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Actress tells all in ‘Mommie’ memoir

Carol Ann on the shoot from hell and what she’d say to Faye Dunaway today

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Mommie Dearest, gay news, Washington Blade

Rutanya Alda, left, with Faye Dunaway, Mara Hobel and Jeremy Scott Reinholt in ‘Mommie Dearest.’ (Photo courtesy Alda)

Editor’s note: this is part two of two of our interview with actress Rutanya Alda, author of”The Mommie Dearest Diary: Carol Ann Tells All.” Part one is here. 

 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Although you don’t hold back at all in your book concerning working with Faye Dunaway, your “Mommie Dearest” co-star, it didn’t feel to me that you had an axe to grind. You write of several moments too where she was gracious — signing photos, posing for photos on set with your brother, when you give her the sweater you made and so on. On the other hand, the book “Mommie Dearest” always felt to me like Christina had a huge axe to grind. Do you agree?

RUTANYA ALDA: I tried to be fair in my book and I hope when Faye reads it she can respect the fact that I was fair to her. … It’s very hard to be with a person on the set who is totally ungiving to the other actor. I just held my tongue then because, as you know from the book, she never stayed for any of my close-ups. I stayed for hers to the 12th, the 13th hour and she never turned around and stayed for any of mine. It’s really not honoring the other actor and we have to honor that. We’re a team working together for the best of the scene. I always felt Faye worked for herself only and that’s the truth. There were private moments when I felt really bad for her … but those moments really didn’t last that long. It’s too bad because, you know honestly, if she had just been gracious (to the crew), they would have embraced her but instead she alienated so many people. When my brother was there as a guest and talked to her, I just got her at a good moment. If it had been a volatile moment, I wouldn’t have dared ask her. The timing just happened to have been right and she was as mellow as she could get. But we were always on pins and needles and you just knew you didn’t want to ask certain things at certain times.

BLADE: Hollywood lore is so full of stories of bitchy star behavior. In your experience, is there always fire where there’s smoke or does some of this get unfairly exaggerated in the public’s endless appetite for such tales?

ALDA: It’s gotten to be so much about me, me, me that some people think the whole world rotates around them and that’s really the worst position for an actor to put themselves in. As Bette Davis said, you’ll meet the same people on your way down as your way up. Fame is fleeting. It lasts for a while. If you have a few years’ run or a decade run, you’re lucky and I think if you can be compassionate and kind, I think that’s a great lesson to give people. I just went to a luncheon at 21 and the coat check girl, so many fairly well known people just throw their coat down and go upstairs and you know, it only takes a second or two to say, “Thank you,” and smile. She remembered me from the time before … just because I treated her like a human being. A lot of stars have come up very quickly and without the experience of being in the industry very long and I think they don’t appreciate the audience as much as they should. A smile or a hello is all you need to give sometimes. Without the audience, you have nothing. …

And the audience of “Mommie Dearest” is a great audience and I think they are disappointed that Faye has never embraced the film. If I were Faye Dunaway, I would have said, “Look, I was great in the part, I did great things. OK, maybe I had an over-the-top performance, but it worked, didn’t it?” But all these years of not talking about it and suddenly after 30 years she’s writing a book? Why? What’s in it for her? Is she doing it for the money? She’s really deprived herself of a great audience of people who love the movie and it’s a detriment to her. Look at all the joy she missed.

BLADE: So you know she is proceeding with her own book?

ALDA: Yes, she has a contract with a publishing house. A friend I know, whom I won’t name unless he names himself, he was just offered to be her ghostwriter. I think she’s gone through several. I e-mailed him and said, “Are you going to do it?” He said, “No, not even if she gives me a million dollars cash would I put myself through this.” So she’s going to find someone from whatever point of view she’s going to do it and I think it’s supposed to be out sometime next year. When she wrote to me, it said time sensitive, she in other words, she probably has a date by which she has to turn it in. Usually it’s a year and a half, then you’re supposed to deliver the book.

BLADE: On his “Mommie Dearest” commentary, John Waters said he thought the film would have worked as straight drama with just some slightly more judicious editing, for instance the scene where you see Diana’s (Scarwid as Christina) panties. Do you agree?

ALDA: (laughs) No. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Waters, I think he’s wonderful, but no, I don’t agree with that. I just ran into an editor who was working on another movie at Paramount at the time and he’d read the script, he’s gay, and he really wanted to edit the film. He loved it and saw it as a camp movie right away and said to Frank, “I want to edit it.” Frank said, “No, you’re the wrong person, we want this to be a big drama,” and I thought, “My gosh, I never knew this.” He said, “You didn’t know it was camp when you read the script?” I said, “No.” He knew right away. But you know, they edited like an hour and a half out of that movie anyway. Some of the takes were really, really long and so much was cut, especially my scenes. I don’t know if it would have changed it but I think it would have made more sense if some of it had been put back, like when my character, Carol Ann, meets Joan and is hired by Joan. I think that would have been a good addition to the story. … But I’m kind of glad the way it turned out because it’s going to continue to have this huge following for years. If it had just been a straight drama, I don’t think we’d be talking today. I think it would have just been one of these movies that was a good movie and then people would have forgotten about it. It’s given people a lot of joy through the years.

BLADE: Do you think “Mommie Dearest” ruined Faye’s career? I know that’s probably an oversimplification, but people say that and it does seem like her filmography is quite spotty after that.

ALDA: I don’t think so. She did quite a few films after it, maybe 10 or 15.

BLADE: Yes, but there was never another “Network” or “Chinatown”-caliber film after it.

ALDA: No, because what did she choose right after “Mommie Dearest”? “Supergirl”? I mean, her choice of material — she still had the power to choose her own material at that point and she was choosing stuff that wasn’t in the same league as “Network,” or, you know, “Chinatown.” I mean these are really great films, really amazing films, and she chooses “Supergirl” and other films you can’t even remember? Even the movie she likes to talk about with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp (“Don Juan DeMarco”), well that’s not a very good movie. I mean God bless all the actors, but some movies just don’t work. Her choice of parts was really not good. Also I think when one is constantly late on a set and constantly causes production to be slowed down, sooner or later producers just don’t want to lose that money. We went a couple of million dollars over budget because of constant lateness and finally Frank Yablans pulled the plug and we just weren’t going to shoot anymore, that was it. I think today producers won’t put up with that. Show up on time. OK, once in a while, you’re five-10 minutes late, you can’t help it, but not five and six hours late. There’s too much money involved today.

BLADE: “Mommie Dearest” lives on as a camp classic and nobody takes it — at least the film — seriously. Has Joan had the last laugh?

ALDA: Oh, absolutely. Joan Crawford’s career got resurrected. All of a sudden it’s her films that are seen and viewed and she’s kind of the big star here instead of Faye. People are seeing her films. At the Film Forum downtown, there’s a retrospective of her movies next weekend and it’s just amazing. People are rediscovering her that have never seen her movies. I think Joan Crawford has become the big star instead of Faye.

BLADE: Was Joan a good actress?

ALDA: I think she was a wonderful actress for that era. She was over the top and mannered, but that was the movies of that era. I think she was marvelous in those kinds of movies. People don’t act that way today, but they’re fascinating to watch. You look at “Mildred Pierce” and “Baby Jane” and even some of the horror movies she did and she was really pretty impressive. I just saw “Baby Jane” again not long ago and I thought she and Bette were really over the top, but it works. What two actresses today could do that style in that kind of way and make it so memorable and unique? There’s nobody like them.

BLADE: Joan mistook you for Mia Farrow when you were her stand-in on “Rosemary’s Baby” where she was to have had a cameo. Did she say anything after she realized you weren’t Mia?

ALDA: No, she was just very charming. She didn’t come over and say anything afterward but I didn’t go over to her either. She was just standing there, very gracious, and there was something about her that just radiated star. She had been a star for 50 years and she knew who she was.

BLADE: But she didn’t brush you off or anything?

ALDA: No, not at all.

BLADE: You write at length about what a great actor your husband Richard Bright was and it seems like he kind of got swallowed up by the machine, so to speak, with his drug issues. With true persistence and talent, does the cream always rise in Hollywood or have you seen truly talented people fall through the cracks?

ALDA: Unfortunately I don’t think the cream always rises. When I started out 50 years ago, I knew a lot of really, really talented people, much more talented than the people that eventually became stars, I thought, so no. But it’s very difficult because a lot of really talented people are also so sensitive and their sensitivity winds up destroying them. In Richard’s case, he was a wonderful actor, really terrific, as Al Pacino acknowledges. He used to watch Richard work. (Richard was) pained by not working and that’s what really drove him to drugs — the pain from not working and expressing himself. I think so much of it is just luck. I’ve known a lot of people who do it for 10-15 years and they just emotionally can’t take it anymore, the rejection. It’s just such a crapshoot and you don’t know what direction your life takes you. … Look at someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. … As painful as that was, I think that opened a little more compassion in people because he was one who did achieve a lot of success. … It’s a very, very difficult business. People shove their kids in front of me and ask for advice for this teenage girl who wants to be an actress. I always say don’t do it if you have any other choice of a career. It’s gotta be in your blood so deep that you can’t do anything else. … Enjoy your life. Life is short. Being an actor is like having a virus you can’t get rid of.

BLADE: Do you wish you had left Richard sooner?

ALDA: Well I loved my husband a lot. … He was a good person, a very generous person. I just had no idea what his addiction meant and that it was so hard to break that chain. I didn’t understand that you can’t do it for them. …. This was the ‘80s and there was a lot then we didn’t fully understand. I think later when the Betty Fords and other programs, there was more understanding, but this was the early ‘80s.

BLADE: Do you think Christina wrote her book just to get back at Joan for being left out of the will?

ALDA: No, because I think the book was already more or less written before Joan died. Now, did Joan leave her out of the will because she knew she was writing a book? I don’t know, maybe. But the book was done before the will. Had it been the other way around, I might have said yeah. It was a scandalous thing to do at the time because she was the first to do it, the first to write and sort of reveal her life with a major star. Later one of the Crosby kids wrote about Bing Crosby and Bette Davis’s daughter wrote about Bette Davis, but she was the first.

BLADE: Had you read the book when it came out or did you read it when you got the part?

ALDA: I read it when I was getting ready for the film, I’d heard about but didn’t read it until I was cast.

BLADE: Why did Christina never visit the set? I would have thought she’d have been at least curious.

ALDA: She told me the script was totally different and she just wanted to let it go. She and her husband, David Koontz, had written a script that was rejected so after Frank and Frank took over, she just felt she’d sold the rights, it was going to be what it was going to be and it was out of her hands so she had not interest in visiting the set.

BLADE: Why did you choose the self-publishing route for your book?

ALDA: I’d had it with an agent for almost two years and I just felt he wasn’t getting it out to the right people. I could have tried to find another agent but I thought, OK, that could be another two years. I learned things happen rather slowly in the publishing world, at least from my experience, and I felt this was the right time to put it out. Actually Christina Crawford was one person who encouraged me to self publish because she had done it after “Mommie Dearest.” … I thought, well, at least that way we’ll get it out into the world and I won’t be waiting and waiting and waiting. I’m glad I did it because at least I beat Faye.

BLADE: You write of how painful the makeup was on the film. How long did it take your face to fully heal after the film?

ALDA: About a month. Things are better with appliances now, but at the time with all that glue on your skin, it was really sore and red and tender.

BLADE: You said you knew of the film’s camp element immediately upon seeing it, but did you realize the gay element in that then too or did that come later?

ALDA: I didn’t really know that then, no. I think my first inkling to that was when I did the Town Hall show Mother’s Day with Joan about 10 years ago with Lypsinka, who is absolutely brilliant. Then, of course, about three years ago there was a show with Hedda Lettuce. She said, “Do you have any stories from ‘Mommie Dearest,’” and I said, “Yeah, I kept a journal.” She said, “Could you come read something from it,” so I went and read a few things. Then Marc Huestis called me two years ago and asked me to come to the Castro to read from it. I said, “Do you think anybody would be interested?” He said yes, so then at the Castor there were like 1,500 beautiful gay men and honestly just this wave of love that hit me and, wow, I still feel it in my heart, this love and support that came from the audience. I’m very emotional about it still. I read from my diary and they just went wild, they were so wonderful. So they were the first real audience and I thought, oh my God, I’ve got to publish this book. It hit me that people were really interested.

BLADE: Did you read Faye’s autobiography “Looking for Gatsby”?

ALDA: No. I went to Barnes & Noble to look at it. I thumbed through it but there didn’t seem to be much on “Mommie Dearest” so I didn’t buy it.

BLADE: What would you say if you were in an elevator with her?

ALDA: Hi. But she might not answer me because there were a lot of times on the set when she’d just walk right by. I’d be prepared for that.

Rutanya Alda today. (Photo courtesy Alda)

Rutanya Alda today. (Photo courtesy Alda)

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‘Queering Rehoboth Beach’ features love, loss, murder, and more

An interview with gay writer and historian James T. Sears

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'Queering Rehoboth Beach' book cover. (Image courtesy of Temple University Press)

James T. Sears book talk
Saturday, June 29, 5 p.m.
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

When it comes to LGBTQ summer destinations in the Eastern time zone, almost everyone knows about Provincetown, Mass., Fire Island, N.Y., and Key West, Fla. There are also slightly lesser known, but no less wonderful places, such as Ogunquit, Maine, Saugatuck, Mich., and New Hope, Pa. Sandwiched in between is Rehoboth Beach, Del., a location that is popular with queer folks from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Rehoboth Beach came to be what it is today can be found in gay historian James T. Sears’s revealing new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024). As educational as it is dishy, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” provides readers with everything they need to know (and possibly didn’t realize they needed to know) about this fabulous locality. Sears was kind enough to make time to answer a few questions about the book.

WASHINGTON BLADE: James, it’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed you. The last time was in 1997 about your book “From Lonely Hunters to Lonely Hearts: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life.” At the time, you were living in Columbia, S.C. Where are you currently based, and how long have you been there?

JAMES T. SEARS: It has been great reconnecting with you. After that book, we moved to Charleston, S.C. There I wrote several more books. One was about the Mattachine group, focusing on one largely misunderstood leader, Hal Call. Another book shared reminisces of a 90-year-old gentleman, the late John Zeigler, interweaving his diaries, letters, and poetry to chronicle growing up gay in the South at the turn of the last century. From there I moved to Central America where I chronicled everyday queer life and learned Spanish. We returned several years ago and then washed up on Rehoboth Beach.

BLADE: In the introduction to your new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024), you write about how a “restaurant incident” in Rehoboth, which you describe in detail in the prologue, became a kind of inspiration for the book project. Please say something about how as a historian, the personal can also be political and motivational.

SEARS: I want to capture reader’s interest by personalizing this book more than I have others. The restaurant anecdote is the book’s backstory. It explains, in part, my motivation for writing it, and more crucially, introduces one meaning of “queering Rehoboth.” That is, in order to judge this “incident”—and the book itself—we need to engage in multiple readings of history, or at least be comfortable with this approach. I underscore that what is accepted as “history”—about an individual, a community, or a society—is simply a reflection of that era’s accepted view. Queering history challenges that consensus.

BLADE: Who do you see as the target audience for “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: Well, certainly if you have been to Rehoboth or reside there, this book provides a history of the town—and its queering—giving details that I doubt even locals know! Also, for those interested in the evolution of other East Coast queer resorts (Ptown, Fire Island, Key West) this book adds to that set of histories. My book will also be of interest to students of social change and community organizing. Most importantly, though, it is just a good summer read.

BLADE: “Queering Rehoboth Beach” features numerous interviews. What was involved in the selection process of interview subjects?

SEARS: I interviewed dozens of people. They are listed in the book as the “Cast of Narrators.” Before these interviews, I engaged in a systematic review of local and state newspapers, going back to Rehoboth’s founding as a Methodist Church Camp in 1873. I also read anecdotal stories penned by lesbians and gay men. These appeared in local or regional queer publications, such as Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and the Washington Blade. Within a year, I had compiled a list of key individuals to interview. However, I also interviewed lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals, and heterosexuals who lived or worked in Rehoboth sometime during the book’s main timeframe (1970s-2000s). I sought diversity in background and perspective. To facilitate their memories, I provided a set of questions before we met. I often had photos, letters, or other memorabilia to prime their memories during our conversation. 

BLADE: Under the heading of the more things change, the more they stay the same, the act of making homosexuality an issue in politics continues to this day. What do you think it will take for that to change?

SEARS: You pose a key question. Those who effectuated change in Rehoboth — queers and progressive straights — sought common ground. Their goal was to integrate into the town. As such, rather than primarily focus on sexual and gender differences, they stressed values held in common. Rather than proselytize or agitate, they opened up businesses, restored houses, joined houses of worship, and engaged in the town’s civic life. 

To foster and sustain change, however, those in power and those who supported them also had to have a willingness to listen, to bracket their presuppositions, and to engage in genuine dialogue. Violent incidents, especially one on the boardwalk, and the multi-year imbroglio of The Strand nightclub, gradually caused people to seek common ground.

That did not, however, come without its costs. For some — long separated from straight society — and for others — unchallenged in their heteronormativity — it was too great of a cost to bear. Further, minorities within the queer “community,” such as people of color, those with limited income, and transgender individuals, never entered or were never invited into this enlarging public square.

The troubles chronicled in my book occurred during the era of the “Moral Majority” and “Gay Cancer.” Nevertheless, it didn’t approach the degree of polarization, acrimony, fake news, and demagoguery of today. So, whether this approach would even be viable as a strategy for social change is debatable.

BLADE: In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books about LGBTQ bars, a subject that is prominent in “Queering Rehoboth Beach.” Was this something of which you were aware while writing the book, and how do you see your book’s place on the shelf alongside these other books?

SEARS: Queering heterosexual space has been a survival strategy for generations of queer folks. These spaces — under-used softball fields, desolate beaches, darkened parks, and out-of-the-way bars — are detailed in many LGBTQ+ books, from the classic, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” to the recently published “A Place of Our Own” and “The Bars Are Ours.” Of course, these spaces did not encompass the kaleidoscope of queer life, but they provide us a historical gateway into various segments of a queer community and culture.

This was certainly true for my book. Unsurprisingly, until The Strand controversy, which began in 1988, all of Rehoboth’s queer bars were beyond the town limits. There were, however, homosexual watering holes in the liminal sexual space. For instance, you had the Pink Pony on the boardwalk during the 1950s and the Back Porch Café during the 1970s. So, in this sense, I think “Queering Rehoboth Beach” fits well in this ever-enlarging canon of queer history.

BLADE: As one of the most pro-LGBTQ presidents in U.S. history, how much, if it all, did the Biden Delaware connection have to do with your desire to write “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: It is just a coincidence. Interestingly, as I was researching this book, I came across a 1973 news story about Sen. Joe Biden speaking at a civic association meeting. One of the 30 or so residents attending was James Robert Vane. The paper reported the senator being “startled” when Vane questioned him about the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. civil service and military. Uttering the familiar trope about being “security risks,” he then added, “I admit I haven’t given it much thought.” In Bidenesque manner, he paused and then exclaimed, “I’ll be darned!”

Biden was a frequent diner at the Back Porch Café, often using the restaurant’s kitchen phone for political calls. Like the progressives I spoke about earlier, he had lived in a heteronormative bubble—a Catholic one at that! Yet, like many in Rehoboth, he eventually changed his view, strongly advocating for queer rights as Vice President during the Obama administration.

BLADE: How do you think Rehoboth residents will respond to your depiction of their town?

SEARS: Well, if recent events are predictive of future ones, then I think it will be generally positive. My first book signing at the locally owned bookstore resulted in it selling out. The manager did tell me that a gentleman stepped to the counter asking, “Why is this queer book here?”— pointing to the front table of “Beach Reads.” That singular objection notwithstanding, his plan is to keep multiple boxes in stock throughout the summer.

BLADE: Over the years, many non-fiction and fiction books have been written about places such as Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West. Is it your hope that more books will be written about Rehoboth Beach?

SEARS: My hope is that writers and researchers continue to queer our stories. Focusing on persons, events, and communities, particularly micro-histories, provides a richer narrative of queer lives. It also allows us to queer the first generation of macro-histories which too often glossed over everyday activists. So, as the saying goes, let a thousand flowers bloom.

BLADE: Do you think that “Queering Rehoboth Beach” would make for a good documentary film subject?

SEARS: Absolutely, although probably not on the Hallmark Channel [laughs]! It would make an incredible film — a documentary or a drama — even a mini-series. Because it focuses on people: their lives and dreams, their long-running feuds and abbreviated love affairs, their darker secrets, and lighter moments within a larger context of the country’s social transformation. “Queering Rehoboth Beach” details the town’s first gay murder, the transformation of a once homophobic mayor, burned-out bars, and vigilante assaults on queers, the octogenarian lesbian couple, living for decades in Rehoboth never speaking the “L word,” who die within months of one another. It, too, is a story of how the sinewy arms of Jim Crow affected white Rehoboth — gay and straight. In short, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” is about a small beach town, transformed generation over generation like shifting sands yet retaining undercurrents of what are the best and worst in American life and culture.

BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book?

SEARS: The manuscript for this book was submitted to the publisher more than a year ago. During that time, I’ve been working on my first book of fiction. It is a queer novel set in early nineteenth century Wales against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and industrialization. I want to transport the reader into an era before the construction of homosexuality and at the inception of the women’s movement. How does one make meaning of sexual feelings toward the same gender or about being in the wrong gender? In the process of this murder mystery, I integrate Celtic culture and mythology and interrogate how today’s choices and those we made in the past (and in past lives) affect our future and those of others.

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D.C. Latinx Pride seeks to help heal the community

Much history lost to generations of colonialism

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Latinx History Project will host its 18th annual Latinx Pride with a series of 11 events this year.

Latinx History Project, or LHP, was founded in 2000 to collect, preserve and share Latinx LGBTQ+ History. Six years later, they began hosting DC Latinx Pride.  

Board member Dee Tum-Monge said organizers saw a need for the event that centered Latinx community members. 

“LHP knows our queer history as Latinx folks has most often been lost to generations of colonialism and imperialism,” they said. “Which is why we focus on documenting and highlighting the impact our community has in D.C. and beyond.”

According to UCLA School of Law, there are more than two million Latinx LGBTQ adults that live in the U.S.

“Events specifically for the Latinx community are important not only to make our experience visible but also to create spaces where we can grow closer with other groups and each other,” said Tum-Monge.

This year they kicked off DC Latinx Pride with a crowning ceremony for their royal court on May 31. 

Their three-part series, “La Sanación”, is underway with part two planned for June 16. 

“Sanación in Spanish means ‘healing’ which is a big part of what we want to bring to Pride,” said Tum-Monge. “Our communities go through a lot of trauma and hate, but we know there’s more to us. Our goal is to foster connection with ourselves, nature, community, and spirituality.”

In conjunction with the series there is a slate of other events; tickets can be purchased at latinxhistoryproject.org/pride.

In addition, Latinx Pride will march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday and participate in the festival on Sunday. To stay involved with Latinx History Project after Pride and hear more about future events visit latinxhistoryproject.org.

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D.C.’s queer nightlife scene thriving, bucking national trends

Deep Cvnt, Crush, other bars and events keep city venues bustling

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Deep Cvnt is a ‘mini ball deluxe-inspired party.’ (Washington Blade photo by Joe Reberkenny)

John Etienne is familiar with the drifting sounds from vodka-fueled conversations and the tapping of feet against the floorboards of Trade, a gay bar in D.C.’s Logan Circle. On any other Thursday night, Etienne — a party host, judge, and queer nightlife socialite — would be up on the dance floor, sipping a gin and ginger ale, dancing to the new Beyonce song with friends.

But this is not just any Thursday.

Tonight he is sitting directly beneath the dance floor in a salon chair, adjusting his sparkly green dress and white go-go boots, flipping between checking his phone and looking at the clock, waiting for the other judges to arrive. It is just after 9 p.m. and Deep Cvnt is about to begin. 

Deep Cvnt is a “mini ball deluxe-inspired party.” Etienne hosts the event once a month at Trade where queer people from across the city come to walk down a runway in categories, show off their best outfits to an established theme, and ‘vogue the house down’ making the “dive bar with a dance floor” feel like the set of a 2024 Paris is Burning. The party’s name is based on a slur, reclaimed into a symbol of feminine and queer empowerment.  

During the day, the 25-year-old works as a Digital Fundraising Director for the House Majority PAC. To him, gay bars that host events are instrumental in fostering a feeling of welcome and belonging for those who identify as LGBTQ.

“[For me] It’s the sense of community,” Etienne said. “ I think that being able to go to a spot where there are people who are like me, in some shape or form being that they’re queer or from a marginalized community, and can find refuge in these spots is something that’s incredibly important. And then, too, I think that these [queer] spaces are just a lot more fun.” 

Historically gay bars have acted as places for the LGBTQ community to gather, celebrate, and mobilize for political causes when the general attitude was more hostile to the community. D.C.’s unique queer nightlife scene sets it apart from other major gay hubs, like New York or San Francisco, due to the city’s number of welcoming spaces, its business appeal, and the strong presence of the federal government in its culture, allowing for the country’s capital city to be a statistical anomaly. 

Nationwide, gay bars have been on the decline since the 1980s. Damron’s Travel Guide, a database that has been recording the locations and ratings of queer/gay bars since the 1960s, found that in the year 1980 there were approximately 1,432 gay bars across the United States. A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine found that the number of gay bars in the U.S. has nearly been cut in half, with only 803 queer-identified bars in existence despite increasing numbers of public support for the LGBTQ community.

This trend is occurring at the same time as a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation is popping up in state legislatures across the U.S. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced so far in 2024. These laws restrict the ability of transgender Americans to get gender-affirming care, force teachers to out their students to parents, and ban First Amendment-protected actions like performing in drag, among other issues. 

Meanwhile the number of bars that cater to the LGBTQ community in the nation’s capital has increased from six in 1980 to at least 22 in 2024. 

The LGBTQ population is still large in D.C., with some estimates putting the number at just over 66,000. Historically the “gayborhood,” or primary LGBTQ neighborhood was on 17th Street and in the Dupont Circle area. That has changed as numbers have increased over the years, making the whole city feel like the gayborhood.

“Being one of the gayest cities in the world — with one of the gayest per capita populations — that is kind of baked into the fabric of the nightlife economy,” said Salah Czapary, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, when asked about how the LGBTQ community has changed the landscape of the city. “If you look at these certain neighborhoods [17th Street and Dupont], their character has really been defined by the ‘gayborhood’ in the area. That has kind of changed and now you can’t really point to one area as being the sole gayborhood.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, causing the government to pause all non-essential businesses, including bars. After the pandemic, the growth in the number of gay bars accelerated.  “I think that’s kind of just generally after COVID, people are willing to take a risk on something new,” Czapary explained when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the gay bar community. 

Ed Bailey, a well-known DJ and co-owner of gay bars Trade and Number Nine, located around the corner from each other in Logan Circle, agrees about the economic opportunities COVID was able to provide but says that gay bar success boils down to the economics of real estate. 

“I have a very boring and not very sexy answer to why I think these things happen,” Bailey said when explaining the history of the prominent locations of gay bars in D.C. “At the end of the day, it’s all about real estate. Over time the gay community’s bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that catered specifically to, or were owned by, gay people were in underdeveloped neighborhoods… It wasn’t available to us to be in the high-priced areas. All the clubs and the bars were kind of on the ‘other side of town,’ whatever that meant.”

Bailey said the COVID-19 pandemic helped create a path for the current sprouting of gay bars all over D.C., especially in what are the mainstream, popular areas. “I think luckily the pandemic, at least in D.C., did open up an opportunity for a number of entrepreneurs to say ‘Hey! I have an option here.’ Some of these businesses are looking for people to buy them out or to move in, and so a bunch of people took advantage of that.”

The LGBTQ community has always had a presence in the city. It has been recorded that as early as the 1950s, Washington had become a space recognized for its ability to bring LGBTQ people together. 

“I feel like every time I take two steps, I run into another gay person,” Etienne said about living in Logan Circle and the queerness of the city. “I love it. I also think about the nature of what goes on in D.C. Historically, the government has always had a significant number of gay people working for it. Looking back to the Lavender Scare and even before then it’s always been a spot where gay men have either come professionally or personally.”

Mark Meinke, a 76-year-old self-described gay historian founded The Rainbow History Project, an organization that works to “collect, preserve and promote the history and culture of the diverse LGBTQ communities in metropolitan Washington, D.C.” His research supports exactly what Etienne described. 

“Between the [19]20s through the [19]60s, most of the gay spaces were owned by straight people,” Meinke said. A consequence of this, he explains, is that there was less of an outward recognition of these spaces as being LGBTQ friendly, keeping the community a secret. “Tolerance comes and tolerance goes,” he said as he explained why the number of accepting spaces increased and decreased during that time. 

This fluctuation of accepting bar owners began to change in the 1960s, as places that offered a safe space for LGBTQ people to meet, dance, drink, celebrate, and politically organize became more frequent and owned by more LGBTQ people. Meinke was able to track the increase of acceptance for the LGBTQ community by collecting advertisements from past issues of the Washington Blade (originally called the Gay Blade) from the ‘60s on as more gay-owned or more publicly gay-friendly establishments began to distribute the newspaper. Meinke also tracked additional gay literature in these gay bars, like that of Franklin Kameny’s Mattachine Society literature and their “Gay Is Good” buttons. The literature Kameny distributed was some of the first documented forms of LGBTQ activism in the U.S. and encouraged LGBTQ people to mobilize. 

Meinke noticed that during this time, one gay bar called JoAnna’s on Eighth Street in Southeast D.C. became a popular designation for gay people after the owner installed a dance floor. 

“In 1968, in Capitol Hill with JoAnna’s, a new social option had emerged for women, one with a dance floor,” Meinke said. In his presentation for the 2002 Washington Historical Conference titled “The Social Geography of Washington, D.C.’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community,” Meinke said that the gay community wanted more gay dance floors.

This inspired others in the gayborhood to create more dance spaces. “Johnnie’s (across the street [from JoAnna’s]) saw the future and installed a postage stamp-sized dance floor, and began getting lots of customers…Same-sex dancing in the clubs was perhaps one of the greatest innovations on the social scene in the 1960s,” Meinke wrote.

Not only did the expanding gay bar scene impact who was visiting the city, but the presence of the federal government and the number of universities located in the area also helped attract the gay community, Meinke explained. 

As more LGBTQ people moved to D.C. to pursue careers related to the federal government, a backlash was brewing and created a time we now call the McCarthy era. This era, which extended from the early 1950s into the 60s, brought in political repression of left-leaning individuals in D.C.

This repression and eventual prosecution of people based on the fear of communism was led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became a major part of the Republican Party’s platform. This fear also heightened political tensions, eventually leading to Republicans accusing homosexuals of espionage. This period was known as the “Lavender Scare.”  

Robert Connelly, an adjunct senior professorial lecturer for American University’s Critical Race Gender and Culture Studies Department, explained that this scare was real for many LGBTQ people working in the government. “In [McCarthy’s] mind, homosexuals’ perceived duplicity and emotional instability made them susceptible to foreign espionage and blackmail, you know, which meant that the gays were giving away our secrets,” Connelly said. 

This fear prompted the 34th president to take more legal action against the LGBTQ people working in government. “When Eisenhower took office in 1953, one of his first executive orders that he signed was Executive Order 10450,” Connelly explained. “This codified the exclusion of perverts from government employment and thousands of lives were ruined because of this in the early 1950s.” This homophobia eventually led to the firing of thousands of LGBTQ people within the federal government during the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

This systematic injustice triggered many LGBTQ people to adapt techniques other marginalized communities were using, mostly inspired by the increasingly successful Civil Rights movement, to politically mobilize and reclaim their power. The homophile movement, one of the earliest precursors to the modern gay rights movement, had major players located in Washington to help push for gay rights. The activism ignited by LGBTQ people during this time endured for decades, addressing a multitude of issues, including anti-war protests and the fight for expanded civil rights.

Some, like Chadd Dowding, 35, a regular patron of gay bars across Washington said that Washington’s gay bar scene has been successful due to the high number of LGBTQ residents and their desire to feel connected to their community. 

“I think D.C. has the largest gay population per capita of any city in the country, so that draws a larger audience of queer folks here,” he said. According to the Williams Institute, D.C. still holds the highest percentage in the U.S.  “I think there’s also a need for spaces for community, mostly because a lot of people in D.C. are transplants from other parts of the country.” 

Others, Like Bombshell Monroe, a drag queen from the House of Mulan (a chosen family, that works to support and mentor queens in Balls and beyond) said that contrarian attitudes are baked into the nature of the city. 

As Bombshell slipped on her flower-adorned flared jeans and orange tank top, getting ready to make her first appearance on the dance floor of Trade for Deep Cvnt, matching the spring bling theme of the night, she explained why she felt D.C.’s gay nightlife has been able to grow.

“I feel like D.C. has always been a place of independence and where people, even if we’re not accepted, will fight to be accepted,” Bombshell said while pulling on a fuzzy white and orange bucket hat. “I’m D.C. born and raised and can attest personally. I think that it’s so crazy because it’s political, but it’s not political. I feel like once we get the pushback from other states, we’re the ones that take it and say, ‘Well, bitch! We got something for y’all. You don’t want the gay bars here, we’re gonna put another one here!’” 

And put another one they did. Within the past three years, at least six new gay bars have opened up with very different styles and goals. Some bars cater to particular groups within the LGBTQ community, like that of Thurst Lounge on 14th Street N.W., which is a predominantly Black gay space. As You Are Bar, at 500 8th St., S.E., seeks to make an accessible and comfortable space for all in the LGBTQ community, focusing on often overlooked female and non-binary members of the community. Others focus on creating unique nightlife experiences, like that of the craft cocktails in Logan Circle’s Little Gay Pub with its Instagram (and Grindr) famous selfie mirror, or like that of the freshly opened Crush bar, focusing on creating a dance bar for LGBTQ people. 

Regardless of the specific reason people visit gay bars, It is clear that they offer platforms to authentically express queer identity in a world that does not always deem this acceptable. 

“If we get to a point where we have to start sacrificing more physical spaces for online ones, these spaces could be easily invaded by people who may not have the best intentions,” Etienne said, preparing to head up the scuffed stairs to Beyonce’s Jolene.  “There is something very valuable about having a physical space with a physical location because, at the end of the day, that’s what we have fought for.”

As the lights dimmed the Trade dance floor began to hush. A path opened up in front of the stage as the crowd of floral wearing ballroom fans stepped back, accommodating Etienne’s entrance. With the glittery green dress, knee-high go-go boots, and oversized sunglasses it is clear he is in charge of the night. 

“Since this is Deep Cvnt I need everyone to raise their hand up,” Etienne said with a smile. “And now put it below your waist. Check how deep your motherfucking cunt is.” The crowd roared with laughter and cheers. “Alright let’s get into it!” Deep Cvnt has begun.

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