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Rainbow Families plans weekend conference; gears up for legislative battles

D.C.-based resource agency expands its geography and mission

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Rainbow Families, gay news, Washington Blade
Darren Vance (right) with husband John Paul (left) and child Alexander Paul. (Photo courtesy Vance)

Rainbow Families

2019 Family Conference

‘Now More Than Ever’

Saturday, May 4

8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Georgetown Day High School

4200 Davenport St., N.W.

Admission fees vary for members, non-members

Non-member registration: $90

 rainbowfamilies.org

Rainbow Families, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that got its start about 20 years ago as a local support group for LGBT parents, has expanded its programs and services to LGBT families throughout the mid-Atlantic region, according to recently named Executive Director Darren Vance.

Vance told the Washington Blade in an interview last week that Rainbow Families’ main mission continues to be that of a provider of support for LGBT parents and prospective parents, both couples and individuals. Among the areas in which the group provides support is the access of LGBT parents to legal adoption rights as well as access to inclusive and welcoming schools, child care, health care and social services.

He began his job as executive director last summer, becoming Rainbow Families’ first executive director and the mostly volunteer-driven group’s first full-time paid staff staffer.

With LGBT rights organizations raising concern in recent years over hostile policies surfacing in the Trump administration in Washington and in many state legislatures, Vance said Rainbow Families is increasing its “advocacy endeavors,” including arranging for experts on public policy issues to speak at the group’s annual conference.

Among the featured speakers at this year’s one-day conference, scheduled for Saturday, May 4, at D.C.’s Georgetown Day High School, are LGBT rights attorney Shannon Minter, who serves as legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and transgender activist Trystan Angel Reese.

Reese, a gay transgender man, and his partner, gay activist Biff Chaplow, became the subject of international news coverage in 2017 when they publicly disclosed that they decided to have their own biological child, “one that Trystan carried and birthed himself,” the couple state on their website, biffandi.com.

“As a transgender man, he has all the parts necessary to do so in a safe manner,” the website says of Reese’s pregnancy and childbirth. “He stopped taking his hormones, and they successfully conceived and had a beautiful, happy baby,” says the site, which adds, “Throughout that process, they shared their story with a wide variety of media outlets in the hopes that their story — of love and hope and family — might increase the visibility and acceptance of trans people and LGBT families.”

Although Rainbow Families’ promotional literature for its May 4 conference doesn’t say so directly, the appearance of Trystan Angel Reese as the “featured speaker” and Shannon Minter’s role as the presenter of a conference “Town Hall Meeting on legal concerns facing our families with the current political climate,” appears to send a message that the conference will touch on hot-button political issues impacting LGBT families.

“We really for years have worked both to support families and educate prospective families,” Vance says. “I am indeed expanding our focus a bit. However, everything we do is about families or family members,” he says, including what he calls an interesting development where straight parents of LGBT children, including trans and non-binary children, are becoming involved with Rainbow Families.

Nevertheless, “in light of what is going on in our climate, I felt as executive director it is important to increase our advocacy endeavors,” Vance says. “Part of that certainly is with the conference and having Shannon as our keynote speaker to really make sure that we’re informed and we know what we need to do to stay engaged.”

Vance says Rainbow Families believes at least three important public policy issues under consideration on the state and federal level have the potential for impacting LGBT families. One of them, he hopes, will be beneficial, the other two are harmful. 

The first was the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year to take on a case that will decide in an official ruling next year on whether Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and thus protects LGBT people from discrimination in all 50 states.  

“That certainly can affect the family,” says Vance in referring to LGBT parents who would be protected against employment discrimination if the high court rules in a favorable way. “It could impact their income,” he says.

The second issue of concern to Rainbow Families, Vance says, are proposed bills surfacing in state legislatures attempting to place restrictions on the legal rights of same-sex married couples. At least once such bill in Texas, he says, would in effect tell LGBT couples that although the Supreme Court gave same-sex couples marriage equality, “we’re not entitled to the legal benefits of marriage.”

The third issue of great concern to LGBT families, according to Vance, is attempts in some states to deny parenting rights for LGBT people by allowing adoption organizations to refuse to approve an adoption to an LGBT person or couple on religious grounds.

“And what is especially unfathomable is there are children all over the country in foster care,” Vance says. “And in the LGBTQ community, we adopt huge numbers of children out of foster care. And there are people that don’t want us to become parents. And so with this climate, that is gaining traction.”

Vance says most of the anti-LGBT family developments are occurring in areas outside the immediate D.C. metropolitan area.

“And we are lucky, those of us that live in this D.C. region,” he says. “We’re golden right now. We have a lot of acceptance. We’re in a little bit of a bubble. The concern for our families as a nationwide community is that there are all these efforts in other areas of the country that are really trying to prohibit us from creating our families. It’s in the very fabric of this political climate to take rights away from LGBT individuals and LGBT families.”

More information about Rainbow Families and its May 4 conference, whose theme is “Now More Than Ever,” can be found at rainbowfamilies.org.

Following is a partial transcript of Darren Vance’s interview with the Washington Blade about Rainbow Families and its upcoming conference in D.C.

WASHINGTON BLADE: The Rainbow Families website shows your organization has for a long time worked on assisting individuals and LGBT couples adopt children and secure legal help to establish families. But your annual conference this year includes a town hall meeting on “legislative threats” to LGBT families. Is Rainbow Families now taking on more political advocacy work?

DARREN VANCE: Sure, let me address that. Indeed for well over 20 years and parts of us go back 25 and 27 years indeed providing get-togethers and events and support for LGBTQ families. But a large chunk of what we have done for that long as well is providing education and support for prospective parents and people on a family planning path to help them navigate the unique ins and outs of their family planning journey as LGBT individuals or couples. So it’s kind of two fold or both. We really for years have worked both to support families and educate prospective families. I am indeed expanding our focus a bit. However, everything we do is about families or family members. So for example we have a growing number of heteronormative parents who and their queer kids that are becoming members. And we have kind of a growing number of trans and non-binary members, which is phenomenal.

BLADE: When you say heteronormative families do you mean families with straight parents?

VANCE: Yup, yup.

BLADE: But they have gay or LGBT kids?

VANCE: Yup — or questioning or non-binary or what have you. Again, if you’re in my generation — I’m in my mid-50s — it was kind of like it was this box or that box. And now there are no boxes at all. It’s kind of a big happy bucket of however one feels and identifies and like that.But anyway, to your question about getting into more of a political bent, that is not the kind of focus that we do. However, in light of what is going on in our climate, I felt as executive director it is important to increase our advocacy endeavors. Part of that certainly is with the conference and having Shannon (Minter, legal director of National Center for Lesbian Rights) as our keynote speaker to really make sure that we’re informed and we know what we need to do to stay engaged. And in fact, the theme of the conference is ‘Now More than Ever.’

BLADE: Have the conferences been an important part of Rainbow Families work over the years?

VANCE: Yes, indeed. And we decided — this will be our ninth conference. So that’s how we’ve done it for the last eight conferences. Another thing that is kind of interesting is that we’ve received so much feedback from the community. We’ve always held it every other year. And we’ve gotten feedback that people wanted it held annually. So it is now an annual affair. We are going to focus our efforts on more advocacy and awareness, both on our own and in partnership with other organizations in our community.

BLADE: I noticed you removed D.C. from your name.

VANCE: Right, we have members from all over the region from as far down as Norfolk, Virginia to as far up as kind of south of Philly. So we felt that being called Rainbow Families of D.C. might lend the wrong impression. So it was about two years ago that we really kind of rebranded; not really rebranded, we just dropped the two initials at the end. But we are still based in Washington, D.C. But as far as advocacy, those things might entail educational workshops where we have a guest speaker. You know someone like Shannon or someone like that coming in for a day and doing workshops. It could include doing events on the Hill, participating in other events on the Hill to encourage our legislators to hear the things that are important to us.

BLADE: Might that include testimony before congressional hearings?

VANCE: Certainly. In fact, we’ve been invited to do some of that. So indeed that’s certainly part of it, yup. You know making sure that our membership is informed on issues that matter to us and then providing them with resources on where to go and what to do.

BLADE: You mentioned the climate in the last few years. Is there anything that’s happened in the last year or two that could adversely impact LGBT families or Rainbow Families’ members?

VANCE: Certainly. The biggest thing is the interpretation of Title VII, which will go to the Supreme Court this fall. And we expect a decision probably in January. And that is for the Supreme Court to decide if Title VII protects … transgender as well as sexual orientation. So that’s the biggest thing that’s on our radar.

BLADE: Would that impact families as well as others, since Title VII is usually related to employment discrimination? The court cases have been about gay people and transgender people being fired from their jobs.

VANCE: Exactly. That certainly can affect the family. It could impact their income. The other thing that is really poignant and affecting families are numerous, numerous state level cases where for example, there is one in Texas, I believe, that they’re saying alright, the Supreme Court gave you marriage equality. They’re going to argue that we’re not entitled to the benefits of marriage. So what they’re argument is, sure we’ll give you a marriage certificate but we don’t have to provide anything else for you legally.

BLADE: Is that surfacing in the form of legislation in the states?

VANCE: Yes, legislation at the state level, so it is very likely that those types of cases will escalate.

BLADE: To deny marriage-related rights?

VANCE: Exactly. And then the third thing that I would say is there are numerous state and local attempts to strip parenting rights on the basis of religious freedom. And that is not-so-thinly veiled … legislation to prohibit our community from becoming parents. And what is especially unfathomable is that there are children all over the country in foster care. And in the LGBTQ community, we adopt huge numbers of children out of foster care. And there are people that don’t want us to become parents. And so with this climate, that is gaining traction.

BLADE: The D.C. Superior Court each year holds an adoption day ceremony in which same-sex couples are among the many couples in the city that have their adoptions officially approved during that ceremony. Is this something that Rainbow Families is aware of?

VANCE: Yes, and I’ve been to it twice just as an observer. And we are lucky, those of us that live in this D.C. region. We’re golden right now. We have a lot of acceptance. We’re in a little bit of a bubble. The concern for our families is as a nationwide community is that there are all these efforts in other areas of the country that are really trying to prohibit us from creating our families. Even an effort to modify parts of the Affordable Care Act will have implications for our community. And Shannon just told me about that yesterday and I don’t know the details. But it’s in the very fabric of this political climate to take rights away from LGBT individuals and LGBT families.

Darren Vance says Rainbow Families has legislative battles ahead. (Photo courtesy Rainbow Families)
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Meet the ‘CEO of Everything Gay’ who just bought the Abbey

Tristan Schukraft, who owns Mistr, takes over iconic LA nightclub

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Tristan Schukraft with equine friend at the Varian Stable in Newmarket, United Kingdom in 2019. (Photo courtesy Schukraft)

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tristan Schukraft laughs when I suggest he’s building a gay empire, but he doesn’t deny it. 

When it was announced last month that the owner of the iconic Abbey and Chapel nightclubs in Los Angeles had entered into an agreement to sell the business to Schukraft, it seemed like a strange move for the jet-setting tech CEO. 

But the portfolio he’s building – founder and owner of the telemedicine app for gay men Mistr, owner of the queer nightclub Circo and Tryst Hotel in Puerto Rico – appears to be bent toward Hoovering up more pink dollars by getting involved in an ever wider section of queer life.

The Los Angeles Blade spoke to Schukraft at The Abbey during its annual tree-lighting fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation about what he plans to do with the storied nightclub, and how he became one of America’s most visible gay moguls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BLADE: Why the Abbey? 

SCHUKRAFT: Well, I wanted to make sure it stayed in the hands of the gay community. You know, it’s an institution. It’s a cornerstone of West Hollywood gay life, but more importantly, it’s I think it’s a cornerstone of the gay community far beyond West Hollywood, right? 

BLADE: Looking at your background in tech companies, your recent shift into the nightclub and hospitality industry seems like a bit of a left turn.

SCHUKRAFT: You know, I’ve been drinking here for a long time. So now, after all that investment, I’m actually gonna start getting money back. I basically bought it so I can get free drinks. 

You know, at the end of the day, I’m an operations guy. I’m a technology guy. I own hotels. With hotels, you have bars and restaurants, so it’s not too far off the track. It’s a little off track. Why not? Right? 

You know, after watching “The Birdcage,” I always wanted my own hotel [like Robin Williams’s character in the 1996 film] and somebody shattered my dreams the other day by telling me it was a nightclub. I’m like, what? It was a nightclub? And then I watched it, and it’s true, it was a nightclub. So, now I have a nightclub. Yeah, so it all started with “The Birdcage.” 

BLADE: You’re known for being a disrupter of the things that you invest in. Is there a disruption plan for the Abbey, or for Weho? Are you planning to change things here? 

SCHUKRAFT: Not a major disruption here at The Abbey. I’m gonna put my touches on it. But yeah, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. We’re definitely going to focus on our values of being LGBTQ. I got some ideas for new nights and I definitely want to make it an epicenter of the gay community. And I think there’s opportunities to take it beyond West Hollywood.

BLADE: Can you give any kind of sneak peek at what you’re thinking? 

SCHUKRAFT: East Coast. That’s your sneak peek right now. East Coast. 

I think you’ll see in a couple months what I’m gonna do with the Abbey. But you know as far as taking it outside of West Hollywood, I see there’s opportunities on the East Coast right now. 

I think that’s where David [Cooley, the founder and current owner of The Abbey] and I really we both appreciate the value of The Abbey brand. I think it’s world famous, right? It’s the biggest gay bar. It’s one of the longest lasting. Obviously you have the Stonewalls of the world. But this is like a bar where people go on a regular night versus a tourist attraction. Maybe for some it’s a tourist attraction, but I mean, it really is an institution. It’s a community gathering point. It’s a name that people recognize that we can bring into other communities. 

BLADE: Do you have any plans to put a hotel somewhere here? 

SCHUKRAFT: [Laughs] People are like, “Are you gonna paint it blue for Mistr?” Or, “You’re gonna make it a hotel?” But no, we’re not building a hotel here. That would be terrible to build. I mean build a hotel and Abbey would be out. I don’t think the Abbey’s ever closed in 33 years, besides COVID. Minus that, it’s never closed for construction. You know, when David did his expansion, it was always open. 

I was looking at those old photos and I’m like, oh my God, I remember the wall of candles. I’ve been coming here a very long time. 

So you’re more or less like keeping the same sort of operation going here, keeping the team in place?

The team, I mean, I think that’s what kind of really makes The Abbey unique. It’s like a place where everybody knows your name. 

When I bought the hotel in Puerto Rico, obviously I don’t know anyone. Buying here. I’m like, oh, yeah. I know Todd. I know everybody, right? Not everybody, but a majority of people. And I think that’s why people come here. Because it’s their staple. They go every Sunday. They know they have their favorite bartender. So, you know, everybody will be kept in place, no changes to personnel. 

BLADE: You gave an interview to Authority Magazine where you said you promised your partner that you wouldn’t be starting up any new businesses. How did you get him on board with jumping into becoming a WeHo nightlife impresario?

SCHUKRAFT: I broke that promise two or three times since I said that. I mean, no, I just buy him gifts to make him happy.

I work long hours, right? And he’s like, I don’t know why. 

BLADE: You’ve created and run several tech companies. How did you get started in that business? Where did that money come from? 

SCHUKRAFT: I started my very first company at 21 with a $10,000 loan. I was living in Hong Kong at the time. I think my father really wanted me to come back [to California]. My dad’s a corporate guy, not a big risk taker, but he’s like, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 to start your company.’ It wasn’t enough to start the company, so I imported 437 Razor scooters and I thought I was gonna sell out in two weeks. It was very popular at the time – this is like 23 years ago. It took me six and a half weeks. I was selling them out of my truck. I went to every swap meet in Southern California. Sold the last six on Christmas Eve and learned a couple lessons in business from that. But with the money I made from selling those scooters combined with the loan, I started my first company, which was like an Expedia for airline personnel.

And then I got into e-ticketing, and at that time, I didn’t know how to turn on the computer. So, I really surround myself with people that know what they’re doing, that are experts. So, do I know how to run a bar? No, but I’m an operations guy and I hire the talent to make it happen. That’s how I got started and I built that company and others along the way. 

BLADE: Other than that first $10,000 loan from your parents, you’re basically self-made then? 

SCHUKRAFT: Yeah. You know, I looked for investment. I did end up raising $18 million for my second company, but I put in a lot of money. I mean at 25, my first company was going really well, and there was this e-ticketing mandate and I said, oh there’s a real opportunity here. And I had a home and was doing good for a 25-year-old, and I kind of leveraged it all. And I thought, “Oh my God, what did I do? I just fucked up my whole life. Why did I do this?” Anyways, I got that first investor, got that first client, and it just kind of took off from there. 

BLADE: And now with Mistr, The Abbey, your Puerto Rico clubs, are you starting a gay empire? 

SCHUKRAFT: The CEO of Everything Gay, yes. I have a few more things. You know, all the businesses are very complementary, right? So, you come to The Abbey, then you go to the Tryst Hotel or Circo in Puerto Rico, and obviously all of the people that come here or the Tryst, they’re all perfect candidates for Mistr. So yeah, so it looks a little weird. But it is very complementary to our various business units

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The ultimate guide to queer gift giving

Perfect presents for everyone from roommates to soulmates

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Searching for special deliveries for that special someone? Consider these elf-approved, consciously curated presents perfect for everyone from roommates to soulmates. 


Star Wars Home Collection

Movie nights in bed get a comfort upgrade from the Force – for those who uphold Jedi code in the streets but embrace the Dark Side in the sheets – with Sobel Westex’s Star Wars Home Collection, five- to seven-piece twin, queen and king sets suitable for either alliance. Cop a bootleg of the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” (legal copies don’t exist, nor has it been rebroadcast since its one-and-only airing in 1978) and settle in for a snacky screening with premade Johnson’s Popcorn (a Jersey Shore staple) or Pop ’N Dulge’s DIY gourmet kits. SobelAtHome.com, $350-$390; JohnsonsPopcorn.com, $27+; PopNDulge.com, $23


Bird Buddy Smart Feeder

Avian enthusiasts get up close and semi-personal with feathered friends thanks to the Bird Buddy smart feeder that allows safe viewing via a solar-powered, app-enabled camera, along with adorable add-ons like a suet ball holder and three-in-one nutrition set to keep the neighborhood’s population happy and healthy. MyBirdBuddy.com, $299-$415


Jewelry – but make it an experience. That’s the premise behind Link x Lou, a quick-fitting accessory service providing recipients with in-person appointments for custom-linked, clasp-less 14-karat white- and yellow-gold necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and rings that wear until they’re worn out. Money’s on ’em lasting longer than the situationship you’ve got goin’, but may the odds be ever in your favor. LinkxLou.com, $55-$500


Orttu Shelton Puffer

Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s you as an alt-timeline Tom of Finland in Orttu’s fully quilted, oversized Shelton Puffer comprised of double-layered high-sheen fabric and press-stud fastening that results in a slick style statement vers-er than you are. Orttu.com, $203


Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set

Apotheke takes the guesswork out of choosing just the right ambiance-inducing aroma with its Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set, featuring six fragrant two-ounce tins in seasonal smells that include birchwood apple, black cypress, blackberry honey, cardamon chestnut, charred fig, and firewood (with a combined 90-hour burn time), and packaged in a nostalgically illustrated gift box accentuated by festive gold detailing. ApothekeCo.com, $64


Polaris General 1000 Sport

Resort communities across the country have adopted golf carts as a preferred mode of transportation, and you can establish yourself as a local baddie in Polaris’ General 1000 Sport – in ethereal colorways like ghost gray – equipped with a four-stroke DOHC twin-cylinder engine, 100 horsepower, 1,500-pound hitch-towing capacity, and enough street cred for Boomers to shake their fists at. Polaris.com, $17,500+


‘Arquivistas’ Crystal Book

Brazilian crystal devotee Tatiana Dorow has curated an impressive collection of more than 1,000 rare and exquisite minerals – ranging from one ounce to over 5,000 pounds – the comprehensive record of which is now compiled in the sizable coffee-table tome “Arquivistas” (Portuguese for archivist) that’s sure to satisfy, delight, and provide endless holiday-party talking points to the New Agers in your life. (You know they will.) ArtAndAnthropologyPress.com, $350


Bovem Globe Trimmer 2.0

There are plenty of manscaping tools on the market, but perhaps none are designed with your delicate bits in mind like the handsome second-gen Bovem Globe body and groin trimmer with its ergonomic textured grip, powerful 6500 RPM with low vibration, varying guards, and replaceable TrimSafe blades that tidy you up without cutting skin or pulling rough hair. Deck the halls! – no more bloody Christmas balls. Bovem.co, $60-$87


Lexington Glassworks Decanter Set

Pour one out from Lexington Glassworks’ hand-blown whiskey decanter, each one individually crafted in the company’s Asheville, N.C., studio and detailed with an elegant crackle finish that lends an air of sophistication to any home bar cart. Pair with a set of LG’s complementary rocks glasses, in the same distinguished style, for a cherished gift. LexingtonGlassworks.com, $280


Joule Turbo Sous Vide

Your fave chefs’ autopilot cooking technique hits home countertops in Breville’s sleek Joule Turbo Sous Vide stick, which cooks seasoned-and-bagged meats and veggies to a faster-than-ever optimal internal temperature (unattended, no less) before a lickety-split sear and serve results in restaurant-quality dishes deserving of at least a couple Michelin stars for your minimal-mess kitchen. Breville.com, $250


Outlines Shower Liner System

Holiday hosts can practice responsible replenishment amid our planetary plastic-waste crisis when you gift Outlines’ thoughtfully designed Shower Liner System that provides users with a machine-washable cotton top piece and fully recyclable bottom to replace when it’s time to ditch the grime. Set it and forget it with three-, six- or nine-month auto-deliveries. LivingOutlines.com, $50


Barbie Perfume

Fight the patriarchy doused in Barbie’s sweet-and-fresh fragrance that, from top to bottom, features notes of strawberry nectar and red cherry, peony and pink magnolia, and sandalwood and soft musk for an extraordinary scent that’s more than Kenough. DefineMeCreativeStudio.com, $65


AiRROBO Pet Grooming Vacuum

Posh pets enjoy salon-style luxury in the comfort of their homes when treated to a grooming session by the AiRROBO vacuum (think Flowbee for cats and dogs), a five-tool, one-stop solution for keeping furbabies’ hair, dander, allergens and mites to a minimum. The portable pamperer includes an electric clipper, crevice and de-shedding tools, and grooming and cleaning brushes housed in a space-saving, HEPA-filtered capsule. US.Air-Robo.com, $110


Aura Smart Sleep Mask

What does the future of total relaxation and deep sleep look like? Blackout darkness and complete serenity in a dream-state sanctuary when you spend your nights in the Aura Smart Sleep Mask with built-in speakers for guided meditation and snooze-inducing ASMR, zero-pressure eye cushioning, and light and sunrise therapy to help you wake rested and refreshed at home and (especially) away. Indiegogo.com, $190


Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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Anatomy of a post-cancellation comedy tour: Ashley Gavin in D.C.

After doxxing and death threats, a focus on jokes that transcend identity

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Ashley Gavin is back on the comedy circuit after a summer controversy.

I was dressing up to go to Ashley Gavin’s stand-up comedy show at the Lincoln Theatre when I got a text from Sydnie, Ashley’s assistant. I didn’t remember giving Sydnie my number — although I must have, surely? We had been in contact the past few days about setting up an interview with Ashley about her show here in D.C., and just today we had managed to schedule a time for tomorrow afternoon.

But suddenly the interview wasn’t looking so sure. Sydnie was texting to ask for a list of my questions for the interview, and if I didn’t provide them, I wouldn’t be getting tickets to tonight’s show. I had two hours to get back to her. “So sorry about that!” Sydnie texted.

The ultimatum caught me off guard — but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Ashley Gavin was the subject of controversy this summer for some of her crowd work during a show in Indianapolis. After a fan cheered a little too loudly at a joke, Ashley informed her she was the “the most annoying fan who has ever been to one of her shows,” and that she should “kill herself.” When the fan responded, “I’ve already tried,” Ashley responded that she didn’t try hard enough, and implored her again and again to kill herself. The fan broke down in tears, and left the show.

The familiar cycle of celebrity cancellation played out. Calls were made on Reddit to boycott Ashley’s shows. Ashley released an apology video. YouTubers scrutinized the apology clip-by-clip on their channels. Ashley reported getting doxxed in death threats. (The irony!) The fan Ashley accosted, Olivia Neely, raised money for suicide awareness online. And now Ashley Gavin is back on tour, for the first time since the incident. No wonder Ashley had her assistant screening my questions.

When Ashley took the stage at the Lincoln Theatre, it quickly became clear that her audience is kindling for controversy fire. All the way up front, in the first few rows, are Ashley’s die-hard fans. Some of these fans have paid hundreds of dollars for meet-and-greet tickets after the show. They’re on the younger side, and are largely lesbian or queer. They turned 21 during the pandemic, and they haven’t necessarily been to a comedy show before. They’re fans from online — of Ashley’s TikTok, or her podcast. But all the way in the back are more casual viewers, people who aren’t fans of Ashley specifically, but of comedy more generally. They might have bought their tickets last minute. They’re a little older than the die-hard fans, a little less queer, and they’re more familiar with the offline comedy club scene. 

It’s great that these two different groups can come together to enjoy a comedy show. But there’s one big problem. The online die-hards and the offline comedy regulars have very different expectations for the show. And Ashley isn’t looking to satisfy all of them.

On the one hand, the comedy regulars aren’t necessarily used to the content of her show, which especially on this tour, is largely comprised of material about being lesbian. Ashley wants the straight people in the room to know these jokes are for them too. One of the few bits Ashley carried over from her first special to this new tour involves picking out a random straight man in the audience. She’ll learn his name, and then check in on him after this or that joke later in the set as the ‘representative straight man’ in the crowd. “I’m speaking to the people who might not feel comfortable in the room,” Ashley explained to me during our interview. “I’m saying like, hey, I know you’re there, and this is for you. And I’m really glad that you’re here, you know.”

But if Ashley wants the comedy regulars to adjust to the content of her show, she also wants her online, die-hard fans to adjust to the form of her show, which is offline, at a comedy club or theater. Her die-hard fans are new to the comedy scene, and she wants to make a proper introduction. This isn’t simply out of magnanimity. Ashley intends to put on the kind of show the comedy regulars are there to see. And if her fans from TikTok or her podcast are going to enjoy it, that means adjusting their expectations.

“I’ve read it in my comments [online] before,” Ashley lamented. “I’ve read like, ‘This was not a safe space.’ Maybe because of gross things, or some of the darkness of the jokes. I’m frequently like, what made you think it was going to be a safe space? Art is not a safe space.” 

Ashley Gavin

As Ashley sees things, part of going to a comedy show is letting go and not worrying about whether the jokes are offensive. It’s giving the comedian the benefit of the doubt, especially if you know them from online. And she thinks letting go of your worries isn’t giving up on your political convictions — it’s empowering. “[My fans] are very into social justice, and very into doing the right thing, [and] I want to give them the opportunity to let go a little bit, and release some of their tension, and their pain, and their struggle.”

So one of the more unique things Ashley will do as a comedian is address her online, die-hard fans directly at the beginning of her show. She’ll tell them that she’s on the right side of things, that she won’t pull the rug out from under them, politically speaking. She’ll tell them that they should feel free to laugh, to let it out, not cover their mouths. “I know who my audience is, and they want some safety. And they want some trust. And the fastest way that I can earn that trust is to be up front, and just say I’m not going to trick you tonight. The person you came to see, the person you think I am, I am that person.” But it’s a difficult balancing act. How do you promise your audience safety, while maintaining that a comedy show is not a “safe space”? It’s no wonder the kindling might catch fire, despite Ashley’s best efforts. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether there wasn’t an easier way. Why ask fans who want safety to ride out a non-safe space?

I think it helps to understand what Ashley wants out of being a comedian. A major theme of Ashley’s first comedy special was her frustration with being called a “lesbian comedian.” She talks about wanting to be called a great comedian, not a lesbian one — someone who is in the running with other great comedians, whose jokes transcend any particular identity. And if you want to be a great comedian, and not “the lesbian comedian,” it makes sense that you might want your mostly queer online audience to acclimate to the comedy club scene. She doesn’t want to put on a lesbian show. She wants to put on a great comedy show.

Ashley Gavin

So what of Ashley’s hopes for being a great comedian, post-cancellation? On her Chosen Family podcast, taped just one day before her show in D.C., Ashley gave a picture of where she thought things stood. “My audience has changed. I’m experiencing this new audience now that might be a better fit. Because it’s the folks that saw what happened and kind of understand, OK, these were meant to be jokes,” Ashley told her co-hosts. “The folks who don’t see it that way aren’t really at the show anymore, and the show is far more enjoyable for everybody there.”

When I surveyed the audience after Ashley’s show, her prediction seemed to bear out. Everyone I talked to either didn’t know about the summer’s controversy, or didn’t care. “I know nothing of drama. That takes a lot of energy to follow,” said Sunshine, a fan of Ashley’s from over the pandemic. People wanted to chat about Ashley’s crowd work, particularly the drunk girl from Missouri who just wouldn’t give up. They had nothing to say about Indianapolis. Perhaps for Ashley Gavin, the post-cancellation cycle doesn’t end with her remaining fans forgiving and forgetting. Just the forgetting, and moving on.

CJ Higgins is a postdoctoral fellow with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

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