The Imperial Court system welcomes all so while there’s a huge drag component to the proceedings, not all monarchs serve in drag.
Rudy and Ginger, this year’s incoming emperor and empress are both cisgender monarchs. They’ll be installed this weekend in a flurry of festivities — officially on Saturday night at Gala of the Americas Coronation VIII at The Sphinx Club (1315 K St., N.W.) at 7 p.m. (cocktails at 6). Tickets are $100 at imperialcourtdc.org. The court raises money for various LGBT and AIDS causes.
Ginger B. Sparkles Childs Dennis is the Imperial Court name of Chrissy Burke, who’s currently Imperial Crown Princess Royale. She and Rudy were elected in June at the Czar Ball in Richmond. They decided lounging by the pool in Ft. Lauderdale at its coronation, they would unite forces for the Washington titles.
“(The Court) is important to me for a lot of reasons,” Burke says. “It has provided me with a safe environment to be me — an organization that has literally saved my life. I was at a point where I was extremely depressed and just did not want to continue with life. When I was introduced to the Court, I was very standoffish at first because I have always felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. (They) made me open my eyes and realize I am important.”
Burke, a lesbian, heard about the court through friends she calls her “chosen dads.”
“I attended a few events and was absolutely taken aback at the welcoming and loving group of individuals who were involved,” the 41-year-old Pittsburgh native says. “It’s helped bring me back to life.”
She says court involvement can be as much or as little as one wants.
“For me, I’m all in, so I spend the majority of my downtime helping (the court) and our community.”
Burke works as assistant manager at Dogtopia. She and her wife, Madie Doll, live in Alexandria with two “furbabies,” Kekoa and Eevee. Burke enjoys dancing, crafts, travel and community work in her free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have been out for four years to my friends and some of my family. The hardest person to come out to was my Dad. Before he passed I was able to tell him.
Who’s your LGBTQ hero?
I do not have a specific LGBTQ hero. To me, everyone in our community is a hero for one reason or another.
What LGBTQ stereotype most annoys you?
They are all sick.
What’s your proudest professional achievement?
The day I was sworn in as a correctional officer.
What terrifies you?
Leaving this world alone.
What’s something trashy or vapid you love?
This empress will never tell her secrets! Ha ha.
What’s your greatest domestic skill?
What’s your favorite LGBTQ movie or show?
“Jenny’s Wedding” gets me every time.
What’s your social media pet peeve?
Cyber bullying and vaguebooking.
What would the end of the LGBTQ movement look like to you?
That we can just love who we want to love without any sort of repercussions. That we have educated all communities about each entity of our communities and unite together.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
What was your religion, if any, as a child and what is it today?
I was raised Catholic. Now, I believe there is a higher power.
What’s D.C.’s best hidden gem?
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Being able to sit and talk with Tree Sequoia and hearing all the amazing stories.
What celebrity death hit you hardest?
I was so upset when George Burns passed away.
If you could redo one moment from your past, what would it be?
I would not redo anything from my past. It has helped me become who I am today.
What are your obsessions?
Disney and anything that sparkles.
Finish this sentence — It’s about damn time:
we love one another and lift each other up.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That life will throw curveballs at you.
Why not? It’s a beautiful city with an amazing diversity of people.
Baltimore’s ‘Visionary’ curator prepares to step down
For 26 years, Hoffberger has created a loving haven and championed LGBTQ artists
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has highlighted hundreds of artists since it opened in 1995, and works by LGBTQ artists have featured prominently in both its permanent collection and changing exhibits.
From Andrew Logan’s Cosmic Galaxy Egg sculpture to Robert Benson’s blinged-out Universal Tree of Life to Judy Tallwing’s Prayer for Peace painting, LGBTQ artists have been responsible for some of most memorable creations that visitors will see, whether they know it or not.
This pattern of inclusion is part of the legacy of museum founder, director and primary curator Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community. After 26 years running the museum, Hoffberger announced in July that she plans to retire in March of 2022, and AVAM’s board has launched a search for her replacement.
But unlike some museum directors who have called attention to their recent efforts to promote greater diversity in the range of artists they show, Hoffberger said she has never set out specifically to include a certain percentage of LGBTQ artists, just as she has never set a goal for featuring a certain number of minority or female artists.
She said she simply tries to find the best artists for each show, based on the perspectives they bring and the work they produce. In many cases, she said, she doesn’t necessarily know an artist’s sexual orientation, unless their work is homoerotic or intentionally refers in other ways to their identity.
Hoffberger said her resistance to quotas is not because she’s color-blind or gender-blind.
“I would say I’m color- and race-celebratory,” she said. “There’s a quote by [Canadian writer] Dorothy Maclean: ‘Humankind trend should be to unity, not uniformity.’ That pretty much sums it up. That’s how I feel. Labels like gay or straight or bi, what do they tell you about a person? Not very much. I’m not so interested in people’s sexuality. I’m interested in the person.”
Hoffberger likens curating a museum exhibit to planning a banquet: “If you’re looking to offer…as delicious a feast as possible, it comes naturally that you would have participation by extraordinary people of every stripe.”
Located at 800 Key Highway near the city’s Inner Harbor waterfront, the museum has been designated by Congress as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which is defined as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training,” which arise from “an innate personal vision that revels in the creative act itself.”
These creators, sometimes called outsider artists, often try to make sense of the world by making art with whatever materials they have at hand, whether it’s egg shells or toothpicks or more conventional artist supplies.
Hoffberger said she prefers the term visionary artists, or intuitive or self-taught, to ‘outsider.’ But she notes that it makes sense that many LGBTQ individuals turn out to be visionary artists because of the experiences they’ve had in life. She said many members of the LGBTQ community have lived outside the mainstream in one way or another, and that has both fueled their drive to make art and informed the art they make.
“How about you’re born into a family where all the girls are gorgeous and you’re the fat one? Or you have a deformity? There’s a myriad of ways that people feel out of step,” she said. “When the life experience is too big for words, it often will come out from non-artists as a creative expression for the first time because there are just no words for it.”
This doesn’t mean LGBTQ artists are inherently better than non-LGBTQ artists, she said.
“Better? No. But anyone who feels for any reason like an outsider, who has experience feeling like a stranger, always has a more in-depth take at reality because they are on some level on the outside…The point is that people who have that little bit of knowing what it is like to be outside the circle actually often will have a perspective that helps evolve and draw a circle.”
Something happens to people when they aren’t from the “established pack,” she said, that makes them look at the world differently and react differently and perhaps get more creative.
“When you’re not from the pack…when you’re forced out of conventional thinking because people are giving you pretty clear signals that you’re not like them in ways that they may even be hostile to, then you start to think more deeply because you can’t coast on being accepted in the same way. It’s not as easy.”
Hoffberger points to the work of gay filmmaker John Waters and his ability to capture what it’s like to live outside the mainstream.
“That’s what I think John Waters has done so unbelievably well,” she said. “He didn’t shock just to shock. He always had this softness for seeing value in people that other people would never have focused on. And in doing that, you sense that you are with someone who’s going to give you a break. That’s why he has yet another generation of fierce fans. This is a person who draws a big circle around the human family, and we’re living in a time when people are getting more and more narrow…So you want to be in the camp of championing more people, the beauty of more people, and the more diverse the better.”
As director and curator, Hoffberger said, she seeks out the best work she can find by visionary artists to incorporate in the museum’s exhibits. But rather than presenting works of visionary art as objects unto themselves, she curates exhibits that combine art, science, philosophy and humor, with an organizing theme for each show and an underlying focus on social justice and betterment.
In some cases, AVAM has explored themes that touch on gender, gender rights and human sexuality, including a 2005-2006 show entitled “Race, Class and Gender: 3 Things that Contribute ‘0’ to CHARACTER (Because being a Schmuck is an equal opportunity for everyone!) For exhibits such as that, Hoffberger said, works by LGBTQ artists can be particularly appropriate due to the artist’s point of view.
In other exhibits, she has focused on issues ranging from climate change to hunger to public health. AVAM’s next major exhibit, scheduled to open Oct. 9 and run until Sept. 4, 2022, is entitled “Healing & The Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof.)
Hoffberger said she doesn’t think sex or race are good ways to assess people.
“I don’t think your sexual orientation, I don’t think your color, I don’t think your religion, conveys any quality of character whatsoever,” she said. “That’s why I did that show, Race, Class and Gender. Three things that contribute zero to character but everybody is talking about all the time. I would think it would be more fair, since they’re approximately 50 percent of the population, if there were more women leaders. But do I think that because you are a woman leader you are going to be more spectacular just because of having a vagina? No, absolutely not. None of those things mean much to me, frankly.”
That goes for artists as well as elected leaders, Hoffberger said.
“I don’t even like it when I can look at a work of art and go, I know a woman did this. I really don’t like that,” she said. “I’d rather it just be kind of a soul, with different clothes on. I like magnificent souls, with whatever. And in that celebration, you have a great tenderness to be open to wherever that soul and beauty will manifest.”
AVAM has become a magnet for LGBTQ visitors, she said, because it’s a place where they feel comfortable with the art and the other patrons.
“What I love about the museum is that it is such a haven,” she said. “There are so many young teens that are transitioning, who come because, whether you’re wearing a burka or whatever, there’s a safety in being in our museum because there’s such a welcoming, loving vibe. You can see people who you can relate to not only walking through the museum but also in the art.”
Following are some of the LGBTQ artists whose work is or has been featured at the American Visionary Art Museum:
Andrew Logan, (1945- ) His works at AVAM: A 10-foot-tall sculpture of Divine, a tribute to the drag performer who starred in “Pink Flamingos,” “Multiple Maniacs,” “Hairspray” and other movies by filmmaker John Waters; Black Icarus, a figure suspended above the museum’s main staircase, and the Cosmic Galaxy Egg, an eight-foot-high sculpture on a plaza outside the museum’s Jim Rouse Visionary Center, inspired by the deep space images revealed by Hubble Telescope transmissions. Hoffberger is hoping to add a fourth work by Logan, a sculpture of the mythical creature Pegasus.
Logan was born in 1945, the third of five brothers in a family with one younger sister. In 1967 Logan graduated from the Oxford School of Architecture and spent one year in the United States working for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. At the age of 27, Logan gained notoriety as the co-founder, along with Baltimore’s Divine, of the Alternative Miss World contest, an inclusive beauty contest open to transvestites, the old and the young, men and women. His contest emphasized imagination and the radiance of beauty from within. In 1979, Andrew’s Alternative Miss World contest fought off legal action from another event with the help of a budding young defense barrister – future British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Logan is a tap dance and yoga aficionado and a prolific self-taught artist whose sculptures, mirrored jewelry, costumes, stage sets, and performance pieces have garnered a wide audience. He creates his art by using materials that are at hand, often incorporating mirror fragments and fabric remnants, and adding realistically sculpted heads and bodies. In the 1980’s Logan founded his own museum in Berriew, Wales, to house and display a portion of his work.
“The mirror of the universe has been my life for almost forty years,” the museum’s website quotes Logan as saying. “It has an energy like no other material. I have played with mirrors to create monuments, portraits, wall pieces and sculptural jewelry…My life is an artistic adventure.”
Judy Tallwing, (1945- ). Her work at AVAM: A painting entitled Prayer for Peace is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was a gift of the artist in memory of Sashie Helene Hyatt.
Tallwing is an Apache elder, leatherwoman and multi-media artist who won the first International Ms. Leather contest in 1987. Born in Glendale, Ariz., Tallwing has childhood memories of living in the desert with her parents and seven half brothers and sisters, helping to hunt rattlesnakes, and selling rocks by the roadside. Like many Native American children, Tallwing attended both a Catholic girls’ school and Indian School. She has six children, 23 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.
Tallwing started making art as far back as she can remember. “We didn’t call it art, we called it making things to sell along the road to help the family survive. I used to watch my grandmother, grandfather, and my mother all doing various forms of what I now know is art, to sell, and I wanted to help.” The first thing of hers that sold was a bee sitting on a flower, painted on a rock. It sold for 25 cents.
In her youth, Tallwing did a little bit of everything, from running her own construction and leather production companies to being the executive director of a domestic violence victims’ program and running an animal rescue operation for 13 years. “I think an ‘aha moment’ for me was realizing I could go to college, even without much other schooling.”
Starting college at age 32 changed her life; she now holds both an associates’ and bachelor’s degree. She travels to what she calls “power places” and brings back tiny fragments from those places to put in every painting or sculpture that calls for them, including copper, silver, turquoise, garnet, prayer ashes, and minute crystal prayer beads.
“I love trying to bring the stories I’ve heard to life and to add the spiritual aspects of the stories through the medicine of different elements of nature,” she has said. “Each thing that lives on the earth has its own energy and I try to put those energies together to create a healing.”
Ingo Swann, (1933–2013). His work at AVAM: The Light Bringer, a painting in the museum’s permanent collection.
Swann is best known as a pioneer in the field of remote viewing, the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, also described as “sensing” with the mind. Swann’s high rate of success in this field led him to co-create, along with Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, the Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, launched to investigate psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.
Swann was born high in the Rocky Mountains in Telluride, Colo., on Sept. 14, 1933. His father was a truck driver and he had two sisters. He often spoke of the beauty of his surroundings as a child, particularly the crystal-clear skies where he could see the Milky Way each night.
Swann wrote that he first experienced leaving his body at the age of three, during an operation to remove his tonsils. At that time he also became aware of seeing “butterfly lights” around people, plants, and some animals, which he later learned were auras. By nine, he wrote that he’d remotely traveled to the Milky Way. He famously claimed to have sent his consciousness to Jupiter prior to the arrival of NASA’s Voyager satellite probe and accurately described many of the planet’s features, including Jupiter’s then-unknown rings.
Swann’s paintings express his passion for exploring the mysteries of the universe and recapture his visions from leaving his body, remote viewing, and seeing auras. Swann was also a musician and a writer of several books, including his autobiography, “Penetration: The Question of Extraterrestrial and Human Telepathy” (1998). He died on Jan. 31, 2013 in New York City.
Bobby Adams (1946 – ). His work at AVAM: His photographs, scrapbooks and shrines have been featured in three exhibits.
Adams is a multimedia artist and a member of filmmaker John Waters’ group known as the Dreamlanders. He was born Robert Reid Adams on Feb. 15, 1946 in Dallas, and grew up in Baltimore. His father, a former boxer and strict disciplinarian, operated a floor sanding business in Dundalk. His “beloved and gentle” mother taught school and would eventually die by suicide in 1976.
Adams graduated in 1964 from Sparrows Point Senior High School and was able to avoid being sent to Vietnam because of a hearing problem. He became a pirate radio DJ in the late 1960s, playing at gatherings around Baltimore and spinning records for a station he dubbed W.E.E.D. He assembled elaborate scrapbooks stuffed with psychedelic collages and philosophical, often humorous, musings to illustrate his DJ patter and circulate among listeners at gigs.
In 1970, he began working with John Waters, who filmed “Pink Flamingos” at the Baltimore County farm where Adams was living. Ever since, Adams has been the filmmaker’s unofficial documentarian, taking photographs on film sets and chronicling the exploits of Waters’ band of renegades, the Dreamlanders. “I never learned how to do the camera,” notes Adams. “I just point and shoot. My approach is simple: I start with love, and the camera sees it.”
A self-professed Christmas addict, Adams makes hundreds of personalized, handmade, labor-of-love holiday cards for friends and family each year. Inspired in part by Waters’ own art making and an Edward Kienholz exhibition he chanced upon, Adams began making art in 1996, after the loss of his toy poodle, Odie. He created 50 multimedia tribute pieces to Odie and installed them throughout his waterfront cottage. Before it was displayed at AVAM, Adams’s art had never been exhibited publicly. When asked if he ever had an unrealistic hope fulfilled, he said, “Yes, being included in this show.”
Robert E. Benson, (1930 – ). His work at AVAM: The shiny Universal Tree of Life visible near the museum’s main entrance on Key Highway; the fart machine in the museum’s Flatulence exhibit; the ocean beneath Andrew Logan’s Black Icarus sculpture and the sky above it, and other creations.
Benson is a popular classical music radio host who became a prolific visual artist late in life. Born in Chicago, he served in the Army from 1951-1953 as enlisted secretary to General Mark Clark, commander-in-chief of the Far East Command. From 1953-1955 he worked for the B&O Railroad as secretary to the Manager of Industrial Development, and for two years was Assistant Manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Benson’s radio career began in 1958 when he was program director of WFDS-FM, which two years later became WBAL-FM. He was program director and chief announcer there until 1974, when he became Director of Audience Development for the Baltimore Symphony.
In 1975, Benson became coordinator of the Maryland State Arts Council’s Community Arts Development program working to organize county arts councils in all 23 counties of Maryland. He also was in charge of grants to music organizations and individuals, and retired from his state job in 1995. In 1979 he became morning announcer for WBJC-FM, where he remained until 1986. For 10 years beginning in 1987, Benson did programming and announcing for WJHU (now WYPR). He has collected recordings for many years, with particular interest in historic performances. He has written reviews for numerous publications, including Forecast FM, Hi Fi Stereo Buyers Guide, High Fidelity and Stereophile.
Benson lives in Glen Burnie, Md., where he grows orchids in his “underground” greenhouse, a hobby of three decades, and listens to music on his elaborate surround sound system. Since 2004 he has been working with mirrors and stained glass, creating varied art and decorative pieces.
Andrey Bartenev, (1969 –). His work at AVAM: In 2007, Bartenev won first prize in the museum’s “Bra Ball,” for his black and white rubber costume and performance.
Bartenev is a Russian performer, sculptor and experimentalist who won the Alternate Miss World pansexual beauty pageant in 2018 as Miss UFO. He was born on Oct. 9, 1969 in the northernmost Arctic Circle city of Norilsk in Siberia, an industrial town famous for its reserves and production of aluminum.
Bartenev recalls “three months of total darkness, one month of really hot summer, and 15 days each for spring and autumn.” His only sibling, a sister, was 12 years older. Bartenev’s father was a coal mining engineer and his mother was an industrial safety engineer. Both worked long hours, giving Bartenev free reign to decide how he spent his time alone.
At three, Bartenev loved scissors and began to cut images and patterns from books. “We made all our toys out of snow.” At an early age, Bartenev would organize parties for his friends who were also left alone, getting them to bring over all their pets. He used plastic to sculpt little “castles” for his mice and hamsters, and made costumes for his cats and dogs.
At 16, Bartenev moved with his family to Sochi in the south of Russia — “like Miami with mountains.” In college he studied theater and directing, graduating with high honors. His first job was directing a children’s theater near Chechnya. He also danced and performed in a local cabaret.
Moving to Moscow in 1990, Bartenev supported himself doing collages and graphics and competed in the Big Arts Festival at the Baltic Sea in 1992, where he met one of the judges, Andrew Logan, co-founder of the Alternative Miss World contest. Bartenev made a Snow Queen costume out of papier-mâché that won the top prize. Logan invited him to compete in the Alternative Miss World contest in 1995, 1998, and 2002 in London. There, Bartenev also created programs for the popular BBC children’s TV show, “Blue Peter” and re-staged his original performance show, “Botanic Ballet.” In 2007, he brought his talents to Baltimore and won first prize in AVAM’s “Bra Ball.” He has said his idea of perfect beauty is his childhood vision of “black sky and white snow.”
James Franklin Snodgrass (1922–2000). His work at AVAM: An untitled painting in the permanent collection, the gift of Robert Civello.
Snodgrass was born in Harford County, Md. in 1922. The son of a schoolteacher, he painted mannequins and traveled throughout the United States after graduating from college. During World War II, he declared himself a conscientious objector and worked as an ambulance driver for a Quaker society.
Appearing on television game shows became a peculiar “hobby” for Snodgrass, who won prize money on several occasions. In the late 1950s, he became the focus of public attention after he exposed fraudulent practices on the popular quiz show, Twenty-One. His story inspired Robert Redford’s 1994 film, “Quiz Show.”
Afterwards, Snodgrass grew increasingly reclusive and focused on his art. He was evasive, even secretive, about the untitled painting in AVAM’s collection, which took many years to complete. He died from cancer in early 2000.
Located at 800 Key Highway, the American Visionary Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Advance online purchase of a timed ticket is required to visit the museum. Visiting just the museum store, Sideshow, is free and does not require purchase of a ticket.
Paradise lost: Remembering the popular Rehoboth men’s guest house
Beach town’s pioneering B&B welcomed gay clientele before arrival of AIDS
“What hath night to do with sleep?” John Milton, A Journey to Paradise
In February 1987, 30-something Bill Courville was at his Mt. Pleasant neighborhood home. He opened the new edition of the Washington Blade. As usual, he read it from beginning to end. With a Ph.D. in psychology, Bill enjoyed the classifieds. It lifted his spirits after reading obituaries of gay men and news of meager AIDS funding from the Reagan administration. Sandwiched between personals and escorts were real estate sales listings, including a one-inch ad about a B&B in downtown Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Bill thought about his youthful days living in New Orleans and working at the Maison De Ville, a small dusty red stucco painted guest house overlooking Toulouse Street. There Tennessee Williams had once lived while penning “A Street Car Named Desire” — when not sipping Sazarac cocktails in the garden courtyard.
He circled the ad and placed it on the kitchen counter for his lover, Bob, to read. The couple had met two years earlier crossing the P Street Bridge and had gradually merged their lives. After Bob looked at the ad, Bill suggested: “Let’s go look at this! We will have a business and an income — and a place to live!” Born in Minnesota, Bob Jerome, the more cautious of the pair, had grown up in California, attending college in Claremont and later working as a Senate staffer. Like Bill, he had a doctorate and traveled throughout the world before their P Street encounter. Unlike Bob, however, Bill never had been to Rehoboth. Nevertheless, Bill insisted this could be their next adventure or at least an excuse to visit the shore off-season.
“It’s a great seasonal resort,” Bob responded positively. “Everybody goes there. There’s gay life!”
The next weekend, they crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and drove to Paradise. Rehoboth was mostly shuttered. But the Renegade bar was open at the fringe of town as was the Blue Moon along the gaying Baltimore Avenue. Driving one street over, they arrived at 40 Maryland Ave.
John, the Realtor, whose lover “Dolly” performed at the Moon, met the couple at the 19th-century house. “It was pretty awful,” remembers Bill. The fatigued Paradise Guest House sign was washed-out and the wide front porch with its handcrafted trellis lusted for paint. The pipes were drained. There was no heat or electricity. There were slivers of mirrors glued on living room walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, 1930s over-stuffed maroon chairs, and yard sale grade furniture facing an old TV. The scent of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the ceilings and walls.
As they wandered through the 28 rooms — most barely wide enough for a floor mattress with a thin plastic sheet and an occasional odd-fitting dresser — they eyed stacks of men’s magazines (Honcho, Mandate, Bound & Gagged), iconic videos like “Boys in the Sand,” “Stryker Force,” and “Pacific Coast Highway,” along with chests of dildos in every imaginable size. Off the living room, a narrow passageway at a left angle to the main corridor led to the first-floor bedrooms. At the end was a trap door. They didn’t venture down. “Seasonal resorts like the Paradise were kind of like bars,” Bill explains. “They look great at night but don’t look at them during the day.”
On their drive back, the couple chatted about the venture. “I told Bill that if we were going to invest, he needed to run it so we could learn the business.” Bob knew his income would cover their personal expenses as long as Bill was willing to do the day-to-day management. “We were youngish. I don’t think we thought about what a massive undertaking it was…. But it seemed right.”
After purchasing the property, they along with some friends had just a few months before the 10-week season began on Memorial Day weekend. “We’d drag them down there and make them work, saying, ‘Oh, you can go to the beach.’ But, of course they never did go as it was always cold and rainy.” Bill wondered, “Does the sun ever shine here?”
Those next weeks were frantic: discarding discolored mattresses and sex toys; tearing out faux bedroom walls to restore the original 14 rooms; buying new white wicker furniture; upgrading the bathrooms, deck, and kitchen. Everything was thoroughly cleaned. Fresh white paint glistened on the walls and gray-painted floors replaced piles of tattered, sandy rugs. A local lesbian contractor built sturdy outside showers replacing a rickety wooden stall connected by a water hose and lined with reflective aluminum foil — designed more for strutting than showering.
“It was a huge undertaking,” admits Bill. “Everything we had was sunk into it. It had to be open!” He remembers one man calling a few days before asking if he could change check-in to Wednesday. “No, you can’t,” Bill said flatly. “You can come Friday at 2 o’clock, but not one minute sooner!”
With little time to advertise in this pre-Internet era, they did their best to explain the changes to former guests, beginning with its new name: The Rehoboth Guest House. More importantly, it now was open to lesbians as well as straights and there was no smoking. “We had a mix of friends,” says Bill. “So it would be gay-owned and operated but pretty much open to whoever wanted to come…. We had been discriminated against for most of our lives. If you don’t want to come you don’t have to.”
Reactions from Paradise veterans varied when Bill and Bob discarded the blue, white, and yellow “Paradise Guest House” sign and, more importantly, its ethos of male eros. One of the new owners’ early supporters was Charlie Allen, who worked in the Baltimore schools but summered in Rehoboth. “He was writing a book,” Bill reveals, “called ‘Summer Sisters’… they were sisters for the summer.” Bob interjects, “The other part of the title was ‘Some Are Not.’ So, it was ‘Summer Sisters [pronounced Some Are Sisters]: Some Are Not.’Charlie died before publishing his book—which has never been found.
Unlike Charlie, “some hardcore folks were upset,” Bob recalls. “This used to be a gay male oasis” where men could “be themselves: wearing dresses; walking around naked; having piercings everywhere. They could get out of their suits and live the lives they wanted with people like them.” In an understanding tone, Bob adds: “That’s hard to take away.” The Paradise was a safe spot not only for Philadelphia accountants, D.C. staffers, and Baltimore teachers, but college kids enjoying summer break, career embarking twinks, and closeted locals seeking safe harbor.
Charlie was best friends with the German-accented Paradise owner Herbert Koerber and his boyfriend, Alvarado Ortiz-Benavides, whom everyone called “Mami”— colloquial Spanish for sweetheart. A gregarious man with fading hair and a reddish beard, Charlie often helped Mami with housekeeping and other chores. Mostly, though, he just enjoyed the sexual freedom of Paradise and the camaraderie among male guests. Some returned each year for a week, others visited more frequently for long weekends, and a few stayed the entire summer. Most guests were younger than Charlie’s 40 odd years, but everyone seemed to get along.
Most of Koerber’s clientele came from word-of-mouth advertising, although there was a classified ad in summer issues of the Washington Blade: “friendly guesthouse, close to beaches and bars.” One of the very first media stories about gay Rehoboth appeared in the May 1980 issue of this iconic paper. It described Paradise as “utterly comfortable” and quoted 38-year-old Herbert: “Tell people I can put them up — maybe even give them a discount during the week — but on weekends, after the bars close, my lobby will be packed.”
Before Herbert opened Paradise, in 1979, there were no openly gay-owned or gay-friendly advertised guest houses in Rehoboth. The Sandcastle, a decrepit speakeasy-like rooming house owned briefly by several gay men, had burnt to the ground four years earlier. The grand Pleasant Inn Lodge, hosted by the reclusive, debonair bachelor Peck Pleasanton and his octogenarian mother, Bessie, welcomed an occasional well-behaved “single” gentleman.
During eight seasons, Paradise evolved as did Herbert and Mami. The two were an odd pair. Herbert, a “fussy queen” who swore like a sailor, was tall and thin with longish hair and a handlebar mustache. He was always tanned even though his forehead would get beet red given his German complexion. The much shorter Mami, whose family was from South America, was soft-spoken and very sweet. Compared to the larger-than-life Herbert, he was less memorable to guests. Bob describes Herbert as “the German businessman. Mami was the onetime boy-toy.” They wintered in Key West, operating a gift shop and hawking kitsch souvenirs like black velvet paintings and seashell coasters.
Herbert monetized every aspect of Paradise, creating a sexual Disneyland. With 28 “teensy rooms the size of bathhouse cubicles,” there could be upwards of 50 men checked-in along with their friends and friends of their friends, wandering in during the night. However, the number of bathrooms — two full baths and two halves — did not expand. “It was shabby and crowded, but we were young and didn’t care,” one Paradise regular muses. “It had a reputation. It was our party house.”
The second floor became clothing optional with men often walking around with towels during midnight hours. Plywood partitions were set between rooms with guests on one side having a window and the other windowless. Herbert’s “summer curtains” served instead of doors, which allowed air (and guests) to circulate. Those with bedroom windows overlooking the sundeck could easily extend an invitation to a coconut-lotioned twink or a weightlifting hunk. “Everything went on at the deck and in the windows and rooms behind it,” recalls a frequent guest. There were late Saturday afternoon happy hours and skit contests. Staging was festive, if not overly decorative, with a jerry-rigged backstage area for costume changing. A raucous backyard crowd cheered contestants.
Originally, there was a huge gabled attic bedroom that required ascending a steep stairway. Herbert slashed it into a tiny single air-conditioned room with the remaining space transformed into an after dark playground full of mattresses with an aroma of poppers and pot. “Herbert turned every square inch of that attic into a bed sleeping sex area. It was masterful,” Bob says in a praiseworthy tone. “Every inch was geared toward pleasure” And, as he and Bill later discovered, There was a leather sling in the “dungeon,” a 10 x 12 cinder block walled room accessed only from the first floor trap door.
Room rates were low and backyard camping was just $5 for those bringing tents. Campers, though, had to be late night partiers. Before dawn, visitors often entered from the alley along a little path leading to the unlocked side gate. Nocturnal grunts, gasps, and groans harmonized to sounds of crashing waves. Back then, as one Paradise regular stresses, “Sex wasn’t a taboo thing. It was like going to lunch! It was as common as going for a cocktail.”
During the day, Herbert was often found in his flip-flops, T-shirt, and khaki shorts, puttering in the garden or tending to his beloved lacecap hydrangeas gracing the front yard. Herbert was estranged from his German-speaking family so Paradise regulars became his family. Friendly, he knew everyone by their first name but don’t ask to reserve a specific room. One returning guest remembers phoning Herbert for a reservation and requesting a first-floor room with a door: “Oh, honey!” Herbert laughed. “It’s just first come, first served.”
Herbert did repairs only when absolutely necessary. But he’d always be painting, using just one color: white. The exception was the wrap-around front porch, lined with rocking chairs, which had a gray floor and ceiling along with knob and tube wiring. Throughout the house, guests used it to hang clothes since there were no closets.
In the early to mid 1980s, Paradise thrived as a money making machine — a bathhouse on the beach. As the number of gay-owned restaurants and bars multiplied along with accompanying media attention, more gay men vacationed at Rehoboth and visited Paradise. “There was a routine,” one recounts. “You’d get up late. Get yourself down to the gay beach. Do a day at the ocean, getting too much sun. Then there was happy hour at the Moon. You had to be there and have a nice look. Then you’d go back, take a nap, and then go to dinner. Then, onto the Renegade!”
Herbert provided a weekend shuttle to the Renegade. About 10 o’clock, he’d drive up in his light colored blue and white ’60s VW van, hop out and, as a regular recollects, “Scream down the hallways: ’Get your asses down here!’” He shuttled guests back-and-forth, with the last pick-up at 1. ”I remember Herbert telling people in his heavy accent, ‘If you miss the last bus, you have to walk the fuck home!” But his gruffness masked protectiveness. ”He’d warn them he was going and he would even count!” Another frequent visitor remembers Herbert “as the kind of guy you’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘I’m in jail.’ And he’d be there.”
In 1980, reports surfaced about clusters of young gay men contacting Pneumocystis pneumonia. Granted the majority of infections and deaths from this “gay cancer” were in New York City and San Francisco, but the Washington Blade published a landmark front-page story, “Rare, Fatal Pneumonia Hits Gay Men,” inJuly 1981.
Herbert began to worry. One guest, living in New York City and volunteering as an AIDS buddy, remembers porch conversations with Herbert. ”He was talking about buying a second one. Then he said, ’I’m concerned since so many people are getting AIDS, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll have a clientele.’”
For many gays, Paradise was a rare time to be themselves and to enjoy the camaraderie and support from other men at a beach resort. Sadly, for some, it was also a death sentence. Sexual desire and psychological denial coupled with governmental inaction and public apathy fueled the AIDS pandemic.
After the 1986 summer season, Herbert and Mami sojourned, as usual, to Key West; Herbert never returned. ”I can remember being surprised to hear that he was ill,” laments a longtime patron. ”He went quickly; we had no indications he was ill.”
Herbert died a week before Bill and Bob opened on Memorial Day weekend. Mami was with him until the end. Like Paradise, he disappeared into history and, along with Herbert and many of his guests, would be remembered by few.
James Sears’ latest book, “Behind the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach” will be published next year. Tom Kelch, manger of the Rehoboth Beach Guest House, contributed research to this article.
Lesbian Bar Project to the rescue
Founders complete second year fundraising campaign to save businesses
The Lesbian Bar Project, a New York-based group founded by lesbian filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, raised $117,000 last year to help the nation’s lesbian bars stay in business during the height of the COVID pandemic.
Among the bars receiving financial assistance from the project was D.C.’s A League of Her Own, the Adams Morgan lesbian bar. Owner Dave Perruzza said he and his staff were grateful to receive a $7,000 check from the Lesbian Bar Project early this year when the bar was closed under the city’s COVID shutdown order.
The two women say their 2021 fundraising campaign for the project will raise well over $100,000 as part of their continuing effort to support the nation’s remaining 21 lesbian bars, including A League of Her Own.
“Like a lot of things during COVID, we took a lot for granted,” Street told the Blade in describing how she and Rose reacted when their city’s three remaining lesbian bars – two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn – shut down like most other bars and restaurants during the peak of the COVID public health restrictions in 2020.
“Erica and I felt very connected to the bars there,” Street said. “And we started these discussions of, we miss our cherished spaces. And now they’re closed. Where do we go?”
With their filmmaking skills as a backdrop, and with the knowledge that the already diminishing number of lesbian bars across the country were struggling to survive under COVID, the two started a fundraising campaign for those bars called the Lesbian Bar Project. Among other things, they produced a video Public Service Announcement with archival scenes of lesbian bars and the women who patronized them.
With financial support from the Jagermeister liquor company’s Save the Night campaign, which was launched to provide financial support for nightlife businesses such as bars and restaurants, Rose and Street arranged for the production of a separate 20-minute documentary film about the role lesbian bars play in the lives of those who patronize them. Rose and Street are listed as the film’s directors.
Among those serving as executive producer and appearing in the documentary is Lea DeLaria, the lesbian comedian, actress and internationally acclaimed star of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”
Also appearing in the documentary is Jo McDaniel, longtime D.C. lesbian activist and bartender and manager at several D.C. gay bars who helped Perruzza open A League of Her Own as the city’s first full-time lesbian bar since the closing of the famed D.C. lesbian bar Phase One nearly a decade ago.
McDaniel says she left her job as A League of Her Own’s manager last year to undertake, along with her life partner Rachel Pike, the start of a new D.C. LGBTQ welcoming bar called As You Are, which began operating online. McDaniel says she and Pike are actively looking for a storefront building in which to open As You Are as an in-person café and bar with a dance floor that will be welcoming to lesbians and the LGBTQ community in general.
The documentary, which helped generate support for the project’s fundraising efforts, can be viewed on the group’s website free of charge at lesbianbarproject.com.
Earlier this month, the national dating app called Hinge announced it was entering into a partnership with the Lesbian Bar Project and would make an initial donation in August of $50,000 to help the project support lesbian bars in need of financial aid.
The announcement said Hinge would educate all its U.S. users about the “importance of LGBTQIA+ establishments” and encourage its LGBTQ members to visit one of the bars for a date.
“The bars that comprise the Lesbian Bar Project are not only a safe space but an essential part of LGBTQIA+ culture,” said Justin McLeod, founder and CEO of Hinge. “Our hope is that this support will help these sacred spaces to stay open through this summer and beyond,” he said in the company’s statement.
The Lesbian Bar Project website provides a list of the 21 lesbian bars that the project has supported. In a notice on the website, Rose and Street note that their initial fundraising campaign for 2021 has been completed, and a financial statement with information on how much has been raised will be released around the time of Labor Day weekend.
Rose told the Blade that until she and Street decide the project’s next plan of action, they are calling on people to donate directly to one or more of the 21 lesbian bars listed on the website.
However, a notice on the website says three of the bars – Cubbyhole of New York City; Sue Ellen’s of Dallas; and Wildside West of San Francisco, “have graciously decided to opt out” of the 2021 pool of funds raised to allow for more contributions to the other bars in greater need.
“In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 Lesbian Bars across the country,” a statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website says. “These bars are disappearing at a staggering rate, and we cannot afford to lose more of these vital establishments to the fallout of COVID-19,” the statement says.
Rose and Street said the decline in the number of lesbian bars, which began long before the onset of the COVID pandemic, is due to a number of factors, including the overall success of the LGBTQ rights movement. The two said nondiscrimination protections in state and local laws and the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, opened the way for lesbians and LGBTQ people in general to feel comfortable patronizing bars that were not specifically catering to lesbians.
They said that like its impact on gay bars in general, the rise of the Internet and online meet-up sites has also had the effect of enabling lesbians to meet each other outside of bars and other “brick and mortar” establishments.
“So, it’s like all of these factors combined with the pandemic are why many of these places are disappearing,” Rose said. “And that’s why Elina and I jumped into action. Our goal is always to raise awareness. The money raised is definitely a bonus,” she said. “We wanted to raise awareness and tell the stories of these bars. That’s going to make sure we remain indelible in our culture and ensuring our survival.”
Rose was referring to one of the themes of her and Street’s 20-minute documentary – that the in-person interaction offered by lesbian bars and LGBTQ bars in general provides, among other things, an important part of LGBTQ culture and the diversity of LGBTQ people that online and virtual venues cannot provide.
“We believe what makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders; including women, non-binary folks, and trans men,” according to the statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website. “As these spaces aim to be inclusive of all individuals across the diverse LGBTQIA+ community, the label Lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them,” the statement says.
“Without space, we lose power, validity, communal safety and access to intergenerational dialogue,” the statement adds. “With the support of our community, we can make sure these bars receive not only the financial assistance they need but the reference they deserve. When our history isn’t protected, we must protect it ourselves.”
Following is a list of the 21 remaining lesbian bars in the United States released by the Lesbian Bar Project:
A League of Her Own — Washington, D.C.
Alibi’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.
Babes of Carytown — Richmond, Va.
Blush & Blu — Denver
Boycott Bar — Phoenix
Cubbyhole — New York City
Frankie’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.
Ginger’s — Brooklyn, N.Y.
Gossip Grill — San Diego, Calif.
Henrietta Hudson — New York City
Herz — Mobile, Ala.
My Sister’s Room MSR — Atlanta
Pearl Bar — Houston
Slammers — Columbus, Ohio
Sue Ellen’s — Dallas
The Backdoor — Bloomington, Ind.
The Lipstick Lounge — Nashville, Tenn.
Walker’s Pint — Milwaukee, Wisc.
Wildrose — Seattle
Wildside West — San Francisco
Yellow Brick Road Pub — Tulsa, Okla.
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