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Pride march brings gayborhood boom years back to Chelsea

‘We will continue what began 50 years ago, to bring us closer to equality’



Chelsea, gay news, Washington Blade
Craig M. de Thomas, right, and Izzy, the Duchess of Chelsea, at June 30’s Pride March. (Photo by Jimmy Campbell)

From long lines to get into gay bars to crowded sex shop aisles to sidewalks dense with drag queens, daddies, dykes, twinks, tweakers, and wide-eyed tourists, Manhattan’s onetime ground zero of gayness had a déjà vu moment that lasted all day long, and well into the next, when Chelsea served as the end point of June 30’s NYC Pride March.

Cheered on by an estimated four million spectators, the March proceeded down Fifth Avenue from its East 26th Street kick-off, went past the Stonewall Inn during its Greenwich Village phase, then made its way up Seventh Avenue, concluding in the heart of Chelsea.

Twelve hours and 32 minutes after its noon start time, over 150,000 marchers had crossed the West 23rd Street finish line, from which point many remained in the area to congregate on stoops, hold impromptu dance-offs, and scoop up Stonewall 50 T-shirts hawked by vendors who turned side streets closed to vehicular traffic into open-air markets.

Some strolled, many strutted, down Eighth Avenue, between West 14th and 23rd Streets—which, at the height of Chelsea’s gay glory, housed dozens of queer-centric businesses, including gay lifestyle retail mecca Rainbows & Triangles, and The Big Cup—a java joint that served the community as, depending on your pop culture touchstone, the “Cheers” bar, Central Perk, Starbucks, or a brick and mortar Grindr, where hookup prospects were never more than 20 feet away.

By dawn, the streets were clean, and little evidence of the previous day’s record-setting revelry remained, save for the Pride-hued confetti that promises to linger, like Christmas tree needles, as a reminder of the season that came and went.

For longtime locals, the Pride March recalled an era when Chelsea was the reigning queen of NYC gay nightlife, retail, and residency.

“I consider the heyday of the Chelsea gay vibe to be when I moved here [in 1996] to until around 2005,” says 49-year-old Stephen Charles Lincoln, creator/proprietor of The Protein Bakery, a neighborhood fixture since 1999. 

WorldPride, Lincoln notes, “was a fantastic reminder” of the heyday, “with the streets filled with gay people of every race, age, and sexual preference.”

While the onetime group fitness director at the predominantly gay David Barton Gym strongly disavows the notion that Chelsea is “over” as a gay neighborhood (“I’m still here,” he quips), Lincoln concedes it “has definitely diluted over the past 10 years.”

Unlike Splash, Rawhide, and View, not every gay bar from Chelsea’s golden age has been consigned to history.

Sixty-year-old Derek Danton, “an out business owner for 40 years, 20 with the Eagle NYC,” says there is “really nothing in my history to compare to the events of the last two weeks. Locals and visitors alike were just happy to be alive, happy to be free to express themselves, unconditionally.” 

Located at West 28th Street and 11th Avenue since 2001, and one of the only Manhattan gay bars with a roof deck, the Eagle is set to mark its 50th anniversary next year.

“In its storied history,” Danton notes, “the size of the crowds at the Eagle, because of WorldPride, is unprecedented… It is astonishing to realize that so many thousands of visitors from all around the world know and love the Eagle, and that tradition is still valued.” 

WorldPride patrons accounted for unprecedented numbers at the Eagle NYC, one of a handful of gay bars left in Chelsea. (Photo by Scott Stiffler)

Andrew Rai, 38, a lifelong resident of Chelsea, talks of vanishing tradition, noting he feels the March “retains some of the rapidly fading cultural authenticity” of his neighborhood.

“Chelsea,” Rai says, “was very gay when I was growing up, was very vibrant, in terms of the variety of personalities, genders, and thoughts. Now, it’s becoming very homogenized. But this really harkened me back to when Chelsea was truly diverse. It makes me feel that there’s still some element of it, somewhere, that lives.”

Fifty-one-year-old Craig M. de Thomas, a partner in the Midtown-based commercial and residential title insurance company, Insignia National Title Agency, recalls “telling my grandmother I was gay when I was 25 years of age,” and often traveling “from upstate New York, to indulge in the gay life that is offered here. I have fond memories of going to the many Chelsea clubs, bars, and restaurants, truly enjoying life and always feeling safe and accepted. Seeing men openly sharing affection and being their authentic selves in public was incredible to me. I wanted to be part of that, which is why I moved here 11 years ago.”

Over the last few years, de Thomas observes, “We have seen Chelsea shift, as many gay business owners and residents have moved north [to Hell’s Kitchen].” This year’s Pride celebration, he says, “brought with it a much-needed injection of gayness to Chelsea. It was lovely to walk around over the weekend, both day and evening, and feel the gay energy again, to see restaurants, bars, and shops filled with life and happiness. It was a vibe that is reminiscent of days gone by.” 

Calling the Pride March the “culmination of seeds sown decades ago, many of which were planted here in Chelsea by residents who still reside here,” de Thomas sees the neighborhood’s gay liberation greenhouse role as an ongoing one, noting, “We are the fruits” of those seeds and, as such, “will continue what began 50 years ago, to bring us closer to equality” while celebrating “the beauty and power of diversity.”  

That Chelsea diversity has legs—four of them, in the form of many locals for whom Sunday’s Parade March intersected with the daily duties of dog ownership.

Chicago-to-NYC transplant Abbey Stolle spoke with the Blade while walking her Shih Tzu, Donna, in close proximity to their residence at 21st Street and Seventh Avenue, where one of the event’s green-shirted volunteers held a sign letting March participants know they were two blocks from the route’s end.

“People want to feel joy. They want to feel love,” she says, of the neighborhood’s sudden population explosion. “I’ve been out here all day. No one I know living here has ever complained [about the crowds brought by the March], and I have a mixed bag in my building—young, old, gay, straight, trans.”

Detroit-born Stolle, 37, spoke with this 52-year-old reporter about his having grown up during the height of the AIDS crisis, and put her own experience within the context of “my era, Matthew Shepard, that fear of coming out in the ’90s. I was a raver for 15 years. Gay men took me under their wing.”

As “a straight white woman,” Stolle notes, “I guess I feel a bit inferior on a day like today. This is a weighted year. These are people,” Stolle said, of the Stonewall-era faces in the March and on the streets, “who’ve lived through so much, who are still living here.”

Clarifying her use of that charged word, Stolle says she did not invoke inferiority “in a negative way. It’s just, it’s not my day. What are my woes compared to some of the strife these people are going through? But I’m a woman, so I get that taste, that sprinkle.”

Abbey Stolle and her Shih Tzu, Donna, spent much of the day watching the March pass by their Seventh Avenue and West 21st Street residence. (Photo by Scott Stiffler)

Having watched the day’s events from a table outside Cafe Champignon (Seventh Avenue between West 21st and 22nd Streets), de Thomas recalls, “I stated to my darling friends, gay and straight, as we were sitting in the midst of millions of celebrants, ‘I absolutely love that this is our normal. Isn’t it fantastic?’ ” 

Most of its gay bars are long gone, but Eighth Avenue has managed to retain a robust roster of sex shops. (Photo by Scott Stiffler)


New book explores why we categorize sports according to gender

You can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think



‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’
By Katie Barnes
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/304 pages

The jump shot happened so quickly, so perfectly.

Your favorite player was in the air in a heartbeat, basketball in hand, wrist cocked. One flick and it was all swish, three points, just like that, and your team was ahead. So are you watching men’s basketball or women’s basketball? Or, as in the new book, “Fair Play” by Katie Barnes, should it really matter?

For sports fans, this may come as a surprise: we categorize sports according to gender.

Football, baseball, wresting: male sports. Gymnastics, volleyball: women’s sports. And yet, one weekend spent cruising around television shows you that those sports are enjoyed by both men and women – but we question the sexuality of athletes who dare (gasp!) to cross invisible lines for a sport they love.

How did sports “become a flash point for a broader conversation?”

Barnes takes readers back first to 1967, when Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both ran in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time women had audaciously done so and while both finished the race, their efforts didn’t sit well with the men who made the rules.

“Thirty-seven words” changed the country in 1972 when Title IX was signed, which guaranteed there’d be no discrimination in extracurricular events, as long as “federal financial assistance” was taken. It guaranteed availability for sports participation for millions of girls in schools and colleges. It also “enshrine[d] protections for queer and transgender youth to access school sports.”

So why the debate about competition across gender lines?

First, says Barnes, we can’t change biology, or human bodies that contain both testosterone and estrogen, or that some athletes naturally have more of one or the other – all of which factor into the debate. We shouldn’t forget that women can and do compete with men in some sports, and they sometimes win. We shouldn’t ignore the presence of transgender men in sports.

What we should do, Barnes says, is to “write a new story. One that works better.”

Here are two facts: Nobody likes change. And everybody has an opinion.

Keep those two statements in mind when you read “Fair Play.” They’ll keep you calm in this debate, as will author Katie Barnes’ lack of flame fanning.

As a sports fan, an athlete, and someone who’s binary, Barnes makes things relatively even-keel in this book, which is a breath of fresh air in what’s generally ferociously contentious. There’s a good balance of science and social commentary here, and the many, many stories that Barnes shares are entertaining and informative, as well as illustrative. Readers will come away with a good understanding of where the debate lies.

But will this book make a difference?

Maybe. Much will depend on who reads and absorbs it. Barnes offers plenty to ponder but alas, you can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think. Still, if you’ve got skin in this particular bunch of games, find “Fair Play” and jump on it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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An exciting revival of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre

Out actor Caesar Samayoa on portraying iconic role of President Perón



Caesar Samayoa (center) and the cast of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by DJ Corey Photography) 

Through Oct. 15
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.

When Eva Perón died of cancer at 33 in 1952, the people’s reaction was so intense that Argentina literally ran out of cut flowers. Mourners were forced to fly in stems from neighboring countries, explains out actor Caesar Samayoa. 

For Samayoa, playing President Perón to Shireen Pimental’s First Lady Eva in director Sammi Cannold’s exciting revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a dream fulfilled. 

As a Guatemalan-American kid, he had a foot in two worlds. Samayoa lived and went to school in suburban Emerson, N.J. But he spent evenings working at his parents’ botanica in Spanish Harlem. 

During the drives back and forth in the family station wagon, he remembers listening to “Evita” on his cassette player: “It’s the first cast album I remember really hearing and understanding. I longed to be in the show.”

As an undergrad, he transferred from Bucknell University where he studied Japanese international relations to a drama major at Ithica College. His first professional gig was in 1997 playing Juliet in Joe Calarco’s off-Broadway “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Lots of Broadway work followed including “Sister Act,” “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” and most significantly, Samayoa says, “Come From Away,” a musical telling of the true story of airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. He played Kevin J. (one half of a gay couple) and Ali, a Muslim chef.  

He adds “Evita” has proved a powerful experience too: “We’re portraying a populist power couple that changed the trajectory of a country in a way most Americans can’t fully understand. And doing it in Washington surrounded by government and politics is extra exciting.” 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you tap into a real-life character like Perón?

CAESAR SAMAYOA: Fortunately, Sammi [Connald] and I work similarly. With real persons and situations, I immerse myself into history, almost to a ridiculous extent. 

First day in the rehearsal room, we were inundated with artifacts. Sammi has been to Argentina several times and interviewed heavily with people involved in Eva and Peron’s lives. Throughout the process we’d sit and talk about the real history that happened. We went down the rabbit hole.

Sammi’s interviews included time with Eva’s nurse who was at her bedside when she died. We watched videos of those interviews. They’ve been an integral part of our production. 

BLADE: Were you surprised by anything you learned?

SAMAYOA: Usually, Eva and Perón’s relationship is portrayed as purely transactional.  They wrote love letters and I had access to those. At their country home, they’d be in pajamas and walk on the beach; that part of their life was playful and informal. They were a political couple but they were deeply in love too. I latched on to that. 

BLADE: And anything about the man specifically? 

SAMAYOA:  Perón’s charisma was brought to the forefront. In shows I’ve done, some big names have attended. Obama. Clinton. Justin Trudeau came to “Come From Away.” Within seconds, the charisma makes you give into that person. I’ve tried to use that.  

BLADE: And the part? 

SAMAYOA: Perón is said to be underwritten. But I love his power and the songs he sings [“The Art of the Possible,” “She is a Diamond,” etc.]. I’m fully a baritone and to find that kind of role in a modern musical is nearly impossible. And in this rock opera, I can use it to the full extent and feel great about it.

BLADE: “Evita” is a co-production with A.R.T. Has it changed since premiering in Boston? 

SAMAYOA: Yes, it has. In fact, 48 hours before opening night in Washington, we made some changes and they’ve really landed. Without giving too much away, we gave it more gravity in reality of time as well as Eva’s sickness and the rapid deterioration. It’s given our second act a huge kind of engine that it didn’t have. 

BLADE: You’re married to talent agent Christopher Freer and you’re very open. Was it always that way for you?

SAMAYOA: When I started acting professionally, it was a very different industry. We were encouraged to stay in the closet or it will cast only in a certain part. There was truth in that. There still is some truth in that, but I refuse to go down that road. I can’t reach what I need to reach unless I’m my most honest self. I can’t do it any other way.

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Out & About

HRC’s National Dinner is back

LGBTQ rights organization’s annual gala features Rhimes, Waithe, Bomer



Actor Matt Bomer will be honored at the HRC National Dinner.

The Human Rights Campaign will host its annual National Dinner on Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The dinner’s honorees include world-famous producers, actors and entertainers whose work spotlights the fight for civil rights and social justice, including Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe and Matt Bomer.

A new event, as part of the weekend, — the Equality Convention — will take place the night before the dinner on Friday, Oct. 13. The convention will showcase the power of the LGBTQ equality movement, feature influential political and cultural voices, and bring together volunteer and movement leaders from across the country to talk about the path ahead.
For more details about the weekend, visit HRC’s website.

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