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Catching up with Michael Feinstein

Out crooner headlines Strathmore Gala this weekend

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Michael Feinstein, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Feinstein says the Strathmore is one of the country’s great music halls. He’ll be there this weekend. (Photo by Julia Duresky; courtesy Strathmore)

Strathmore Spring Gala
 
Saturday, May 12
 
Michael Feinstein in concert
 
Cocktails, 5 p.m.
 
Three-course dinner, 6:15

Concert, 9 p.m.
 
Gala patron tickets: $1,250
 
Concert only: $45-130
 
Music Center at Stratmore
 
5301 Tuckerman Lane
 
North Bethesda, Md.
 
strathmore.org

Great American Songbook stalwart Michael Feinstein is at the Strathmore this weekend to headline its annual Spring Gala.

On Saturday night, the long-out crooner will sing along with Broadway singer Laura Osnes and several alums of the Strathmore’s artist-in-resident program.

The gala is a capstone event in the Strathmore’s year-long programming partnership with Feinstein in which they’ve collaborated to “spotlight torchbearers of Great American Song.” Feinstein spoke to the Blade by phone this week from his home in Indiana. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How is 2018 treating you?

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Really great in some ways and in other ways, not so great. I broke my nose in January and I had a hemorrhage on my vocal cord but that’s all in the past and I’m feeling hale and hearty so I like to think I got through the most dramatic part and the rest should be smooth sailing.

BLADE: How did you break your nose?

FEINSTEIN: I walked into an impeccably polished plate of glass.

BLADE: Vocal cord stuff is really scary for a singer. Are you any worse for the wear?

FEINSTEIN: Evidently not. I did a symphony concert yesterday and two of my Lena Horne shows at Lincoln Center and everything seems to be full steam ahead so I’m very grateful and lucky I guess. All is good.

BLADE: What do you have planned for the Strathmore?

FEINSTEIN: It’s gonna be a fun night because, of course, it’s their gala and I love being associated with the Strathmore because it’s such a great venue to perform in. … The program will be with a 17-pice big band and the musical director is Tedd Firth who is one of the great jazz pianists and arrangers of our time. So it’ll be a celebration of American popular song including, of course, some Gershwin and then I’m gonna do a Sinatra medley that’s just a swinging, fun thing. Then Laura Osnes is a special guest. She’ll be doing some songs and we’ll be doing a duet together …. so it’ll be a fun, celebratory, rich musical experience I think.

BLADE: Why do you work to find young people to take up the cause of American standards? To your knowledge, does anything like that happen in other genres of music?

FEINSTEIN: Well, for a number of years I’ve been mindful of the fact that any art or music only stays alive if there are audiences for it and people who are educated in it and people who bring it to the attention of others and because we live in a time when there is so little arts education in schools, it’s up to all of us who care about it to do what we can to preserve it and bring it to the next generation. … The arts are incredibly transformative. They change our lives and it’s an essential part of what makes life livable.

BLADE: But why do some genres need this more than others? You think of Motown or any classic rock and nobody really has to work to keep it alive. Are you aware of similar efforts for polka or Dixieland or any other type of music more popular in yesteryear?

FEINSTEIN: Well certainly the American songbook needs it because the more people who learn about it, it becomes part of their lives and they’ll share it with others. A lot of contemporary artists do American songbook songs in their sets. It’s not like it exists in a vacuum. I remember when Lady Gaga sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” on a show. Many artists sing these songs and many thousands of artists have sang “Summertime.” So to me it’s always about making people more aware of it.

BLADE: You’ve done so many albums. Which was the hardest to sequence?

FEINSTEIN: It’s always challenging because you have a bunch of songs and then you have to think about which order makes the most sense. I like to think of it like telling a story like a play or a movie. It can be tough but I don’t remember one being especially more difficult than another. I’ve made many different types of albums and they all present their own challenges.

BLADE: Does sequencing sometimes affect arrangements and transitions?

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. There are times I’ve changed the beginning of a track or cut part of it or extended it. Also the time between tracks is significant, but of course a lot of people don’t listen to music sequentially anymore, they pick and choose in whatever medium they use so … in some ways it’s a lost art.

BLADE: Do you keep in touch with Cheyenne Jackson? Have you seen any of his TV stuff? (Feinstein and Jackson released a duet album in 2014)

FEINSTEIN: Yes, I am in touch with Cheyenne. We performed together about, oh, four-five months ago and he wants to do more musical performances but his acting career keeps him well occupied. He’s a wonderful human being and Jason, his husband, as well. They’re a great couple and he’s a major talent. He’s one of the finest voices of our time. He’s got extraordinary range and versatility and, of course, charisma. He’s deeply gifted and just a nice person to be around.

BLADE: When we last spoke in 2015, you mentioned a multi-CD project you were working on but couldn’t say much about. What was that and is it still in the works?

FEINSTEIN: I was working on recording the complete songs of George Gershwin, which is like 800 published songs, and that’s what I was starting to embark on. … We decided against it for various reasons. … The more we explored it, the more we realized it was more interesting as an idea than it would have been in execution. But I’m doing a Gershwin country duets album now and it’s very exciting. Right now I’m working on a track with Dolly Parton and we’re going to be doing a track soon with Brad Paisley and that’ll be tremendous fun to put together.

BLADE: How often do the holy grails in your genre turn up? Is it fairly uncommon?

FEINSTEIN: Well things do turn up from time to time. (There are) Bing Crosby/George Gershwin demos from 1930 or 1931 that have never turned up but they might. I know of the existence of one Gershwin recording that I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet but I’m working on it. And sometimes things turn up that we didn’t even know existed, which is fun. I recently found some other Crosby recordings that were fun to discover from radio and a number of years ago, I discovered a bunch of lost Crosby tracks. Actually I’m a trustee of the Judy Garland estate and I just found about a dozen recordings of her from the 103-s that were part of her own record collection that were pretty extraordinary performances that, for the most part, have never been heard. So now the trust is figuring out the best way to release them. … But it’s always thrilling to find things like that.

BLADE: You’ve talked about rescuing scores from dumpsters. How did you happen to be in the right place at the right time?

FEINSTEIN: I have to ascribe it to karma or luck or fate, if you will. I had the experience a number of times of stumbling upon something right before it was slated for destruction even though my timing sometimes has been off. A couple years ago, I just missed gaining possession of an entire office full of music. When I went to collect it, I was told it been destroyed the day before. So my timing hasn’t always been perfect.

BLADE: Why was Hollywood so cavalier with its history years ago?

FEINSTEIN: Because the thing that mattered to Hollywood was the film itself, not the ancillary products such as scores or whatever was used to make the finished film. They didn’t understand the importance or value of the music so it was jettisoned. There are very few studios that kept their scores. Warner Brothers did for the most part. Fox kept a lot of them and Paramount did but the big destruction, of course, is MGM thanks to a man named James Aubrey who very specifically destroyed those assets and many others. They’re businesses, not museum or archives. They don’t exist to preserve, they exist to make money and if they don’t make money from something, they don’t consider it valuable, not understanding that there was not only financial value in these things but also cultural and historical value. … But that’s the way of the world.

BLADE: Is it possible to recreate a score from a recording? Is that even a thing?

FEINSTEIN: It does work but only if the person doing it has the expertise to accomplish it. There are people who’ve done it and done lousy jobs. Then there’s people like John Wilson in England who with a couple associates has impeccably restored scores that are exact. But the number of people on the planet who can do that is extremely limited. Probably no more, and I’m speaking generously, than five or six. … It’s possible but it’s very difficult.

BLADE: It has ebbed, but there was a period where many pop artists — Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper, of course Rod Stewart — were releasing standards albums. Did you hear very many of them? Which was your favorite?

FEINSTEIN: I liked some of the arrangements on Joni Mitchell’s (“Both Sides Now,” 2000). I remember years ago, Annie Lennox did an album on which she recorded a Harry Warren song called “Keep Me Young and Beautiful” from 1932 (on 1992’s “Diva”). I actually think it’s more fun to discover an old standard in the midst of a pop album. Like I remember as a kid, I discovered this Steely Dan album “Pretzel Logic” and on it was a song called “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” an instrumental, which it wasn’t until years later that I discovered they did it on guitar and pop instruments but it was an exact copy of a 1928 Duke Ellington recording. So that’s always a kick.

BLADE: You met so many cool people of the 20th century. Did you ever by chance meet Kate Smith and how do you think her recordings of the standards have held up?

FEINSTEIN: Kate Smith is one of the great underestimated singers from today’s perspective. She was a dazzling talent. I did not meet her but she had a unique and formidable legacy because she was such a huge star on the radio going back to the 1930s and she had a tremendous recorded output that started in 1926 and ended 50 years later. She could sing just about anything and when she started making pop records in the ‘60s, mainly with Peter Matz, who was at the same time working with Barbra Streisand, some of them were great and some were mawkish because some of the more psychedelic songs didn’t translate well to her. But when she took some of the Broadway material, she was incomparable. Like her recording of “If He Walked Into my Life” from “Mame” is fantastic. Her recording of “What Kind of Fool Am I” from her live Carnegie Hall album is dazzling. If you watch on YouTube some of her TV appearances from the ‘70s, she sings a lot of these songs tremendously well. One of my favorites is “You and Me Against the World,” which is like a three-act play the way she sings it. It just tears your heart out.

BLADE: Why do some great figures from those years — Garland, Elvis, whomever — hold up, yet people like Kate Smith is a good example, who were equally well known at the time, you mention them to a millennial and you get a blank stare?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, Garland and Presley had volatile and tragic lives. A lot of people you mention Judy Garland, they say, “Oh, she was such a mess.” A lot of people who know the name, don’t necessarily know anything about her art.

BLADE: So you’re saying we have a macabre fascination with tragedy and somebody who had a nice, stable life, for whatever reason, that doesn’t capture the public imagination nearly so well?

FEINSTEIN: Sort of, yes.

BLADE: How do you like the acoustics at the Strathmore?

FEINSTEIN: Oh, it’s sensational. It really is one of the great performing venues. That’s something that really cannot be planned. Of course there’s a multi-million dollar industry of acoustic science but even with all that, there’s another unknowable factor. … I’ve been in brand new buildings that are supposed to be state of the art and they just don’t work. The Strathmore has the gratifying combination of being tremendously opulant and beautiful and comfortable and it creates a connection for the audience and the performer that’s unique and special. It’s a real jewel and a place to be treasured.

BLADE: What’s the gayest tchotchke or memento in your home?

FEINSTEIN: Oh golly. Well, there are so many, how do you choose? (laughs) I have a lot of Judy Garland mementos and I have things from Liza. Let me think. When Terrence and I got married (in 2008), which was in our home, Liza went into my office, which is in my house, and on one of the doors it has a name tag that says Mr. Feinstein that I probably took from a dressing room, so it’s on a closet door and it looks like an entrance to a room. She wrote on it “not anymore” and her name and the date. I said, “What’s that?” And she opened the door and said, “Don’t you get it? In the closet — not anymore,” because that was the date of our marriage. I guess that would be pretty gay.

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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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