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Before Stonewall, newspapers complicit with police in gay bar raids

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gay bar raids, gay news, Washington Blade
‘The Post never made a big deal out of it,’ said former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of covering arrests of gay men for public sex. (Photo by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin via Flickr)

Fifty years ago, members of the LGBT community tired of continuous police raids on gay bars were driven to riot in the streets of New York City after the latest incursion at the Stonewall Inn on the evening of June 26, 1969.

But police raids on gay bars in the days before the Stonewall riots went hand-in-hand with the subsequent reports in newspapers the next day outing individuals caught in the raids, which would have potentially blacklisted them for the remainder of their lives.

In terms of Washington news coverage, the authority on newspapers outing gay men caught in police raids is Edward Alwood, a former CNN correspondent and now adjunct lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland, College Park. 

Alwood wrote about the practice in his 1996 book “Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media,” and spoke about it in an interview with the Washington Blade.

“Washington was very different from New York,” Alwood said, “in that so much of the gay community here was connected with the federal government, and for that reason…gay men were much more closeted here and much less likely to protest as they did in New York.”

That perspective within D.C.’s gay community started to change, Alwood said, when gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny was outed, lost his job in the federal government as an astronomer and formed the Mattachine Society. Nonetheless, Alwood said during that time there would be newspaper articles reporting on gay raids that named individuals who were caught.

Reading from his book, Alwood said the D.C. press after World War II made vague references to homosexuals in describing street crimes, “particularly police campaigns to clean up public parks, including Lafayette Park across from the White House.” (Lafayette Park had been a place where gay men would meet to have sex discreetly.)

The Washington Post in the 1940s, Alwood said, described how officers shuttled groups of men from the park to the city jail throughout one night in July 1947 as 41 were arrested in the park. 

The Washington Star reported that the metropolitan police staged a raid just to see who the men were. Similarly, the Post celebrated a crackdown a year later, when a headline read, “One-Man Vice Squad Arrests Eight More.”

“The article lavished praise on a handsome undercover officer who was deemed the the city’s most successful weapon in combating vice,” Alwood said. “Neither newspaper explained why the police felt compelled to target law-abiding citizens because they were considered unwelcome in public parks.”

Alwood quoted Benjamin Bradlee, the Post editor during its Pentagon Papers and Watergate coverage in the 1970s, as dismissive of the coverage in reflections of the time when he started at the newspaper covering vice on the crime beat.

“The police sent these guys into men’s rooms where they sort of lollygag around to see if anybody would make a pass at them,” Alwood quoted Bradlee as saying. “They would make sure the press heard about it. The Post never made a big deal out of it. We had little one paragraph that had that no news value, of course, but that’s what it was.”

For lesbians, Alwood said, the situation was different. For starters, sodomy was an offense perceived as something only men could commit, he said, so homosexual acts weren’t considered against the law. There were no lesbian bars, he said, so women met instead at women’s homes.

“They had these social clubs, so that’s part of the difference that happened, which is why so many more men wound up having their names and their ages and their street addresses listed in the newspapers,” Alwood said.

Nonetheless, Alwood said there was coverage of lesbians. One piece in the Washington Times-Herald, drew on the Red Scare of a Russian threat during the Cold War for a sensational article.

Under the headline, “Reds entice women here in sex orgies,” the article described an alleged plot by Russian agents to entice women employees of the State Department into homosexuality,” Alwood said.

“Russian agents were waging a systematic campaign to bring women employees of the State Department under their control by enticing them into a life of lesbianism,” Alwood said. “As many as 65 or 70 persons attended a single one of these lavish get-togethers, according to a congressional committee. Many were garbed in rich Oriental costumes to help them get into the spirit of things.”

Such coverage isn’t found today in Washington-area newspapers, which have been accepting of the D.C. LGBT community and seek to capitalize on LGBT events, such as Capital Pride. The Post, however, didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on past coverage outing gay men and whether any formal decision was made to change it.

Alwood said he’s unaware of any one instance that indicated “any flipping of the switch, so to speak,” but said the arrest of Walter Jenkins, a close aide to former President Lyndon Johnson, in 1964 on “moral charges” at the YMCA was a turning point.

“I think it was a wake-up call for journalists in this city because now it wasn’t just anonymous low-ranking people in men’s rooms and parks getting arrested, it was a high-level front page story of a presidential aide,” Alwood said. “And I think as a result of that, I’m just guessing, more journalists, such as those at the Post, realized they knew gay people and they didn’t fit the stereotype.”

Also at that time, Alwood said, more and more D.C. gay groups were protesting police actions, which led to a re-examination of the strict laws.

One period that marked a change, Alwood said, was when Albert Finney became managing editor of the Post. During his tenure, Alwood said Finney assigned a reporter to write an in-depth series about gay people in D.C.

“The series was stunning for its time,” Alwood said. “It was in-depth, bold, insightful. Though its premise rested on old stereotypes and clinical language, like homosexual, it pushed the boundaries of ignorance and denial to a new level of openness.”

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Drag legend Ella Fitzgerald returns to the stage for Capital Pride festival

Donnell Robinson on 40 years as a performer and the current political backlash against drag

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Ella Fitzgerald performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Drew Brown)

Donnell Robinson, who has dazzled audiences in the nation’s capital as the drag personality of Ella Fitzgerald for at least 40 years, has the date of Saturday, March 21, 2020, embedded in his mind.

That was the last time he performed in drag. It was at the popular Southeast D.C. nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, where Robinson performed as Ella Fitzgerald for nearly 40 years, before it, along with all city nightclubs, bars, and other “nonessential” businesses were ordered temporarily closed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in response to the COVID pandemic.   

“That was the last show I did,” Robinson told the Blade in an interview at his apartment in Arlington, Va.

A short time later, around May of 2020, Robinson and all the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets employees and performers learned that the owner of the club’s building at 1824 Half Street, S.W., announced plans to demolish it to build an upscale condo building several years sooner than expected. That meant the club would not reopen when the COVID restrictions were lifted.

“So, what I recall is in May, it was the first week in May, Steven [Delurba, the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets general manager and part owner] called me and said, ‘Honey, do you have anything in the dressing room? Come and get it. The landlord called and said we must be out by the 15th.’”

Robinson said he has fond memories of meeting up with other drag performers, one of the longtime bartenders and other employees who came to retrieve their belongings in the dressing room and other storage spaces in the converted warehouse building that had served as home to Ziegfeld’s-Secrets since 2009.

And it meant at least the temporary end to a 40-year run in which Robinson (aka Ella Fitzgerald) served as emcee and lead drag performer at the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets nightclub, which began in the club’s previous location a few blocks away.

Robinson began performing as Ella Fitzgerald at The Other Side nightclub in 1980, which later changed its name to Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, at its previous location on the unit block of O Street, S.E., before it was displaced in 2006 by construction of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

Ella Fitzgerald performs in 1993. (Blade file photo by Doug Hinckle)

The club did not reopen until 2009, when its owners Allen Carroll and Chris Jensen, were able to obtain a lease for the 1824 Half Street building, which Carroll and Jensen renovated before reopening the club there.

All of that has become the backdrop to Robinson’s excitement over returning to the stage as Ella Fitzgerald at D.C.’s Capital Pride festival on June 11, which will take place on Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol as a dramatic backdrop two blocks behind the stage.

While he’s hopeful that all will go well with his upcoming performance at the Pride festival, Robinson says he is aware of the recent far-right political backlash against drag shows in states across the country.

In addition to proposed laws placing restrictions on drag shows, protests targeting drag shows, including some attempting to disrupt the shows, have also occurred in cities and states, including earlier this year in nearby Silver Spring, Md., and at a drag brunch hosted by a restaurant near the U.S. Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill in D.C.

“I have read about some of that,” Robinson told the Blade. “I haven’t been in the drag scene in three years. But I see and know what’s going on,” he said. “And my fellow drag performers who are older in my generation, I know they may be at risk. And I know I am to a degree,” he continued.

“And it’s a shame that we have to fear that we can’t present our art, our art form of drag and hope that nothing is going to happen to me today,” he said. “Why should we have to even have that thought going through our mind while we’re going through our makeup and getting ready?”

Speaking with the Blade at his apartment, Robinson added, “I’m planning to walk out of here in full drag to go to Pride. And there’s going to be part of me in the back of my mind that I’ve got to watch my back because there may be some idiot out there that doesn’t want to see an old man dress up in sequins and beads.”

“I just don’t understand why people think that drag is going to go away,” Robinson said. “It’s not. It’s more popular now than it ever was because of RuPaul and the drag brunches and the shows that are continuing to go on.”

Donnell Robinson works as a popular hair stylist in addition to performing as Ella Fitzgerald. (Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

Robinson, 68, says he was born in Warrenton, Va., and grew up on a farm just outside Warrenton and raised by his grandparents. His first attempt at drag took place while in the 8th grade when he entered a school talent show portraying TV personality Flip Wilson’s drag character Geraldine Jones.

“All of my girlfriends, they helped get it together,” Robinson recalls. “I borrowed the wig from the school librarian,” he said, adding he bought a red dress and borrowed a pocketbook from someone. “And I won the contest.”

He didn’t do drag again until his senior year in high school, Robinson said, when he “pulled out Geraldine again” in a dramatic arts class. “I got an ‘A’ in dramatic arts,” he told the Blade, before graduating from Fauquier High School in June of 1974.

“Then I waited a year or so, and then I came out to do drag in 1975 in the fall,” he said. That began when a friend introduced him to the then gay nightclub Pier 9, located in the building that later became Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, where drag shows were held.

Robinson said he was impressed by the beauty of the drag performers while attending Pier 9 drag shows. “I’m like, oh, so I can do that too,” he said. And that’s exactly what he did. In October of that year, he entered a Halloween costume contest at the Pier, once again as the Geraldine Jones drag character, and won the contest in the comedy category.

From there, Robinson says, through people he met at the Pier he learned of the then D.C. gay bar Plus One on Capitol Hill, which also hosted drag shows. After auditioning and being approved as a drag performer at Plus One, the owner of the club, Bill Oats, assigned him the drag name Fanny Brice.

It was at the Plus One about a year later when Robinson met Mother Mame Dennis, the drag performer and lead organizer of the Academy of Washington, a local drag social club that organized drag events, including the Gay Miss Universe drag competition. The next day, an Academy of Washington member who performed at Plus One brought Robinson to an academy event.

It was there that Mame Dennis approached him and raised the issue of Robinson’s drag name. “She said, ‘Oh my dear, if you want to be in this group you need to change your name immediately,’” Robinson quoted Dennis as saying. “And I was like, yes ma’am. She said you need to be either Nell Carter or Ella Fitzgerald,” Robinson recounted.

“I was being a smart ass. I said, ‘I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald for $2.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re funny.’ And she named me Ella Fitzgerald,” Robinson remembers. “And I was her first African-American daughter in the group.”

Through the Academy of Washington and others he met through the drag scene at Plus One and other D.C. gay bars, Robinson quickly learned what he calls the art form of drag and developed a following among those patronizing drag shows in D.C. It was through the academy that Robinson also met the owners of the then Other Side nightclub, Chris Jensen and Allen Carroll, who invited Robinson to begin performing at their club.

Ella Fitzgerald performs at the opening of Ziegfeld’s/Secrets on Feb. 13, 2009. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

“There were five of us and we did the show on a Sunday night for 500 women,” Robinson says. “Because, remember, between Washington Square, the earlier name, and the Other Side, it was all women. There were no men allowed until around 1986,” he told the Blade. “So, every Sunday night we were doing drag shows for 500 women, from ’80 until ’85 or ’86.”

Around the time he began performing as Ella Fitzgerald, Robinson also began his other career as a hairstylist, which he says he continues at this time and will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a hairstylist in November of this year.

For much of that time, Robinson has been one of the sought-after stylists at the VSL Hair Salon at 1607 Connecticut Ave., N.W., in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The salon recently came under new ownership and now operates under the name of Color Lab Salon at the same address.

As Robinson’s reputation as a drag performer became widely known, many of his salon clients referred to him as Ella and were regular patrons of the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets drag show.

By the time Jensen and Carroll renamed the Other Side as Ziegfeld’s-Secrets and through the time it relocated in the building on Half Street, S.W. and until its closing in 2020, Robinson took on the role as the emcee of the club’s Ladies of Illusion drag shows as well as that of one of the city’s most sought after drag performers, according to people who attended his shows.

In an Aug. 2, 2001, lengthy feature article, the Washington Post referred to Robinson and his Ella Fitzgerald character as the “doyenne of Washington drag queens.” The Post article recounted what those who have attended Robinson’s shows already knew – that he also took on the role of a stand-up comedian engaging audience members in on-the-spot banter, often inviting audience members to come on stage to chat with Ella.

“Is that your husband?” the Post article quoted Robinson asking a female audience member at one of the Ziegfeld’s-Secrets drag shows. When the woman replied that the person was her boyfriend, Ella said with an incredulous facial expression, “That little queen?” according to the Post article. The audience roared in laughter.

Robinson says among the highlights of his career as a drag performer have been the recognition he has received from his peers in the drag community, including from the Academy of Washington and its leader Mame Dennis.

 “Once I changed my name to Ella Fitzgerald, Mame said, ‘My dear, one day you will be Miss Universe.’ And 10 years later, Mame crowned me Miss Gay Universe. I was the first African-American Miss Universe in 1986,” Robinson recounted.

He said the prospect of resuming his drag performances to the degree he did before Ziegfeld’s-Secrets closed was uncertain, in part, because he is dealing with a bout of sciatica that makes it difficult for him to walk and move about quickly.

“You might see me come out with a cane at the Pride show,” he said with a laugh.  

Ella Fitzgerald performs at the 2012 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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Bars & Parties

15 LGBTQ events today

Capital Pride Rooftop Pool Party tonight

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UPDATE: The Capital Pride Rooftop Pool Party was originally scheduled for tonight at 8 p.m., but has just been rescheduled to June 22 due to poor air quality. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Below are our picks for some of the most fun and creative things to do today (Thursday, June 8) in the DMV that are of special interest to the LGBTQ community.


LGBTQ+ Military Pride Mixer

Thursday, June 8
4-6 p.m.
As You Are
500 8th Street, S.E.
Free
Eventbrite

The D.C. Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs host the “LGBTQ+ Military Pride Mixer” at As You Are this afternoon at 4 p.m.


Lavender Evolutions: Femz & Themz bipoc Happy Hour

Thursday, June 8
5-8 p.m.
Trade
1410 14th Street, N.W.
Instagram

Rico Pico hosts “Lavender Evolutions” tonight at Trade. The “Femz & Themz bipoc Happy hour” begins at 5 p.m. with a show at 8. Performers include Molasses, Flirty Rico and Hennessey.


Equality Chamber of Commerce Pride Weekend Kick-off

Thursday, June 8
6-9 p.m.
The Moxy
1011 K Street, N.W.
$25 non-member
Tickets

The Equality Chamber of Commerce holds its Pride Weekend Kick-off Party at The Moxy tonight from 6-9 p.m. The event is free to members and $25 for non-members of ECC.


PRIDE in the Park: Free Outdoor Comedy

Thursday, June 8
6-9 p.m.
Fairview Road Urban Park
8900 Fairview Road
Silver Spring, Md.
Eventbrite

Laugh out loud to comics Stacey Cay, Howl Cooper, Ashley Mayo, Gray West, Rose Vineshank and Apple Brown Betty at Fairview Road Urban Park tonight from 6-9 p.m.


Women’s/Sapphic Night

Thursday, June 8
7 p.m.
The Dirty Goose
913 U Street, N.W.
Instagram | Website

It’s Women’s/Sapphic Night at The Dirty Goose tonight.


GAY! Trivia and Drag Show

Thursday, June 8
7-10 p.m.
Baja Tap
2436 18th Street, N.W.
Free
Eventbrite

Ophelia Diamonds hosts a game of gay trivia and a drag show at Baja Tap tonight.


BAD (Broadway and Disney) Singalong: Loud & Proud Edition

Thursday, June 8
7-10 p.m.
H Street Country Club
1335 H Street, N.E.
Free
Eventbrite

Belt your favorite Broadway and Disney tunes at the BAD Singalong: Loud & Proud Edition at H Street Country Club tonight.


DMV Comedy Wars: A PRIDE Benefit for the Trevor Project

Thursday, June 8
7:30-9 p.m.
O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub
3207 Washington Boulevard
Arlington, Va.
$15
Eventbrite

The DMV Comedy Wars continue with a “Pride Battle” of comics at O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Arlington, Va. tonight. Benefits from the show are slated for the Trevor Project, so go out and laugh for a good cause.


Capital Pride Rooftop Pool Party

A scene from last year’s Rooftop Pool Party. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Thursday, June 8 [UPDATE: This event has been postponed to June 22]
8 p.m.
Penthouse Pool and Lounge
1212 4th Street, S.E.
$25-$35 / 21+
Website

The Capital Pride Alliance hosts its annual Rooftop Pool Party at 1212 4th Street, S.E. [UPDATE: Rescheduled due to poor air quality]


ElectroPOP Thursdays: Pride Edition

Thursday, June 8
8 p.m.-2 a.m.
Bunker
2001 14th Street, N.W.
No Cover
Website

Steve Sidewalk brings the music to this Pride Edition of ElectroPOP Thursdays at Bunker.


Films on the Green DC: “Three Nights a Week” Screening

Thursday, June 8
9-11 p.m.
Washington Monument
2 15th Street, N.W.
Free
Eventbrite

The base of the Washington Monument is a beautiful spot to watch a film. For this Pride Thursday, Films on the Green is playing the 2022 French LGBTQ film, “Three Nights a Week.”


Wasted & Gay Thursdays

Thursday, June 8
9 p.m.-1 a.m.
Wasted Lounge
816 H Street, N.E.
$5
Eventbrite

Have a pleasant evening with a beverage and hookah at Wasted Lounge with “Wasted & Gay Thursdays” at 9 p.m. tonight.


Sleaze Pride

Thursday, June 8
9 p.m.-2 a.m.
DC9 Nightclub
1940 9th Street, N.W.
$10
Facebook | Eventbrite

The monthly DC9 “Sleaze” LGBTQ parties culminate with the Sleaze Pride party tonight featuring drag artists Jane Saw, Indiana Bones and Vagenesis. DJ Lemz and DJ Keenan Orr bring the music.


Shirts and Skins!

Thursday, June 8
10 p.m.
Kiki
915 U Street, N.W.
Instagram

Kiki dips its toes into the gear party scene for Pride with a Shirts and Skins party. So, show off your jock straps, singlets, compression shorts, harnesses, pup attire, body suits or whatever gear you grab at this kinky party.


KINTETIC Pride: Sugar Pop

Thursday, June 8
10 p.m.-3 a.m.
Soundcheckdc
1420 K Street, N.W.
$20-$30 (or purchase weekend pass)
Facebook | Tickets

KINETIC Pride events begin with Sugar Pop featuring Mayhem Miller with Dan Slater at Soundcheck at 10 p.m. You can either pay piecemeal for each party, or you can secure weekend passes for all four KINETIC Pride events for $149-$219 on Eventbrite.


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PHOTOS: LHP Pride Kickoff Drag Show

Latinx Pride Court crowned at Trade

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The 2023 Latinx Pride Court flanked by LHP President Nancy Cañas and LHP Vice President Julio Acevedo pose for a photo at Trade on Wednesday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Latinx History Project (LHP) held a Pride Kickoff Drag Show at Trade on Wednesday, June 7. Performers included Rico Pico, Desiree Dik and Darcy de la Cuadra. Rico Pico was crowned Mr. DC Latinx Pride 2023, Randy Salmeron (a.k.a. Darcy de la Cuadra) was crowned Mx. Latinx Pride 2023 and Kaila Kaleaa was crowned Ms. Latinx Pride 2023.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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