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Mary Wilson shares Motown memories

Legendary Supremes singer in D.C. for Blues Alley engagement

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Mary Wilson says her Blues Alley engagement will feature standards, jazz and Motown hits. (Photo courtesy Blues Alley)

Now that we’re 50 years removed from the 1960s, there’s enormous interest in all things Motown.

Of course the label’s popularity never really went away but a flurry of recent events, from Broadway’s “Motown: the Musical” to exhibits of the Supremes’ legendary stage gowns to deluxe reissues of many of the label’s classic albums, point to a Motown fever burning as hot as ever.

Supremes founding member Mary Wilson — the only singer to stay in the group for its entire run — is in the midst of a four-night engagement at Washington’s Blues Alley. She spoke with the Blade by phone this week from her home in Las Vegas on a wide spate of topics from her recent dance hit, her stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” her oft-misunderstood relationship with Diana Ross and more.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us a little of what you have planned for your Blues Alley engagement, please.

MARY WILSON: It’s a combination. Last time I was there I believe I did my straight sort-of jazz show, so this time I will probably do some of the American songbook and some Supremes songs as well because I know a lot of people would like to hear that. So it will be a combination of all of that. I love doing ballads, you know, love songs. Also it’s Valentine’s week, so I have to honor that because I believe in love.

BLADE: Is it taxing to do two shows each night?

WILSON: I don’t normally do two shows so yeah, it really is. It’s a little harder now that I’m 72, almost 73. I’ll be 73 in March so it can be a little taxing because I’m used to doing one. But I love being on stage. I don’t have a problem performing it’s just, you know, the traveling and all that other stuff that makes it a little more difficult.

BLADE: On average, how much of the year do you spend on the road?

WILSON: I usually do about three to four gigs a month.

BLADE: It must have been gratifying to have a dance hit a little over a year ago when “Time to Move On” hit no. 23 on the Billboard dance chart.

WILSON: It was great. I mean, I didn’t even realize that was going to happen. We recorded that song years ago with a young man out of the Imagination group, Leee John. I think it was in 2002. Some beautiful people out in the San Francisco area, Sweet Feet Music, decided they wanted to release it. I was like, “Oh my God, OK.” So then we went in and did the video and they put it out and it charted. I was so surprised and elated that it charted. It was beautiful and wonderful.

BLADE: How did Sweet Feet even know about it?

WILSON: Well the Supremes fans are just everywhere. I don’t know. I think they knew Leee John. The Imagination may not have been as big here in the states, but they were big in the UK so they knew them.

BLADE: There was such a nice stash of Supremes album reissues and deluxe sets from Hip-O Select over several years but they seem to have suddenly stopped about two years ago. Do you know if any more are planned?

WILSON: I’m not sure. … I know Universal — I feel funny saying Universal instead of Motown — but I know they’re re-releasing our “Go-Go” album. I was just at Universal when I was in New York at the B.B. King club and I went and did some interviews there and they played me a lot of songs.

From left are Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. Wilson says tales of tension between the three original Supremes have been exaggerated over the years. (Photo courtesy Wilson) 

From left are Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. Wilson says tales of tension between the three original Supremes have been exaggerated over the years. (Photo courtesy Wilson)

BLADE: The bonus disc for the “I Hear a Symphony” expanded edition in 2012 had an entire 1966 Supremes concert recorded at the Roostertail in Detroit. Do you know how commonly Supremes concerts were recorded?

WILSON: I really don’t know. Things are showing up now that I didn’t even know had been recorded because this was before everyone had their cell phones and this and that.

BLADE: So you had the Supremes gowns in your possession all these years? It must have cost a fortune to store them all this time.

WILSON: This is true. Well yeah, I just had them in storage. I have a pretty large home here in Las Vegas so some I had in the basement but then it got to be too much so I had them in storage areas here. My daughter says I’m a hoarder but I say what I’m hoarding is worth a fortune. She never really understood it. … Some were in boxes. One of the famous ones I’m having restored. It was beaded on chiffon and just got so worn that the beads were falling off, so I’m having them repaired.

BLADE: Did you keep all the wigs too?

WILSON: Wigs not as much. They tend to get really old and then they’re no good. Pretty much everyone kept their own wigs throughout the years so I never really had a lot of those, but the gowns, yes. I do have everyone’s gowns except the ones that were stolen. … There was a lot of stuff stored at Motown where we originally stored them and when the building in Detroit was torn down, a lot of people just started taking stuff — pictures, masters, gowns. Some have landed elsewhere. There are a couple here in the Hard Rock Cafe casino in Vegas, so they’ve been all over the place. I don’t know how else they ended up here and there other than people just took them when the building was torn down. I even got a few of them back on eBay.

BLADE: There wasn’t as much Motown stuff in the National Museum of African-American History here in Washington as I would have thought. Were you ever in touch with its staff about having some Supremes items there?

WILSON: You know what, I’m a little disappointed because I offered them my gown exhibit to be displayed there and I never heard back from them. I made a presentation and everything. I guess they had so many things, so many artifacts, they couldn’t take everything so I understood, but I was disappointed. When I’m in D.C., I’m going to try and go see it. I’m very thrilled it’s there. I’m just not happy the Supremes gowns aren’t part of it.

BLADE: It seems insane to me that the Supremes never won a Grammy in the ‘60s. Was there some anti-Motown sentiment in the industry at the time or what?

WILSON: I really don’t know. It’s kind of hurtful when I hear of so many people having Grammys. We had 12 number one records but did not ever receive a Grammy. Three of our singles, much later, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, but that was all done after the fact. So yeah, I’m a little pissed on it.

BLADE: There are some Supremes B-sides like “Going Down for the Third Time” that sound to me like they could have been hits. Or some minor hits like “Some Things You Never Get Used To” seem like they should have charted higher. Are there any Supremes tracks you think could have been hits but weren’t released as singles or had the potential to chart higher than they did?

WILSON: I’ve never been one to know much about what’s a hit and what’s not a hit. I do think some of the songs were really quite good but for them to have been hits, I don’t really know. There were certainly a lot I really liked.

BLADE: So many elaborate sculptures and paintings have been done of the Supremes over the years. Which are your favorites?

WILSON: I receive so many beautiful pieces of art that people have done on us. One person who’s passed now, his name was Ted LeMaster did quite a few lovely paintings. I think I have four of them and they’re just absolutely gorgeous. I’m working on a coffee table book of the Supremes gowns so I should include some of those as well. There’s another guy and, oh gee, I may have to get you his name later because it’s not coming to me off the top of my head, but he does these Supremes dolls and they are just beautiful. There are lots of artists out there and they send things to me all the time. I have them all over my place here.

BLADE: How did you enjoy being a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?

WILSON: It was great. He was just wonderful. You know, gorgeous. He’s a big Diana Ross fan so it was almost like seeing Diane in a way because he kind of does her thing. He looks great and all that stuff and it was loads of fun. I met so many wonderful, or I should say gorgeous, so many gorgeous people.

BLADE: The Frontier shows, the last with Miss Ross, that became the “Farewell” album in 1970 — was that set list pretty much the Supremes show in 1969 or was some of the stuff you did there, like the “Aquarius” medley with all the audience sing-alongs, was that maybe just worked up for that engagement knowing so many celebrities would be present?

WILSON: No, that was pretty much our normal show we toured with that year. Everything we did there, we’d pretty much been touring with, yes.

BLADE: Do you keep in touch often with (former Supremes) Cindy Birdsong and/or (Ross replacement) Jean Terrell?

WILSON: Yes. Last year we had the gown exhibit at the Grammy museum and I invited all the ladies there for that. Jean Terrell came, Scherrie Payne was there and Susaye Greene. I keep up with Cindy but I don’t see her as often as I want since she’s in L.A. and I’m in Vegas but I spend a lot of time in L.A. so I see her when I’m there.

BLADE: Is she well?

WILSON: I don’t want to get too much into her personal things. She’s a little older and she’s had some health issues.

BLADE: Do you ever hear from (founding Supreme) Florence Ballard’s three daughters? (Ballard left the group in 1967 and died in 1976.)

WILSON: Yes, whenever I’m in Detroit, they always come out and we talk on the phone a lot actually. So yeah, I do keep up — well, I should say they keep up with me, let’s put it that way.

BLADE: Did you enjoy “Motown: the Musical”?

WILSON: I loved it. I thought it was wonderful. Obviously it was Berry Gordy’s perception of what was going on and everybody, you know, there’ve been all these books, everybody has their own way of looking at it, but it’s all true. It’s just different perceptions from different people. The musical is more Berry’s perspective so he’s obviously looking from the top down. We were looking from down to up, but it’s just the way different people perceived it. But I absolutely loved it. In fact just a week or so ago it opened in L.A. and I flew out there and attended the opening. I was also at the London opening and, of course, the New York opening was also great.

BLADE: It looked like there was a lot of warmth between you and Berry and Diana at the opening. Would you say feelings have mellowed over the years?

WILSON: There always was. Some things that are brought out further tend to be the more negative things. Things that were really great are not broadcast as much so people tend to think there was a lot more dislike there but that’s just not true. We were all very, very close. There were always things going on like maybe you didn’t like this … that didn’t mean that the love was not there. It always was. But we were all different, we all had our own opinions so a lot of times when you speak out, people say, “Oh my God, they’re having a fight, they hate each other,” and that’s just not true. It’s just different likes and dislikes.

BLADE: I’ve read a lot of the books — your books, Randy Taraborrelli’s books. It always seems like a handful of incidents get told and retold. When you think of all the hours you and Florence and Diana obviously spent together rehearsing, traveling and recording, there had to have been more peace than tension or you’d never have gotten anything done.

WILSON: Well that’s what I’m saying. Some of the things that were brought out and broadcast as if they were major, major things, it’s just not true. People think there’s some big feud between Diane and I and there really is not. It’s just that she’s gone her way and I’ve done my thing so no, we’re not close, but that’s just because over the last 50-some years, our lives have gone in several different directions. I love her as much as I love Flo. People tend to think I love Flo more because they view it as we worked together more on the choreography, on the harmony. We were always together. And now Florence is not here to protect herself, so I don’t talk about her a lot because of that. But I don’t love Flo anymore than I love Diane. I love them both as much as I love my own sister.

BLADE: Did you see Mary Wells much in her later years? Do you think she regretted leaving Motown so early?

WILSON: I saw Mary up to the very end of her life. I actually worked with her trying to do whatever we could in terms of her cancer bout. I don’t know — I never talked to her about that so I really don’t know.

BLADE: It’s staggering to me the amount of material the Supremes recorded in the ‘60s. You must have been in the studio constantly.

WILSON: Well, we were also on the road a lot, too. But yes, what happened sometimes is we would fly into Detroit, record a few songs and then fly right out. So yes, we did record a lot of songs.

BLADE: Now that so many have been released on these expanded editions, I’m sure there are some you have no memory of, right?

WILSON: Not just songs. Sometimes I see pictures that I can’t remember and yet there I am in the picture. It’s just because there were so, so many. There really were.

BLADE: So much has been made of (Motown session singers) the Andantes singing with Diana on Supremes studio material the last few years she was in the group. But you and Cindy obviously still had to learn the parts for TV and concerts. If that was seen as some sort of time-saving device, what was the rationale?

WILSON: There was a lot going on then. Diane was already starting to record songs for her departure, so a lot of times, it was for that reason. But then they’d decide to use some of the recordings on Supremes albums even though we hadn’t been there. That happened a lot. Other times we were out rehearsing with Jean Terrell for the new group, so it was almost like being in two groups there for a while. Cindy was also still fairly new in the group so there wasn’t a lot of cohesiveness those last couple years. And the producers, you know, it’s like this with a lot of my friends who are actors and actresses, a lot of times it’s the producers and writers who make these kinds of decisions and you’re not even in on the decision making in the group. And then of course, Motown was moving to L.A. so there was a lot of stuff going an and we were not really looked upon as a group anymore because obviously Diane was leaving and all. It had to do with a lot of that stuff.

BLADE: You and Florence always had such great harmony and obviously it was before the days of Auto-Tune and all the studio bells and whistles they have now. Did you have to learn to sing harmony or was it something you were able to do naturally?

WILSON: Well it wasn’t just me and Flo, it was me, Flo and Diane and we all sang harmony together a lot. That was really our style naturally. That’s what you did back in those days, you sang. You didn’t have anything else to rely on. We didn’t even need music. We did shows in the early years without music or maybe just with a guitarist, Marvin Tarplin. So no, it was very natural and we didn’t have any help in that department. Actually the Supremes were a very harmonic group in terms of our style, that’s what we did. I kind of hated later on when we lost that because it was something we’d been very good at. It’s hard to harmonize with just two people. Before when we had Diane and (early members) Betty (McGlown) and Barbara (Martin), with four people, you know, you could do great harmony. We kind of lost that style when we found the hits. They were great, of course, but we lost something we were good at.

BLADE: I feel like (Four Tops lead singer) Levi Stubbs is one of the unsung heroes of Motown in a way. He was so committed to the group and had no apparent interest in solo fame like David Ruffin or Diana Ross. Was that just his personality?

WILSON: Yeah, that was his personality and, you know, it was great for the group. But some things like who’s around you and how you feel about it, those are very individual things but that’s one thing about Levi — he was very dedicated to his group.

BLADE: Whenever I see the (1968 TV special) “TCB,” that elevated glass stage looks so precarious. I assume it was taped on a soundstage somewhere. Part of me is always thinking you or the Temptations are going to fall off the edge of it or it will topple over or something silly.

WILSON: There was no danger of that. It was this very huge, Plexiglass stage and there was no way of us falling off. It was as large as any stage, probably larger than most stages. I think it was taped at NBC Studios but I’m not totally sure.

BLADE: What would Florence think of all this endless interest in the Supremes all these years?

WILSON: I think she’d feel the same as I — amazed that it’s lasted this long and that people are still interested. I wish she were here to see that people are still in love with Flo, Diane and Mary. As Flo said, “Honey, we is terrific.” And it’s true. Everywhere I go, people ask me more about Flo than they do about me or Diane. I think she would be very, very happy to know that she is so well remembered. When I sing “I Am Changing” (from “Dreamgirls”) in the show, and of course I dedicate it to Flo, the audience almost always gives me a standing ovation just when I’m saying that. She would be elated. I wish fate had been different for her. She was not like me. I got a chance to fight back and show the world who I am. Everybody can’t be, you know, the star of the show but you can certainly be a star in the show and that’s the way I look at it.

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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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