Like many great artists, Stephanie Mercedes stands out because she thinks of things that don’t occur to average folks.
For her piece “The Ring of Freedom,” Mercedes (the name she goes by) bought a Sig Sauer MCX rifle — the same kind used in the Orlando, Fla., Pulse nightclub 2016 massacre — and melted it, using the aluminum to make 49 liberty bells to represent the 49 victims.
“I wanted to make liberty bells because in Latin America, culture bells and chimes are rung to bring back and pay tribute to the dead,” she says. “The NRA also uses the Liberty Bell as a symbol for its organization. This to me, seemed highly symbolic of everything that is currently wrong with gun control in the United States.”
Mercedes, a Halcyon Arts Fellow (Halcyon is a D.C.-based art/social enterprise collective), is one of the artists featured in the inaugural By the People Festival which runs June 21-24 in Washington and is billed as a “four-day extravaganza with interactive visual art installations, performances ranging from ballet to go-go, speakers and an augmented reality art hunt.”
Mercedes will perform at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (900 Jefferson Dr., S.W.) on Saturday, June 23 and her piece “Harmonizing Freedom” will be featured on Sunday, June 24 at gallery 102 (801 22nd St. N.W.) from 3-5 p.m. Her piece “Stephanie Mercedes: the Ring of Freedom” will also be on display at gallery 102.
A festival kick-off concert is Wednesday, June 20 with Ray LaMontagne and Neko Case at the Anthem (901 Wharf St., S.W.) at 7:30 p.m. Full festival details are online at halcyonhouse.org/by-the-people.
Mercedes says being a lesbian influences her work. “I don’t think my work is particularly queer in form, but in context,” she says. “To me, the work is unapologetically about queer violence but doesn’t necessarily present as queer. It just happens to be about my community.”
Mercedes was born in San Francisco but has lived in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico City, Columbia, Switzerland and Spain. She came to Washington last October for her artist residency with Halcyon Art Labs and has been dating her girlfriend Houry for the past two-and-a-half months.
She lives in Halcyon’s artist housing in Georgetown and enjoys art, melting bullets and guns and dancing in her free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
Since I was a young teenager, but I’m still not out to my Argentinian family. The hardest person to tell will be my father. I think his life is really difficult right now and I don’t want to burden him more.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Felix Gonzalez Torres
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Freddie’s in Virginia is a dream.
Describe your dream wedding.
Mmm — not sure about marriage.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Gun control, although it and all issues have ramifications on the queer community.
What historical outcome would you change?
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
I have always loved Shakira and have regularly listened to her music. One of the works in the show, is a large scale (body sized) musical score that finishes the last song that couldn’t be finished at Pulse because the shooting began. The last song, I discovered, was Shakira’s “La, la, la,” a song I had regularly sung in the shower or danced to. That felt very traumatic to me because I had always associated the song with celebration. Gun bullet markers scatter the score I made for where the sound of the bullets would have landed in the song. My hope is that as viewers experience the score they imagine what the people at pulse were hearing.
On what do you insist?
I insist on being unapologetic about who I am and unapologetic in the work that I make. I insist on art that transforms the very materials of violence. That is both lethal and delicate, fierce and soft. I insist on transcending violence rather that re-performing it. I insist on considering the queer body and I insist in using art to create safe spaces of our communities. I insist on music.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
The last thing I posted on Facebook was for the poetry reading I am organizing at my exhibit tonight at Gallery 102 in honor of the Pulse victims. We will be reacting to the installations in the piece and trying to pay homage through a collective poetry score I’ve written.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Che.” It’s Argentinian slang that essentially means nothing and Che is a person who was sort of a Latin American political hero. At the last residency I did, everyone called me that.
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
A hundred percent nothing. I am so fucking grateful to be gay. It’s a true blessing and I would be horrified to be any other way.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
Art and music’s ability to transcend and reconcile violence.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Remember the power of art, even when it isn’t clear that art creates direct social change or relates to activism. Remember to create space for poetry and the in-between. Support artists who are fierce and unapologetic but also soft and open to interpretation. Art, if you give it time and support it, can change the hearts and minds of many and can be a way of inviting dialogue across party lines.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Anyone I love, good art, family, empanadas and dark chocolate.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
Hyper-obnoxious didactic queer art that is re-performing the stereotypes it is trying to subvert and doesn’t create space for the poetic.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
That movie where the women paint each other and then roll around on canvases, eat chocolate off each other and have sex. Can’t remember what it’s called.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Maybe the Ibero-American Art Prize?
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
It is possible to be a full-time artist. Go for it.
I love how artists here work and walk side by side politicians, lawyers, activists, researchers and lobbyists. When I lived in New York, the people who came into my studio were mostly curators and artists. I’m far more interested in engaging with people and institutions outside of the “art world.” I also think my practice as a civically engaged artist is much better suited for the D.C. community.
Girls Rock! DC empowers young people through music, social justice education
Organization founded in October 2007
Girls Rock! DC, an organization operating at the intersection of art and activism, is dedicated to empowering young people through music and social justice education.
Since its founding in October 2007; Girls Rock! DC has been creating a supportive, inclusive and equitable space that centers around girls and nonbinary youth, with a special emphasis on uplifting Black and Brown youth. At the core of Girls Rock! DC’s mission is a unique approach to music education, viewing it through a social justice and equity lens.
“It’s a place where people can come explore their interest in music in a safe environment, figure out their own voice, and have a platform to say it,” Board Vice Chair Nicole Savage said.
This approach allows D.C.’s young people to build a sense of community and explore their passion for social change through after-school programs, workshops and camps.
The organization’s roots trace back to the first rock camp for girls in August 2001 in Portland, Ore. Similar camps have emerged worldwide since then, forming the International Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Girls Rock! DC is a member of this alliance, contributing to the larger community’s growth and advocacy for inclusivity in the music industry.
Girls Rock! DC’s annual programs now serve more than 100 young people and 20 adults, offering after-school programs and camps. Participants receive instruction on the electric guitar, the electric bass, keyboards, drum kits and other instruments or on a microphone and form bands to write and perform their own original songs. Beyond music, the program includes workshops on underrepresented histories in the music industry, community injustice issues and empowerment topics that include running for office and body positivity.
“I’ve been playing shows in the D.C. music scene for about six years, and I feel like Girls Rock! DC is the perfect amalgamation of everything that I stand for,” said Outreach Associate Lily Mónico. “So many music spaces are male dominated and I think there is a need for queer femme youth in music.”
The organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is evident not only in its leadership but also in the way it creates a safe space for queer and nonbinary individuals. Language is a crucial component, and Girls Rock! DC ensures that both campers and volunteers embrace inclusivity.
“It is a very open and creative space, where there’s no judgment,” Zadyn Higgins, one of the youth leaders, emphasized. “It is the first time for a lot of us, to be in a space where we’re truly able to be ourselves.”
In creating a safe environment, Girls Rock! DC implements practices that include name tags with preferred names and pronouns, along with pronoun banners that help kids understand and respect diverse identities.
“It’s really cool to watch these kids understand and just immediately get it,” said Higgins.
Girls Rock! DC is also more than a music education organization; it’s a community where individuals can embark on a transformative journey that extends beyond their initial participation as campers. Many start their Girls Rock! DC experience as enthusiastic campers, learning to play instruments, forming bands and expressing their creativity in a supportive environment. The organization’s impact, however, doesn’t stop there. This inspiration leads them to volunteer and intern within the organization.
The unique progression from camper to volunteer or intern, and eventually to a full-fledged role within the organization, exemplifies Girls Rock! DC as a place where growth is not confined to a single week of camp but extends into an ongoing, impactful journey. It’s a testament to the organization’s commitment to nurturing talent, empowering individuals and fostering a lifelong connection with the values for which Girls Rock! DC stands.
One of the highlights of Girls Rock! DC is its summer camp, where kids between 8-18 learn to play instruments, form bands, write songs and perform in just one week. Higgins shared a poignant moment from a showcase,
“To see them go from, like, crying a little bit about how scared they were to going out on the stage and performing their little hearts out was so sweet,” said Higgins.
Nzali Mwanza-Shannon, another youth leader, agreed that the camp is the highlight of the program.
“The summer camp, I’ve met so many friends, and it’s always kind of scary coming up to the end, but after we get to perform and everything, I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten the opportunity to perform and meet new people and be so creative and do it all in a week,” said Mwanza-Shannon.
Forty-three young people who showcased their original songs and DJ sets at D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club attended the first Girls Rock! DC camp in 2007. They performed to a crowd of 700 enthusiastic fans. The organization since then has grown exponentially, with each passing year bringing more energy, vibrancy and fun to the camp experience.
Since the pandemic, however, the organization has struggled financially, experiencing a funding shortage as well as reduced growth in attracting new members.
Augusta Smith, who is a youth leader and a member of the band Petrichor, expressed concern about the potential impact on the unique and friendly environment that Girls Rock! DC provides.
“We’ve kind of been really slow and barely making enough money. And this year, we’re having a funding shortage,” said Smith.
The impact of Girls Rock! DC extends beyond musical skills, fostering leadership, self-expression and a passion for social change through creative collaboration and community power-building. Mwanza-Shannon hopes to be a part of Girls Rock! DC for a long time,
“I want to keep on meeting new people,” said Mwanza-Shannon. “I want to keep on being able to perform at these different places and have different experiences.”
‘Blindspot’ reveals stories of NYC AIDS patients that haven’t been told
Former Blade reporter’s podcast focuses on POC, women, trans people
“We said that people had The Monster, because they had that look,” activist Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, said, remembering how people in her New York neighborhood reacted when people first got AIDS.
They didn’t know what to call it.
“They had the sucked in checks,” Reyes-Jimenez, added, “They were really thin…a lot of folks were saying, oh, you know, they had…cancer.”
“We actually had set up a bereavement clinic where the kids would tell us what they wanted to have when they die,” Maxine Frere, a retired nurse who worked at Harlem Hospital for 40 years and was the head nurse of its pediatric AIDS unit said, “How did they wanna die?”
“Nobody wanted to come on,” said former New York Gov. David Paterson, who in 1987 was Harlem’s state senator.
At that time, Manhattan Cable Television gave legislators the chance to do one show a year. “So I decided to do my show on the AIDS crisis and how there didn’t seem to be any response from the leadership in the Black community,” Paterson added.
These unforgettable voices with their searing recollections are among the many provocative, transformative stories told on Season 3 of “Blindspot,” the critically acclaimed podcast.
“Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows” is co-produced by the History Channel and WNYC Studios. The six-episode podcast series, which launched on Jan. 18 and airs weekly through Feb. 22, is hosted by WNYC’s Kai Wright with lead reporting by The Nation Magazine’s Lizzy Ratner.
The show is accompanied by a photography exhibit by Kia LaBeija. LaBeija is a New York City-based artist who was born HIV positive and lost her mother to the disease at 14. The exhibit, which features portraits of people whose stories are heard on “Blindspot,” runs at the Greene Space at WNYC through March 11.
If you think of AIDS, you’re likely to think of white cisgender gay men. (That’s been true for me, a cisgender lesbian, who lost loved ones to AIDS.)
From the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, most media and cultural attention has been focused on white gay men – from playwright and activist Larry Kramer to the movie “Philadelphia.”
“Blindspot” revisits New York City, an epicenter of the early years of the HIV epidemic.
The podcast reveals stories of vulnerable people that haven’t been told. Of people of color, women, transgender people, children, drug-users, women in prison and the doctors, nurses and others who cared and advocated with and on their behalf.
“Blindspot,” through extensive reporting and immersive storytelling, makes people visible who were invisible during the AIDS epidemic. It makes us see people who have, largely, been left out of the history of AIDS.
Wright, 50, who is Black and gay, cares deeply about history. He is host and managing editor of “Notes from America with Kai Wright,” a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Recently, Wright, who worked as a reporter at the Washington Blade from 1996 to 2001, talked with me in a Zoom interview. The conversation ranged over a number of topics from why Wright got into journalism, to how stigma and health care disparities still exist today for people of color, transgender people and poor people with AIDS to the impact he hopes “Blindspot” will have.
“I came to work at the Blade in 1996,” Wright said, “the year after I got out of college.”
He’d done two six-month stints at PBS and “Foreign Policy.” But Wright thinks of the Blade as his first proper journalism job.
From his youth, Wright has been committed to social justice and to understanding his community. Reporting, from early on, has been his connection with social justice. “I often say, journalism has been my contribution to social justice movements,” Wright said.
His first journalistic connection to the Black community came when he was 15. Then, Wright became an intern with the Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder.
“That’s how I got the [journalism] bug,” Wright said.
Since then, Wright said, he’s worked almost exclusively with media that have a connection with the community.
Wright grew up in Indianapolis and went to college at Emory University in Atlanta. He didn’t intend to be a journalist, he wrote in an email to the Blade. At Emory, he studied international politics.
Wright’s life and work changed direction when he began working at the Blade. “I was a kid,” Wright said, “I’d just come out. I used journalism to find out what it meant to come out.”
Wright, when he came to Washington, D.C., was, as he recalled, just a kid. He didn’t know anyone in D.C. and there was a Black, queer community. This helped Wright to come out. “I couldn’t have told you that at the time,” he said, “but in retrospect I can see that I moved to D.C. to come out.”
Journalism was Wright’s way of finding his way through coming out.
“I didn’t know if the Blade was hiring,” Wright said, “I just walked in.”
He didn’t have a deep resume but he had a lot to say. The Blade hired him and immediately put him to work reporting on AIDS.
“It was a pivotal cultural and political moment – a pivotal moment for the community,” Wright said.
That year, when Wright began working with the Blade, life-saving treatments (early drug cocktails) were emerging for AIDS.
“There was no way that HIV and AIDS wouldn’t become a central part of my journalism,” Wright said, “I really wanted to report on it.”
With the emergence of treatments, white gay men with health insurance began to feel that they were turning the page and that AIDS was no longer a death sentence.
“But, as a reporter, I was meeting Black gay men who were going into emergency mode about the AIDS epidemic,” Wright said.
Black people, poor people, drug users and others without health insurance and access to treatment were still dying and transmitting AIDS. “‘This is getting more and more dire,’ the activists said,” Wright recalls.
They told Wright, “The rest of the community is starting to turn the page. We can’t turn the page.”
In D.C., Wright could see, through his reporting, the racial discrimination in the community at large in the AIDS epidemic, and in the queer community.
Two things are true simultaneously, Wright said, when asked if there is still stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS today.
“Science has made so much progress,” Wright said, “It’s no longer necessary for any of us to die from HIV.”
“I take a pill once a day to prevent me from catching HIV,” he added, “I can do that. I am a person with insurance…with a great deal of social and economic privilege.”
But many people in the United States don’t have health insurance, and exist outside of the health care system. The divergence in treatment and stigma that he saw as a young reporter in 1996 are still there today, Wright said.
“The divergence in class and race has grown even more profound,” he said, “among people of color, young people – transgender people.”
Wright hopes “Blindspot” will make people who lived through the epidemic and whose stories weren’t told, feel seen. And that “they will hear themselves and be reminded of the contributions they have made,” Wright said.
The queer press plays an important role in the LGBTQ community, Wright said. “We need a place to hash out our differences, share stories and ask questions that put our experience at the center of the conversation,” he emailed the Blade.
“There’s more space for us in media than when I started my career at the Blade,” Wright said, “but none of it is a replacement for journalism done by and for ourselves.”
Valentine’s Day gifts for the queers you love
From pasta and chocolate to an Aspen getaway
Share the love on Feb. 14 with our thoughtful Valentine’s gift picks for everyone you like and lust.
Centrolina V-Day Pasta Kit
Washington, D.C.-based Centrolina’s seasonally inspired restaurant menu gets the delivered-to-your-door treatment with Chef Amy Brandwein’s holiday gift baskets featuring four handmade pastas and from-scratch sauces, including heart-shaped beet ravioli with ricotta and lemon butter, a mushroom and black truffle ragu, sunchoke tagliolini and oyster cacio pepe, and chestnut pappardelle, among other elevated-Italian recipes that you and your lil’ meatball can whip up on date night. $175, CentrolinaDC.com
La Maison du Chocolat
Heart-shaped candy clichés are much more palatable when the contents within are made in Paris instead of Hershey, Pa., and your intended will be sufficiently satisfied with La Maison du Chocolat’s selection of premium confections – including melt-in-your-mouth ganaches, pralinés and bouchées, oh my – available in festive and indulgent 14- and 44-piece boxes. $60-$140, LaMaisonDuChocolat.com
‘Spread the Love’ Plantable Pencils
SproutWorld’s set-of-eight Love Edition pencils set themselves up for seed-spreading jokes given Cupid’s context, but the real sentiment is sweeter: Plant the lead-free, graphite writing utensils (engraved with romantic quotes on certified wood) in potted soil and enjoy striking flowers and fragrant herbs in one to four weeks. $15, Amazon.com
W Aspen Getaway
Missed Aspen Gay Ski Week? No sweat. You’ll fight fewer crowds as the season winds down – without compromising your commitment to luxury – during a late-winter getaway to the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains at the W Aspen. Book unforgettable outdoor adventures, like heliskiing and dog sledding, with the property’s always-available concierge; spend après hour on the rooftop WET deck before diving into delicious dishes at onsite restaurant 39 Degrees; see and be seen at Ponyboy, the property’s cocktail-focused modern speakeasy rooted in New York City nightlife; and pour yourself a nightcap from your in-room mini bar before relaxing in the suite’s deep soaking tub – because, ya know, all in a day’s work. Marriot.com
Nexgrill Ora Pizza Oven
Not a fan of fancy dining out? Slip into those grey sweats he won’t let you wear in public, top off the Veuve, and fire up Nexgrill’s Ora 12 portable propane pizza oven wherein a to-temp cordierite baking stone will cook your personalized pies to perfection at up to 900 degrees. That’s burnin’ love, baby. $299, HomeDepot.com
‘Just Happy to Be Here’ YA Novel
Have a they/them in your life excited to expand their winter reading list? Gift a copy of Naomi Kanakia’s newly published YA coming-of-age novel, “Just Happy to Be Here,” about Tara, an Indian-American transgender teenager seeking quiet support and acceptance within her school’s prestigious academic group but instead becomes the center of attention when she draws the ire of administrators and alumni. $16, Amazon.com
Set it off this Valentine’s Day with a curated selection of wine and spirits, including the Pale Rosé, created by Sacha Lichine, of Whispering Angel fame; Flat Creek Estate’s red-blend trio, featuring the 2017 Super Texan, 2018 Four Horsemen, and Buttero; Ron Barceló’s Imperial Premium Blend 40th Aniversario rum; and the Bourbon Rosemary cocktail-in-a-can from Spirited Hive. $17-$199
Moon Bath Bomb
Stars aligned for that little meet-cute you told everybody about on TikTok, and you can trust the universe to provide ample relaxation when you plop Zodica Perfumery’s Moon Bath Bomb in the tub – there’s a specific formulation for every sign, which promises vibe-setting aromatherapy, activated charcoal for deep cleansing, and skin-soothing olive oil for the self-love glow-up you’ve been waiting for. $18, ZodicaPerfumery.com
Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.