come down to an opinion that you want to enjoy the kind, loving God but just skip over the unpleasant parts like the hell, fire and brimstone. It’s a recurring theme among your critics.

BELL: It’s just funny to hear that. It’s a weird critique number one and number two, these people who claim to be sharing the good news, oh wait, it’s actually bad news. If you’re literally operating from a world view that says billions and billions and billions are going to be tormented forever in some sort of conscious hell because they didn’t believe in somebody they never heard about … that’s a horror story. That is such a psychologically devastating portrait of the universe we’re living in, who could ever bear that? So if they’re like, “He won’t include that,” that’s correct, I don’t find that even remotely compelling … Fear is wonderful for behavior modification to a certain degree, but I think probably in your life and mine, what actually transforms your life is when you are given a new vision of who you might be in the world. You can scare people a little to get them to behave right or be moral or vote a particular way or raise money for your thing, but in my experience as a pastor, people are transformed when they hear a fresh new word of imagination about who they are and who they can become. So when people say, “He doesn’t want to bring that stuff up,” well, I’m in line with millions of people of faith who are more interested in making the world a better place. I’m laughing because sometimes the critiques are like, “Are you kidding me?”


BLADE: So those Bible verses you never see on coffee mugs like “depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” that Christ supposedly says to the damned, what do you feel those verses mean?

BELL: Well I think first and foremost, everything Jesus was doing was in the context of first century Jewish culture … a people that had been oppressed by one global military super power, the Romans, that was just another oppressive super power in a long line of them from the Persians to the Greeks to the Babylonians and more. These were people who had been conquered again and again and again and they believed at some point that their God would vindicate them. Often people have so divorced the reading of the text from what was happening at the time which here, I think Jesus is giving these really pointed parables and I think giving them these images of do you want to participate in a new kind of world? Do you want to join me with God in helping the poor and bringing about a new heaven and earth right now? They were part of an entire religious establishment that was part of the problem, exploiting the poor, dehumanizing people and I think he’s using very strong, very pointed hyperbolic language to say to them, “Turn your thinking around. Turn your actions around or you’re going to miss this fresh new thing that God is doing.” … So when people extract lines out of this and say people everywhere are going to burn forever, they have so warped the message, taken it out of context and distorted the story. … You can take things out of context and make them say anything.


BLADE: You’re very open and affirming to gays. Did your views on LGBT issues evolve?

BELL: I always felt my gay friends should of course be part of the church and serve and lead there so any interactions I ever had were, “Yes, of course I embrace you and affirm you. I’m thrilled you are here.” But it seems like a lot of people, I didn’t understand how painful it is for people to be in an environment where they aren’t openly affirmed and embraced. I just assumed it was a matter of, “Just join us, let’s go and let’s do this.” It took me awhile to understand and now I have several friends who’ve said the same thing. So it became, “Oh wait, this is all our issue, we all need to speak up about this and become very strong in our affirming and embracing.” So it was a long, slow road of me coming to that understanding. … I’m thrilled with the progress that’s being made. I’m so happy about it.


BLADE: Do you feel God has a message for LGBT believers?

BELL: Yes. First off, so many who were raised in a religious environment where they were told there was something wrong with them, they had to do a lot of interior work to get over those messages and it took extraordinary courage. I’m constantly astounded by the incredible depth of character and maturity I see in the LGBT community because they have struggled. That fire produces such maturity and I’m just in awe of it. So I just say keep going and on behalf of everybody who ever told you a destructive message about who you are, I’m so sorry. You are loved and affirmed exactly as you are.


BLADE: Why do you feel God would make someone transgender?

BELL: I actually don’t find it helpful to think in terms of why would God make someone a particular way. I don’t have that view of God. I begin with the world the way it is. We all have different struggles and why is someone born feeling they’re not comfortable in their own skin, I’m not interested in blaming some divine being on a cloud somewhere with a long beard and that sort of thing. This is how this person has experienced life and what we need to do is support them in being true to who they feel they are. There’s no way to answer those questions other than to start with where we are today and what does it mean to move forward in health and wholeness and joy?


BLADE: There are lots of scriptures advising wariness to false teaching and not to let ourselves get “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Some say you’re a false teacher leading people astray. How does one discern anointed teaching vs. false teaching?

BELL: The ancient Hebrews had this word shalom, which sometimes gets translated as the word peace, but peace in a Western context usually means people are not fighting, the absence of war. But shalom is really about health and wholeness and there’s multiple dimensions of shalom — peace with each other, peace with the earth, taking good care of the earth, being comfortable in our own skin, being at peace with ourselves. So I would simply ask, “Does this, whatever this idea is, a new movement or new interpretation, does this help us move forward into a greater and greater depth of shalom or not?” To me, that’s a good place to start. If it does not, then we should be a bit suspicious.


BLADE: Is the needle shifting away from fundamentalism?

BELL: Absolutely and here’s why. You would not believe the number of big-shot Christian leaders who come meet with me and … say, “Thank you for your books, thanks for what you’re doing. I can’t say that in my setting because I would get fired.” They basically say they’re pro-same-sex marriage and they’re evolving and growing and realizing the importance of science in understanding the world, they’re reading the Bible in new ways, but they basically say, “I get a paycheck from propping up this whole old world view that’s not working anymore.” You would not believe it. So yes, I think extraordinary strides are being made.


BLADE: But then how does this “Duck Dynasty”-kind of mindset keep popping up in culture?

BELL: If you’re part of a subculture that’s dying, it’s terrifying. You used to have your hand on the wheel and you’re used to seeing yourselves as the dominant voice in culture and now that you’re not, your subculture is increasingly out of step and for some people, that’s not just a neutral thing, but a negative effect in the world. It’s terrifying and when someone who has a microphone or a TV show can say, “There’s no need to move forward, they’re the ones who are crazy, just dig in your heels with me on this, we’re the ones who are right,” and dig their stake into the ground, that’s incredibly comforting to them. It’s electric. No wonder people have incredible heat around this sort of thing. It’s a last desperate attempt to sort of put on blinders and pretend everything is always going to be how it is. The great French paleontologist de Chardin said the soul of the universe goes forward. Fundamentalism on an energetic level, is rooted in a desire to go back, to some sort of imagined pure state of perfection of how things used to be. The fact that the universe can only go forward is why fundamentalism always turns on itself and collapses in the end.


BLADE: You must have had situations where the evangelical gatekeepers started closing the gates to you. Did (religious publisher) Zondervan (Bells’ publisher for several early books) reject “Love Wins”?

BELL: I never thought of those types as people I had to have on my team. But oh yeah, probably even 14 or 15 years ago, I would hear of people telling people not to have anything to do with me. That started to become a regular occurrence, but I never saw that as the goal anyway. It wasn’t compelling to me to be in with any gatekeeper. I was just always on to the next thing. I joke that I felt like the drummer in “Spinal Tap.” I felt like I would spontaneously combust if I didn’t get the next book or the next tour done. People who aren’t on board, they’re not really on my radar.


BLADE: If you had stayed at Mars Hill, would you have felt like you were increasingly preaching to the choir?

BELL: What does that mean?


BLADE: Well, you know, did you feel a calling to take the message beyond just church folks?

BELL: Yes. It was time to take the next leap. … There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of risks but that’s how you stay fully alive. And yeah, it was a really extraordinary season where it was like the clouds moved and I knew it was time to go. So here we are, let’s do this. That was really amazing.


BLADE: If the needle is shifting, why does it seem like the mainline Protestant churches have done such a dismal job at harnessing any of that energy into their tradition? Why is all the growth and excitement in the evangelical churches?

BELL: If your world view is that billions of people are going to burn forever, that’s a pretty good motivator to get off your ass and do something so you see a lot of this endless entrepreneurial innovation and energy being funneled into these places with very rigid, regressive theology and world view. Then over here you have these progressive, open-minded churches that are great on peace and justice and reconciliation and they’re literally arguing about what the choir selections are or the color of the carpet. I’m like, “Wait, you guys have such great ideas, how have you made mountains out of these molehills?” That said, I do see extraordinary things happening like the Garden in Long Beach, Calif., or Oasis in central London where people are trying new things and it feels like the best fusion. It’s fresh and the best of all across the spectrum and it really feels to me like people in their garages coming up with the next lap top.


BLADE: What’s Oprah been like?

BELL: Oh my word, she is as amazing as you imagine she is. … She has profound wisdom and a mountain of spiritual riches to share. … She is growing and learning and stretching and asking, “What do I do with what I’ve been given?”


BLADE: You’re so knowledgeable about the scriptures and their historical context. What do you make of that passage in John where it references “many other signs and wonders” in the life of Christ that have not been included. I suppose most pastors would say we have all we need, but does that verse pique your curiosity?

BELL: Oh yeah, I’m totally with you on that. It’s like the writer is saying, “I just want you to know, I had tons of material to work with. I just want you to know that I edited this sucker down to these few chapters, but oh my, could I have included some other stuff.” Which I think is awesome. What a human book. … It’s so awesome and so weird and to me, makes it all the more interesting.

Rob Bell, gay news, Washington Blade

Rob Bell says the tide is turning toward more open-minded views in Christian America. (Photo courtesy the Bohlsen Group)


a&e features

Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation

At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion



Rapper Lil Nas X faced backlash for his music video ‘Montero,’ but it debuted atop the Billboard 100.

I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.

The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.

I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me. 

Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre. 

Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, Andr​​é 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing. 

My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call. 

As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense? 

A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender. 

“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.” 

The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.

“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”

Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.

“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.” 

This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio. 

And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of  patriarchy and homophobia. 

“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”

“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added. 

This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations. 

Queen Latifah dodged questions about her sexuality for years before acknowledging her partner and their son in 2021. (Photo by DFree via Bigstock)

Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children. 

“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”

Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100. 

In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.” 

In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop. 

“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”

So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.

Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms. 

“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”

“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added. 

(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)

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Cuisine and culture come together at The Square

D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors



(Photo by Scott Suchman)

Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.

After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”

Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.

Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.

“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.

The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination. 

(Photos by Scott Suchman)

The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:

• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).

• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.

• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.

 Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.

• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.

• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.

• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.

“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.

Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.

The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.

For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.

(Photo by Scott Suchman)
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Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book

‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer



'Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy' comes out on Sept. 12.

“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”

Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.

This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.

“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.

The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (, the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.” 

“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.

“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”

Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)  

As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.

Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.

It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”

“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.

Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.

Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.

Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”

Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.

Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.

Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”

Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”

Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.

After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.

“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”

One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”

Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.

“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.

“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”

Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”

Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”

Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.

His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”

Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”

But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”

Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”

In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”

Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”

Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.

Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”

Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”

“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”

In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.

But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.

During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.

Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.” 

“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”

The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.

“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.

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