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Cliff Witt, early D.C. gay rights strategist, dies at 77

Co-founder of GAA was manager at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets

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Cliff Witt, gay news, Washington Blade

Clifton R. Witt was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971. He died Sept. 9.

Clifton R. “Cliff” Witt, who was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971 and worked for more than 20 years as a director of film and video for a company that makes industrial training movies before becoming a manager at the D.C. gay nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, died Sept. 9 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 77.

Friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets said he lost consciousness at the club just after its 3 a.m. closing time on Saturday and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he died later that morning. His brother, Clyde Witt, said the D.C. Medical Examiner’s office informed him the cause of death was chronic pulmonary lung disease.

His friend and former roommate Glenn Berkheimer said Witt had been suffering from a lung ailment in recent years due to his long history as a heavy smoker.

Clyde Witt said Cliff Witt began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s in Latin America, where he served for at least two years in Columbia and became fluent in Spanish.

He entered the Peace Corps shortly after receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in film production and direction at Northwestern University in Illinois, according to Clyde Witt. Clyde Witt said his brother was born in Cleveland and raised in nearby Maple Heights, Ohio. He graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1958.

Clyde Witt and others who knew Cliff Witt said he devoted most of his working career as a filmmaker for the communications division of the Bureau of National Affairs, or BNA, a D.C.-based news organization that specializes in business-related news and produces educational and training movies.

A BNA official said Witt worked for the company as Director of Film & Video from January 1973 until December 1995.

Roberta Hantgun and Mark Daniels were hired by Witt in the late 1970s as freelance camera operators and worked on many of the film projects directed by Witt.

“We did safety training films,” Daniels told the Washington Blade. “Some showed industrial accidents. We did a sexual harassment training series about sexual harassment in the workplace,” he said. “They were very creative.”

Hantgun said Witt had a “great sense of humor” as he led his production crew on locations throughout the country, including industrial waste sites.

“Cliff was a good man and great to work with,” Daniels said. “He always pushed himself and his crew to do better in a very compassionate way.”

Longtime D.C. gay activist Paul Kuntzler said Witt played an active role in the groundbreaking 1971 election campaign of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who became a candidate for the newly created D.C. Congressional Delegate seat in Congress. It was the first time an openly gay person had run for a federal office.

Kuntzler, who served as manager of the Kameny campaign, said Witt served as assistant manager. Among other things, Witt used what Kuntzler said was his “remarkable” organizational skills to arrange for several busloads of volunteer campaign workers to travel from New York City to D.C. to help gather several thousand signatures needed to get Kameny’s name on the ballot.

Kameny finished in fourth place in a six-candidate race, receiving just under 1,900 votes, a few hundred more than a candidate who expressed anti-gay views during the campaign. Although Kuntzler, Witt and the others working on Kameny’s campaign didn’t expect Kameny to win, they considered the effort a success in achieving their goal of drawing attention to the gay issues that Kameny raised during the campaign.

Shortly after the campaign ended Witt joined Kuntzler and four others involved in the campaign in launching the D.C. Gay Activists Alliance, which they modeled after a group by the same name in New York City.

Witt has been credited with playing a key role in one of the group’s first major protest actions – a “zap” or “invasion” of the annual national conference of the American Psychiatric Association, which took place at D.C.’s then Shoreham Hotel.

Details of Witt’s role in the action appear in the 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” by New York Times writers Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

The book notes that GAA targeted the psychiatrists because of their refusal at that time to remove homosexuality from the APA’s official manual listing it as a mental disorder. Kameny, who held a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University and had been a practicing scientist, was among the first to speak out against the APA listing of gays as “sick,” saying it was based on “junk” science.

With advance planning and direction by Witt, a group of mostly GAA members along with members of the then-D.C. Gay Liberation Front stormed the stage in a large ballroom at the hotel where more than 1,000 of the psychiatrists were assembled, the book reports. Kameny, who was already on stage as a panelist, grabbed a microphone from one of the speakers and “lectured” the psychiatrists on their wrongful beliefs on homosexuality, according to Kameny’s own account in later writings.

In December 1973, about two years after the GAA zap, the APA announced that its board of trustees had voted to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. It was a development considered a stunning victory for the newly emerging modern gay rights movement.

Gay activist Richard Maulsby credits Witt with getting him involved in gay activism in D.C. shortly after the two became roommates. Maulsby, who went on to become one of the founders and the first president of the D.C. Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said Witt also became involved in the 1970s as an avid bird collector and breeder as a hobby.

“But in that early period of time, especially during the Kameny campaign, he was very instrumental in the gay movement,” Maulsby said. “He made substantial contributions early on in a very important period and that provided the foundation for everything that’s happened since then.”

Witt’s brother Clyde said he believes Witt retired from his filmmaking career at the BNA, which later became known as Bloomberg BNA, in the late 1990s. “And then after that he just sort of did whatever he wanted to do,” Clyde Witt said.

According to friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, it was around that time that Witt redirected his energy in “retirement” into a new career as a manager at Secrets, where, among other things, he supervised and arranged the scheduling of the club’s nude male dance performers. He also served as the graphic designer for the club’s promotional advertising.

His fluency in Spanish became especially helpful, friends said, in supervising and mentoring the club’s many immigrant Latino dancers whose English speaking abilities were limited before becoming themselves fluent in English.

“He made us feel like we were part of a team,” one of the Secrets dancers told the Blade on Sunday. “He treated us with respect.”

Those familiar with the club said Witt often performed his scheduling duties, with his laptop or iPad in his hands, while sitting on a stool reserved for him at Secrets’ front bar and while sipping black coffee from a beer mug.

“I’ll always remember him sitting on that stool talking to customers and fellow staff members,” said one of the club’s regular customers.

On Sunday night, just one day after Witt passed away, employees placed a beer mug filled with coffee on the bar in front of the empty stool where Witt used to sit. They placed a small vase with flowers next to the mug and a cookie on a napkin along with a note that said, “For Cliff: May you always have hot coffee.”

Clyde Witt said plans for a memorial service would be announced at a later date. Ziegfeld’s-Secrets co-owner Steven Delurba said the club plans to organize its own memorial gathering for Witt in the near future.

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Gay man attacked, beaten by neighbors in Northeast D.C.

Police list incident as hate crime but courthouse ‘backlog’ could delay arrests

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Antonio Zephir was beaten by neighbors and fears for his life. (Photo courtesy of Zephir)

A woman, her daughter, and a man believed to be the daughter’s father repeatedly punched a gay man in the face while the mother called him a “Jewish faggot” and other anti-gay slurs during an Oct. 13 incident on the grounds of an apartment building where the victim and the two women live, according to the victim and a D.C. police incident report.

The victim, Antonio Zephir, 51, told the Washington Blade the incident began after the mother began shouting anti-gay slurs at him as he walked past her and his roommate outside the Northwood Gardens Apartments at 4870 Fort Totten Dr., N.E. at about 12:40 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13. 

Zephir identifies the mother as Aurlora Y. Ellis in court papers seeking a restraining order against her that he filed in D.C. Superior Court. He said she had acted in a hostile way toward him before the assault incident.

“For several months, every time Ms. Ellis sees me, she shouts homophobic slurs and I continued to ignore her,” Zephir told the Blade in an email.

He said that minutes before the Oct. 13 attack, Ellis yelled the words “Jewish faggot” when he walked past her as she was talking to his roommate, Steven Johnson. Zephir said it is well known among his neighbors at the apartment complex that he is of the Jewish faith.

“I responded with not-so-kind words. She ran towards me and assaulted me with hard punches toward my face,” Zephir wrote in his email to the Blade. 

“I punched back in an attempt to defend myself,” he wrote. “Mr. Johnson tried to break us up when her daughter Latera Cox and [Cox’s] father assaulted me,” according to Zephir’s account of the incident. “Ms. Ellis yelled, ‘Call the police, you bitch faggot. They’re not going to do anything. This isn’t over yet.”

At that point, Ellis, her daughter Latera Cox, and the man Zephir believes to be Cox’s father fled the scene, Zephir told the Blade.

The D.C. police incident report, which lists the assault as a suspected hate crime, says, “All three suspects then fled east bound” on the 4800 block of Fort Totten Dr., N.E.

Zephir said he immediately called police, who arrived on the scene and took a report on the incident. The report obtained by the Blade lists the incident as a simple assault, which is a misdemeanor under D.C. law.

But Zephir said a detective working on the case told him this week that police were looking into speeding up the process of obtaining warrants for the arrest of the three attackers based, in part, on the injuries Zephir suffered from the attack. He provided the Blade with a medical report issued by the Washington Hospital Center, where his roommate took him to the emergency room the day following the attack, in response to severe pain he was experiencing to his face and head.

The report from the hospital, which treated and released him on Oct. 14, says he was diagnosed as having a fractured nose; a fracture of the “interior orbital wall,” which is the bone surrounding one of his eyes; subconjunctival hemorrhage or bleeding of his left eye; and “laceration of oral cavity” which means an injury inside his mouth caused by trauma from the assault.

Zephir told the Blade that the same detective told him last week that due to a “backlog” in cases at the D.C. Superior Court, it could take between one and two months for police and prosecutors to obtain warrants for the arrests of the two women and the man who assaulted him.

A police spokesperson told the Blade the case remains under active investigation. A spokesperson for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which acts as the prosecutor for adult criminal cases in D.C., said he would look into whether the office could publicly comment on the status of efforts to obtain arrest warrants for the three attackers.

Zephir said rumors had surfaced prior to the assault incident that Ellis may have access to a gun. Based on what he feared was a threat by Ellis when she told him during the attack that “this isn’t over yet,” he said he persuaded his roommate to drive him to the courthouse on the same day as the attack to apply for a court restraining order to prevent Ellis from harming him again.

Court records show he also filed a civil complaint against Ellis, Ellis’s daughter, and Ellis’s roommate, Linda Miller, who Zephir says in the complaint acted as an “enabler” for Ellis’ hostility toward him.

The complaint, which is a civil lawsuit that Zephir wrote by hand and filed by himself without hiring a lawyer, calls for $18,000 in damages.  

“I have nightmares,” Zephir told the Blade. “I can’t believe it happened. I keep reliving the experience over and over and over in my head,” he said. “And I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own apartment. I don’t feel safe because I, honest to God, feel like she is going to bodily harm me and I might be, God forbid, murdered.”

Ellis, Cox, and Miller could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Biden endorses Roem for re-election

Former journalist is first out trans person in any state legislature

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Virginia state Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) speaks to supporters following her re-election on Nov. 5, 2019. President Biden has endorsed her for re-election. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Biden on Tuesday endorsed Virginia state Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) for re-election.

Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) is among the other Democratic members of the Virginia House of Delegates who Biden backed. Biden in his tweet also stressed his support of Terry McAuliffe, who is running against Republican Glenn Youngkin to succeed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

“Building back better starts in the states,” tweeted Biden. “Since flipping the legislature in 2019, Virginia Democrats have been a model of progress—including helping us vaccinate folks to beat the pandemic. To keep our progress, we must elect Terry McAuliffe and Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Roem, a former journalist, in 2018 became the first openly transgender person seated in any state legislature in the U.S.

Biden called Roem on the night she defeated then-state Del. Bob Marshall and congratulated her. A Washington Post picture that showed Roem crying moments later went viral.

The Manassas Democrat who represents the 13th District in 2019 easily won re-election. Christopher Stone, the Republican who is running against Roem in this cycle, opposes marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

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Conservatives blame pro-trans policy after assaults in Loudoun schools

‘Gender fluid’ 15-year-old accused of attacking female students

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The Loudoun County, Va., public school system’s recently adopted policy of allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has come under fire over the past two weeks by outraged parents and conservative political activists following reports that a 15-year-old “gender fluid” boy allegedly sexually assaulted two girls in different high schools.

The parents of one of the girls released a statement through the Virginia-based Stanley Law Group blaming school officials for failing to put in place safeguards to prevent the boy, who they say was dressed in a skirt, from entering the girl’s bathroom to assault their daughter at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., on May 28.

The statement accuses Loudoun County Schools officials and the Loudoun County Board of Education of failing to take steps to prevent the same 15-year-old boy from allegedly sexually assaulting another female student at Broad Run High School, also located in Ashburn, on Oct. 6 in a vacant classroom.

School officials acknowledge that the boy was transferred to the second school after law enforcement authorities released him from a juvenile detention facility following his arrest for the first case, in which the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said he was charged with two counts of forceable sodomy against his female victim. 

“The sexual assault on our daughter and the subsequent sexual assault by the same individual were both predictable and preventable,” the parents’ statement says. “Subsequent to the sexual assault on our daughter, Loudoun County Public Schools formalized the policy regarding restroom use that was easily exploitable by a potential sexual assailant,” the statement continues. 

“Because of poor planning and misguided policies, Loudoun Schools failed to institute even minimal safeguards to protect students from sexual assaults,” says the statement.

Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler apologized at an Oct. 15 news conference for what he acknowledged was the school systems’ mishandling of the two sexual assault cases. He noted that school officials should have publicly disclosed the two cases or at least alerted parents at the time they occurred. But he said a federal civil rights law known as Title IX that mandates how schools must respond to cases of sexual harassment appeared to prevent Loudoun school officials from initially disclosing the two cases of sexual assault until they were investigated by law enforcement authorities.

Ziegler said the school system was revamping its disciplinary procedures and its interaction with the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office to ensure that parents and students are alerted to potential danger similar to the cases where the 15-year-old boy allegedly assaulted the two female students.

Meanwhile, school officials and the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Loudoun have pointed out that law enforcement officials have yet to confirm whether the 15-year-old boy charged in the two cases was actually dressed in women’s clothes during the first incident or whether he is trans or gender fluid.

Equality Loudoun’s president, Cris Candice Tuck, released a statement to the Washington Blade on Oct. 18 that she said was the first official known statement responding to the Loudoun school controversy from an LGBTQ organization.

“In light of the reporting of recent sexual assault allegations, the Board of Directors of Equality Loudoun wishes to extend our deepest sympathies to the victims of these heinous attacks and their families,” the statement says. “Equality Loudoun advocates for due process and justice for the victims regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” the statement continues. “Such actions have no place in our community, and Equality Loudoun does not condone any form of sexual violence, assault, or harassment,” it says.

“However, the accusations that the alleged perpetrator of these assaults is transgender or genderfluid have so far been unverified,” the Equality Loudoun statement asserts. “Attempts to shift blame of this incident to any individual, group, or policy – other than the alleged perpetrator – does a grave disservice to the victims of these crimes and already marginalized youth in our community.”

The statement adds, “We remind those advocating for change to the laws and policies that the initial assault predated any enactment of Policy 8040 by almost 4 months.”

The Equality Loudoun statement was referring to the fact that the Loudoun County School Board did not vote to approve the school system’s trans nondiscrimination policy until August of this year, more than three months after the first of the two sexual assault incidents occurred. 

The policy, among other things, allows transgender and genderfluid students to use the school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The policy also requires that teachers, school administrators and fellow students address a trans or genderfluid student by their chosen name and pronouns.

“Inadvertent slips in the use of names and pronouns may occur,” the policy states. “However, staff or students who intentionally and persistently refuse to respect a student’s gender identity by using the wrong name and gender pronoun are in violation of this policy,” it states.

The statement says that rumors of a bathroom “pilot” program that predated the official approval of Policy 8040 that would have allowed female trans or genderfluid students to use the girls’ bathrooms “are simply untrue” and were never put in place.

In a separate statement to the Blade, Equality Loudoun’s Cris Candice Tuck challenged claims by some parents and conservative political activists, some of whom are supporting Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAulliffe, that the trans nondiscrimination policy is placing students at risk for sexual assault.

“The adoption of nondiscrimination policies are in no way endangering students,” Candice Tuck said. “Across the country, sexual assaults have occurred in schools for decades before any transgender inclusive policies were passed,” she said. “And in those counties and states where such protections have passed in recent years, there has been no verified incidence of anyone abusing such policies to commit such attacks in schools.”

Candice Tuck added, “The focus should be on improving systems of reporting, coordination, and investigation, protecting the victims of these attacks, and creating safer school environments by creating modernized areas and bathrooms that increase protection for all students, including LGBTQ+ students who are statistically more likely to be the victim of such a crime.”  

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