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Letting it all hang out at Pride — did it help us in the long run?

We asked a veteran bike dyke, drag queen, leather daddy and go-go dancer to share their first-hand experiences

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The images LGBT people project at Pride gatherings vs. marriage cases has historically been vastly different. (Washington Blade file photos by Michael Key)

Capital Pride and all Pride events have always been — historically and to this day — a place to let one’s hair down and for LGBT folks to be unabashedly themselves. 

Washington, widely seen as a more “buttoned-up” town than, say, New York or Los Angeles, was perhaps not as freewheeling as other cities, especially in the early years of Pride here when it was a one-day block party just off Dupont Circle beginning in 1975, but it’s grown hugely over the decades and for many years we’ve had all the revelers one would expect — scantily clad dancers gyrating around on parade floats, drag queens, leather daddies (sometimes in ass-less chaps), dykes on bikes (some topless) and more. 

Conversely, the image the movement presented in the marriage wars and with LGBT people seeking elected office, was much different. Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin dressed as conservatively as their counterparts on Capitol Hill, there was never anything outré about plaintiffs like Edith Windsor and Jim Obergefell and not-so-surprisingly, current “it” boy wonder, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, is a young, heteronormative-type white gay guy who’s from the Midwest and goes to church. 

The dichotomy has always existed as far back as the late Frank Kameny and the late Barbara Gittings demonstrating (pre-Stonewall) at the White House in skirts (for women) and suits (for men) while the gay masses — practically none out pre-’69 — tended to glom on more to the hippies than the Ozzie and Harriets. One of the organizers of the 1993 Gay March on Washington drew criticism from within LGBT circles for wearing leather to the White House to meet Bill Clinton. 

But given the mainstream media’s penchant for televising more flamboyant factions in its Pride coverage and political enemies on the right painting Pride gatherings as dens of debauchery, what kind of tension existed between the two extremes? And now 50-some years down the road, did any of it matter? Might we have gotten further faster if we’d somehow reined in our Pride season excesses?

Many folks say either no, it’s a self-hating query or it’s irrelevant. 

Or perhaps we needed both? 

That’s what Cathy Renna, a long-time PR and media LGBT expert formerly of GLAAD, says. 

“We need all of it. Why? Because we are all of it,” Renna says. “Our community is all of it and I think it’s disingenuous to even try to divide people over this. Why are we always trying to divide each other all the time? There are always gonna be folks out there going to Pride because they just want for that one day or one week out of the year, to let their hair down and celebrate, and when I say celebrate, I don’t mean just have a party and get drunk. I mean celebrate our community, celebrate our diversity, celebrate our resilience for goodness sake, celebrate the progress that, in some ways, we’re still hanging on to by a thread in the time we live in. Then get back to work the next day.”

Renna, GLAAD’s national news media director from ’95-’02 and a volunteer for several years prior, says the issue has ramifications in how it plays out among LGBT people and outside that sphere. 

As for the latter, Renna says historically it wasn’t so much about the media playing up “debauchery,” so much as it was looking for the most visual, arresting images.

“It was as much about their need to take a photo or shoot video of something different and interesting and highly visual than it was about homophobia or transphobia or wanting to find the more quote-unquote — and please include that because I don’t consider this to be true — but extreme parts of our community. Yes, drag queens and leather people are far more interesting than me and … what we fought for and I think eventually successfully achieved was a diversity of representation without diminishing, demeaning, minimizing or criticizing the parts of our community that are, to use the word of the day, flamboyant.” 

Renna says drag queens and leather daddies at Pride deserve respect.

1993 Gay Pride Day in D.C. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

“They were the ones who were brave enough to be themselves and who were raising money for VD clinics before AIDS was even an issue,” she says. “People used to say, ‘But that doesn’t represent me.’ Well guess what — you don’t represent them. We’re a diverse community and this is really about two things — the media’s role and how the media works, which a lot of people don’t understand, and how we within our own community have our own isms — our own internalized homophobia, racism, sexism and transphobia and how it plays out.”

But look at the plaintiffs in the marriage cases and various successful LGBT elected officials, the images they project and it’s not a huge leap to imagine there was some vetting and grooming going on behind the scenes. Sure, those arenas are much different than a Pride event, but even so, one imagines movement gatekeepers would have only been doing their due diligence in monitoring plaintiff or candidate deportment at critical times.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, Ind.) speaks at a campaign rally at City Winery in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Chuck Wolfe, former president/CEO of the Victory Fund from 2003-2015, says not really.

“I never participated in any conversation like that,” he says. “We had kind of an operating opinion at Victory when I was there that all is fair and it takes every part of our community moving the ball forward and one of the reasons we were successful as fast as we were is because there was no one controlling entity saying, ‘You have to do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do that.’ Everybody was doing their part whether it was at a Pride event, testifying on Capitol Hill — all of it mattered, every bit of it.”

Patrick Wojahn, out mayor of College Park, Md., who with his partner Dave Kolesar was one of the couples in the 2006 ACLU/Equality Maryland state marriage case, says it was made clear to him and other plaintiffs to be mindful of their status as representatives.

“One thing we were cognizant of and they made sure we understood was that we were representing the entire LGBT community and we were kind of the face of that,” Wojahn says. “We weren’t supposed to stand in for every single LGBT person out there, but when people saw us, it was understood that how LGBT act, for better or worse, and the political success or failure of what we were doing had a lot to do with how people perceived the LGBT community. It’s true in politics as well. It’s great to have places like Pride where people can act like freaks and do whatever comes upon them to do, but that’s a very different world than say politics where you have to come across as relatable to the people you’re trying to advocate for. It’s best in political situations if you don’t have to overcome that barrier of relatability. If you’re trying to sell people on the idea that we’re entitled to respect, it’s first helpful if they can relate to you on a personal level.”   

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Patrick Wojahn, on right, with his husband, Dave Kolesar in Annapolis, Md. at a celebration for marriage equality being signed into Maryland state law on March 1, 2012. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Wojahn says he doubts there was ever much hand-wringing behind the scenes about Pride behavior, but says it’s become less and less of an issue over the years if it ever was one.

“Maybe this is just my skewed perspective of living in the D.C. metro area, but I think there’s been a growing recognition that not all gay people who live next to you are necessarily like the ones out dancing on the floats,” he says. “We’re just as diverse as straight and cisgender people. We have a lot of different things we’re interested in and do a lot of different things. Not all straight people do crazy things. … It’s important to have all different types of people out there being visible.” 

Not everyone sees it that way, however. Lloyd Shipley, a longtime 17th Street, N.W. resident, is 70, speaks with a deliciously gravelly voice and prides himself on being a sort of D.C. gay resident curmudgeon type. He’s been attending Capital Pride for 21 years since coming out of straight life (he was married twice to women) and says both Pride and LGBT people in general have gone increasingly downhill over the years. 

“This is just my opinion — I believe in opinions and we can have different ones — but I’m so tired of everything being so sexualized in the gay community,” Shipley says. “I feel like Pride has forgotten what Pride is about. You ask nine out of 10 people on Sunday what the theme is this year, they won’t know. But ask them what the best party was, they’ll all know that. I remember my first Pride, I was in Dupont Circle by myself because I didn’t know anybody and I saw float after float and I just cried because they were so meaningful. We should be proud of our accomplishments. Can we knock off the sex shit? Make the floats something to remember. Honor Frank Kameny. Honor Stonewall — not a bunch of guys walking around with their asses hanging out with squirt guns.”

Shipley says it’s not just a Pride problem, but overarching issues he considers rampant among D.C. gays just end up getting writ large there because of the size of the gathering. He says friends in his age bracket are equally fed up.

“I know a lot of older people who say, ‘You know what? I’m done with it. We haven’t been in 15 years.’”

He used to open his home to friends to watch the parade but got tired of ending up with a houseful of 50 people half of whom he says he didn’t know. It took the cake the year he says he found two guys he didn’t know having sex in his bed. This year he’s just inviting a few friends over. They may or may not watch the parade.

“It’s so disorganized,” he says. “It goes on and on, there are huge gaps in the flow, you’ll see float after float after float and none of them reflect the theme whatsoever. It’s gotta mean something. It can’t just be a bunch of half-naked guys throwing beads and squirting people. … I’m gonna write a book someday called ‘Thine Own Worst Enemy.’ We moan and groan about how things are but how much of it is our own damn fault?”

Renna says sensationalizing or using Pride footage as a scare tactic for Middle America may have worked in the short term here and there, but ultimately wasn’t successful.

“I think it did us a favor in that it pushed our visibility,” Renna says. “We pushed through it and it taught us that we need to be better at showing the full diversity of our community. It’s not about don’t show drag queens and leather people, it’s about don’t just show drag queens and leather people.”

Renna says the issue came up constantly in her years of media training. LGBT activists, especially, she says, in smaller markets, lamented the attention the drag queens and go-go boys would get.

“It’s because they’re interesting,” she says. “Be creative, do something interesting. I used to tell GLSEN chapters, rent a school bus, fill it with people, get creative, dress as crossing guards, be fun, be visible. People walking down the street in khakis and T-shirts? Not interesting!”

Wojahn says the whole thing can be touchy.

“If you’re trying to sell people on the idea that we’re entitled to respect, it’s first helpful to relate to them on a personal level,” he says. “You may be taking on a bit more than you can chew when you say, ‘I want you to accept that I’m LGBT, am in a committed relationship and want legal representation with this person, but I also want you to deal with the fact that I’m standing here topless with piercings.” 

We asked some early Capital Pride participants for their thoughts. 

Ella Fitzgerald, drag queen

Ella Fitzgerald at Gay Pride Day in 2003. (Washington Blade file photo)

Being a drag queen decade after decade ain’t easy. Just ask Ella Fitzgerald (aka Donnell Robinson), arguably Washington’s most veteran and highly regarded queen.

She remembers her first Capital Pride in 1986 and says it was a much different experience than it is today. Riding with a contingent of Academy of Washington queens in a convertible through Adams Morgan, she remembers being harassed.

“There were straight Latinos giving us the sign language of death signs,” she says. “They harassed the girls on the bikes with their tits out and all that. We’ve definitely come a long way since ’86. It’s much more accepted now. People understand the whole drag thing, the leather community. It’s very diverse now and I remember back in the ‘80s, even in our own community, there was so much discrimination between the drag, the leather and the lesbians. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but we have become much more accommodating of each other’s differences.”

Fitzgerald, 64 and a hairdresser by day, says she was never concerned about being filmed in an early Pride parade or festival. She says she was the first drag queen featured in Washingtonian magazine in 1984 and was happy for the coverage. 

She says things have, in her opinion, gotten a bit unnecessarily wild at times over the years.

“The gays who are more flamboyant and make it very obvious, I feel at times that has put a damper on everything we’re trying to achieve,” Fitzgerald says. “How do I say this? There are gays out there on a different level. More class, more sophistication and the younger kids, they’re like wild kids that have been let of a cage and they just act like, ‘I’m gonna do and say whatever I feel at the moment,’ going around in shorts and a T-shirt, ‘cause I want to be seen and I don’t care, this is me and if I want to marry a woman or a man — it’s a lot.”

On the other hand, she doesn’t believe in reining anything in just to be more palatable to straight people.

“Of course not,” she says. “We absolutely need all aspects of the rainbow. I grew up in the ‘70s and it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come in 40-some years. It makes me wonder what the future’s gonna be.”

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

Margaret McCarthy, Outriders

Margaret McCarthy says she was never shy about being seen at Pride parades even 30 years ago. (Photo courtesy McCarthy)

Margaret McCarthy’s Capital Pride experience has evolved over the years.

She came out in the mid-‘80s and has been going to Capital Pride since about ’86 or ’87. She was a member of Open Door Metropolitan Community Church, a sister parish of sorts to MCC-D.C., and participated for years with other parishioners in the Pride parade. 

She got into motorcycles around 2009 through a former girlfriend and started riding in Pride with Dykes on Bikes around 2013. A break-off group called Outriders kind of took over a year or so later and eventually McCarthy joined their contingent. They usually have between 40-60 riders each year. Most are members but some join them just for the day. 

She agrees with Cathy Renna that a diversity of representation is needed at Pride and in the world in general.

“There are all kinds of people that are part of the gay community — the fairies, the drag queens and all that and that’s part of my community,” says the 54-year-old Montgomery County Police service aide for the 6th District Station in Gaithersburg. “I don’t have to necessarily get it or understand it. I love them and they are part of my community.”

McCarthy says sometimes PDAs get a bit much but it’s not really an LGBT thing.

“I’ve done it. I’ve been walking at Pride and grabbed my girlfriend for a kiss or whatever,” she says. “If you see a couple making out on the Metro or Pride or wherever, I don’t care if they’re gay or straight, I don’t think that’s appropriate. But at a Pride festival, absolutely, it’s about letting go. It’s the one day you can really let your hair down and be totally who you are.”

As for Pride images getting manipulated by political enemies, McCarthy agrees it happens but says LGBT revelers shouldn’t let it dampen their spirits.

“They make it look like it’s all about depravity and sex and stuff and yeah, it makes me mad because that’s not who we are and unfortunately, there are people who may not know gay people and think that’s the whole spectrum. They see that and say, ‘Well look at those faggots and dykes, they’re scum,’ so yeah, it makes me mad. But it’s just one part of our community, it’s not the whole community.” 

How has it changed?

McCarthy says she remembers getting harassed at early D.C. Pride events. 

“They would see we were with a church and they’d say, ‘How can you be Christian and gay, you’re totally violating the Bible.’ I don’t know if it was Westboro Baptist or who it was, but yeah, there was some of that in the early years.”

McCarthy had protections in writing at her job so she was never worried about being recognized at Pride. She was fully out by her mid-20s.

She says a few Outriders go topless or cover just their nipples.

“I just kind of shake my head and go, ‘Whatever.’ It doesn’t offend me. I don’t really get it — they must get horrible sunburn, but yeah, not many of us do it.” 

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

Kenneth, go-go dancer

Our scantily clad dancer of yore, Kenneth, declined to give his last name. He danced nude at Secrets starting at age 18 from 1996-1999 but is in business now and says he prefers his clients today not know of his past work. 

He participated in several Pride parades on the Ziegfeld’s/Secrets float with Ella. The dancers would typically wear matching short shorts and Secrets tank tops.

“I don’t know what the rules are now, I think it’s relaxed a little, but we weren’t ever in thongs or bikinis or things like that,” he says. “We kept it a little more covered back then.”

He was fully out at the time and not fearful of being seen. He says most of the dancers then who were gay were out and not fearful of being seen. A few dancers were straight, he says, but “didn’t seem concerned about” being in a Pride parade.

Now 40, he remembers those years fondly.

“It was a very interesting thing to do when I was 19 or 20. I got to sew my wild oats and it was good experience overall. I learned a lot.”

Kenneth says it’s probably a non-issue today but he suspects more scandalous Pride behavior probably did work against LGBT rights in years past.

“There was a lack of exposure then so if all you saw through the ‘70s to the ‘90s was how they televised it, then you only knew part of the story. I think once there was more exposure, people understood that was only one aspect of the community.” 

He says Pride was a much different experience for everyone 20-30 years ago.

“For a lot of people, that was the only time they could be gay,” he says. “They weren’t able to dress and behave the way they wanted to the other 364 days of the year, it was back to their normal attire and behavior, so I would say it’s died down some because we can be ourselves more year round now. If you could only do that during Pride, people tended to go more over the top.” 

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

John Watson, leather enthusiast

John Watson (Photo courtesy of Watson)

Gay leather enthusiast John Watson says he first got into the D.C. leather scene at age 16 when he and two male friends his age, who lived in Arlington, began going to the D.C. Eagle, the city’s only leather bar, around 1974.

It was a time when the city’s bars and nightclubs, both gay and straight, didn’t consistently require ID checks for young-looking customers, Watson says.

About one year later, in June 1975, shortly after he turned 17, Watson and his two gay friends attended D.C.’s first Gay Pride event, which consisted of a block party on 20th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle.

Although the three were getting more and more into the leather scene and drove into D.C. nearly every weekend to go to the Eagle, neither of them wore leather at that first Pride block party, Watson says.

“We had on shorts and tank tops, which of course we took off and were shirtless,” he says. “But with the leather scene back then, people didn’t want to appear out in public in it. And thinking back, I don’t remember seeing anybody that first time in leather. There may have been, but I don’t remember seeing anybody in leather.”

It wasn’t until around 1980, Watson thinks, when the D.C. Pride festival had moved from 20th Street to the grounds of Francis School next to P Street Beach Park, that leather enthusiasts began attending Pride wearing leather clothes and gear.

“As it progressed more and more you saw more leather,” he says. “It was when people got to the point where they really weren’t scared, more or less around 1980. People got tired of being in the closet.”

Watson recalls that in the earlier years he and his friends, along with many others in the leather scene, were fearful of the possible repercussions of being publicly identified as leather guys. Being so identified would automatically out you as being gay, he says, as well as out you — even among gays — as being weird or odd.

“It was what you would call an underground community,” he says. “A lot of people felt it was not only strange but perverted, to be honest. If you were into that, you kept your mouth shut most of the time because you didn’t want anyone to know. Even the regular gay people were, ‘Oh, wow, that’s perverted.’ It wasn’t until the 1990s that I began to wear leather in public. Before that I would take it with me and put it on inside the clubs.”

Thankfully, Watson said, attitudes began to change as the LGBT rights movement became more visible and assertive in the 1980s and 1990s. He recalls seeing far more leather folks at D.C. Pride events in those years, possibly even more than what is seen in more recent years as the Pride events have become more “corporatized.”

Watson, who works in insurance, says he managed to keep his interest in leather separate from his work other than times he has worked at the Eagle. Among his most interesting “day work” jobs, he said was a stint from 1983-1988 as an assistant clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among other things, he gave private tours at the court to gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny and then-Washington Blade News Editor Lisa Keen.

LOU CHIBBARO, Jr.

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Corcoran Street Group: LGBTQ lobbyists fighting for our rights

‘The most pro-LGBTQ+ thing you can do this election is to vote Democrat’

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Brad Howard is founder and president of the Corcoran Street Group

We often hear the term lobbyist associated with negative connotations. Think oil and gas initiatives that often seek to curtail environmental protections to further their industries. Consider “big pharma,” which is often vilified for keeping healthcare costs high. However, there are lobbyists fighting for our rights – not just LGBTQ rights, but human rights as well. Brad Howard, founder and president of the Corcoran Street Group (CSG) is one such out, gay lobbyist advocating for equality and equity. 

To start, Howard shares his definition of a lobbyist, which transcends the stereotype that the term originates with politicos literally waiting in D.C. hotel lobbies hoping to hobnob with politicians to foster their interests, often with cash in hand.

“Understanding how government works can be incredibly difficult, even to those on the inside,” he shared. “Lobbying is a constitutionally protected right explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment – the right to petition our government. At its most basic level, lobbying is essentially contacting a public official to express your opinion or ask them to take a certain action. So, if you have ever emailed or called your city council rep or Member of Congress – or even tagged them on social media – you lobbied.”

Howard, who came to Washington from a conservative background in Arkansas, had a journey from working with Republican leaders and causes to being more libertarian before eventually joining with the Blue Dog Democrats. This is quite a change for a young man who founded a teenage GOP group in high school, chaired the college Republicans group at Hendrix University, and became vice chair of Arkansas College Republicans. 

So, how did a nice conservative Christian Republican whose parents voted for Ross Perot instead of Bill Clinton from the Bible Belt end up as a gay lobbyist? 

“I was subconsciously rejecting any attempt to live my life the way someone told me to … a Libertarian streak if you will,” Howard said. “I was always pro-choice and pro-marriage equality as I didn’t want the government anywhere near me. Throughout all of this, I was starting to understand that I was gay and what that meant for my future in politics, it was bleak. Then the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 started pushing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in states across the country to drive evangelical turnout. That ran counter to my politics – to the basic principle of promoting individual liberty. So I left the party then and graduated college as an independent in 2006 with the goal of moving to Washington as quickly as possible.”

By 2007 he was living in Washington, D.C., interning for Simon Rosenberg’s New Democrat Network, and pursuing a master’s from American University. Coming out for Howard happened on the first day he entered college, quite a “daunting and scary” task summed up by him as: “I have blue eyes. I love playing cards. I’m a terrible, but very confident karaoke singer. Oh, by the way, I’m gay.”

The “it’s part of me, but not my whole identity,” is often expressed by those on the – shall we say – cusp of coming out. He cites a Foundry United Methodist pastor’s message as impetus for coming out as a defining part of his identity. 

“That seed of shame you feel for being gay – that was not planted there by God; it was planted there by the church, and I’m sorry,” here he’s referring to a sermon by Pastor Ginger Gaines-Cerelli. “I can’t describe what it [felt] like to be 33 years old and have your world completely upended like that. It wasn’t just the statement, which answered a question that had long haunted me; it was also the apology. I didn’t even know that I needed an apology, but I did, and it worked.” 

Before starting CSG, he worked at a bipartisan lobbyist group and was mentored by former Chief of Senate Staff Bob Van Heuvelen. Howard describes his mentor’s approach to lobbying as guided by a strong moral compass, and seeing people as people, not transactions. 

The way it should be: Since corporations are not people.

Howard also sits on the board of directors for Q Street, as treasurer. Q Street is an LGBTQ lobbyist organization. Yesenia Henninger, the out queer president of Q Street since January of this year – and board member for five years – explains in further detail what her group does to foster queer rights. 

“Q Street is the nonprofit, nonpartisan, professional association of LGBTQ lobbyists and public policy advocates. Q Street was formed to be the bridge between LGBTQ advocacy organizations, LGBTQ+ lobbyists on K Street,” District lingo for queer lobbyists, “and our colleagues and allies on Capitol Hill. Q Street has more than 3,000 recipients of our monthly newsletter, hundreds of attendees at our receptions, and our monthly luncheons have featured speakers such as Members of Congress, campaign managers, activists, plaintiffs in the most important LGBTQ+ Supreme Court cases of our time, and the Secretary of the Army. Q Street hosts nearly 25 receptions, lunches, and professional development events every year. Our goal is to provide the best networking opportunities and professional development trainings so our members continue to grow within the ranks of their field.”

According to Henninger there has been a growing population of queer lobbyists since the Obama years. Marriage equality, an impetus for Howard to perhaps “come out politically” equally spurred their growth. After Obama, this presence fought to maintain rights gained. This is amazing growth considering at one time people working for our equity did so in an almost secretive fashion. 

An aside here, Sean Strub the founder of POZ Magazine, wrote a powerful book in 2014 called “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival,” which chronicles advocacy in D.C. in the years after Stonewall.

The majority of these K Street lobbyists are in their 30s and 40s. Although Henninger shares there are more junior and more senior-ranking lobbyists in terms of age or career. 

What do they do? Is it office-to-event, sleep, repeat? Henninger explained that a queer lobbyist’s lifestyle varies depending on the issue area they focus on. Her organization has lobbyists working in policy as well as members who focus on energy and transportation issues, and topics all across the spectrum.

“The lobbyists and advocates whose roles require them to engage in political activity may also have different lifestyles than those that do not. They likely have fundraisers (sometimes one, sometimes multiple) that they attend after work with Members of Congress or other politicians. However, we also have many public policy advocate members who spend their day talking to Members of Congress, or administration officials, trying to achieve their policy goals that do not have any fundraiser-related obligations. Q Street hopes to provide a great space for our members to network with one another and unite their social and professional experiences in the district.”

We are all aware what is at stake in the upcoming presidential election in what can only sadly be described as a deeply divided nation. What role will LGBTQ lobbyists play, I asked Brad Howard.  

“If you vote third party, if you leave the race blank, or if you stay home, you are helping to elect Donald Trump,” he said. “You are not punishing Joe Biden, you are punishing the millions of Americans, the millions of aspiring Americans who face deportation, millions of women who depend on access to reproductive health, and so many transgender young people who need protection – all of these people will be punished in a Trump presidency. And, Joe Biden is going to need a Democratic Congress – or we’ll need a Democratic Congress to stop Donald Trump. So to me, the most pro-LGBTQ+ thing you can do this election is to vote Democrat…because the choices have never been clearer.”

Visit Corcoran Street Group and Q Street to learn more about their work.

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Rehoboth’s Purple Parrot still soaring after 25 years

Owners Hugh Fuller and Troy Roberts reflect on keys to their success

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Longtime Purple Parrot employee Chris Chandler. (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

Two buildings, one romance, and 25 years later, the Purple Parrot is busy as ever. 

If the tropical purple paint covering the outside with rainbow flags and walls covered with love notes, affirmations, and drunk wishes scribbled on dollar bills don’t indicate it already, the Purple Parrot is an institution in Rehoboth. The gay-owned and operated fixture is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 

The Blade sat down with owners Hugh Fuller and Troy Roberts of the Rehoboth establishment to discuss the past 25 years and plans for the future. 

Fuller and Roberts, both gay, have been working together since before the Parrot was even an idea. Fuller was a co-owner of the Iguana, another restaurant and bar in the town.  

“I was in the Iguana first with another business partner,” Fuller said. “I was going to get out and move up to Pennsylvania with him [Roberts]. He decided that he was going to come down and said, ‘Well, what if I go in with you at the Iguana and we do it together?’ And I was like, ‘Alright,’ so we did, and it just snowballed from there. We were always in the restaurant business together from the beginning.” 

“Yeah, that was really luck, too,” Roberts began. “Because-” 

“Because Grindr wasn’t around then!” Fuller interjected, laughing as Roberts began to roll his eyes and smile. 

“I had a small place up in York,” Roberts continued. “Selling that kind of gave us some money to buy the other guy out. We just had friends supporting us and helping us along the way and it just kind of worked.” 

“Kind of worked” would be an understatement. The pair moved on from the Iguana and opened the Parrot. Then, after opening the Parrot, they decided to shift locations to a larger location down the street to accommodate the growing demand. Then in 2010, the Parrot expanded again, adding the land behind the Rehoboth Avenue location, which provided an additional 950 square feet as well as giving patrons access to Wilmington Avenue. 

The bar and restaurant, which serves American cuisine with a beach flair, has always focused on being a welcoming space to all regardless of sexuality, gender, race, nationality, or identity. This, the duo explains, is one of the reasons why the restaurant has had such a lasting impact on the Rehoboth restaurant and gay communities. 

The Purple Parrot (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

“Back in the ‘90s when we first opened up, the amount of straight crossdressers that would come were like, ‘Oh, are we allowed to come in? Are we welcomed into a place like that?’ And we were like ‘Everybody that walks on this planet is welcome here!’” Fuller said. “Those are the kinds of things, you know, where people just felt comfortable. They would get stared at out on the street, but inside they would walk around and feel like they were in their own skin. It was just really cool to see.”

The feeling of acceptance has been a crucial part of the Parrot’s success.

“I got an email a couple of days ago — probably two weeks ago about a woman bringing her daughter down,” Roberts said. “She’s 16 and was bullied through school — hard times, depression, tried to harm herself a couple of times. It was just really sweet that she reached out and she’s like, ‘My daughter was a completely different person when I brought her into your bar. Everybody treated her nice — the bartenders, the waitstaff, I mean, everybody was friendly. She just doesn’t experience that often being an out 16-year-old lesbian. We just can’t even thank you enough.’ It’s those kinds of things that we get often.”

“[The mother] mainly wrote it because we put the Pride flag on the Parrot’s Facebook wall,” Fuller added. 

The colorful lights, disco balls, and staggering number of dollar bills stapled to the walls highlight that the Rehoboth community has embraced the Parrot. It’s not uncommon to see a group of gay patrons sitting at the bar in bathing suits sipping on orange crushes and talking about their day at Poodle Beach while a bachelorette party belts out Lady Gaga on karaoke night in the room next door. That is the vibe Fuller and Roberts have curated — a fun and friendly tropical oasis in the middle of Rehoboth Avenue.  

A crucial element of this curated vibe, the pair point out, is treating employees and guests with respect. When asked what they have learned that helped them be so successful over the past 25 years, Fuller and Roberts said the same thing.

“Patience, organization, and treating people well,” Roberts said.” I think that’s probably one of the bigger of the three — you treat them well and they treat you well. I think it’s just a mutual respect.” 

 “It took me about 30 years to learn that it’s not just all about work,” Fuller said. “I used to bust my butt in there all the time and the focus was [on] the restaurant. I know [Roberts] said patience, I would say mine was being patient too because I learned going in that it’s easier to deal with your employees without shouting at them. It took me a little while to get through that.” 

He added that compensating staff fairly was also one of their keys to success. 

 “Before we take a nickel out of our business, we put $1 back into our employees’ pockets,” Fuller said. We want the business to survive and it has been incredible.”  

Fuller added that this sentiment, of having patience and treating everyone with respect, goes both ways — it applies to the Parrot’s patrons as well. 

“If you leave the Parrot angry, it’s your own decision,” Fuller explained. “If we don’t make you happy there, it’s because you’re choosing not to be happy. We will go out of our way to correct anything and everything that we can. So if you leave [unhappy], it’s not because we couldn’t do it. It’s because you didn’t want us to.”

The two discussed their history together — anyone who has them interact can see their spirited energy and appreciation for each other. 

 “Troy and I used to be a couple when we first opened, and we were together for about 10 years,” Fuller said. “And then we kind of went our separate ways, but the restaurant kept us in very close contact. Sometimes I think we’re probably closer than most couples are because of the way that the restaurant has us tied together.” 

“Even during the worst of it, we never stopped communicating on a daily basis,” Roberts added. “Obviously, you can tell by his personality why that all went south,” he said laughing. 

“Well, you can tell by the way that he looks why it went south.” Fuller jabbed back, also laughing.

“Hey!” Roberts replied. 

“I wasn’t gonna continue dating my grandfather!” Fuller joked. 

Despite the end of their romantic relationship, there was still clear evidence of perpetual good energy between the business partners. The two then started to reminisce about the past 25 years and the struggles and successes they overcame to reach this milestone. 

The pair mentioned the two biggest struggles they have faced in the past quarter century. One was when Rehoboth Avenue was dug up for the Streetscape improvement project, and the second was the 2008 recession. 

“We were refinancing our houses several times to keep it afloat there for a little while,” Fuller said. 

“But hey, we got nice sidewalks now!” Roberts added. “So that’s good.”

 It’s not just the customers who grew up with the Parrot; so did the staff.

“I mean one of the kids who bussed for us is now our dentist,” Fuller said.

“One of the busboys from the Iguana days, he’s our dentist now,” Roberts explained. “They actually started dating in high school while working together at the Iguana. One of them followed us to the Parrot and her daughter just worked for us two summers ago as a host. He’s our dentist, and they’re still local. We just sold him a house over in Lewes, because we’re both Realtors on the side. When you look back at that, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you were just a kid. And now you have a kid graduating college!’ It goes fast.” 

It seems that many of the staff have a soft spot for the Parrot, and for good reason. An important aspect of keeping their employees happy is supporting them. At first, it was trips to Disney World with some of the servers and renting out the local waterpark to give kids time to enjoy the summer. Then it became Christmas bonuses, which are not common in the food service industry. 

The Parrot helped raise more than $10,000 for one of their employees dealing with fallout from the war in Ukraine. 

“One of our bartenders being from Ukraine, when all that went down, amazingly, how he was able to bring a lot of his family over,” Roberts said. “And until they actually got grounded, he had places for them to stay all lined up.”

“The reason that he was able to get them over is because we did a fundraiser at the restaurant and our customers raised over $10,000 to help sponsor his family and one of our other employees’ families,” Fuller said. “They brought them all the way up through Mexico and into the country and now they’re here with citizenship cards and working for us. We got them houses and apartments too.” 

“We don’t care what they are, whether they’re straight, Black, Chinese, Mexican. It’s like the Benetton of Rehoboth in here,” Fuller added. “It’s the United Nations. We support everybody and we’re not afraid to show our support for everybody.”

In addition to reminiscing about some of the good things the restaurant has done for its employees, they both talked about notable guests of the Parrot. 

“My mind went right to the guys from Manhattan, who would always come down,” Roberts said when asked if any guests have stuck out to him over the past 25 years. “They just happened to find us. They had never been to Rehoboth before. They walked into the original Parrot and had every single year after that until two of them passed away. It just became like a yearly week, then it turned into two weeks, and then it turned into two times a year. And it was all just because they came to one bar, and had so much fun. They would sit there all day, all night, go home take a nap, and come back for dinner. And it was just their place.” 

They have faced some objections from those who were not as receptive to their tolerance of different people.

“We get the same hate that everybody else does — the same hate that the city got when they put the rainbow crossings in and the flag up,” Fuller said. “I was just telling Troy about a conversation I had yesterday with a guy. The front of our business for Pride month has flags on it and says ‘Happy Pride.’ And he said, ‘I was going to come in here but I see you’re supporting the gay community with your rainbow flags.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t see why you don’t have flags for veterans.’ And I said,’ Well, as a veteran, I can tell you that we don’t serve to be recognized, we serve to protect and to give you guys your freedom. It’s not something that we want recognition for. But there is a flag, the American flag, that flies over the top of our business every day to represent the veterans of this country.’” 

Despite the opinions of some who are less than welcoming of the LGBTQ community, the Purple Parrot will always be a safe space to celebrate, the two affirmed. And celebrate they will. 

The Parrot already hosted one party to celebrate the milestone of the bar early in the summer, but will throw an even bigger bash at the end of the season to commemorate the history and hard work that has gone into making the Parrot ‘fly.’

“On May fifth we had a big party,” Fuller said. “We’ll have another one at the end of the summer in September. We did one at the beginning and then we’re going to do a really big one at the end of the summer. The first celebration, that weekend, turned out to be a little rainy, and misty so it wasn’t as big as it could have been. It was packed inside but it wasn’t packed outside like it normally is. We usually do a full cookout barbecue, all that stuff and we’ll do that again at the end of the summer. We’ll have another one of those with DJs. I am not sure about a drag show, but we’ll probably have something because the girls are trying to get something together. We don’t want to spoil anything but there will be a surprise.”  

When asked to give their final thoughts on owning and running one of Rehoboth’s most successful businesses as gay men, the two made it clear that it has to be a safe and welcoming space for all for it to succeed. 

“I think you have to be all-inclusive,” Roberts said. “I don’t think in today’s world you can just really limit it to the gay community. You have to be gay-friendly, and accepting as well. And I think that helps because it gets non-gays in there and everybody just starts to get along. It becomes more accepted and then becomes the norm.” 

Fuller agreed but emphasized being true to one’s character in collaboration with being inclusive is the key to their success.

“Being gay isn’t who we are, you know, it’s what we are,” Fuller said. “You can’t be afraid to be you. … If you’re going to open up a business, you want to make sure you lean on the community, because the community is going to be your biggest support. And that’s how we definitely lean on the gay community.”

The Purple Parrot is located at 134 Rehoboth Ave. in Rehoboth Beach and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Sundays. For more information, visit their website at ppgrill.com.

Purple Parrot (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Queer TV anchors in Md. use their platform ‘to fight for what’s right’

Salisbury’s Hannah Cechini, Rob Petree are out and proud in Delmarva

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Hannah Cechini and Rob Petree anchor the 5:30 p.m. newscast at WMDT 47, the ABC affiliate in Salisbury, Md. (Photo courtesy WMDT)

Identity can be a tricky thing for journalists to navigate. The goal of the job is to inform the public with no bias, but this is difficult, if not impossible, to do in practice. Everything from your upbringing to the books you read can impact how you view and cover the world. But sometimes these factors can help shine a light on an underrepresented community or issue.  

Two broadcast journalists in Salisbury, Md., are using the subtle, yet impactful choice of sharing their queer identities to strengthen their reporting and connection to the community. 

Hannah Cechini, who is non-binary, and Rob Petree, who is gay, co-host the 5:30-6:30 p.m. newscast for WMDT 47. They are the only known anchor team that are not only both queer, but also open out about their identities on air and, as Petree put it, “always use [their] platform and power that [we] have to fight for what’s right.”

Cechini’s passion for journalism played an important role in the discovery of their gender identity. They knew they were meant to be in the newsroom before they figured out they were non-binary.

“I was doing this job before I started to identify as non-binary,” Cechini told the Blade. “I’d always watch the evening news with my dad growing up and thought it was the coolest thing. And throughout high school, I worked on the school paper.”

After graduating from Suffolk University in Boston, Cechini’s passion for journalism only grew as they began to work in the world of news media, eventually ending up in Salisbury. As they honed their writing, editing, and anchoring skills at WMDT, Cechini also started to take an introspective look into their gender identity.

A little more than two years ago Cechini came out as non-binary to their coworkers in the newsroom and was met with support all around. “It was definitely smoother than I anticipated,” they said.

“It is very freeing to be able to do this job as a non-binary person because I haven’t really seen much of that representation myself.” 

Petree, on the other hand, knew he was gay right around the same time he became interested in news media, at age 14. He started working for his high school news show and used it as a way to be open about his sexuality rather than hide it. 

“I broke into broadcasting doing the morning announcements,” he said. “I did the weather and started doing a segment called issues and insights,” Petree said, explaining his introduction to the news. Eventually, students would ask him questions about his sexuality after seeing him on the school TV. “It had gotten to the point in school, that if you’re going to come up and ask me if I’m gay, well shit, I’m going to tell you!”

To him, this was the exact reason he had come out. Petree wanted to motivate others to live honestly. 

“There are a lot of people who will spend most of their lives not being out so if they can see someone like me, who’s out and proud doing his thing, so to speak, then maybe that’s the inspiration for them,” Petree said. “To search their own soul, find out who they are, and live their full life.”

Petree explained that he got his start in a space that was not always welcoming to his queerness. This tested the delicate balance between being a journalist and holding your identity close.

“I’ve always been out and it was a challenge because I got my start in conservative talk radio,” Petree said. “I’m going to be honest, some of the things I heard from people I’ve worked with, from the callers to the radio stations were absolutely abhorrent. But I never let it discourage me. It made me work that much harder.” 

Cechini highlighted the same sentiment when explaining why it’s important to have out LGBTQ figures in news media. They want to show everyone that it is possible to be openly queer and successful.

“I just think that representation matters because if ‘Joe,’ who’s never seen a transgender person before, sees a transgender person or a non-binary person, doing a job that they’ve only ever seen straight cis people doing before, it kind of creates that understanding or bridges that gap,” Cechini said. “It’s like, ‘OK, maybe they’re not that different from me.’ And that facilitates being able to connect among different communities.”

Both Cechini and Petree agree that having a queer coworker has made their bond stronger. 

 “It’s great to have someone else next to me who I can relate to and work alongside,” Petree said. “And they’re a joy to work with, they really are. There is a tremendous amount of things that we relate to together — like we both share and have the same affinity for Lady Gaga,” he said laughing. “Although they’re more of a Lady Gaga fan than I am.”

“Hannah is a tremendous journalist who really goes out of their way to make sure that the stories that they do are on point 100% of the time,” he added. “They’ve been great to work with and to learn from and to grow alongside. I’m very happy to have them as my co-anchor.”

Cechini explained that the relationship between two co-anchors can make or break a newscast, and having Petree as their partner on air is a major part of the show’s success.

“Co-anchoring is not just the relationship that you have on camera,” Cechini said. “It’s really, really important to have a good relationship with your co-anchor off-camera as well because you have to have a level of trust between you.”

Cechini continued, saying that this relationship is crucial to working together, especially when things don’t go as planned. 

“Not everything always goes to script,” they said. “Sometimes you have to be able to work together without even really talking to each other and just kind of know what to do. When you have a relationship like that with someone who identifies similarly to you or has had similar life experience, I think that just only strengthens that [relationship].”

Although they have had similar experiences being from the LGBTQ community, Petree said it was a change for him to use “they/them” pronouns on air.

“Prior to working with Hannah, I’ve never worked with a non-binary individual who went by the pronouns ‘they/them,’” Petree said. “It was new for me to not use traditional pronouns on air, but I can say that I have never misgendered them on air and never will. You get conditioned to using traditional pronouns and it’s easy to make that mistake, but I never have.”

At the end of the day, they both explained, it is about doing the job right. For the duo, a part of that is understanding the diversity of people and issues in the community. 

“When you come from a more marginalized community, I think that kind of helps to inform you a little better as a journalist because you have a better understanding of what it’s like to be ‘the other guy,’” Cechini said.

“Our talent and our drive for journalism speaks for itself,” Petree said. “And that resonates with people. Have we shown ourselves to be an inspiration to the LGBTQ+ community here in Delmarva? Yes, we have. And that’s something that I’m proud of.”

The primetime nightly newscast with Hannah Cechini and Rob Petree airs weeknights from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on ABC affiliate WMDT 47.

From left, Rob Petree and Hannah Cechini. (Photo courtesy of WMDT)
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