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Pop princess Kim Petras is glossy hitmaker for a new era

26-year-old German songwriter gearing up for first headlining solo tour

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Kim Petras, gay news, Washington Blade

Kim Petras says she’s put the hard work in to build a fan base that means her first solo headlining tour is sold out in most markets. (Photo by Thom Kerr)

Kim Petras

 

‘Broken Tour’

 

Saturday, June 15

 

The Fillmore Silver Spring

 

8656 Colesville Rd.

 

Silver Spring, Md.

 

9 p.m.

 

$23

 

fillmoresilverspring.com

 

kimpetras.com/#tour

German-born, L.A.-based pop princess Kim Petras, 26, is famous for a string of viral hits and videos such as “Heartbeat,” “I Don’t Want It At All,” “Faded” and “Heart to Break” that have been streamed on Spotify more than 16 million times.

Her manager, Larry Rudolph, has bona fide pop cred having managed the careers of Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and 5th Harmony. She was one of four young artists chosen for Spotify’s Rise program in 2017 for emerging pop “superstars,” which sent her song to No. 1 on the company’s Global Viral Chart. She claims about 140 million streams on all platforms worldwide.

“Much of her frothy approach harks back to the era of ‘Dynasty’ shoulder pads and Cyndi Lauper quirks, bolstered by Ms. Petras’ full-throated vocals and ultrabright melodies,” a 2018 New York Times profile noted.

In 2004, at age 12, she was among the youngest trans youth in her native Germany to get hormone therapy paid for by national health care. She had fully transitioned by age 16.

In a heated spate of new music — she’s released 10 cuts so far this year — she brings her “Broken Tour” to the Fillmore Silver Spring Saturday night. She spoke to the Blade by phone two weeks ago from her Los Angeles apartment.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us about your tour. How long will your set be, how is it shaping up, what we can we expect, all that.

KIM PETRAS: I just started rehearsals. I just got back from a writing trip to Hawaii, which was cool, that was a really cool project. So I’m going into rehearsals. I finally get to make the stage the way I want it to be, so that’s really exciting. And I can make my set as long or as short as I want to make it. So I’m picking all the faves and a few songs people don’t even know. I’m definitely going to do some new songs. But yeah, it’s a mix of everything. I love really kind of making each section of my show its own little chapter and a moment of its own so it’s going to have costume changes, different scenarios, different lighting, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. But yeah, it’s definitely going to be good. All the favorites and a little more.

BLADE: Will you have a band with you?

PETRAS: Yeah, my whole crew. … We get along really well.

BLADE: I noticed it wraps in Germany in September. Did you purposefully save Germany for the end?

PETRAS: I want to stay in Cologne for a little bit. I haven’t been there in over a year, which is the city I was born and raised in. I’ve lived in L.A. for about seven years now, so I go back like once a year but not much more, so I’ll take some time to see my family at the end of the run. Everyone else can go home and I’ll hang out with my family for a little bit, then head back to the U.S.

BLADE: Most of the dates are sold out. Will you be adding more dates or bumping up to larger venues or is all that set?

PETRAS: Unfortunately it’s set. After that I go back to writing a bunch more stuff. I’m really prioritizing being in the studio drafting as much new stuff as possible. But I’ll be back touring really soon. I don’t think it’s enough the U.S. tour I’m doing this year, but I’m so excited it’s sold out. Most of it sold out in pre-sales like in five minutes, so it’s pretty nuts. I’m really excited.

BLADE: I saw you on the Troye Sivan tour last year. Your pitch was so dead on all through your set. Do you just have really good ears and lungs or did you have to work on that?

PETRAS: Thank you so much for saying that. I feel like I worked on it every day, just vocal strength. I have those days where I don’t speak at all, where I’m on vocal rest ‘cause yeah, most of my first songs, I wrote them so high because I was a songwriter for a long time and I didn’t realize when you write a song, then you have to sing it every night and that’s really difficult. So I had to quit smoking (laughs) and had to start learning vocal technique really well to be able to do it.

BLADE: I know you idolize Madonna. Do you think she deserved the drubbing she got recently for her pitchy Eurovision performance?

PETRAS:  I absolutely have not seen that performance so I can’t really talk for it, but I think Madonna is like my absolute favorite and I just think she’s like a performer before anything else. I think with her, it’s like about a statement or provoking a thought.

BLADE: Did you get to hang out much or get to know Troye Sivan on tour?

PETRAS: We hung out after shows. His boyfriend is really cool, I really love his boyfriend. His whole team, like his mom was on the tour, it was so sweet, just really cool energy. It was like being friends on this little tour, but it was so much fun. I had a blast. His crowd is so cute and massive so it’s really fun and I feel like I gained a lot of fans. I’m really thankful for Troye having me on that tour and I really loved it. I was sad when it was over.

BLADE: You played Capital Pride last summer. Do you remember that performance? How was it for you?

PETRAS: Yeah, I do. I was wearing a yellow tracksuit, it was really cute. I do remember. It was so much fun. I loved Washington. It was one of my first times walking around. I posted some really cool pictures from all the sites so I’m looking forward to being back.

BLADE: You play a lot of Pride dates but it seems like you’re trying to make your music as mainstream and accessible as possible. Do you sort of downplay being trans to perhaps reach a wider audience or not really?

PETRAS: Um, not really. I don’t have to do anything. I’m my own label, I come up with everything, I’m in charge of everything. I did feel like I wanted to downplay it at the beginning because I didn’t want anybody to say or imply that I was using being transgender to be successful as an artist. That’s like not my interest at all and I wanted to prove to everyone that I can have popular music without anybody knowing my story at all, because I think that gender is pretty irrelevant and I know that it’s become the leading story if I talk about it. I’ve had a lot of experience in my past, my first documentary was like when I was 12 years old, and I went on to do a bunch of documentaries about being transgender. My goal was normalizing it and making people feel that you can be a normal transgender person and have a really happy life. But yeah, I just didn’t want anybody to feel that I used my story to become successful because I know people say shit like that and it’s really rude. It sucks that people are like that but in general I don’t talk about it as much because I’ve already done that. I put out a song on Spotify, nobody knew who I was, it wasn’t my face on the cover and it went to the top of the viral chart on Spotify like right away, so that gave me a kick start and it had nothing to do with my story.

BLADE: Your videos have lots of cool special effects. Are they hard to finance?

PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. I always have these crazy ideas. But I put my own money that I make from shows and doing big events, I put it right back into my music, right into my tour, right into my videos. Anything I earn, I put it right back into my creativity and my artistry. It is a struggle sometimes but I’m very happy with the way things came out so far, thank God. It keeps growing and getting better.

BLADE: There’s no real business model to follow to do what you’re doing. How do you know how much to spend when and on what?

PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. I get great advice. My manager Larry Rudolph … he has a lot of experience so I can always call him and ask him about things like that but how I got started and how I got on Spotify was just trial and error and trying to figure it out, spending too much on one thing and not being able to do another and I feel like I’m just figuring out what’s important at the end of the day is to get the most music, the most content out there. That’s my priority, being one step better each time I do something.

BLADE: What was your toughest or longest video to shoot?

PETRAS: Definitely “Heart to Break.” It was really amazing because we got two days, which doesn’t ever happen that anybody can afford two days. It all gets crammed into one, so definitely that was such a blast. I don’t think any of the videos were hard. They’re definitely exhausting because you’re like waking up at 5 a.m. and finishing up at 3 a.m. and it’s like a whole thing, but I always love it. I always feel super alive when I do days like that. I just pull through and have no sleep. I don’t know why but I really get off on that type of thing.

BLADE: Do you feel albums are obsolete?

PETRAS: I don’t. The way a new artist is breaking is just completely different than it was. I look up to a lot of people who drop a lot of music constantly and I want to be one of those people. But I love a good album and I listen to a lot of albums and I can’t wait to have my own. I can’t spill the tea on that just yet, but I do think people still want albums and want to buy the work and I think it’s great that people still want that.

BLADE: How do you decide which songs to release and at what pace?

PETRAS: My strategy for my first record was like drop a song a moth, so I was like, ‘How do I step that up?’ So this round is once a week until something exciting happens, which I can’t talk about for now, but I’m dropping my sixth song tonight so it’s been six songs, six weeks on Spotify.

BLADE: Have you encountered any transphobia from any music industry gatekeepers?

PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. There was literally this one very high up woman who was like, “You’re going to hell if you work on Kim’s project because being transgender, you’re going to hell.” So that didn’t work out. People were really freaked out by it, a lot of industry people, um yeah. I was shopping for deals and people were really excited about the music but were definitely freaked out by the trans thing, so it was definitely my best choice to go AWAL (artist without a label), to go independent. I still feel like there are a bunch of people being like, “Who is this transgender girl,” people are definitely weirded out by it, but just having a fan base and just being able to sell out shows — I’ve been putting in the work, changing things and I think people are starting to think that maybe a trans artist can do the damn thing and be a real pop star, but yeah, let’s see.

BLADE: Your tour is basically sold out without really having cracked U.S. radio. Is that even relevant anymore?

PETRAS: I think it’s still definitely relevant. I’m competitive so I want to have hits, of course. But, you know, at the end of the day, what I really want to be able to do is to tour forever. I really want to be one of those artists who has a real fan base and I’ve been putting in the work for like four years now, I’ve been playing every gay club there is, all over the U.S., making real connections. I’ve been building a real career and a real fan base. I mean sure, I want to have that one song that puts me on the map, I want to have a No. 1, but at the end of the day, this is already like so amazing to me because I never thought I’d be able to do this. It’s my job now to do music and to perform and I’m really excited about that. There are lots of people out there with this who can’t fill a tiny venue that I can fill three nights, so I don’t know. … I do believe that if you keep going and keep working on it, it will happen eventually. I’m very proud to be doing my own headlining tour and I’m very proud of my band. They’re amazing, they complete me. I’m happy.

BLADE: You seem pretty prolific. Do you have to be disciplined to keep writing or does it just happen?

PETRAS: I’m jittery as hell if I haven’t written a song in like three days. I get cranky. I’m always looking for sentences, always watching movies and listening to the dialogue, picking certain things up. In my head, I’m always thinking about the next song. I’m always in the studio when I’m not on the road. It’s studio, tour, studio, tour, all the time and I love it. After awhile I miss being on the road and when I’ve been on tour awhile, I miss the studio.

Kim Petras (Photo by Spencer Byron)

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Juliet Hawkins’s music defies conventional categorization

‘Keep an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to evolve’

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Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Emerging from the dynamic music scene of Los Angeles, Juliet Hawkins seamlessly integrates deeply soulful vocals with contemporary production techniques, crafting a distinctive sound that defies conventional categorization.

Drawing inspiration from the emotive depth of Amy Winehouse and weaving together elements of country, blues, and pop, Hawkins’ music can best be described as a fusion–perhaps best termed as soulful electronica. Yet, even this characterization falls short, as Hawkins defines herself as “a blend of a million different inspirations.”

Hawkins’s musical palette mirrors her personae: versatile and eclectic. Any conversation with Hawkins makes this point abundantly clear. She exhibits the archetype of a wild, musical genius while remaining true to her nature-loving, creative spirit. Whether recording in the studio for an album release, performing live in a studio setting, or playing in front of a live audience, Hawkins delivers her music with natural grace. 

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

However, Hawkins’s musical journey is far from effortless. Amid personal challenges and adversity, she weaves her personal odyssey of pain and pleasure, transforming these experiences into empowering anthems.

In a candid interview with the Blade, Hawkins spoke with profound openness and vulnerability about her past struggles with opiate and heroin addiction: “That was 10 years ago that I struggled with opiates,” she shared. Yet, instead of letting her previous addiction define her, Hawkins expressed to the Blade that she harbors no shame about her past. “My newer music is much more about empowerment than recovery,” she explained, emphasizing that “writing was the best way to process trauma.”

Despite her struggles with addiction, Hawkins managed to recover. However, she emphasizes that this recovery is deeply intertwined with her spiritual connection to nature. An illustrative instance of Hawkins’ engagement with nature occurred during the COVID pandemic.

Following an impulse that many of us have entertained, she bought a van and chose to live amidst the trees. It was during this period that Hawkins composed the music for her second EP, titled “Lead with Love.”

In many ways, Hawkins deep spiritual connection to nature has been profoundly shaped by her extensive travels. Born in San Diego, spending her formative years in Massachusetts, and later moving to Tennessee before returning to Southern California, she has broadened her interests and exposed herself to the diverse musical landscapes across America.

“Music is the only thing I have left,” Hawkins confides to the Blade, highlighting the integral role that music has in her life. This intimate relationship with music is evident in her sultry and dynamic compositions. Rather than imitating or copying other artists, Hawkins effortlessly integrates sounds from some of her favorite musical influences to create something new. Some of these influences include LP, Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey, and, of course, Amy Winehouse, among others.

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Hawkins has always been passionate about music—-she began with piano at a young age, progressed to guitar, and then to bass, eagerly exploring any instrument she could get her hands on. However, instead of following a traditional path of formalized lessons and structured music theory, Hawkins told the Blade that she “has a hard time following directions and being told what to do.”

This independent approach has led her to experiment with various genres and even join unexpected groups, such as a tribute band for Eric Clapton and Cream. While she acknowledges that her eclectic musical interests might be attributed to ADHD, she holds a different belief: “Creative minds like to move around.”

When discussing her latest musical release — “Stay True (the live album)” which was recorded in a live studio setting — Hawkins describes the experience as a form of improvisation with both herself and the band:

“[The experience] was this divine honey that was flowing through all of us.” She explains that this live album was uncertain in the music’s direction. “For a couple of songs,” Hawkins recalls, “we intuitively closed them out.” By embracing creative spontaneity and refusing to be constrained by fear of mistakes, the live album authentically captures raw sound, complete with background chatter, extended outros, and an extremely somber cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” coupled with a slow piano and accompanied strings.

While “Stay True” was a rewarding experience for Hawkins, her favorite live performance took place in an unexpected location—an unattended piano in the middle of an airport. As she began playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, Hawkins shared with the Blade a universal connection we all share with music: “This little girl was dancing as I was playing.”

After the performance, tears welled in Hawkins’ eyes as she was touched by the young girl’s appreciation of her musicianship. Hawkins tells the Blade, “It’s not about playing to an audience—it’s about finding your people.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

What sets Hawkins apart as an artist is her ability to connect with her audience in diverse settings. She highlights EDC, an electronic dance music festival, as a place where she unabashedly lets her “freak flag” fly and a place to connect with her people. Her affinity for electronic music not only fuels her original pop music creations, but also inspires her to reinterpret songs with an electronic twist. A prime example of this is with her electronic-style cover of Tal Bachman’s 90’s hit, “She’s So High.”

As an openly queer woman in the music industry, Hawkins is on a mission to safeguard artistic integrity. In songs like “My Father’s Men,” she bares her vulnerability and highlights the industry’s misogyny, which often marginalizes gender minorities in their pursuit of artistic expression.

She confides to the Blade, “The industry can be so sexist, misogynist, and oppressive,” and points out that “there are predators in the industry.” Yet, rather than succumbing to apathy, Hawkins is committed to advocating for gender minorities within the music industry.

“Luckily, people are rising up against misogyny, but it’s still there. ‘My Father’s Men’ is a message: It’s time for more people who aren’t just white straight men to have a say.”

Hawkins is also an activist for other causes, with a fervent belief in the preservation of bodily autonomy. Her self-directed music video “I’ll play Daddy,” showcases the joy of embracing one’s body with Hawkins being sensually touched by a plethora of hands. While the song, according to Hawkins, “fell upon deaf ears in the south,” it hasn’t stopped Hawkins from continuing to fight for the causes she believes in. In her interview, Hawkins encapsulated her political stance by quoting an artist she admires:

“To quote Pink, ‘I don’t care about your politics, I care about your kids.’”

When Hawkins isn’t writing music or being a champion for various causes, you might catch her doing the following: camping, rollerblading, painting, teaching music lessons, relaxing with Bernie (her beloved dog), stripping down for artsy photoshoots, or embarking on a quest to find the world’s best hollandaise sauce.

But at the end of the day, Hawkins sums up her main purpose: “To come together with like-minded people and create.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Part of this ever-evolving, coming-of-age-like journey includes an important element: plant-based medicine. Hawkins tells the Blade that she acknowledges her previous experience with addiction and finds certain plants to be useful in her recovery:

“The recovery thing is tricky,” Hawkins explains, “I don’t use opiates—-no powders and no pills—but I am a fan of weed, and I think psilocybin can be helpful when used at the right time.” She emphasizes the role of psychedelics in guiding her towards her purpose. “Thanks for psychedelics, I have a reignited sense of purpose … Music came naturally to me as an outlet to heal.” 

While she views the occasional dabbling of psychedelics as a spiritual practice, Hawkins also embraces other rituals, particularly those she performs before and during live shows. “I always carry two rocks with me: a labradorite and a tiger’s eye marble,” she explains.

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Lavender Mass and the art of serious parody in protest

Part 3 of our series on the history of LGBTQ religion in D.C.

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The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been parodying religion for decades. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

(Editor’s note: Although there has been considerable scholarship focused on LGBTQ community and advocacy in D.C., there is a deficit of scholarship focused on LGBTQ religion in the area. Religion plays an important role in LGBTQ advocacy movements, through queer-affirming ministers and communities, along with queer-phobic churches in the city. This is the final installment of a three-part series exploring the history of religion and LGBTQ advocacy in Washington, D.C. Visit our website for the previous installments.) 

Six sisters gathered not so quietly in Marion Park, Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 8, 2022. As the first sounds of the Women’s March rang out two blocks away at 11 am, the Sisters passed out candles to say Mass on the grass. It was their fifth annual Lavender Mass, but this year’s event in particular told an interesting story of religious reclamation, reimagining a meaningful ritual from an institution that seeks to devalue and oppress queer people.

The D.C. Sisters are a chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization of “drag nuns” ministering to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. What first began as satire on Easter Sunday 1979 when queer men borrowed and wore habits from a production of The Sound of Music became a national organization; the D.C. chapter came about relatively late, receiving approval from the United Nuns Privy Council in April 2016. The D.C. Sisters raise money and contribute to organizations focused on underserved communities in their area, such as Moveable Feast and Trans Lifeline, much like Anglican and Catholic women religious orders.

As Sister Ray Dee O’Active explained, “we tend to say we raise funds, fun, and hell. I love all three. Thousands of dollars for local LGBTQ groups. Pure joy at Pride parades when we greet the next generation of activists. And blatant response to homophobia and transphobia by protest after protest.” The Lavender Mass held on October 8th embodied their response to transphobia both inside and outside pro-choice groups, specifically how the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 intimately affects members of the LGBTQ+ community.

 As a little history about the Mass, Sister Mary Full O’Rage, shown wearing a short red dress and crimson coronet and veil in the photo above developed the Lavender Mass as a “counterpart” or “counter narrative” to the Red Mass, a Catholic Mass held the first Sunday of October in honor Catholics in positions of civil authority, like the Supreme Court Justices. The plan was to celebrate this year’s Lavender Mas on October 1st at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial, located right across the street from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where many Supreme Court Justices attend the Red Mass every year.

 As Sister Mary explained, this year “it was intended to be a direct protest of the actions of the Supreme Court, in significant measure their overturning of reproductive rights.”

 Unfortunately, the October 1st event was canceled due to heavy rain and postponed to October 8th at the recommendation of Sister Ruth Lisque-Hunt and Sister Joy! Totheworld. The focus of the Women’s March this year aligned with the focus of the Lavender Mass—reproductive rights—and this cause, Sister Mary explained, “drove us to plan our Lavender Mass as a true counter-ritual and protest of the Supreme Court of who we expected to attend the Red Mass,” and who were protested in large at the Women’s March. 

The “Lavender Mass was something that we could adopt for ourselves,” Sister Mary spoke about past events. The first two Masses took place at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, right around the corner from the Supreme Court. The second Mass, as Sister Mary explained, celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; “we canonized her.” Canonization of saints in the Catholic Church also takes place during a Mass, a Papal Mass in particular.

 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sisters moved the Mass outside for safety, and the third and fourth Masses were celebrated at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial. “It celebrates nuns, and we are nuns, psycho-clown nuns,” Sister Mary chuckled, “but we are nuns.” After the Mass, the Sisters would gather at a LGBTQ+ safe space or protest at the Catholic Church or Supreme Court. Although they often serve as “sister security” at local events, working to keep queer community members safe according to Sister Amore Fagellare, the Lavender Mass is not widely publicly advertised, out of concern for their own.

 On October 8th, nine people gathered on the grass in a circle—six sisters, myself, and two people who were close with professed members—as Sister Mary called us to assemble before leading us all in chanting the chorus to Sister Sledge’s 1979 classic song “We Are Family.” 

Next, novice Sister Sybil Liberties set a sacred space, whereby Sister Ruth and Sister Tearyn Upinjustice walked in a circle behind us, unspooling pink and blue ribbons to tie us together as a group. As Sister Sybil explained, “we surround this sacred space in protection and sanctify it with color,” pink for the choice to become a parent and blue for the freedom to choose not to be a parent but also as Sybil elaboration, in recognition of “the broad gender spectrum of people with the ability to become pregnant.” This intentional act was sought to fight transphobia within the fight for reproductive rights.

After singing Lesley Gore’s 1963 song “You Don’t Own Me,” six speakers began the ritual for reproductive rights. Holding out our wax plastic candles, Sister Sybil explained that each speaker would describe a story or reality connected to reproductive rights, and “as I light a series of candles for the different paths we have taken, if you recognize yourself in one of these prayers, I invite you to put your hand over your heart, wherever you are, and know that you are not alone – there is someone else in this gathered community holding their hand over their heart too.”

The Sisters went around the circle lighting a candle for those whose stories include the choice to end a pregnancy; those whose include the unwanted loss of a pregnancy or struggles with fertility; those whose include the choice to give birth, raise or adopt a child; those whose include the choice not to conceive a child, to undergo forced choice, or with no choice at all; those who have encountered violence where there “should have been tenderness and care;” and those whose reproductive stories are still being written today.

After each reading, the group spoke together, “may the beginnings and endings in our stories be held in unconditional love and acceptance,” recalling the Prayer of the Faithful or General Intercessions at Catholic Masswhere congregations respond “Lord, hear our prayer” to each petition. Sister Sybil closed out the ritual as Sister Mary cut the blue and pink ribbons between each person, creating small segments they could take away with them and tie to their garments before walking to the Women’s March. The Sisters gathered their signs, drums, and horns before walking to Folger Park together into the crowd of protestors.

 At first glance, the Lavender Mass may appear like religious appropriation, just as the Sisters themselves sometimes look to outsiders. They model themselves after Angelican and Catholic women religious, in dress—they actively refer to their clothing as “habits,” their organization—members must also go through aspirant, postulant, and novice stages to be fully professed and they maintain a hierarchical authority, and in action. Like white and black habits, the Sisters all wear white faces to create a unified image and colorful coronets, varying veil color based on professed stage. Sister Allie Lewya explained at their September 2022 meeting, “something about the veils gives us a lot of authority that is undue,” but as the Sisters reinforced at the Women’s March, they are not cosplayers nor customers, rather committed clergy.  

As such, the Sisters see their existence within the liminal spaces between satire, appropriation, and reimagination, instead reclaiming the basis of religious rituals to counter the power holders of this tradition, namely, to counter the Catholic Church and how it celebrates those in positions of authority who restrict reproductive rights. Similarly, the Lavender Mass is modeled after a Catholic or Anglican Mass. It has an intention, namely reproductive rights, a call to assemble, setting of a sacred space, song, chant, and prayer requests. It even uses religious terminology; each section of the Mass is ended with a “may it be/Amen/Awen/Ashay/aho.”

 While this ritual—the Lavender Mass—appropriates a religious ritual of the Catholic Church and Anglican Church, this religious appropriation is necessitated by exclusion and queerphobia. As David Ford explains in Queer Psychology, many queer individuals retain a strong connection to their faith communities even though they have experienced trauma from these same communities. Jodi O’Brien builds on this, characterizing Christian religious institutions as spaces of personal meaning making and oppression. This essay further argues that the fact this ritual is adopted and reimagined by a community that the dominant ritual holder—the Catholic Church—oppressed and marginalized, means that it is not religious appropriation at all.

Religious appropriation, as highlighted in Liz Bucar’s recent book, Stealing My Religion (2022), is the acquisition or use of religious traditions, rituals, or objects without a full understanding of the community for which they hold meaning. The Sisters, however, fully understand the implications of calling themselves sisters and the connotations of performing a ritual they call a “Mass” as women religious, a group that do not have this authority in the Catholic Church. It is the reclamation of a tradition that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence understand because some were or are part of the Catholic Church.

 Some sisters still seek out spiritual meaning, but all also recognize that the Catholic Church itself is an institution that hinders their sisters’ access and actively spreads homophobia and transphobia to this day. As such, through the Lavender Mass, the sisters have reclaimed the Mass as a tool of rebellion in support of queer identity.

 Just as the Sisters recognize the meaning and power of the ritual of a Mass, along with the connotations of being a sister, the Lavender Mass fulfilled its purpose as a ritual of intention just as the Sisters fulfill public servants. “As a sister,” Sister Ruth dissected, “as someone who identifies as a drag nun, it perplexes people, but when you get the nitty gritty, we serve a similar purpose, to heal a community, to provide support to a community, to love a community that has not been loved historically in the ways that it should be loved.

 The Sisters’ intentionality in recognizing and upholding the role of a woman religious in their work has been well documented as a serious parody for the intention of queer activism by Melissa Wilcox. The Lavender Mass is a form of serious parody, as Wilcox posits in the book: Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody(2018). The Mass both challenges the queerphobia of the Catholic Church while also reinforcing the legitimacy of this ritual as a Mass. The Sisters argue that although they would traditionally be excluded from religious leadership in the Catholic Church, they can perform a Mass. In doing so, they challenge the role that women religious play in the Catholic Church as a whole and the power dynamics that exclude queer communities from living authentically within the Church.

By reclaiming a tradition from a religious institution that actively excludes and traumatizes the LGBTQ+ community, the Lavender Mass is a form of religious reclamation in which an oppressed community cultivates queer religious meaning, reclaims a tradition from which they are excluded, and uses it to fuel queer activism (the fight for reproductive rights). This essay argues that the Lavender Mass goes one step further than serious parody. While the Sisters employ serious parody in their religious and activist roles, the Lavender Mass is the active reclamation of a religious tradition for both spiritual and activist ends.

 Using the celebration of the Mass as it was intended, just within a different lens for a different purpose, this essay argues, is religious reclamation. As a collection of Austrian and Aotearoan scholars explored most recently in a chapter on acculturation and decolonization, reclamation is associated with the reassertion and ownership of tangibles: of rituals, traditions, objects, and land. The meaning of the Lavender Mass comes not only from the Sisters’ understanding of women religious as a social and religious role but rather from the reclamation of a physical ritual—a Mass—that has specific religious or spiritual meaning for the Sisters.

 When asked why it was important to call this ritual a “Mass,” Sister Mary explained: “I think we wanted to have something that denoted a ritual, that was for those who know, that the name signifies that it was a counter-protest. And you know, many of the sisters grew up with faith, not all of them Catholics but some, so I think ‘Mass’ was a name that resonated for many of us.”  

 As Sister Ray said, “my faith as a queer person tends to ostracize me but the Sisters bring the imagery and language of faith right into the middle of the LGBTQ world.” This Lavender Mass, although only attended and experienced by a few of the Women’s March protests, lived up to its goal as “a form of protest that is hopefully very loud,” as Sister Millie Taint advertised in the Sisters’ September 2022 chapter meeting. It brought religious imagery and language of faith to a march for reproductive rights, using a recognized model of ritual to empower protestors.

The Lavender Mass this year, as always, was an act of rebellion, but by situating itself before the Women’s March and focusing its intention for reproductive rights, the Sisters’ reclaimed a religious ritual from a system of authority which actively oppressed LGBTQ+ peoples and those with the ability to become pregnant, namely the Catholic Church, and for harnessing it for personal, political, and spiritual power. In essence, it modelled a system of religious reclamation, by which a marginalized community takes up a religious ritual to make its own meaning and oppose the religious institution that seeks to exclude the community from ritual participation.  

Emma Cieslik will be presenting on LGBTQ+ Religion in the Capital at the DC History Conference on Friday, April 6th. She is working with a DC History Fellow to establish a roundtable committed to recording and preserving this vital history. If you have any information about these histories, please reach out to Emma Cieslik at [email protected] or the Rainbow History Project at [email protected].

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Conflict and profound loss: the AIDS epidemic and religious protest

Part 2 of our series on the history of LGBTQ religion in D.C.

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The Washington National Cathedral has been home to numerous affirming services over the years. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

(Editor’s note: Although there has been considerable scholarship focused on LGBTQ community and advocacy in D.C., there is a deficit of scholarship focused on LGBTQ religion in the area. Religion plays an important role in LGBTQ advocacy movements, through queer-affirming ministers and communities, along with queer-phobic churches in the city. This is part two of a three-part series exploring the history of religion and LGBTQ advocacy in Washington, D.C.) 

The Gay Liberation Front of DC previously organized a Gay Pride Week in 1972, by the efforts of Chuck Hall, Bruce Pennington, and Cade Ware. Deacon Maccubbin was still perplexed how Washington, D.C., which had a diverse gay scene, albeit a segregated one, did not have a large festival to gather together like that in New York. Together with former Gay Activists Alliance president Bob Carpenter, Maccubbin set out to plan a Pride event specific to the city, and on June 22, 1975, “Gay Pride Day” was the first officially recognized Pride celebration in D.C. The first Gay Pride Day was scheduled one week in advance of the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade in New York City so that LGBTQ D.C. residents could participate in that parade alongside others along the East Coast. 

One year later, the timing sparked controversy because Gay Pride Day fell on June 20, also Father’s Day. John Wilson’s opponent in the Democratic primary election spoke out against Wilson’s support of holding Pride Day on the 20th. His opponent argued that Wilson was “an embarrassment to the city for introducing a Council resolution allowing Gay Pride Day to fall on Father’s Day.” Similarly William Stahr of Baltimore shared in a column in The Washington Star that the Council decision “is outrageously anti-social because the encouragement of homosexuality weakens society by undermining the family.”

LGBTQ community representative David L. Aiken wrote a letter back to the editor of The Washington Star on June 18, 1976 explaining the community’s decision. 

“Gays do not threaten fatherhood, motherhood, or any other traditional values. Many people who are fathers or mothers have a realization that there is another side to their personality that can be expressed through gay love. The two are not mutually exclusive. What gay pride does challenge, however, is the bigoted assumption that heterosexual relations are the only kind about which it is polite to speak.”

Many Catholic priests in the area were upset that it fell on Father’s Day as well, which is celebrated in American Catholic churches with a special Mass that day, but the organizer of the second annual Gay Pride Day, Frank Akers, then a staff member at the Washington Blade, reported that the 1976 Gay Pride Day “was a success spiritually, if not financially.”

But the success of the 1976 Gay Pride Day was followed shortly after by the start of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the late 1970s, the HIV strain arrived in the United States and men who had sex with men were disproportionately affected. While LGBTQ individuals still faced intense persecution in secular and some religious spaces, the visibility of religiously motivated homophobia only grew and grew as conservative religious leaders like Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell argued that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for the “promiscuity” of LGBTQ individuals. He made this especially clear in a discussion with MCC founder Troy Perry on July 6, 1983. Like many major cities, Washington, D.C. was hit hard but affirming organizations worked to provide care for LGBTQ people. 

In 1982, D.C.’s MCC partnered with the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the NIH, MCC Baltimore, and Georgetown University Hospital to host one of the first AIDS forums in the nation (the event was held at the church). At a time when people were still weary of contact with HIV-positive individuals, water baptism was held by Faith Temple at Calvary Baptist Church in D.C. in 1986. This occurred at a time when many churches were not baptizing persons known or thought to be HIV positive or had AIDS. On Oct. 12, 1991, the NAMES Project Chapter and the Clergy Commission on AIDS coordinated the display of pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at DMV churches, from St. Augustine Catholic Church to New Bethel Baptist Church to the National Cathedral. 

The National Cathedral first began its ministry around HIV/AIDS in 1986, hosting a conference that same year to address how religion and religious communities can serve as allies and caregivers. The National Cathedral also displayed the quilt and organized services around the memorial in 1988, the year of the national tour of the Quilt, as well as in 1990, 1993, 1994, and 1996. Most recently, The Washington Cathedral also hosted the AIDS Memorial Quilt in July 2012, on the quilt’s 25th anniversary. From July 17-26, the Cathedral honored all those who died from AIDS and individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS. Dr. James Curran spoke during the interfaith memorial service at the Cathedral on Saturday, July 21. 

However, at the same time, the Dignity chapter meeting at Georgetown University was forced to move to St. Margaret Episcopal Church after the Vatican released a letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger claiming that LGBTQ individuals are “objectively disordered” in October 1986. Social and violent homophobia continued into the early 1990s, especially as focus on family rights were conflated with anti-LGBTQ legislation in the late 1980s. Another resurgence of family rights would occur in the late 2010s and early 2020s with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. 

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, many more congregations were moving to become open and affirming. On Dec. 11, 2001, Bruce Pennington moderated a panel discussion “Creating Communities of Faith” featuring Faisal Alam, Jerry Goldberg, Andrew Hudson, Bob Miailovich, Dan Schellhorn, and Michael Vanzan. Ten years later, the DC Metropolitan Community Church celebrated 40 years of service to LGBTQ Washingtonians. As one of the first Metropolitan Community Churches in the DMV area, DC’s MCC was instrumental in founding the New Life MCC of Hampton Rocks, Norfolk, Va., in 1977, MCC of Northern Virginia, Oakton, Va., in 1981, Open Door MCC in Boyds, Md., in 1982, and Holy Redeemer MCC College Park, Md., in 1998.

That same year in 2011, Dignity/Washington hosted the National Convention of Dignity USA in D.C., during which four long-term Dignity couples from across the country were married by Dignity/Washington members under the new DC marriage equality laws. A number of other congregations also became actively involved in Capital Pride events, including the Cleveland Park UCC, First Congregational UCC, and Westmoreland UCC. The three groups hosted a UCC welcome book with other churches every year at the Capital Pride Festival up until the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the same time, new religious communities developed. Wiccan, neo-pagan, and pagan communities have long been spiritual refugees for LGBTQ communities, and pagan faith communities were first established in the DMV in the early 2010s. Also in 2011, Circle Sanctuary Ministers Jeanet and David Ewing founded the Potomac Circle Ministries in Northern Virginia to minister to pagans in the DMV area. In March 2013, Circle Sanctuary founder Rev. Selena Fox and other Circle Ministers attended the Marriage Equality rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and she participated in the interfaith service at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, DC. In November 2013, Jeanet and David Ewing performed a same-sex wedding in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

What followed was a year of interfaith LGBTQ ministry in the DC area, which is celebrated every June with a Pride Interfaith Service held at a different DC worship space. The service is coordinated by DC Center Faith, the successor to the Celebration of the Spirit Coalition and the Washington Area Gay/Lesbian Interfaith Alliance which have been hosting interfaith services since 1983. In fact, much of the history of DC’s LGBTQ+ religious communities was recorded in November 2014 at an event organized by Center Faith called “Stepping Out” hosted at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, SW, D.C.

Center Faith partnered and still partners with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddist, Unitarian universalist, Centers for Spiritual Living, Pagan, Wiccan, and Earth Religions faith communities who are supportive and inclusive of LGBTQ individuals. Through Center Faith, local faith leaders made strong connections through which they would gather and protest for LGBTQ rights. For example, faith leaders gathered together in front of the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019 for the MoveOn Rally right as the Supreme Court heard a case that would overturn LGBTQ individuals’ right to work and allow employers to fire someone because they were LGBTQ. 

Later into the 2010s, LGBTQ organizations exploring religion and humor came to be part of the D.C. area. The DC House of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “The Abbey of Magnificent Intentions” was approved by the United Nuns Privy Council in April 2016. Just as Deacon Maccubbin and David L. Aiken had done 30 years earlier, fighting back against conservative religious pushback to holding the Gay Pride Day on Father’s Day in 1976, the DC Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence came together on Oct. 8, 2022 to hold their fifth annual Lavender Mass — a counter event to the Red Mass. The Red Mass is a Catholic Mass held on the first Sunday of October to honor Catholics in positions of civil authority, like the Supreme Court Justices. 

That Lavender Mass took place right before the March for Reproductive Rights following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022. This important moment in DC’s LGBTQ+ religious history will be explored next, reviewing the impact of this event right as the original founder of the Lavender Mass is stepping out of this role before moving out of the Capitol. 

Emma Cieslik is presenting on LGBTQ+ Religion in the Capital at the DC History Conference on April 5. She is working with a DC History Fellow to establish a roundtable committed to recording and preserving this vital history. If you have any information about these histories, please reach out to Emma Cieslik at [email protected] or the Rainbow History Project at [email protected].

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