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Should gays boot the ‘Roseanne’ reboot?

Transient urban gays should give back to home communities

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Roseanne, gay news, Washington Blade

The original cast of ‘Roseanne’ includes lesbian actress Sara Gilbert (first from left in back row). She both reprises her role as Darlene and is executive producing the eight-episode arc. (Photo courtesy ABC)

The twang of a harmonica, the blare of a saxophone, that grating laugh.

Last week, ABC continued the pop culture wave of ‘90s nostalgia by airing the premiere of its much buzzed-about “Roseanne” revival. The original was never afraid to take an unflinching and unapologetic look at working-class life in America or serve as a showcase for its brash and controversial star, Roseanne Barr. True to form, “Roseanne’s” reboot debut proved the show would be just as bracing and willing to tackle controversial issues head-on through its distinct blend of biting humor and tough love.

It’s off to a gangbusters start with its first new episode in 20 years on March 27 drawing 25 million viewers and a massive 73 rating among adults 18-49. With 6.6 million viewers watching it later, it set a time-shifting record, the Hollywood Reporter notes. Another 4.3 million watched an encore broadcast Sunday night. Hulu and ABC streaming will only add to those numbers. It has the best numbers of a any “new” show since the 2014 premiere of “how to Get Away with Murder.” It’s already been renewed for a second season.

Reassuringly, the revival begins with Roseanne and husband Dan waking up in their old bed.  Roseanne says she thought he’d died (cue Dan’s deadpan reply, “Why does everyone always think I’m dead?”), expediently erasing the divisive last season, which revealed the show was a story written by Roseanne, Dan had died and the family never won the lottery (don’t ask).

The rest of the Connor family is reintroduced, including Aunt Jackie, whose conflict with big sister Roseanne anchors the premiere. The two have barely spoken since the 2016 election. Roseanne is pro-Trump (mirroring the actor’s real-life support of the president), and Jackie, sporting a Nasty Woman shirt that would have looked appropriate on her 20 years ago, is ardently not.

Much has been made of Roseanne incorporating its star’s pro-Trump views and I was admittedly hesitant about watching the show and possibly liking it. Would my viewership (and potential enjoyment) tacitly endorse Roseanne’s views and those of her pro-Trump fans? Roseanne has rightfully been praised as a realistic depiction of working-class life in America, and although I may disagree with its star and vast numbers of the show’s viewers, there is no escaping the fact that Trump struck a chord with them for a reason that should not be ignored.

Roseanne saying she voted for Trump because “he talked about jobs” may have been played for a laugh, but she was speaking for a lot of people like the Connors. Although a sitcom isn’t going to resolve the political rift in the country, it can promote real discourse. The tension between Roseanne and Jackie was effective because not only was it true to the characters, it was also real. You could see families like this having these kinds of conversations and therein lies the strength of this show for much of its audience: relatability.

“Roseanne” also focused on middle daughter Darlene’s 9-year-old son, Mark, a happy boy who enjoys doing things like wearing skirts and painting his nails. Darlene supports his self-expression and doesn’t want the family to make him feel self-conscious because of it. Although they don’t understand why a boy would “dress like a girl,” the family embraces Mark. When Dan affirms that Mark shouldn’t go school like that, it isn’t because he’s ashamed, but because he fears Mark will be bullied.

I didn’t expect the show to deal with gender identity and expression so matter-of-factly. That Mark was portrayed as a fully formed person rather than a stereotype, and that the family rallied around him, was an explicit argument that we can all get behind: we should be proud of who we are and able to express that fully without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Mark puts an exclamation point on this idea (and shows that he truly is a Connor) by asserting that he’s going to keep dressing like he wants because he’s not ashamed of who he is. When Dan says, “That’s one tough kid,” how could you not stand up and cheer? I doubt the average Trump supporter is ready to acknowledge (let alone accept) gender non-conformance, but I’m grateful that a show aimed at them is saying it should be celebrated instead of feared.

I understand the concerns over normalizing Trump and certain segments of his base, because a show like “Roseanne” could potentially justify their views. Indeed, this has been a sticking point for many potential fans, especially gays. I’ve heard valid arguments that say the dichotomy of the show’s central character supporting Trump (who curries favor with hate groups) while sticking up for her gender non-conforming grandson is offensive at best, dangerous at worst, because this kind of line straddling could allow and encourage such attitudes to persist.

Nuances like these should not be compartmentalized and “Roseanne” would do well to address this potentially negative duality in future episodes. Although there are no easy answers to these questions, the “resist,” anti-Trump, left-leaning crowd ignores the Roseannes of the world at its own peril. If this show can bridge some divides, provide a glimpse into what “middle America” thinks while also demonstrating that the rest of us aren’t the demons we’re made out to be by many on team Trump, then maybe there’s room for an actual conversation. The jury won’t be in anytime soon, but maybe a show like “Roseanne” can counter or even diffuse the hornet nests of social media and angry op-eds cannot which, let’s face it, mostly just preach to their respective choirs.

At its core, “Roseanne” is a show about family, and while there’s certainly room for improvement (more Jackie!), this is a family worth spending some more time with.

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PHOTOS: Pride Rewind

Official Sapphic Queer Dance Party held at The Square

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(Washington Blade photo by Emily Hanna)

The Capital Pride Alliance held its “Pride Rewind: Official Sapphic Queer Dance Party” at The Square (1850 K Street, N.W.) on Saturday, June 8.

(Washington Blade photos by Emily Hanna)

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PHOTOS: Pride on the Pier and Fireworks Show

Washington Blade holds annual event at The Wharf

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2024 Pride on the Pier (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade and the Ladies of LURe held the Pride on the Pier and Fireworks Show at The Wharf on Saturday, June 8. The fireworks were presented by the Leonard-Litz LGBTQ Foundation.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key and Emily Hanna; Wildside Media photos used with permission; @marvimage photo used with permission)

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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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