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40 Under 40: Queer women of Washington

Celebrating some of the city’s up-and-coming change agents

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40 Under 40, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and the Office of Women’s Policies and Initiatives, is proud to present: 40 Queer Women of Washington.

Here we celebrate some of the city’s many inspiring queer women who are the voices of change from a diverse group of industries. Nominations came from our readers; that list was then trimmed to the 40 queer women profiled here. Come meet the 40 Under 40 at a special event on Wednesday, March 27, 6-9 p.m. at the Google office at 25 Massachusetts Avenue. Get tickets online via the Blade’s Facebook page.

(Photo courtesy of the Washington Mystics)

Name: Washington Mystics

Occupation: Professional basketball team WNBA

Passion: Compete at the highest level on the court and bring a WNBA Championship to Washington. We play to excite, inspire and unite the D.C. community — all eight wards. Our passion for the game and this city is reflected in the memory-making experiences we strive to provide to our fans each game day. We invite all to celebrate and share in these moment with us. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Demonstrating fearless character will lead to your success. Tapping into the power of unified strength that comes with a sisterhood gives you the ability to overcome any challenge or adversity. We are a part of the community we represent and you are a part of us. Celebrate the power and beauty of being a woman. 

Amina Brown (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Amina Brown

Occupation: DJ

Passion: Being an entertainer/DJing

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? My mother told me I would grow up and have my own business when I was in the fourth grade. I would give young women the same advice that was given to me and it changed the trajectory of my life: “Fall in love with something you enjoy doing and turn it into a business!”

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I thinks it’s important for women to be represented in the high ranks of corporations and politics. During my speaking engagements at schools, I always encourage our young girls to reach for the stars and never think that gender makes them inadequate in any industry.

Bela Muney (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Bela Muney

Occupation: External affairs team

Passion: Helping others in need.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Never give up on your hopes and dreams. The sky is the limit.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It means we’re all here and queer!

Be Steadwell (Photo courtesy of Be Steadwell)

Name: Be Steadwell

Occupation: Musician

Passion: My passion is for telling stories that make queer black folks feel seen and affirmed.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Someone out there needs to hear your story.  Tell it with sincerity, vulnerability and it will change someone’s life.  

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Black women at the center of leadership and politics is exactly what our country and our world needs. I believe the most marginalized communities have the perspective and incentive to look out for all people. Though I don’t agree with everything our mayor does, I’m proud to have her as a leader for our city. 

Elizabeth Lindsey (Photo courtesy of Byte Back)

Name: Elizabeth Lindsey

Occupation: Executive director, Byte Back

Passion: Leading an organization that helps people from all backgrounds thrive in the digital economy.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Be true to who you are. When we’re ourselves, when others see us being authentic and real, there’s nothing we can’t do. There’s such a confidence that comes from using our strengths and doing work that feels natural to us. And if someone — an employer, an investor, a partner — doesn’t want us for who we are, then they’re not the right fit for us. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a queer woman of color, a parent and a leader in the nonprofit sector, I am inspired every day by Mayor Bowser and the other women in D.C. leading our city. It is such a privilege for me to hardly ever be the “only” in D.C. — I’m rarely the only woman, or person of color, or member of the LGBTQ community in a room. And I’m thrilled to raise my daughters in a city like this. 

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan (Photo courtesy of NCTE)

Name: Raffi Freedman-Gurspan

Occupation: Director of external relations, National Center for Transgender Equality

Passion: Social justice and equal opportunity for those who have been most marginalized and historically oppressed including black people, Latinx people, indigenous peoples, women and feminine presenting individuals, LGBTQ folks, people living with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities in the United States. My passion is to create a better world for all.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Remember to laugh, remember to have a good cry once in a while and remember to hug those you care for and remind them why they are important to you. Being a strong woman requires knowing yourself, being honest with yourself and asking for the compassionate support you deserve from those whom you love. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Having a woman of color mayor as a woman of color myself is tremendously moving, inspirational and something I proudly share with people about our city. Mayor Bowser has been such a great friend of the LGBTQ community and as a queer woman I am proud to live in her city. 

Tiara Gendi (Photo courtesy of Tiara Gendi)

Name: Tiara Gendi

Occupation: Community organizer/trans activist

Passion: Black liberation and protection of LGBTQ+ youth

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? In a world that is designed against you, dare to be unapologetically you and do your part.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Being a black trans and immigrant woman, having a black woman mayor means there is platform to leverage the safety and meaningful participation of queer women in decision-making processes.

Alesia Lucas (Photo by Carletta G.)

Name: Alesia Lucas

Occupation: National digital manager

Passion: Connecting people

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? 1. Always trust your instincts. 2. Have an idea? Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Go for it. 3. Own your “no”; you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything you don’t want to. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a native Washingtonian, having a woman lead our city inspirers me deeply. It shows us what’s possible. They say D.C. is one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the United States and Mayor Bowser has no doubt contributed to that honor.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul (Photo courtesy of Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul)

Name: Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul

Occupation: I am an independent artist: a playwright, author, spoken word artist, actor and director.

Passion: I have a passion for healing indigenous transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming communities through the arts.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? It’s OK to not know who you are. It’s OK to discover who you are along your journey. It’s OK to love yourself and celebrate yourself. You got this!

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It’s important to have representation of cisgender women, transgender women, transgender men, non-binary people and cisgender men of color, in government and other cisgender white male-dominated spaces. As a queer woman living in the capital of the empire, it’s important to see genders that have been in the minority in position of power, that are representing truth, justice and ancestor. 

Ashley Trick (Photo courtesy of Ashley Trick)

Name: Ashley Trick

Occupation: Community affairs engagement strategist with Capital One

Passion: Serving and elevating diverse communities.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Actively work to limit the use of “sorry” in your vocabulary, but practice radical candor every day. Women can care personally while also challenging directly. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Women’s leadership is imperative. Diversity in leadership breeds innovation and resilience and having a black woman as the mayor of our city sets an important precedent for further leadership. Through women’s innate leadership, they transform, nurture and empower their communities and I am so profoundly proud to work under so many exceptional women.

Amanda Dennison (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Amanda Dennison

Occupation: Director, programs and partnerships

Passion: I have spent much of my life with my nose in a book, so much so my family feared I wouldn’t know my way around in the real world. I have always been driven by the desire to learn and understand more about the world. Through books I was able to hear other peoples’ stories, learn about communities, my chosen field of work, the world beyond the small town I grew up in. All of those books, and constantly asking “why” or “so what,” have played a big part in shaping my view of the world now and getting to where I am today. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? There are probably three main pieces of advice I would given young women. One: you are worthy and deserve to be here and to be heard. Two: be brave and don’t let the fear of leaving your comfort zone prevent you from chasing your goals and dreams. Three: be unapologetically yourself and take pride in who you are. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Seeing Mayor Bowser leading our city and actively supporting the LGBTQ+ community is both empowering and inspiring. As a queer woman living and working in D.C., trying to live my best life and lift up our community, it means everything to have a strong female fighting to give every D.C. resident the opportunity to live their best lives. I know that our mayor supports me, our community and the important work we are trying to accomplish. 

Lisa Marie Thalhammer (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Lisa Marie Thalhammer

Occupation: LOVE artist

Passion: Painting, murals, art and activism.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Trust your journey, believe in your power and live your dreams in full color. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? When Mayor Bowser spoke at the Jan 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, I felt an immense amount of pride to be a queer Washingtonian woman. I was in the crowd that day with a group carrying my “Strong Women LOVE” artwork, a painting on a 24-foot diameter parachute, which depicts a woman flexing her biceps in front of a rainbow-colored backdrop. I felt synergy with my mayor’s directive to speak up for women and their health care; like I was in that moment for a reason, with a purpose to live out my life’s mission of creating visual art and images that empower and uplift women.

Charlotte Clymer (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clymer)

Name: Charlotte Clymer

Occupation: Press secretary for rapid response, Human Rights Campaign

Passion: Justice for marginalized communities, the written word and seeing women present their unapologetic authenticity to the world.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? You are never “not queer enough.” You are never “not woman enough.” The only scarcity that should ever concern you is being yourself. The world doesn’t need a copy. It needs an original. It needs you.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Mayor Bowser was one of the first public officials to speak out when I was discriminated against at a D.C. restaurant for being a transgender woman. She is not just my mayor; she is my sister. This is a leader who fights for the queer community.

Sharita Gruberg (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Sharita Gruberg

Occupation: Director, LGBT research and communications project, Center for American Progress

Passion: Making rights a reality.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? No one is ever as confident or certain as they seem. Most of the time we are all just trying our hardest and making it up as we go along. So don’t let doubt stop you!

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? We definitely need more women in every level of public office in this country. 

Ebone Bell (Photo by Maya Satori)

Name: Ebone Bell

Occupation: Founder and editor-in-chief of Tagg Magazine

Passion: Creating events, building community, learning new things and friends and family.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Keep reaching for the stars! You’re closer than you think.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I’m proud to live in a city that continues to be groundbreaking in so many ways. Not only is our mayor leading the charge, but I consistently see LGBTQ women doing the same. D.C. is a beautiful, diverse city.

Lanae Spruce (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Lanae Spruce

Occupation: Manager of Social Media and Digital Engagement, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Passion: Locating trends on the internet and doing it for the culture. In my free time I am a foodie who loves exploring the local restaurant scene on my travels.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? When you walk into a room, don’t be afraid to be yourself and stand in your own truth. You’ve already made it past the door.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I chose to make Washington my home because it has a long history of preserving and championing the rights of queer people. As a queer black woman, it means the world to me that my city has my back. 

Andrea Pino-Silva (Photo by Christopher Alonso)

Name: Andrea Pino-Silva

Occupation: Digital strategy and communications manager at The National Center for Lesbian Rights

Passion: I help tell the stories of our queer resistance for a living, and it inspires me every day. I fight for a world where our struggle isn’t our full story and envision a world where every student has access to a safe, equal education free from violence and oppression. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? As a niña, my abuelito always told me: “nunca, nunca, nunca pares de luchar.” He instilled in me a belief, that no matter my upbringing, or how seemingly impossible my goal, it was achievable. Apply to that college. Apply to that job. Write that memoir. Lead that protest. La lucha is in all of us and our resistance and our passion is a gift from our ancestors. Their lucha, and their dreams live on within us. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I’ve never lived in any other city led by a woman until moving to D.C., nor have I lived in a city with as many protections for marginalized people. As a queer woman, I feel safer and prouder to live in a city led by a strong woman like Mayor Bowser and feel more confident investing in making this city even better. 

Rebecca Buckwalter-Posa (Photo by John Shinkle)

Name: Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

Occupation: Journalist

Passion: Helping others find their voice.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Be fearless.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It means everything to me, especially as a woman of color. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.” 

Lina Nicoli (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Lina Nicolai

Occupation: Owner

Passion: Little things in life.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Don’t give up. Work hard.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It means that the concerns of women issues are being addressed in policy.

Laura Durso (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Laura Durso

Occupation: Vice president of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress

Passion: Gender equity, fat acceptance, empiricism and music.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Try new things, care just a little bit less what other people think of you, tell friends you love them, make peace with your body, have confidence in your ability to adapt and change, learn to catch when your brain wants to give in to imposter syndrome and remember how badass you are, spend your time with people and things that nourish your soul, hire people smarter than you, lean on your networks to help you get shit done, believe you can fix things but remember not everything always needs fixing, forge a new path, bring people with you.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? The ability to govern effectively knows no gender and as a queer woman, I am both proud and comforted to live in a city where voters recognize the talent and leadership that women bring to the table. Electing leaders from diverse backgrounds and experiences opens the door for new conversations to happen and new policies to be enacted that better serve our communities and drive us toward more meaningful change.

Taissa Morimoto (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Taissa Morimoto

Occupation: Policy Counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force

Passion: Playing guitar, crushing the patriarchy, apple juice, the Companion Cube, deconstructing colonialism and long walks on the way to protests.We each have such different life experiences, especially based on our social identities and how we are perceived in our society. I hesitate to give general advice because I can only speak from my own experiences as a queer woman of color who has many privileges. What changed my life, though, was the decision to put my own needs first. And that happened when I moved to D.C., where I was able to be my full self. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? So, for queer women of color in my shoes, I will share what I wish people had told me more often: Don’t ever apologize for who you are and who you are becoming. There are people who will love you for exactly who you are. Let them. Being vulnerable is not weak, it is a sign of growth. Lean into that discomfort. Ask for help, even when you think you can handle it on your own. You are enough. You will always be enough. I am so honored and proud to be in community with you all. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It means finally being able to live my full complete self. To me, it means freedom.

Breanna Diaz (Photo courtesy of Breanna Diaz)

Name: Breanna Diaz

Occupation: Co-director, Pull for Pride 

Passion: LGBTQ advocacy via access to typically closed-off spaces, such as powerlifting. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Remain authentic and accountable to yourself and your community. Always center who you are, your lived experience and your values in your work. Take pride in what you bring to the table. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Representation matters and seeing someone of the same gender as myself in a leadership position is empowering.  

Carlie Steiner (Photo courtesy of Steiner)

Name: Carlie Steiner

Occupation: Co-owner of Himitsu + Dos Mamis

Passion: Empowering women and making money.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Buy better shoes with good support. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Watching Muriel Bowser break through the glass ceiling by becoming D.C.’s mayor both empowered and inspired me to make the final push to open Himitsu at the age of 25. Now, two-plus years later, she continues to push the boundaries of what is possible. Women serving in positions of leadership and the visibility it provides to young women is paramount. Having a role model like Mayor Bowser who is equally respected and relatable is important to women of all ages, but especially to young girls who can look up to her as an example of a woman is making change and that’s how real progress happens.

Harper Jean Tobin (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Harper Jean Tobin

Occupation: Lawyer/lobbyist for trans equality

Passion: Improving trans people’s lives and living my own rich life.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Listen to your passion. Find where you’re best suited to make a difference. Ask for support. Be kind to yourself.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? We need leaders and public servants who reflect the diversity of our communities today. Women may not necessarily be better leaders, but every conversation is different when the people in the room don’t all look the same.

Ashlee Keown (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Ashlee Keown

Occupation: Marketing specialist/entrepreneur

Passion: Creating opportunities for people

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Don’t be afraid to try something new and fail. It is also important to adjust your expectations so that you understand that anything that you do will involve growth and failure.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It mean we are lucky enough to have someone in office who understands the challenges women and people of color face. Some who has the insight and ability to think about others. 

Kyrisha Deschamps (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Kyrisha Deschamps

Occupation: Festival producer/operations manager

Passion: Using my skills, experience and access to create opportunities and help others. Also, intentionally finding joy in each day. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Surround yourself with positive people who support your wild dreams and act as your sounding board. Trust the process and take time for yourself when you need to.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I’m a huge fan of women in positions of power. I am very excited about the number of women who are moving into politics to create the change that needs to be seen and felt in the world. As of today, a political career isn’t in the stars for me, but I would love to see more women and LBGTQ leaders in positions of power in government.

Jennifer Patience Rowe (Photo by Jeremy Mines; courtesy Rowe)

Name: Jennifer Patience Rowe

Occupation: Artist: primary vocalist, poet and actress.

Passion: My passion is facilitating spiritual experiences in secular spaces. I’m passionate about black folks being free. I’m passionate about honoring our grief.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? I would tell young black women that it’s OK to be unsure, its normal to constantly be discovering who you are. That change is the only constant. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a second generation native Washingtonian, it’s beautiful to have experienced all of the changes this city has and is surviving. Having a woman elected mayor has spoken to the great shifts and growth the capital city is capable of seeing. 

Kristin Lynch (Photo courtesy of Kristin Lynch)

Name: Kristin Lynch

Occupation: Communications director, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Passion: Politics, writing, news, sports, avocados, coffee porters

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? TDon’t be afraid to defy convention or take the road less traveled – being weird is a good thing. Work hard, be humble, and practice gratitude.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Representation matters. When leaders who look differently than what society typically associates with power — i.e. women, people of color, queer individuals — we begin to dismantle our preconceived notions of what a leader should be and reimagine what a leader could be. Having a mayor who is both a woman and a person of color breaks down barriers and shows underrepresented groups that we too can rise to powerful leadership positions, even if we may not always see that truth reflected in our day-to-day lives. 

Luella Garies (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Luella Garies

Occupation: Massage therapist, dance organizer

Passion: A combination of love for partner dancing and of bringing that love to queer women and trans people.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? As a dancer, know that simply by being openly yourself in the very heteronormative world of partner dance, or by breaking gender norms therein, you are a revolutionary. You are changing the world one literal step at a time and that is something to be proud of. As an organizer, someone recently asked me what’s my secret to organizing successful events over the long-term. “Passion,” I said. Actually there are many other answers I could give, but that’s the one I would underscore. You don’t need to be extroverted, popular, talented or wealthy to bring people together. But if you have a dream that lights up your soul and you have an inkling of how to share that with others, you can find a way.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? To me this is one among many ways that D.C. is setting an example and leading the way for the rest of the country, especially since our mayor is like a governor. It’s all the more reason that we should have full voting rights.

Joy Whitt (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Joy Whitt

Occupation: Presidential Innovation Fellow

Passion: Creating safe, uplifting spaces for women/trans/non-binary folks who are interested in learning about technology. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Stay true to yourself. Surround yourself with people who will educate and amplify you; pay it forward.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a queer, black woman, it is an incredibly big deal to be a resident of a city led by a black woman. Mayor Bowser represents many of my identities while serving at D.C.’s highest level, and because of that, her initiatives (and council’s policies) create a more inclusive environment for people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. I lead initiatives in D.C. that create professional and social opportunities for technologists of underrepresented genders (i.e. women, trans and non-binary folks, etc.). Mayor Bowser and the government of D.C. have made these efforts possible by amplifying and celebrating tech inclusion.

Nicole Armstead-Williams (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Nicole Armstead-Williams

Occupation: Psychotherapist and mental health advocate

Passion: I’m passionate about dismantling the harmful stigma of mental health, with a particular heartbeat for reducing the risk of suicide and self-harm in QTPOC (queer/trans people of color) communities. I am passionate about creating eco-therapeutic healing spaces for survivors of trauma, loss and grief. I also really get excited about all things rooted in love, wanderlust and long-distance road trips, dogs and growing sweet potatoes.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? To a young woman walking in my shoes, I would say: wear the shoes that are the most authentic fit for you so that you can sustain the walk of your personal dream and journey.  

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? Experiencing leadership from not only a woman-identified mayor but a black woman mayor provides me with a greater hope that we as women/women of color can show up, can be seen and affirmed and can support growth as an agent of change. To me, as a queer women living in the District, this means voice and visibility.

Yesenia Chavez (Photo by Courtney Neale)

Name: Yesenia Chavez

Occupation: Policy and government affairs specialist

Passion: Developing leadership pipelines of LGBTQ youth and people of color, hiking, traveling and cycling.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Remember that when you are the only woman of color, the only queer person, or first-generation person in a classroom or a board room, you carry your ancestors into that room with you. Most importantly, once you are in the room, be sure to open the door and pull up a chair for the next generation. When you pull up that chair, be intentional about who you bring to sit there. Start with those who almost never get access to those seats, i.e. trans/gender non-conforming folks, queer people of color, people with disabilities, etc. That is how you make radical change in who gets access to these rooms. We can end being the first or only one in the room if we pull each other up. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a queer Latina, I think it is important to have representation in all levels of government and I value seeing women of color in leadership. I was raised by a Mexican immigrant single-mother in a low-income household and know that is a unique story in comparison to the backgrounds of the voices we typically hear from. I believe it is critical for people who don’t see themselves reflected in leadership, to work to change that because as the saying goes, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Centering the voices of those of us who are at the intersection of marginalized identities is necessary during the policy-making process to ensure policy has a positive impact on our communities.

Ashland Johnson (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Ashland Johnson

Occupation: Policy lawyer and sports equity advisor

Passion: Creating social equity in and through sports.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Don’t be afraid to bet on yourself. We as women, especially women of color, invest so much time warding of doubt and working to achieve someone else’s vision of success. You have to make it a priority to invest in you— your goals, your passion, your vision— all day, everyday until it becomes second nature. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? As a queer woman of color living in D.C., for me having a black female mayor is both an invaluable gift and a necessity. Representation matters. Empowerment matters. Our mayor represents and empowers women, especially women of color everyday she leads our district forward. 

Whitney Washington (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Whitney Washington

Occupation: Attorney/legal fellow

Passion: People are my passion. I love the process of getting to know folks and learning about them. As much as I am willing to get to know absolutely anyone from whatever walk of life, I acknowledge that not all folks are willing to do the same.  I understand that to greater society some folks are not worth anything because of who they are or what they may have done in the past. I feel lucky to be able to offer my skill set to show support to the people that society has written off. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? This is a funny question because I still think of myself as a young person. Three things that I remind myself of daily are one: nothing worth doing is easy, but also that the most difficult option is not always the answer — there is often a middle ground; two: I know a lot more than I think I do; and three: I have a lot to learn. Outside of my daily reminders, I think the biggest thing I would tell a younger person is: being a person is a process and that regardless who you are right now, and regardless of whoever you will become, you are valid.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? The socio-political impact of Muriel Bowser’s position as mayor of Washington cannot be overstated — it is crucial that voices like hers are amplified, especially in our current political climate. As a queer, non-binary individual, this signals to me that this historically black city values its legacy, champions its pioneers and strives to be at the forefront of change in our nation. 

Sarah Horvitz (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Sarah Horvitz

Occupation: National political director at Run for Something

Passion: Encouraging and supporting young women who want to serve their communities in elected office.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? You aren’t going to be amazing at everything you do on day one. Stay focused on the specific tasks and goals you are trying to accomplish and trust you will get better the more you try. Surround yourself with other women out there who are doing their best and befriend them.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? I love living in D..C for many reasons (honestly too many to name) but I am especially proud to live in a city with a woman in charge. I know that Mayor Bowser is fighting every day by making political and fiscal decisions that prioritize equity for women and girls, especially people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. She is not only an advocate in our national’s capitol for resident’s of D.C., but is also leading the charge nationally for more representation of marginalized communities in elected office. 

Amber Posadas (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Amber Posadas

Occupation: Specialty support

Passion: Defend the rights of the LGBT community and advocate for those who doesn’t have voice.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Never give up on your  dreams and fight for what you really want in life.  

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It gives me the power to know as a queer woman I too can achieve success.

Katie Nicol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Katie Nicol 

Occupation: As senior manager of public benefits and insurance navigation at Whitman-Walker Health, I focus on removing barriers to health care access, particularly for those who identify as LGBTQ, people living with HIV and the immigrant population. 

Passion: I’m passionate about helping others, geeking out over insurance eligibility policy and nuance, logistics and the work of Whitman-Walker Health. I have the privilege to be a part of an organization that represents what it means to provide culturally competent care free of stigma and judgement and to serve a patient population I identify with. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Stay true to your queer self, give yourself room to grow and evolve and don’t take yourself too seriously. Take every opportunity to learn from your experiences, mistakes and from others. Your relationships are your greatest assets — personally and professionally — so nurture those connections. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and follow your instincts; sometimes your greatest hurdle is fear. 

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? In today’s political climate where woman, let alone a woman of color, are marginalized, it’s a reminder that women — regardless if queer or not — are equal to men. It is additionally inspiring to live in a city where a woman of color of color is a true representation of Washingtonians and our values, which include inclusivity for all residents, regardless of immigration, sexual orientation or gender expression. 

Emily Hammell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Name: Emily Hammell

Occupation: Events manager for LGBTQ Victory Fund & Institute

Passion: Oh gosh, so many to chose from! My most noteworthy passion is my collection of commemorative plates. But I also love Raquel Raccoon (my three-legged cat), relationship anarchy, tattoos, LGBTQ+ rights, gender and racial equity, sex workers rights and harm reduction.

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Be as out and loud as you’re able to, it matters so much to those who can’t. And if you can’t be out and loud? Please be kind to yourself, you are still part of the queer family and you matter so much.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? It’s pretty dang inspiring to see a woman of color succeed in the political world. I may not always agree with Mayor Bowser, but I absolutely respect how hard she has worked to climb that ladder.

Brittany Rheault (Photo courtesy of Brittany Rheault)

Name: Brittany Rheault

Occupation: Director of sports operations at United Fray

Passion: My passion at work is making fun possible. I have the pleasure of bringing “play” into everyday life with my job. I couldn’t ask for a better profession. As for the rest of my life, my passion is to make people feel included, whether that’s on a dance floor or  with my friends, I’m always striving for laughter and fun and connection. 

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Hustle. What separates you from the pack is your willingness to step in or step up. Being complacent is never an option. You have to be willing to show up and impress with commitment and work ethic.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? To me, it’s inspiring that I am living in a city that would not only elect but reelect a female mayor. 

Check It Enterprises (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Name: Check It Enterprises; Star Bennett, CEO

Occupation: CEO of Check It Enterprises

Passion: fashion design

What advice would you give to a young woman walking in your shoes? Chase your dreams and never give up.

Washington is one of the few major cities in America with a female mayor. What does this mean to you as a queer woman living in the District? That females have the same ability men have. 

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Meet the LGBTQ leaders behind D.C. statehood fight

‘We’re still second class — it’s just so unfair’

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From left, Bo ShuffBarbara HelmickJohn KlenertMonica Hopkins and Phil Pannell are leaders in the fight for D.C. statehood. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the nation’s capital, home to one of the country’s largest LGBTQ populations and where more than half of the citizens identify as people of color, residents have no voting representation in Congress. LGBTQ statehood advocates have been fighting for decades to expand voting rights, autonomy, and representation to Washington’s 700,000-plus residents. 

Philip Pannell moved to the District from New York City in 1975 to work for the D.C. Council. As he made his way through his new home, he said he was immediately struck by the lack of representation. He felt then, and still feels today, like a second-class citizen, he said. 

“For us to be here in the District of Columbia, to be living in what is essentially a colony, is unconscionable,” said Pannell, 70, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. “We’re still second class. It’s just so unfair.”

LGBTQ statehood advocates Bo Shuff, Barbara Helmick and John Klenert of DC Vote; Monica Hopkins of ACLU; Stasha Rhodes of 51 for 51; and Pannell all have two beliefs in common — a hope statehood will become a reality someday, and that the movement is intertwined with LGBTQ rights and racial justice.  

Residents pay federal and state taxes, serve on juries and register for the draft — but don’t have the same liberties as those who reside in the 50 states. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District in Congress but as a non-voting delegate.

Statehood is supported by the Biden administration and by Democratic representatives in the House and Senate. 

Bo Shuff, executive director, DC Vote 

Bo Shuff (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Shuff, who identifies as gay, has long worked on the frontlines of LGBTQ policy, including the fight for marriage equality. He became involved in the statehood movement when working as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s campaign manager. 

Statehood first appeared on the ballot in 2016 when Mayor Bowser called for a districtwide vote on whether the nation’s capital should become a state, Shuff said. Before that, statehood was introduced in Congress but never brought forward and other solutions were considered.

The bill for statehood has passed the House twice and was discussed in the Senate. But Shuff, 48, said legislation moves slowly and he expects statehood to take time.

“It is simply a large hill to climb,” he said. “And if you’re climbing Mount Everest, you don’t always make it on your first try.”

The current system where Congress oversees the District, which has no voting representation on the federal level, is “textbook racism,” he said. 

“You have a majority white body, the United States Congress, making decisions and passing all of the laws that impact a majority Black community,” he said. 

Other voting rights bills, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, are essential, and statehood should be considered when crafting legislation on voter suppression, Shuff said. 

Education around these bills across the country, including statehood, is important, he said. Including statehood in this advocacy educates those outside the area that statehood is, at its core, a voting rights issue, Shuff said. 

Philip Pannell, executive director, Anacostia Coordinating Council 

Phil Pannell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Pannell works in the revitalization of Washington’s neighborhoods east of the river and has led the Anacostia Coordinating Council for 25 years. The organization has accomplished much for Wards 7 and 8, including garnering community support to build the Anacostia Metro stop. 

Currently, Pannell and the council are sponsoring a poetry contest for middle and high school students on why statehood is important to them personally. 

“They understand what the issue of statehood is all about,” he said. “It’s just so encouraging.”

If statehood passes, the District would be home to the highest percentage of people of color in the United States. That in itself makes the movement a racial justice issue, he said. 

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. 

Pannell has been arrested at several LGBTQ and statehood protests, including a

statehood rally in 1993 with then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and many others for blocking an intersection near the Capitol.

“Being involved in the statehood movement means just as much to me being involved in the struggle for LGBT rights,” he said. 

Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager, 51 for 51 

Rhodes, who identifies as queer, initially moved to Washington from Louisiana to work in gun violence prevention, but was struck when congressional Republicans sought to roll back measures.

“I was a little confused about how Republicans would be able to do that, considering they were local laws, and learned what lack of statehood meant for residents of D.C.,” she said. 

Now, as the campaign manager for 51 for 51, an organization advocating for statehood, she said she sees the movement as “the most intersectional work of our time.”

During a time when voting rights bills are being debated at multiple levels of government, statehood should be a priority, Rhodes said. 

“If we truly want to live up to the ideals of our democracy and fight the current wave of voter suppression sweeping across the country, D.C. must be granted statehood and D.C. residents must be given full voting rights,” Rhodes, 34, said. 

Rhodes comes from a family of advocates stretching back generations. Her grandparents, who lived in rural Louisiana, were active in the early days of the civil rights movement. They would help register people to vote and worked as key organizers in the area, she said. 

“I sort of had the bug early,” she said. 

Barbara Helmick, director of programs, DC Vote 

Barbara Helmick (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Helmick, 70, moved to the District in the late ‘70s. Her first brush with shortfalls due to the lack of statehood was when sodomy was decriminalized in 1981 but quickly overturned by Congress. It was not until 1993 when it was legalized. 

“That was a wake-up call — Congress wouldn’t let this jurisdiction, our locally elected officials, deal with that,” Helmick said.

The District’s lack of power and autonomy is inefficient, she said, and restricts the area from easily drafting and applying laws that work best for the community. 

But press coverage of statehood is a hopeful sign, as well, Helmick said. Activity in the House and Senate is also positive, she said. 

“I am extremely optimistic,” Helmick said. 

Monica Hopkins, executive director, ACLU DC 

Monica Hopkins (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Hopkins, who identifies as bisexual, began leading the District’s ACLU chapter seven years ago after running ACLU Idaho. When she moved to Washington, she said she immediately felt a disconnect because of the lack of federal representation. 

“I don’t think that you can live in D.C. and not feel that disconnect of not having a voice,” she said. “It’s very disempowering.”

Hopkins, 48, said statehood is integral for the District for many reasons. More power would be allotted in approving and crafting budgets, and oversight without congressional votes would end, for example. 

The District’s lack of statehood has intersected with LGBTQ equality issues through the years, she said. In the ‘80s, the District attempted to start a needle exchange program to curb high rates of AIDS. In 1998, Congress banned the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs because of fears the program would encourage drug use. Local municipalities could still use their own money to pay for the program — except the District.

The ban was lifted in 2007, but Washington still sees the ramifications of nixing the program today, Hopkins said. 

“We couldn’t, at the time, do what D.C. residents wanted to do with our own taxpayer money,” she said. 

The District also has no control over its own National Guard, which was highlighted during the Jan. 6 riots when Mayor Bowser was unable to call in reinforcements and was forced to wait on approval from the Pentagon. This showed the rest of the country the issues in the District’s governance, Hopkins said. 

“Some of the most devastating sorts of things can happen when we don’t have control over our own state,” she said. 

John Klenert, chair, DC Vote board 

John Klenert (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Klenert, 72, developed his interest in the movement after writing a paper on voting rights in the District and the 14th amendment while at college at the Catholic University of America. He’s been involved on the fringes of the movement since then and joined DC Vote 10 years ago.

His gay identity is “the icing on the cake” in his advocacy for statehood, he said. 

A scholar of constitutional history, Klenert said statehood is essential in upholding democracy in the United States. 

Other solutions to the lack of representation have been attempted, but he believes statehood would be the most successful avenue in expanding protections to District residents. 

“We live here in the District of Columbia, many, many of us are citizens of this country, which means that we belong to a constitutional democracy,” he said. “And yet, we have no say in how this government is run.”

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D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art

A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up

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After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.

Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com. 

A scene from 2019’s Awesome Con. This year’s event is slated for the weekend of Aug. 20. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information. 

The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.

The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com. 

Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com. 

FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information. 

The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.

 After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out. 

Bob Mould, gay news, Washington Blade
The Bob Mould Band plays 9:30 Club on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup. 

Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.

“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”

Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”

“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.

The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.

Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.

Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).

Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.

“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”

Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”

The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.

Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.

“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.

The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.

“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.

But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?

As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.

“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”

Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.

“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.

“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”

Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”

“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.

The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.

Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.

“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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