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Out singer/songwriter Eli Conley relishes roots music, trans themes

California-based folkie plans D.C. tour stop April 10 at Gypsy Sally’s

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Eli Conley, gay news, Washington Blade
Eli Conley is comfortable using his music to advocate for LGBT issues. (Photo by Brooke Porter; courtesy Conley)

Eli Conley

Wednesday, April 10

7:30 p.m.

Vinyl Lounge at Gypsy Sally’s

3401 K St., N.W.

free

 gypsysallys.com

 eliconley.com

Contemporary folk singer Eli Conley found critical acclaim with the release of his debut album, “At The Seams” in 2013, and the central, Va.-born musician and storyteller has become a big success within the LGBT and music scenes in his current home in the Bay Area.

“I describe my music as country-tinged folk,” Conley says. “I do a lot of storytelling and I do a lot of talking about folks like me who were queer kids from small towns, and there’s a lot of harmony in my music. 

An openly gay transgender man, Conley’s music address important themes such as gender, aging and death. For instance, on his newest record, “Strong and Tender,” he has a song about his grandmother’s death called “I Miss You.”

“She recently passed and the songs is about what it’s like at the end of a life when someone is ready to die and we’re not ready to let them go yet,” Conley says. 

On April 10, Conley will perform at D.C.’s Gypsy Sally’s Vinyl Lounge, accompanied by Joel Price on mandolin, violin and harmonies.

“I love coming back to the Mid-Atlantic and the D.C./Virginia area. It’s so special to come back home and the place my whole life I would go on field trips and take family trips,” he says. “I have a lot of friends in the area and it’s just a place I have a lot of connections to.”

As a singer who references where he’s from a great deal in his tunes, a gig like this is important to Conley and feels the audience gets more out of the show than people may in the West Coast.

“Even though I love California, it is kind of a different place,” Conley says. “What’s really cool about Gypsy Sally’s, it features local and touring acts in their smaller room and I’ll be playing two sets of songs on the night, one at 7:30 and the other at 9.”

Plus, as a queer transperson, Conley says he doesn’t often feel like he has a lot of community and doesn’t know how people will feel about him and his music when he’s in a smaller space and that’s a very multilayered thing for him.

“I think there are people who live in D.C., who are maybe from a smaller place, a more rural time, and my music resonates a little differently,” he says. “When I’m writing, I don’t consciously think, ‘This is the message that I want to have,’ but I do find that the characters that show up in my songs do have experiences relate to feeling a little like a misfit or as an outsider, and trying to find out how to fit in to the bigger picture of the world.”

For Conley, 33, the path to coming out as trans was a long one. “I have come out as so many different things over the years,” he says. 

He first came out as a bi woman at age 15. He and some friends started the first gay/straight alliance at Maggie Walker High School in Richmond. Facing opposition from both the Virginia General Assembly, which was trying to pass a ban on “sexually related clubs” on school campuses, as well as their own high school administrators, they persevered. 

“They’d banned a burrito club a year earlier and tried to argue that they couldn’t go approving everything students wanted,” Conley says. “But in the end, we were allowed to do it and I remember we did the Day of Silence … and a big percentage of the school participated. It was a powerful moment.” 

A high school friend came out as a trans man freshman year but Conley still wasn’t sure how he identified.

“He had a much more traditional transgender narrative where he knew that he was a boy from a very young age,” he says. “My childhood was a lot more genderfluid and I liked it that way. My favorite colors were pink and purple and I love dresses for a while. I also loved climbing trees and going around the neighborhood without my shirt off with the boys. By the time I graduated from high school in 2004 I’d come to identify as genderqueer, what many people these days call non-binary.”

It was in college that Conley started going by the name Eli and asking people to refer to him with gender-neutral pronouns and became a trans activist working on health care issues on campus working on issues such all-gender restrooms, non-gender-restricted dorm rooms, etc.

Over the course of college, Conley began to identify as male and decided to medically transition.

“That was 13 years ago now and it never felt for me like a linear process or a switch flipping,” he says. “I was a genderfluid kid and then an androgynous teenager and eventually a young man. My gender identity has stayed consistent since then, but I’m not so young anymore.” 

Conley has a deep background as a community organizer and working on racial and economic justice at events, and feels those themes often show up in his music as well.

“For me, the politics of living in the world as someone who stands opposed to capitalism and stands opposed to white supremacy in this country, particularly in this moment when we see really clearly how those things have never gone away, it shows up organically in my music,” he says. “But I’ll also write songs that have nothing to do with being queer or trans.”

Conley’s father is from the southern part of West Virginia and introduced him to roots music and bluegrass at an early age. When he first started writing music, he had a background in musical theater and classical voice, and married those musical influences to create his sound.

“I listened to a lot of different kinds of music but always felt the songs I wrote came from more of a folk, country place,” he says. “I often found my accent came out when I sang, and though I didn’t grow up in the mountains, my songs seemed to be influenced by what my dad had me listen to.”

Conley has known all his life he was attracted to men, recalling crushes on boys in kindergarten.

“By adolescence, I knew that I wasn’t a straight woman but all the language around gender and sexuality was super binary and I didn’t have many people in my life or in the media who reflected what I felt. … I’m still attracted to people of many genders, but I mainly fall in love with men.” 

Conley isn’t particularly worried his trans identity might usurp his musical abilities.

“I want queer and transgender people to be able to find me and see themselves in my music. I think we are hungry for that and it’s an honor to be a link in the long chain of songwriters who lay our souls bare so that others may see themselves reflected. Straight, white, cisgender men see themselves reflected back everywhere all the time in our culture, the music industry in particular. I think it’s time everyone else was given the space and resources to create art that speaks to our experiences.” 

How up front Conley is about being a gay/trans artist depends on the arena, he says. 

“I love LGBTQ media and I’m happy to talk about my identity in a paper like this because I know your readers get that,” he says. “I feel conflicted about marketing myself as a gay transgender artist in the mainstream media, putting the identity pieces upfront. Straight artists aren’t asked when they first knew they were straight, you know? They get to talk about their music. I find that sometimes being transgender becomes sensationalized and that becomes the whole focus. I have identified as trans since I was 17. It’s not novel to me, it’s just a part of my experience in the world. Of course, it is a huge privilege to be able to say that.”

He knows many trans folks don’t have that luxury.

“I am a white middle class man who isn’t perceived as transgender by strangers. It’s been many years since I’ve had to think about how every piece of clothing I put on will affect how people will read me on street. I make my choices based on what feels good, not how they will affect my safety. Most trans women and trans feminine people and other gender non-conforming people don’t have that experience.”

When not performing live or writing music, Conley is a certified teacher of Somatic Voicework. He and his partner of seven years (they recently married) live together in Berkeley. His husband, whom he declines to name, is an artist and vegan cook who works in research at U.C. Berkeley. 

Teaching, he says, is a joy. 

“I teach private singing lessons and also group classes for LGBTQ folks and allies in the Bay Area and I feel both teaching and performing are very meaningful to me,” he says. “I do think I would like to spend more time on the road touring as things go forward, but I’ll probably always also be teaching because it’s really important to me.”

The music he will be sharing at the show he calls “music from his heart” and feels the songs are great to bring people together.

“I find more and more as I get older, I’m less interested in being this perfect person and more interested in being honest and real,” Conley says. “The more that I do that, the more folks tell me they are crying in my songs and there are places where they really feel connections and have an emotional experience they didn’t expect coming in. That’s what I strive to do as a songwriter.”

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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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