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Former Madonna dancer Slam recalls ‘Blond Ambition Tour,’ ‘Truth or Dare’

Salim Gauwloos revisits landmark film on its 25th anniversary

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Salim Gauwloos, gay news, Washington Blade

Salim Gauwloos today at work teaching dance in New York. (Photo courtesy Gauwloos)

“Truth or Dare”

Monday, Sept. 12

 

9 p.m.

 

AFI Silver

 

$13

 

8633 Colesville Rd.

 

Silver Spring, Md.

 

afi.com/silver

 

“Madonna: Truth or Dare,” the landmark 1991 documentary (aka “In Bed With Madonna”) is widely remembered not only as an eye-popping memento of the singer’s legendary “Blond Ambition Tour,” but also as a gay cultural touchstone.

In some ways, it’s the gay equivalent of classic rockumentaries like “Gimme Shelter” or “The Last Waltz” but it’s more than that, too. Not only because it captures Our Lady at the peak of the zeitgeist, but also because its depiction of Madonna’s back-up dancers (of the seven, only Oliver Crumes was straight) being so matter-of-factly out that it felt almost otherworldly to the gay boys who lapped it up in Peoria and everywhere else.

In honor of its anniversary — it screens twice in the coming days at the AFI Silver — we caught up with Salim “Slam” Gauwloos, one of the “Blond Ambition” dancers whose onscreen kiss with the late Gabriel Trupin is one of the film’s most memorable moments. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

Salim Gauwloos, gay news, Washington Blade

Madonna’s ‘Blond Ambition Tour’ dancers, made famous in the film ‘Truth or Dare,’ reunited for ‘Strike a Pose.’ Clockwise from left are Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Carlton Wilborn, Kevin Stea, Jose Gutierez and Salim Gauwloos. (Photo by Robin De Puy)

WASHINGTON BLADE: Before we get to “Truth or Dare,” tell us a little about “Strike a Pose,” the reunion documentary you’re in with the other “Blond Ambition Tour” dancers. When will we get to see it in Washington?

GAUWLOOS: It’s a great movie, you’ll enjoy it. They’re working on a U.S. theatrical release early next year. Before everybody downloads it. You’ll see it soon. It’s a beautiful movie. They did a great job.

BLADE: But it has already been on the festival circuit, right?

GAUWLOOS: Yes. We mostly go out in twos, only in Berlin and Amsterdam they flew everybody over, but mostly just two of us to wherever. I went to Colombia, to Tel Aviv. It takes a lot of time always, but it’s fun. Almost like being on tour again.

BLADE: How did they pitch you on “Strike a Pose”?

GAUWLOOS: They approached me in 2013. I was doing a job, this big dance festival in Vienna and they contacted me. I said, “OK, I’ll meet with Reijer Zwaan,” one of the directors. He came to meet me in Vienna and we must have talked for about eight hours. It just felt right, I don’t know. I think the directors, Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, these directors from Holland, they’re amazing storytellers. I did kind of think, “Do I really want to throw myself out there again to be judged really in some kind of way, I want to be careful about that,” but I had a really good feeling about it.

BLADE: Did you talk to the other dancers before agreeing to it?

GAUWLOOS: No. I think the last one to jump on board was Jose (Gutierez). I felt it really should be all the dancers. Of course Gabriel (Trupin), he passed away a long time ago, but his mother represents him in the movie and that’s really beautiful. It wouldn’t have been the same without all the dancers so in the end, we all agreed and started shooting in 2014.

BLADE: Had you seen the other five any since the “Truth or Dare” premiere or kept in touch with them at all?

GAUWLOOS: No. For example, Carlton (Wilborn), Oliver (Crumes) and Kevin (Stea), I hadn’t seen for probably close to 25 years. Maybe 24 years. And Luis (Camacho) I’d seen a little bit here and there but that was probably like 12 years. Jose (Gutierez) and I both live in New York so I saw him a little bit here and there but with most of them, I’d had literally no contact at all. It was so amazing to see them all again after 25 years.

BLADE: What was different about this project?

GAUWLOOS: We’ve been approached so many times but in the end, it’s just mostly about Madonna but these guys really wanted to know what happened with us during the tour and what was happening with us right now, 25 years later, what we were up to, so that was really nice.

BLADE: You said recently that Reijer Zwaan was almost like your psychiatrist. How so?

GAUWLOOS: You probably know I was diagnosed in 1987 as being HIV-positive and I wanted to be out with that for a long time. It just felt silly to not be. So then along came Reijer and we talked for eight hours and it just all came out you know, crying and it was really the first time I sat with somebody I didn’t really know and told them, “Yes, I’ve been HIV for 29 years,” 27 at the time. I was like, “Oh my God, I feel like I’ve just been to a psychiatrist.” I’ve never been to a real one. Maybe I should (laughs).

BLADE: Madonna made a surprise appearance at a “Truth or Dare” anniversary screening a couple weeks ago in New York. What did it feel like when she walked in the room unannounced?

GAUWLOOS: It was surreal. We were just sitting there and we’re thinking, “OK, why isn’t the movie playing?” and boom, she walks in. It was like the whole room just gasped for air. You couldn’t believe it was real. She just sat down, watched the movie and left. But it was amazing.

BLADE: Had you seen her at all in the last 25 years?

GAUWLOOS: I hadn’t seen her in a long, long, long time. People on social media were like, “Oh my God, did she talk to you guys?” but we were in the front row and she was more in the back. Jose and I should have gone up to her but it wasn’t really the right moment. When she walked in it was just like, “Whoah, I’ve never felt that kind of energy in one room.” It was interesting watching the movie with her. It’s a good film. Very funny.

BLADE: How does it strike you seeing it now?

GAUWLOOS: I watched it a few years ago before we did “Strike a Pose.” When I see it I’m like, “Oh my God, my hair.” Me and my hair, it’s the only thing I can look at. I can’t stop flipping it, you know. It’s like I was so busy with my hair always. I’m just happy to have been part of such a big, iconic moment. If you look at the concert footage, it doesn’t look dated. The whole thing is just amazing. The least annoying thing for me is the kiss, the most important gay kiss in history. That I don’t have a problem watching but some of it I’m like, “Oh my God, no I did not just say that.” It’s like going back in time. It was a good experience.

BLADE: Wasn’t your hair sort of annoying at that length always falling in your face?

GAUWLOOS: Well when you dance, your hair flies around so it has more of an effect. I liked having longer hair and swinging it around.

BLADE: Speaking of hair, why did Madonna change her hair halfway through the tour? That ponytail look was so iconic for her but then she did the curls, which became kind of a trademark look too. It feels odd to me watching “Truth or Dare” because she’s always backstage and it’s supposed to make you feel like she’s walking out into the concert footage but it doesn’t match because she has the different hair.

GAUWLOOS: It was just like one day she had the ponytail and then she just went to the Shirley Temple curls. I don’t think there was any specific reason for it. With the ponytail sometimes it would fly around in your face so I think the curls were easier. Personally I liked the curls more.

BLADE: I’m sure you got wacked in the face with that ponytail a few times.

GAUWLOOS: Yeah and as a girl dancing with a ponytail, it’s like a delayed slap and it must have been difficult for her too.

BLADE: But it wasn’t that her hair was falling out from too much bleaching or pulling up or anything?

GAUWLOOS: No. She had strong hair.

BLADE: Do you feel she’s a bit aloof with you guys or do you think that’s just the way any major star would pretty much be?

GAUWLOOS: I don’t know. After 25 years, you know, it’s a long time. People go on with their life and deal with things in different ways. I mean I just knew sitting there she wasn’t going to run up to us and be like, “Oh my God,” you know? I knew that was not going to happen. It’s not really in her character to be like that. But who am I to judge? You know how you don’t see other people for many years and people react all different ways, so I don’t really judge that.

BLADE: Is it true (“Truth or Dare” director) Alek Keshishian said all the hundreds of hours of outtakes got accidentally deleted?

GAUWLOOS: Not deleted, but nobody knows where it is.

BLADE: I thought it was lame when the Blu-ray release came out a few years ago they didn’t put like 20 minutes or a half-hour of outtakes on it as bonus material. That would have been fun to see.

GAUWLOOS: Supposedly all these people claim not to know where it is. It’s lost.

BLADE: I’m sure it will surface maybe for the 50th anniversary or something.

GAUWLOOS: I know, right? Of course it will. It always does.

BLADE: Was there any dance move or routine that was especially tricky to learn for the tour?

GAUWLOOS: Well I had to learn to vogue, but it wasn’t particularly difficult. The only people who knew what that even was before were Luis, Jose and Madonna, who hired them. Being a classically trained dancer, it wasn’t really a challenge but it was one thing I had to learn. I think it came pretty naturally for everybody. The rest was just hard work. A lot of rehearsals. That’s how we got a really tight show together like that.

BLADE: Is it true you did like two weeks of twice-a-day run throughs before it premiered?

GAUWLOOS: Oh definitely. We were in the studio like 10-12 hours then at the end there were tech rehearsals at night too. It was a crazy, crazy schedule but you know, we were so young, talented and hungry so we didn’t care. We were all in it 100 percent.

BLADE: By the end, were you drenched in sweat and exhausted or were you in such great shape that you weren’t?

GAUWLOOS: People always think the numbers I was featured in like “Express Yourself” or the Dick Tracy part would be the most exhausting but those were the ones you could enjoy more. The most exhausting number to do was “Like a Prayer” because we had this whole big number while she’s changing for the next number. That you were like, “OK, now I can’t breathe.” (laughs)

BLADE: Do you have any mementos from the tour? Any costumes or anything?

GAUWLOOS: I did but I lost all of them, just having moved so many times. When we started shooting “Strike a Pose,” they were like, “Show us some pictures” and I was like, “I don’t have anything.” It’s kind of sad. Only in my head.

BLADE: So you don’t have the rosary Madonna gave you?

GAUWLOOS: No, I definitely don’t have it. I should just buy one and say it’s the one she gave me. (laughs)

BLADE: Some of the choreography was so gay but you were kind of the straight hunk too in some passages. Did that strike you as ironic?

GAUWLOOS: No, it’s like being an actor. Some passages I was acting as a straight dance partner for Madonna so I was acting straight. Not every dancer could do it. But it mostly came natural and from just doing it over and over.

BLADE: Did you bulk up for the tour or were you always kind of built like that?

GAUWLOOS: Starting out in Antwerp, Belgium as a dancer I was really skinny. Then I came to America, I got a little bit bigger. For the tour we were supposed to go to the gym but of course we never went. It was just the cruel rehearsal schedule that kind of got everybody in shape. It’s like 10 hours of dancing, how can you not be in shape from that? That’s how I got bigger and more muscular. I definitely didn’t look like that when we started, definitely not.

BLADE: Did you see “I’m Going to Tell You a Secret,” the “Truth or Dare” sequel?

GAUWLOOS: I saw a little part of it, not the whole thing. I heard the dancers did not get as much of a part. No kissing, in other words. Not X-rated. (laughs)

BLADE: Did you grow up Catholic?

GAUWLOOS: No, not really. My mom would say she was Catholic but we never went to church. It was just kind of like, “Well, we walk by the church.” But definitely not. My father was Muslim. I’m half Moroccan. He was from Morocco but he passed away and was only in my life a couple years and then he disappeared. I’m a little bit of everything but I don’t go to church or practice.

BLADE: So did all the religious imagery in the show resonate with you at all?

GAUWLOOS: No, it was more of a theatrical thing for me with the crosses and the lights. I never felt like, “Oh my God, this is sacrilegious” or anything. I just saw it as a show. I was probably the least knowledgeable about how controversial and taboo it was for the time.

BLADE: The “Vogue” VMA performance with the Marie Antoinette costumes, was that after the tour?

GAUWLOOS: Yes. That was nice because we were all sad when the tour ended but we knew we’d be going back in a few weeks to do that and we’d get to see each other and dance together again. We worked like a week and a half or two weeks getting ready for that just with the costumes and the girls had the fans and everything and just to make sure it was really tight. I think it was like a month or two months after the tour finished.

BLADE: Carlton was on “The Girlie Show,” Madonna’s next tour. What were you doing by ’93 and was there any discussion or possibility of any of the rest of you touring with Madonna again?

GAUWLOOS: No. The ride was over after everything was done with Madonna and I realized I had my own reality to deal with being HIV. I was just going through life really. I really partied so I didn’t have to deal with being HIV and it was like a really dark period for me for like six-seven years.

BLADE: How did you get through it?

GAUWLOOS: When I really got my shit together was in 2000. I met my husband and fell in love, that was it. That changed my whole life around. But before that, I’d been diagnosed in 1987 and then I ended up in the hospital in 1997 with a really bad pneumonia. I didn’t do any treatment for 10 years, I just couldn’t deal with it. So I ended up in the hospital and that was really a reality check and a wakeup call. I don’t know, this is awfully personal, but I also had some issues with my working papers too. I was HIV-positive so I didn’t want to go to the hospital and get deported. That’s one of the reasons I never went. That’s also why coming out with my story, I’m sure there are a lot of people in my situation. They’re HIV and illegal aliens and afraid to get help. I ended up in the hospital almost dead before I realized there are so many organizations out there that can help you get free medication and they don’t deport you and all that stuff.

BLADE: Tell me about your husband.

GAUWLOOS: He got my heart, you know? His name is Facundo Gabba. He’s from Argentina. He just came into my life and blew me away. When I was diagnosed it was still the ‘80s and people were dropping like flies. You can’t imagine what it was like to have some guy come in and telling you this with your mother sitting there. They said, “You have the HIV virus and you’ve probably got about five years.” So the first thing was like, “Oh my God, I’m 18, what did I do wrong?” It was a really dark, dark, dark thing. Thank God the whole Madonna experience happened because I needed something to hold onto. … You think, “Who’s going to love me?,” but you can be HIV and find love. That was the biggest thing for me to learn.

BLADE: What do you do now?

GAUWLOOS: I teach at Broadway Dance Center, a very nice school here in New York City, on a regular basis. I also do fashion shoots. When they approached me for “Strike a Pose” in 2013, I had just finished working on Longchamp. I did that for two seasons so mostly teaching but also doing a lot of fashion productions.

BLADE: Did you go to Gabriel’s funeral?

GAUWLOOS: No. I didn’t know right away that he’d died. But since “Strike a Pose,” I’ve been in contact with his mother, Sue, who is really nice. It’s almost like being in touch with Gabriel. She’s such a sweet woman. We talk and it’s been a great experience going to her house in San Francisco. I get to find out more about Gabriel. It’s really beautiful.

BLADE: Have you followed Madonna’s career? Did you ever go see her other tours?

GAUWLOOS: I never went to her shows, but I’d watch her on YouTube here and there if she had new stuff. I liked “The Girlie Show” and I thought “The Confessions Tour” where she came out of the disco ball and had all the Steven Klein stuff with the horses and everything was beautiful.

BLADE: You have to get tired of being asked about Madonna, no?

GAUWLOOS: Yeah, it gets a little tiring here and there but at the same time, it’s OK. Especially with this new movie, they do ask Madonna questions but there are also questions related to us, so it’s really nice. I’m happy it happened. Especially now, we’re all in the spotlight again so it’s OK. I’ll take that with it. I don’t mind.

BLADE: You said once you were also really into Janet Jackson back in the early ‘90s too, right?

GAUWLOOS: I was really into Janet Jackson and also Paula Abdul a lot, too. I know a lot of people didn’t really like Paula Abdul, but I liked her because here was another singer giving a lot of dancers work and it was real dance. You had to be a real dancer. So I think that’s where that comes from. Did I like their music more than Madonna’s? No, I don’t think so, but I liked the whole moving thing, the whole “Rhythm Nation” thing, I was into that too.

BLADE: One thing that came up when Oliver, Kevin and Gabriel sued Madonna over “Truth or Dare” was a claim that they didn’t know it was going to be made into this big thing and so on. But you guys saw Alek and his team around constantly. Wasn’t that claim somewhat naive?

GAUWLOOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know what all they sued for. They all sued for different things. What wasn’t clear was that we were not going to make any money from “Truth or Dare” and we didn’t. At the end of the day, that’s what it came down to. To this day, we’ve never made a penny from “Truth or Dare.” I’m not saying that to be shady or mean, it’s just a fact. Did I sue? No, no. If it’s that important to somebody, I don’t know. I’m just not a suing person I think, especially for something like that.

BLADE: Did they ask you if you wanted to be part of it?

GAUWLOOS: No, no, no. That last time I saw them was in L.A. I saw them on some talk shows talking about the lawsuit but we all knew they were taping. I just think we didn’t know we weren’t going to make any money, which would have been nice. A lot of us could have used the money.

BLADE: Niki (Haris) and Donna (DeLory) toured with Madonna a lot in subsequent years but with a few exceptions, she mostly gets all new dancers for each tour. Why do you think that is?

GAUWLOOS: Probably just so she always had a new look, a fresh look, you know? I think with backup singers, Niki and Donna were the perfect backup singers for Madonna. They could move, they could sing, they looked nice, they had all the qualities. It’s probably a lot harder to find all that, so they were like a perfect match. With the dancers, I just think it’s her thing. Aside from Carlton and maybe a few others, it’s just like her schtick to hire new dancers each tour.

BLADE: Have you ever met any of her other dancers? Any of them ever come up and say hi?

GAUWLOOS: No. I won’t speak to dancers of other tours. No, I’m joking. (laughs)

BLADE: Aside from your work with Madonna, what are you most proud of?

GAUWLOOS: Ugh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know. I think the most proud thing would be being a dancer and still to this day, always having a voice and not really changing my belief system of dancing and everything. As an artist, I’ve always believed in myself. I may ask other people for advice, but at the end of the day, I’ve always listened to myself first.

Salim Gauwloos, right, with Madonna on the Blond Ambition Tour. (Screen capture via YouTube)

Salim Gauwloos, right, with Madonna on the Blond Ambition Tour. (Screen capture via YouTube)

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What to expect at the 2024 National Cannabis Festival

Wu-Tang Clan to perform; policy discussions also planned

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Juicy J performs at the 2023 National Cannabis Festival (Photo credit: Alive Coverage)

(Editor’s note: Tickets are still available for the National Cannabis Festival, with prices starting at $55 for one-day general admission on Friday through $190 for a two-day pass with early-entry access. The Washington Blade, one of the event’s sponsors, will host a LGBTQIA+ Lounge and moderate a panel discussion on Saturday with the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.)


With two full days of events and programs along with performances by Wu-Tang Clan, Redman, and Thundercat, the 2024 National Cannabis Festival will be bigger than ever this year.

Leading up to the festivities on Friday and Saturday at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium are plenty of can’t-miss experiences planned for 420 Week, including the National Cannabis Policy Summit and an LGBTQ happy hour hosted by the District’s Black-owned queer bar, Thurst Lounge (both happening on Wednesday).

On Tuesday, the Blade caught up with NCF Founder and Executive Producer Caroline Phillips, principal at The High Street PR & Events, for a discussion about the event’s history and the pivotal political moment for cannabis legalization and drug policy reform both locally and nationally. Phillips also shared her thoughts about the role of LGBTQ activists in these movements and the through-line connecting issues of freedom and bodily autonomy.

After D.C. residents voted to approve Initiative 71 in the fall of 2014, she said, adults were permitted to share cannabis and grow the plant at home, while possession was decriminalized with the hope and expectation that fewer people would be incarcerated.

“When that happened, there was also an influx of really high-priced conferences that promised to connect people to big business opportunities so they could make millions in what they were calling the ‘green rush,'” Phillips said.

“At the time, I was working for Human Rights First,” a nonprofit that was, and is, engaged in “a lot of issues to do with world refugees and immigration in the United States” — so, “it was really interesting to me to see the overlap between drug policy reform and some of these other issues that I was working on,” Phillips said.

“And then it rubbed me a little bit the wrong way to hear about the ‘green rush’ before we’d heard about criminal justice reform around cannabis and before we’d heard about people being let out of jail for cannabis offenses.”

“As my interests grew, I realized that there was really a need for this conversation to happen in a larger way that allowed the larger community, the broader community, to learn about not just cannabis legalization, but to understand how it connects to our criminal justice system, to understand how it can really stimulate and benefit our economy, and to understand how it can become a wellness tool for so many people,” Phillips said.

“On top of all of that, as a minority in the cannabis space, it was important to me that this event and my work in the cannabis industry really amplified how we could create space for Black and Brown people to be stakeholders in this economy in a meaningful way.”

Caroline Phillips (Photo by Greg Powers)

“Since I was already working in event production, I decided to use those skills and apply them to creating a cannabis event,” she said. “And in order to create an event that I thought could really give back to our community with ticket prices low enough for people to actually be able to attend, I thought a large-scale event would be good — and thus was born the cannabis festival.”

D.C. to see more regulated cannabis businesses ‘very soon’

Phillips said she believes decriminalization in D.C. has decreased the number of cannabis-related arrests in the city, but she noted arrests have, nevertheless, continued to disproportionately impact Black and Brown people.

“We’re at a really interesting crossroads for our city and for our cannabis community,” she said. In the eight years since Initiative 71 was passed, “We’ve had our licensed regulated cannabis dispensaries and cultivators who’ve been existing in a very red tape-heavy environment, a very tax heavy environment, and then we have the unregulated cannabis cultivators and cannabis dispensaries in the city” who operate via a “loophole” in the law “that allows the sharing of cannabis between adults who are over the age of 21.”

Many of the purveyors in the latter group, Phillips said, “are looking at trying to get into the legal space; so they’re trying to become regulated businesses in Washington, D.C.”

She noted the city will be “releasing 30 or so licenses in the next couple of weeks, and those stores should be coming online very soon” which will mean “you’ll be seeing a lot more of the regulated stores popping up in neighborhoods and hopefully a lot more opportunity for folks that are interested in leaving the unregulated space to be able to join the regulated marketplace.”

National push for de-scheduling cannabis

Signaling the political momentum for reforming cannabis and criminal justice laws, Wednesday’s Policy Summit will feature U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate majority leader.

Also representing Capitol Hill at the Summit will be U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) — who will be receiving the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award — along with an aide to U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio).

Nationally, Phillips said much of the conversation around cannabis concerns de-scheduling. Even though 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational and/or medical use, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I substance since the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1971, which means it carries the heftiest restrictions on, and penalties for, its possession, sale, distribution, and cultivation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services formally requested the drug be reclassified as a Schedule III substance in August, which inaugurated an ongoing review, and in January a group of 12 Senate Democrats sent a letter to the Biden-Harris administration’s Drug Enforcement Administration urging the agency to de-schedule cannabis altogether.

Along with the Summit, Phillips noted that “a large contingent of advocates will be coming to Washington, D.C. this week to host a vigil at the White House and to be at the festival educating people” about these issues. She said NCF is working with the 420 Unity Coalition to push Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to “move straight to de-scheduling cannabis.”

“This would allow folks who have been locked up for cannabis offenses the chance to be released,” she said. “It would also allow medical patients greater access. It would also allow business owners the chance to exist without the specter of the federal government coming in and telling them what they’re doing is wrong and that they’re criminals.”

Phillips added, however, that de-scheduling cannabis will not “suddenly erase” the “generations and generations of systemic racism” in America’s financial institutions, business marketplace, and criminal justice system, nor the consequences that has wrought on Black and Brown communities.

An example of the work that remains, she said, is making sure “that all people are treated fairly by financial institutions so that they can get the funding for their businesses” to, hopefully, create not just another industry, but “really a better industry” that from the outset is focused on “equity” and “access.”

Policy wonks should be sure to visit the festival, too. “We have a really terrific lineup in our policy pavilion,” Phillips said. “A lot of our heavy hitters from our advocacy committee will be presenting programming.”

“On Saturday there is a really strong federal marijuana reform panel that is being led by Maritza Perez Medina from the Drug Policy Alliance,” she said. “So that’s going to be a terrific discussion” that will also feature “representation from the Veterans Cannabis Coalition.”

“We also have a really interesting talk being led by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership about conservatives, cops, and cannabis,” Phillips added.

Cannabis and the LGBTQ community

“I think what’s so interesting about LGBTQIA+ culture and the cannabis community are the parallels that we’ve seen in the movements towards legalization,” Phillips said.

The fight for LGBTQ rights over the years has often involved centering personal stories and personal experiences, she said. “And that really, I think, began to resonate, the more that we talked about it openly in society; the more it was something that we started to see on television; the more it became a topic in youth development and making sure that we’re raising healthy children.”

Likewise, Phillips said, “we’ve seen cannabis become more of a conversation in mainstream culture. We’ve heard the stories of people who’ve had veterans in their families that have used cannabis instead of pharmaceuticals, the friends or family members who’ve had cancer that have turned to CBD or THC so they could sleep, so they could eat so they could get some level of relief.”

Stories about cannabis have also included accounts of folks who were “arrested when they were young” or “the family member who’s still locked up,” she said, just as stories about LGBTQ people have often involved unjust and unnecessary suffering.

Not only are there similarities in the socio-political struggles, Phillips said, but LGBTQ people have played a central role pushing for cannabis legalization and, in fact, in ushering in the movement by “advocating for HIV patients in California to be able to access cannabis’s medicine.”

As a result of the queer community’s involvement, she said, “the foundation of cannabis legalization is truly patient access and criminal justice reform.”

“LGBTQIA+ advocates and cannabis advocates have managed to rein in support of the majority of Americans for the issues that they find important,” Phillips said, even if, unfortunately, other movements for bodily autonomy like those concerning issues of reproductive justice “don’t see that same support.”

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Juliet Hawkins’s music defies conventional categorization

‘Keep an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to evolve’

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Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Emerging from the dynamic music scene of Los Angeles, Juliet Hawkins seamlessly integrates deeply soulful vocals with contemporary production techniques, crafting a distinctive sound that defies conventional categorization.

Drawing inspiration from the emotive depth of Amy Winehouse and weaving together elements of country, blues, and pop, Hawkins’ music can best be described as a fusion–perhaps best termed as soulful electronica. Yet, even this characterization falls short, as Hawkins defines herself as “a blend of a million different inspirations.”

Hawkins’s musical palette mirrors her personae: versatile and eclectic. Any conversation with Hawkins makes this point abundantly clear. She exhibits the archetype of a wild, musical genius while remaining true to her nature-loving, creative spirit. Whether recording in the studio for an album release, performing live in a studio setting, or playing in front of a live audience, Hawkins delivers her music with natural grace. 

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

However, Hawkins’s musical journey is far from effortless. Amid personal challenges and adversity, she weaves her personal odyssey of pain and pleasure, transforming these experiences into empowering anthems.

In a candid interview with the Blade, Hawkins spoke with profound openness and vulnerability about her past struggles with opiate and heroin addiction: “That was 10 years ago that I struggled with opiates,” she shared. Yet, instead of letting her previous addiction define her, Hawkins expressed to the Blade that she harbors no shame about her past. “My newer music is much more about empowerment than recovery,” she explained, emphasizing that “writing was the best way to process trauma.”

Despite her struggles with addiction, Hawkins managed to recover. However, she emphasizes that this recovery is deeply intertwined with her spiritual connection to nature. An illustrative instance of Hawkins’ engagement with nature occurred during the COVID pandemic.

Following an impulse that many of us have entertained, she bought a van and chose to live amidst the trees. It was during this period that Hawkins composed the music for her second EP, titled “Lead with Love.”

In many ways, Hawkins deep spiritual connection to nature has been profoundly shaped by her extensive travels. Born in San Diego, spending her formative years in Massachusetts, and later moving to Tennessee before returning to Southern California, she has broadened her interests and exposed herself to the diverse musical landscapes across America.

“Music is the only thing I have left,” Hawkins confides to the Blade, highlighting the integral role that music has in her life. This intimate relationship with music is evident in her sultry and dynamic compositions. Rather than imitating or copying other artists, Hawkins effortlessly integrates sounds from some of her favorite musical influences to create something new. Some of these influences include LP, Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey, and, of course, Amy Winehouse, among others.

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Hawkins has always been passionate about music—-she began with piano at a young age, progressed to guitar, and then to bass, eagerly exploring any instrument she could get her hands on. However, instead of following a traditional path of formalized lessons and structured music theory, Hawkins told the Blade that she “has a hard time following directions and being told what to do.”

This independent approach has led her to experiment with various genres and even join unexpected groups, such as a tribute band for Eric Clapton and Cream. While she acknowledges that her eclectic musical interests might be attributed to ADHD, she holds a different belief: “Creative minds like to move around.”

When discussing her latest musical release — “Stay True (the live album)” which was recorded in a live studio setting — Hawkins describes the experience as a form of improvisation with both herself and the band:

“[The experience] was this divine honey that was flowing through all of us.” She explains that this live album was uncertain in the music’s direction. “For a couple of songs,” Hawkins recalls, “we intuitively closed them out.” By embracing creative spontaneity and refusing to be constrained by fear of mistakes, the live album authentically captures raw sound, complete with background chatter, extended outros, and an extremely somber cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” coupled with a slow piano and accompanied strings.

While “Stay True” was a rewarding experience for Hawkins, her favorite live performance took place in an unexpected location—an unattended piano in the middle of an airport. As she began playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, Hawkins shared with the Blade a universal connection we all share with music: “This little girl was dancing as I was playing.”

After the performance, tears welled in Hawkins’ eyes as she was touched by the young girl’s appreciation of her musicianship. Hawkins tells the Blade, “It’s not about playing to an audience—it’s about finding your people.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

What sets Hawkins apart as an artist is her ability to connect with her audience in diverse settings. She highlights EDC, an electronic dance music festival, as a place where she unabashedly lets her “freak flag” fly and a place to connect with her people. Her affinity for electronic music not only fuels her original pop music creations, but also inspires her to reinterpret songs with an electronic twist. A prime example of this is with her electronic-style cover of Tal Bachman’s 90’s hit, “She’s So High.”

As an openly queer woman in the music industry, Hawkins is on a mission to safeguard artistic integrity. In songs like “My Father’s Men,” she bares her vulnerability and highlights the industry’s misogyny, which often marginalizes gender minorities in their pursuit of artistic expression.

She confides to the Blade, “The industry can be so sexist, misogynist, and oppressive,” and points out that “there are predators in the industry.” Yet, rather than succumbing to apathy, Hawkins is committed to advocating for gender minorities within the music industry.

“Luckily, people are rising up against misogyny, but it’s still there. ‘My Father’s Men’ is a message: It’s time for more people who aren’t just white straight men to have a say.”

Hawkins is also an activist for other causes, with a fervent belief in the preservation of bodily autonomy. Her self-directed music video “I’ll play Daddy,” showcases the joy of embracing one’s body with Hawkins being sensually touched by a plethora of hands. While the song, according to Hawkins, “fell upon deaf ears in the south,” it hasn’t stopped Hawkins from continuing to fight for the causes she believes in. In her interview, Hawkins encapsulated her political stance by quoting an artist she admires:

“To quote Pink, ‘I don’t care about your politics, I care about your kids.’”

When Hawkins isn’t writing music or being a champion for various causes, you might catch her doing the following: camping, rollerblading, painting, teaching music lessons, relaxing with Bernie (her beloved dog), stripping down for artsy photoshoots, or embarking on a quest to find the world’s best hollandaise sauce.

But at the end of the day, Hawkins sums up her main purpose: “To come together with like-minded people and create.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Part of this ever-evolving, coming-of-age-like journey includes an important element: plant-based medicine. Hawkins tells the Blade that she acknowledges her previous experience with addiction and finds certain plants to be useful in her recovery:

“The recovery thing is tricky,” Hawkins explains, “I don’t use opiates—-no powders and no pills—but I am a fan of weed, and I think psilocybin can be helpful when used at the right time.” She emphasizes the role of psychedelics in guiding her towards her purpose. “Thanks for psychedelics, I have a reignited sense of purpose … Music came naturally to me as an outlet to heal.” 

While she views the occasional dabbling of psychedelics as a spiritual practice, Hawkins also embraces other rituals, particularly those she performs before and during live shows. “I always carry two rocks with me: a labradorite and a tiger’s eye marble,” she explains.

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Lavender Mass and the art of serious parody in protest

Part 3 of our series on the history of LGBTQ religion in D.C.

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The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been parodying religion for decades. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

(Editor’s note: Although there has been considerable scholarship focused on LGBTQ community and advocacy in D.C., there is a deficit of scholarship focused on LGBTQ religion in the area. Religion plays an important role in LGBTQ advocacy movements, through queer-affirming ministers and communities, along with queer-phobic churches in the city. This is the final installment of a three-part series exploring the history of religion and LGBTQ advocacy in Washington, D.C. Visit our website for the previous installments.) 

Six sisters gathered not so quietly in Marion Park, Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 8, 2022. As the first sounds of the Women’s March rang out two blocks away at 11 am, the Sisters passed out candles to say Mass on the grass. It was their fifth annual Lavender Mass, but this year’s event in particular told an interesting story of religious reclamation, reimagining a meaningful ritual from an institution that seeks to devalue and oppress queer people.

The D.C. Sisters are a chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization of “drag nuns” ministering to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. What first began as satire on Easter Sunday 1979 when queer men borrowed and wore habits from a production of The Sound of Music became a national organization; the D.C. chapter came about relatively late, receiving approval from the United Nuns Privy Council in April 2016. The D.C. Sisters raise money and contribute to organizations focused on underserved communities in their area, such as Moveable Feast and Trans Lifeline, much like Anglican and Catholic women religious orders.

As Sister Ray Dee O’Active explained, “we tend to say we raise funds, fun, and hell. I love all three. Thousands of dollars for local LGBTQ groups. Pure joy at Pride parades when we greet the next generation of activists. And blatant response to homophobia and transphobia by protest after protest.” The Lavender Mass held on October 8th embodied their response to transphobia both inside and outside pro-choice groups, specifically how the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 intimately affects members of the LGBTQ+ community.

 As a little history about the Mass, Sister Mary Full O’Rage, shown wearing a short red dress and crimson coronet and veil in the photo above developed the Lavender Mass as a “counterpart” or “counter narrative” to the Red Mass, a Catholic Mass held the first Sunday of October in honor Catholics in positions of civil authority, like the Supreme Court Justices. The plan was to celebrate this year’s Lavender Mas on October 1st at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial, located right across the street from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where many Supreme Court Justices attend the Red Mass every year.

 As Sister Mary explained, this year “it was intended to be a direct protest of the actions of the Supreme Court, in significant measure their overturning of reproductive rights.”

 Unfortunately, the October 1st event was canceled due to heavy rain and postponed to October 8th at the recommendation of Sister Ruth Lisque-Hunt and Sister Joy! Totheworld. The focus of the Women’s March this year aligned with the focus of the Lavender Mass—reproductive rights—and this cause, Sister Mary explained, “drove us to plan our Lavender Mass as a true counter-ritual and protest of the Supreme Court of who we expected to attend the Red Mass,” and who were protested in large at the Women’s March. 

The “Lavender Mass was something that we could adopt for ourselves,” Sister Mary spoke about past events. The first two Masses took place at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, right around the corner from the Supreme Court. The second Mass, as Sister Mary explained, celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; “we canonized her.” Canonization of saints in the Catholic Church also takes place during a Mass, a Papal Mass in particular.

 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sisters moved the Mass outside for safety, and the third and fourth Masses were celebrated at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial. “It celebrates nuns, and we are nuns, psycho-clown nuns,” Sister Mary chuckled, “but we are nuns.” After the Mass, the Sisters would gather at a LGBTQ+ safe space or protest at the Catholic Church or Supreme Court. Although they often serve as “sister security” at local events, working to keep queer community members safe according to Sister Amore Fagellare, the Lavender Mass is not widely publicly advertised, out of concern for their own.

 On October 8th, nine people gathered on the grass in a circle—six sisters, myself, and two people who were close with professed members—as Sister Mary called us to assemble before leading us all in chanting the chorus to Sister Sledge’s 1979 classic song “We Are Family.” 

Next, novice Sister Sybil Liberties set a sacred space, whereby Sister Ruth and Sister Tearyn Upinjustice walked in a circle behind us, unspooling pink and blue ribbons to tie us together as a group. As Sister Sybil explained, “we surround this sacred space in protection and sanctify it with color,” pink for the choice to become a parent and blue for the freedom to choose not to be a parent but also as Sybil elaboration, in recognition of “the broad gender spectrum of people with the ability to become pregnant.” This intentional act was sought to fight transphobia within the fight for reproductive rights.

After singing Lesley Gore’s 1963 song “You Don’t Own Me,” six speakers began the ritual for reproductive rights. Holding out our wax plastic candles, Sister Sybil explained that each speaker would describe a story or reality connected to reproductive rights, and “as I light a series of candles for the different paths we have taken, if you recognize yourself in one of these prayers, I invite you to put your hand over your heart, wherever you are, and know that you are not alone – there is someone else in this gathered community holding their hand over their heart too.”

The Sisters went around the circle lighting a candle for those whose stories include the choice to end a pregnancy; those whose include the unwanted loss of a pregnancy or struggles with fertility; those whose include the choice to give birth, raise or adopt a child; those whose include the choice not to conceive a child, to undergo forced choice, or with no choice at all; those who have encountered violence where there “should have been tenderness and care;” and those whose reproductive stories are still being written today.

After each reading, the group spoke together, “may the beginnings and endings in our stories be held in unconditional love and acceptance,” recalling the Prayer of the Faithful or General Intercessions at Catholic Masswhere congregations respond “Lord, hear our prayer” to each petition. Sister Sybil closed out the ritual as Sister Mary cut the blue and pink ribbons between each person, creating small segments they could take away with them and tie to their garments before walking to the Women’s March. The Sisters gathered their signs, drums, and horns before walking to Folger Park together into the crowd of protestors.

 At first glance, the Lavender Mass may appear like religious appropriation, just as the Sisters themselves sometimes look to outsiders. They model themselves after Angelican and Catholic women religious, in dress—they actively refer to their clothing as “habits,” their organization—members must also go through aspirant, postulant, and novice stages to be fully professed and they maintain a hierarchical authority, and in action. Like white and black habits, the Sisters all wear white faces to create a unified image and colorful coronets, varying veil color based on professed stage. Sister Allie Lewya explained at their September 2022 meeting, “something about the veils gives us a lot of authority that is undue,” but as the Sisters reinforced at the Women’s March, they are not cosplayers nor customers, rather committed clergy.  

As such, the Sisters see their existence within the liminal spaces between satire, appropriation, and reimagination, instead reclaiming the basis of religious rituals to counter the power holders of this tradition, namely, to counter the Catholic Church and how it celebrates those in positions of authority who restrict reproductive rights. Similarly, the Lavender Mass is modeled after a Catholic or Anglican Mass. It has an intention, namely reproductive rights, a call to assemble, setting of a sacred space, song, chant, and prayer requests. It even uses religious terminology; each section of the Mass is ended with a “may it be/Amen/Awen/Ashay/aho.”

 While this ritual—the Lavender Mass—appropriates a religious ritual of the Catholic Church and Anglican Church, this religious appropriation is necessitated by exclusion and queerphobia. As David Ford explains in Queer Psychology, many queer individuals retain a strong connection to their faith communities even though they have experienced trauma from these same communities. Jodi O’Brien builds on this, characterizing Christian religious institutions as spaces of personal meaning making and oppression. This essay further argues that the fact this ritual is adopted and reimagined by a community that the dominant ritual holder—the Catholic Church—oppressed and marginalized, means that it is not religious appropriation at all.

Religious appropriation, as highlighted in Liz Bucar’s recent book, Stealing My Religion (2022), is the acquisition or use of religious traditions, rituals, or objects without a full understanding of the community for which they hold meaning. The Sisters, however, fully understand the implications of calling themselves sisters and the connotations of performing a ritual they call a “Mass” as women religious, a group that do not have this authority in the Catholic Church. It is the reclamation of a tradition that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence understand because some were or are part of the Catholic Church.

 Some sisters still seek out spiritual meaning, but all also recognize that the Catholic Church itself is an institution that hinders their sisters’ access and actively spreads homophobia and transphobia to this day. As such, through the Lavender Mass, the sisters have reclaimed the Mass as a tool of rebellion in support of queer identity.

 Just as the Sisters recognize the meaning and power of the ritual of a Mass, along with the connotations of being a sister, the Lavender Mass fulfilled its purpose as a ritual of intention just as the Sisters fulfill public servants. “As a sister,” Sister Ruth dissected, “as someone who identifies as a drag nun, it perplexes people, but when you get the nitty gritty, we serve a similar purpose, to heal a community, to provide support to a community, to love a community that has not been loved historically in the ways that it should be loved.

 The Sisters’ intentionality in recognizing and upholding the role of a woman religious in their work has been well documented as a serious parody for the intention of queer activism by Melissa Wilcox. The Lavender Mass is a form of serious parody, as Wilcox posits in the book: Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody(2018). The Mass both challenges the queerphobia of the Catholic Church while also reinforcing the legitimacy of this ritual as a Mass. The Sisters argue that although they would traditionally be excluded from religious leadership in the Catholic Church, they can perform a Mass. In doing so, they challenge the role that women religious play in the Catholic Church as a whole and the power dynamics that exclude queer communities from living authentically within the Church.

By reclaiming a tradition from a religious institution that actively excludes and traumatizes the LGBTQ+ community, the Lavender Mass is a form of religious reclamation in which an oppressed community cultivates queer religious meaning, reclaims a tradition from which they are excluded, and uses it to fuel queer activism (the fight for reproductive rights). This essay argues that the Lavender Mass goes one step further than serious parody. While the Sisters employ serious parody in their religious and activist roles, the Lavender Mass is the active reclamation of a religious tradition for both spiritual and activist ends.

 Using the celebration of the Mass as it was intended, just within a different lens for a different purpose, this essay argues, is religious reclamation. As a collection of Austrian and Aotearoan scholars explored most recently in a chapter on acculturation and decolonization, reclamation is associated with the reassertion and ownership of tangibles: of rituals, traditions, objects, and land. The meaning of the Lavender Mass comes not only from the Sisters’ understanding of women religious as a social and religious role but rather from the reclamation of a physical ritual—a Mass—that has specific religious or spiritual meaning for the Sisters.

 When asked why it was important to call this ritual a “Mass,” Sister Mary explained: “I think we wanted to have something that denoted a ritual, that was for those who know, that the name signifies that it was a counter-protest. And you know, many of the sisters grew up with faith, not all of them Catholics but some, so I think ‘Mass’ was a name that resonated for many of us.”  

 As Sister Ray said, “my faith as a queer person tends to ostracize me but the Sisters bring the imagery and language of faith right into the middle of the LGBTQ world.” This Lavender Mass, although only attended and experienced by a few of the Women’s March protests, lived up to its goal as “a form of protest that is hopefully very loud,” as Sister Millie Taint advertised in the Sisters’ September 2022 chapter meeting. It brought religious imagery and language of faith to a march for reproductive rights, using a recognized model of ritual to empower protestors.

The Lavender Mass this year, as always, was an act of rebellion, but by situating itself before the Women’s March and focusing its intention for reproductive rights, the Sisters’ reclaimed a religious ritual from a system of authority which actively oppressed LGBTQ+ peoples and those with the ability to become pregnant, namely the Catholic Church, and for harnessing it for personal, political, and spiritual power. In essence, it modelled a system of religious reclamation, by which a marginalized community takes up a religious ritual to make its own meaning and oppose the religious institution that seeks to exclude the community from ritual participation.  

Emma Cieslik will be presenting on LGBTQ+ Religion in the Capital at the DC History Conference on Friday, April 6th. She is working with a DC History Fellow to establish a roundtable committed to recording and preserving this vital history. If you have any information about these histories, please reach out to Emma Cieslik at [email protected] or the Rainbow History Project at [email protected].

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