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Michael Kahn — leader, innovator, icon, friend

Shakespeare Theatre director leaves indelible impression on D.C.

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Shakespeare Theater, gay news, Washington Blade
Local theater legend Michael Kahn. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

I have been fortunate over the years living in Washington, D.C. to meet and become friends with many incredible people. Leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement, politicians, and thought leaders in many areas. But one person stands out among those I have met. He is a leader, innovator, icon and now friend. That person is Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC).

At the end of this month Michael is retiring after 33 years in Washington as one of the most influential people in the D.C. theater scene. His legacy includes the incredible STC, which he has dedicated years to building. But it’s more. Michael is credited with being a major impetus to the growth of downtown D.C., which began when he took the audacious step of moving the theater to the Lansburgh on 7th Street downtown. Today that theater and the new Harman Hall are part of his amazing legacy and a thriving downtown. STC has produced and hosted more than 150 productions and entertained more than 2.5 million audience members. Since 1986, STC has won a Tony award, 104 Helen Hayes Awards and earned 438 nominations.

I first met Michael at Java House coffee shop in Dupont Circle. He would come sit and read, which he does to this day. He would often work on issues related to the current play he was directing or helping other directors with their projects. Michael became a friend. We go to the same gym, FIT Personal Training on 17th Street, and he introduced me to many of his friends over the years. One of those friends is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She officiated at Michael and his husband Charles’ wedding and I had the chance to sit next to her and chat at an STC event. Michael has a lot of friends the rest of us mortals can only read about. He was recently in England and posted a picture on his FB page having lunch with Dame Judith Dench and Dame Eileen Atkins. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that luncheon.

In return, I introduced Michael to members of my morning coffee group and he would join us when he got up early enough, which for a theatre person who lives a late night life wasn’t all the time. Everyone enjoyed listening to his stories and I started arranging theater parties to the plays he directed. He was enormously generous with his time and suggested after the plays he would invite the cast to join us for cocktails. This became a regular thing for many years. I found out from some cast members it was more of a command performance for them when the esteemed Kahn invited them. But it turned out they and we all enjoyed ourselves at these events. We continued this tradition right up to Michael’s last play at the Shakespeare, “The Oresteia.” Through these events our coffee group got the opportunity to meet some amazing actors, including Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Tom Story, Michael Urie, and most recently Josiah Bania and Kelley Curran.

I learned that a brilliant director like Michael working with talented actors can make any theater experience exciting.

In his recent op-ed for the Washington Post, “What the theater has taught me about Washington,” he shares his love for the city. Michael writes, “Over the years, however, I’ve seen this city change its character dramatically. A city that hosted fewer than 10 theaters in the early 1980s now has more than 90 professional companies, alongside opera, ballet, musical acts of all kinds and a thriving food scene. Aspiring actors and writers used to leave D.C. looking for work; now they move to the District to make careers.” Michael is responsible as much as anyone else for all that.

Each year, the Shakespeare Theatre holds a gala and presents the WILL award to a deserving actor. Through Michael I would get an invitation to attend a brunch prior to the event at the home of the British ambassador. At these events Michael graciously introduced me to his friends who included the likes of Chelsea Clinton, Ian McKellen, who joked about how appropriate it was that he had been invited by the ambassador to stay in what was normally the ‘Queen’s bedroom’; Annette Bening and her husband Warren Beatty and Elizabeth McGovern.

I will miss my conversations with Michael at the Java House when he moves more permanently to his home in New York. Like so many of us, he came to the District for a job and stayed because he fell in love with the city and in his case the city fell in love with him. I recently kidded him that maybe like Cher he will do many comebacks and if we are very lucky we have not yet seen the last play directed by Michael Kahn in D.C.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Turkey Pride crackdowns only strengthen LGBTQ resistance

Hundreds arrested in Istanbul on Sunday

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Police crackdown on the Istanbul Pride march on June 26, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Hayri Tunç)

The waving colors of the thousand shades inside of a rainbow,

The sparkling joy from the pride and honor of self-declaration, 

The echoing sounds of the steps for solidarity in the cobblestone streets of İstanbul, 

To unite for equality, for justice, for solely our right to be. 

This was our goal, our expectation and our hope for Pride Turkey 2022. It has, however, been overshadowed by the government’s vicious attempts to repress the colors of the LGBTQI+ community. 

First, it started with the ban of Pride speeches and panels that many district governors and other local authorities across Turkey announced. Local police officers raided the many event venues as if “illegal” activities were being conducted. 

As in the last couple of years, it was already expected the government would ban the Pride marches in many cities. It was, however, the first time the government officially tried to prevent even face-to-face community gatherings of LGBTQI+ organizations. It was a type of intervention reflecting the level of fear and intolerance of the government regarding the growing connection, solidarity and public visibility of LGBTQI+ community.

Nevertheless, oppression often brings out the most creative means. As such, Pride committees have carried all the activities on digital platforms. Many activists and civil society representatives have shown support by participating in live broadcasts from event venues, and the voice of LGBTQI+ solidarity still reached a wide audience. 

Subsequently, the most drastic pressure by the government has manifested itself during the Pride marches. The police violently intervened and used unproportionate force against marchers in many cities, which resulted in a radical number of unwarranted detentions. 

While 530 LGBTQI+ activists were taken into custody over the last 37 days across Turkey, 373 of them were arrested during the Istanbul Pride march on June 26. This constitutes a first, since the Istanbul Pride arrests constituted the largest number of people taken into custody during a street march since the Gezi protests.

Will these enormous efforts to pressure win the day? The answer is “definitely no.” On the contrary, it sparked a backlash by triggering strong solidarity among Turkey’s queer community. The outstanding resistance of LGBTQI+ marchers gained public recognition on social media, while persistent legal support of LGBTQI+ initiatives canceled all the detentions. In the end, the exhaustive pressures of the government could not manage to fade the multicolor of LGBTQI+ identity. In fact, it helped our rainbow flag to shine even more glamorous and visible.  

We, as members of the LGBTQI+ community, have once again proved through this entire experience that solidarity, togetherness and collective resistance are the most powerful facilitators in our fight to exist equally.   

In honor of the unbreakable resistance of Turkey Pride 2022 supporters, 

Thanks to you, the cobblestones of Istanbul and every street in Turkey echoed with the steps of LGBTQI+ solidarity.

Dilek İçten is a journalist, researcher and civil society expert with a demonstrated history of working in interdisciplinary and investigative research projects examining the socio-cultural dynamics of media, gender and migration. The focus of her work varies from freedom of expression, media censorship and journalistic independence to gender based-discrimination and hate speech against disadvantaged groups and minorities.

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Supreme Court, GOP are sliming our democracy

Protests are fine but we must all vote for Democrats

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In two decisions — one throwing out New York’s gun laws and the other overturning Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court and the Republican Party who put them there, have slimed the American public and in essence our democracy. 

With the decision on Roe v. Wade, for the first time, the court has taken away a constitutional right. One recognized by previous courts and upheld for nearly fifty years. Justices Thomas and Alito finally had the votes, with Trump’s three stooges, to do what they have wanted to do for decades. We now understand how far this court is willing to go to take rights away from the American people, and we should all be afraid.  

They proved they have the votes to attack women and we must believe the LGBTQ+ community could easily be their next target. They almost certainly are not finished with their attacks on women as they can come down on contraception and other pharmaceuticals. Then they can end affirmative action even though it was what got Thomas to where he is. Clearly, we should have listened to Anita Hill. Thomas’s written decision could even put into question the Loving decision, which allowed interracial marriage and made it legal for him to marry his wife. We must believe the court will look at all these issues.

There is a sickness in the land and we will either succumb to it, or fight it. My answer is we have to fight it with all we have. We must collectively stand up and say “no more!” Allowing Republicans to continue to take the nation in this direction is unacceptable. The only way we can do something about it and stand up for our democracy is by VOTING. Every poll shows Americans are against what the Supreme Court is doing. Yet we are stuck with a court, which as Nancy Pelosi says “gave a slap in the face to women.” Justices clearly care more for an unborn fetus than a living child. A living child who could be mowed down by the guns they are allowing on the streets. 

As Democrats, and all decent people, mull over how to react, we must come together as never before. We can march until we are blue in the face but if we don’t vote, we lose. We need to elect Democrats to statehouses and state legislatures, and keep majorities in both Houses of the Congress. The House has already passed legislation curbing guns and codifying Roe v. Wade. We now need more senators to go along. It actually could take only two more who would agree to end the filibuster to move these issues forward. 

I have written before to the LGBTQ+ community that parades and parties celebrating Pride are wonderful, but if every person who participates in them doesn’t vote, they mean very little because next year we will have lost some of our rights. We must not let ourselves and future generations down and be victimized by the likes of Thomas, Alito and the three disgusting Trump judges. We must vote against the Republican Party because the right wing now controls it. 

Sen. Mitch McConnell has already said if Republicans take over Congress he will consider passing a law outlawing abortion nationally. We cannot allow that to happen. It is only Congress and state governments that can act to counter what the court with Republican support is doing. We must do more than show the nation with the January 6th hearings about Trump’s attempted coup. Even if through that we can put the likes of Ginny Thomas in jail for her role in it. 

The results of the midterm elections will show the world where America stands. These elections will play out over a range of issues. We will see if people vote more based on inflation and the cost of gas, or vote for their right to privacy and freedom. Those of us who promote the right to privacy and democracy must stand together if we are to win. We cannot fight each other, creating internal battles, rather must fight the enemy, the Republican Party, as it is constituted today. 

It won’t be easy but we can win this fight. We can keep the House of Representatives and win at least two additional Senate seats making it easier to move the Senate forward on a host of issues. When it comes to what the court has done to women, their decision on guns, and what Thomas is signaling they will do in the future, it really is clear we are facing life and death issues.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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How do we respond to rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric?

Pastor invokes Bible to call for death of gays

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Pastor Dillon Awes (Screen capture via YouTube)

On Sunday, June 4, Pastor Dillon Awes stepped behind the pulpit at Steadfast Baptist Church in Watauga, Texas and declared, “What does God say is the answer, is the solution for the homosexual in 2022?…That they are worthy of death.” His statement was greeted by shouts of “Amen” from within his congregation. He continued preaching, saying, “they should be sentenced to death, they should be lined up against a wall and shot in the back of the head.” Again, his words were greeted by “Amens” from within his church. 

This clip soon spread online, causing widespread backlash from religious and non-religious alike. But for me, an openly gay, former evangelical, Christian pastor, Pastor Awes’s words are not surprising at all. In fact, I’ve heard similar sentiments regularly. The only difference between Pastor Awes and most other conservative Christian pastors across the United States today is that Pastor Awes was willing to say the silent part out loud. After all, Pastor Awes was not wrong — the passage he was preaching on, as commonly interpreted by conservative Christians, does in fact say, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:32) If you put any evangelical pastor on the spot and asked if they believed that this verse was true and was in reference to LGBTQ+ people, they would have to answer, even if reluctantly, “yes.” 

In a strange way, I am glad Pastor Awes preached what he did so clearly, because he is revealing the truth that most other evangelicals don’t want to acknowledge — that their theology related to the LGBTQ+ community is a theology of death. Despite attempts in recent years by evangelicals to seem more welcoming and inclusive, their core theological claim that the lives and love of LGBTQ+ people is sinful, broken, and abomination is a claim that has resulted in the suffering, oppression, and death of millions of queer people around the world, and it is high time that they own up and are honest about the beliefs they hold and their impact on LGBTQ+ people. Because again, Pastor Awes view is not a minority view, as hard as that might be to believe. He simply said what a majority of evangelical churches teach in a horrifyingly clear way. While most evangelicals would probably disagree with Pastor Awes graphic call for the execution of LGBTQ+ people, the would still affirm the truthfulness of Romans 1:32: “They are worthy of death.”

And even if evangelicals attempted theological gymnastics to get out of this horrifying interpretation of scripture that calls for violence toward queer people, their theology, which tells LGBTQ+ people that they must suppress their sexuality or gender identity or seek to change it to be acceptable to God and welcome in the church does, in fact, cause death. A 2015 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that LGBTQ+ people who are subjected to non-affirming religious teachings have a significantly higher rate of attempted suicide. These numbers have been reaffirmed in study after study, and are certainly true in my experience as a young gay evangelical who was forced into conversion therapy by my Christian college in my early twenties. When you’re told that a fundamental aspect of your identity is evil and realize that there is nothing you can do to change it, for many, death can seem like the only viable escape from this mental and spiritual anguish. 

So how are we to respond to the truth that this dangerous theology is being preached in literally every corner of our nation? How can those of us- religious or not- who are allies to the LGBTQ+ community protect our queer friends and family from violence and harm in the face of millions of people who hold to these dangerous beliefs and are feeling more empowered than ever to say them out loud and to act on them? 

First, it’s important that we do our work and are informed. The truth is that while this interpretation of the biblical texts is unfortunately common among Christians around the world, it is not an accurate understanding of the biblical texts. The six verses in the Christian scriptures that reference any sort of same-sex behavior are all condemnations of a very particular practice that was common in the ancient world — sexual exploitation related to temple prostitution. Same-sex relationships and queer gender identities were well known throughout the ancient Near East and especially within the Roman Empire — instead of speaking about these realities, every condemnation of homosexuality in scripture is tied to “idolatry,” which means worshipping something other than God, and in context is clearly a condemnation of temple prostitution, a practice where people who have sex with priests or priestesses in pagan temples as a way to honor various gods and goddesses. That is what is being condemned in Scripture; there is not a single condemnation of same-sex relationships or queer gender identity anywhere, and we must challenge these teachings the same way we challenged the church’s teachings on slavery, the equality of women, and the panoply of other backwards beliefs that have been perpetuated in the name of Christianity.

Second, we must challenge our conservative Christian friends and family members to be honest about what they believe and the harm that it causes. The reason so many Christians shy away from saying things as clearly as Pastor Awes is because they inherently know that these beliefs are dangerous and wrong. How can one follow Jesus, whose central command was to “love your neighbor as yourself” and hold on to a belief that a group of people are abominations who are worthy of death? These are wholly inconsistent, and this inconsistency should be drawn out and turned into an invitation for our friends to change their damaging and dangerous beliefs. 

Third, we must continue to uplift and celebrate LGBTQ+ people and relationships in our society. The hatred spewed by Pastor Awes is a clear reminder of why Pride is still so important — Pride celebrations began to increase visibility of queer folks, decrease stigma around our lives and loves, and to use celebration and joy as a tool for resistance in the face of fear and bigotry. Despite the broad progress the LGBTQ+ rights movement has made in the U.S., our lives and rights are consistently under attack and in the post-Trump era, there has been a reinvigoration of anti-LGBTQ+ policies and rhetoric across the nation rooted in fear being perpetuated by the alt-right. Old tropes conflating queer people with pedophilia and sexual abuse have found new life, and the demonization of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to basic morality is now commonly heard on Fox News and across social media. The way we combat such dangerous rhetoric is ensuring more people see and know LGBTQ+ people and for our allies to speak out whenever anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is used or policies are proposed, signaling the broad support of queer people by the American public. 

During this Pride month, it’s time for a renewed commitment to the fight for LGBTQ+ dignity and equality in the United States. It’s time for queer people to stand up and let our lights shine brighter than ever before, so that LGBTQ+ youth can see our example and know that there is space for them, in all their uniqueness, in our society. 

It’s time for allies to be bold in their condemnation of bigotry wherever it occurs. It’s time for our nation’s leaders to reaffirm their commitment to fight for LGBTQ+ rights in every corner of this nation and around the world. If we remain complacent, fear-based views like those of Pastor Awes will spread and will result in more abuse and violence against LGBTQ+ people. Progress is not inevitable, and the fight has not yet been won. This Pride month, may we return again to the spirit of the earliest Pride marches, standing boldly in the face of fear and bigotry and declaring that love will win in the end. 

Rev. Brandan Robertson is an author, pastor, activist, and public theologian working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He currently serves as the Lead Pastor of Metanoia Church, a digital progressive faith community. 

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