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Howard Cruse, pioneering gay cartoonist, dies at 75

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Howard Cruse (R) with future husband Ed Sedarbaum in younger years (Photo via Facebook)

Howard Cruse, a gay cartoonist whose groundbreaking underground comics were a strong influence on the succeeding generation of queer comic artists, has died.

Cruse first gained attention in the 1970s with his contributions to various underground publications, particularly for his series “Barefootz,” in which he included a supporting character named Headrack who was gay. In 1979, he became the first editor of “Gay Comix,” an anthology featuring comics by openly queer cartoonists, where he highlighted the work of lesbian artists like Roberta Gregory and Mary Wings. According to Cruse’s obituary in the New York Times, publisher Mike Kitchen says he had been adamant that women be given equal representation in the magazine from the very beginning.

“From the first issue he insisted that half the book always be by lesbians and half from gay men,” Kitchen told an interviewer, “even though it was more difficult then to find lesbian artists.”

In the 80s he created the strip “Wendel,” which was published in The Advocate. Given wide freedom to include nudity and adult language in the comic, Cruse originally intended it as a humorous series about the sex lives of an idealistic young gay man and his friends. With the advent of the AIDS epidemic, it evolved into something more complex, and the strip began to address the disease – along with gay-bashing, closeted celebrities, activism, and the obstacles faced in same-gender relationships – as the characters learned to navigate the changing cultural landscape of gay life under the hostile shadow of the Reagan administration.

In a 1988 interview with the Village Voice, Cruse said, “It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject.”

Cruse wove his own life into “Wendel,” giving the title character a boyfriend and drawing inspiration from his own relationship with real-life partner Ed Sedarbaum, whom he met in 1979. They would eventually marry in 2004.

Image via Facebook

In 1995 Cruse published “Stuck Rubber Baby,” a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a closeted gay man in Alabama who becomes involved with the civil rights movement. The characters include a female activist with whom he has a child (as Cruse had himself done) and a black man who becomes his first gay lover. The book, which grapples with the ingrained homophobia and racism of American society and contains some of Cruse’s most detailed, realistic art, was widely acclaimed, winning a Harvey Award and an Eisner Award as well as nominations for several others.

One of a younger generation of LGBTQ comics artists that felt the influence of Cruse’s work is Alison Bechdel, the MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning cartoonist (and creator of the Bechdel Test) whose 2006 autobiographical comic “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” was the basis for the Tony-winning 2015 musical, “Fun Home.” On hearing news of his death, Bechdel tweeted, “I am so sad and stunned. Howard Cruse died suddenly today. He is one of the sweetest people I have ever encountered, period, and he was super generous to me when I was a young cartoonist coming to him for advice. What a blow. The world has lost a true comics superhero.”

Cruse died of lymphoma on November 26 in Pittsfield, Massachusets, near the home he shared with Sedarbaum in nearby Williamstown. He is survived by his husband, his daughter Kimberly Kolze Venter, two grandchildren, and a brother, Allan.

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Theater

Sophie Zmorrod embracing life on the road in ‘Kite Runner’

First national tour comes to Eisenhower Theater on June 25

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Sophie Zmorrod (Photo courtesy of Zmorrod)

‘The Kite Runner’
June 25 – 30
The Kennedy Center
$39-$149
Kennedy-center.org

Newly single, Sophie Zmorrod is enjoying life on the road in the first national tour of “The Kite Runner,” Matthew Spangler’s play with music based on Khaled Hosseini’s gripping novel about damaged relationships and longed for redemption. 

“It’s a wonderful time for me,” says Zmorrod. “I’m past the breakup pain and feeling empowered to explore new cities. A lot of us in the cast are queer, so we figure out the scene wherever the show goes.” 

What’s more, the New York-based actor has fallen in love with the work. “I love how the play’s central character Amir is flawed. He is our antihero. He has faults. As a privileged boy in Kabul, he bears witness to his best friend’s assault and doesn’t intervene. He lives with that guilt for decades and gets that redemption in the end.” 

“He does what he can to right wrongs. For me who’s regretted things, and wished I could go back in time, it resonates. Watching someone forgive themselves and do the right thing is beautiful.” 

Via phone from Chicago (the tour’s stop before moving on to Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on June 25), Zmorrod, whose background is Lebanese, happily chats about sexuality, ethnicity, and acting. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Looking at your resume, I see you’ve been cast in roles traditionally played by men. And have you played queer characters? 

SOPHIE ZMORROD: Oh yes, both. Whether or not they’re written on the page as queer, they sometimes turn out that way. And that holds true for this show too.  

With “The Winter’s Tale” at Trinity Rep, I played Leontes — the king who banishes his wife — as a woman. So, in that production it was about two women and touched on the violence that women sometimes inflict on other women.

And there was Beadle Bamford in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also at Trinity Rep; I played him as a woman who was masculine and wore a suit. It was a great opportunity to explore myself and gender expression. That was a really good experience. 

BLADE: Are you an actor who’s often be called in for queer roles? 

ZMORRAD: Not really. I’m what you might call straight passing. Sometimes I’ve had to advocate for my queerness. To be a part of something. 

Similarly with my ethnicity. I’m called in to audition for the white and Arab roles. It gets tricky because I’m not the exactly the white girl next door and I’m not exactly Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” either. 

This is one of the reasons, I really want people to come see “The Kite Runner,” Audiences need to experience the reality of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern people on the stage. We’re all very different.

And not incidentally, from this 14-person cast, I’ve met some great people to add to those I know from the Middle Eastern affinity spaces and groups I’m connected to in New York.

BLADE: In “The Kite Runner” what parts do you play?

 ZMORRAD: Three characters. All women, I think. In the first act, I’m an elderly eccentric pomegranate seller in the Afghan market, waddling around, speaking in Dari [the lingua franca of Afghanistan]; and the second act, I’m young hip and sell records in a San Francisco market; and at the end, I’m a buttoned-down American immigration bureaucrat advising Amir about adoption.

BLADE:  Your training is impressive: BA cum laude in music from Columbia University, an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, and you’re also accomplished in opera and playwrighting, to name a few things. Does “The Kite Runner” allow you to flex your many muscles? 

ZMORROD: Very much. Playing multiple roles is always fun for an actor – we like malleability. Also, there are instruments on stage. I like working with the singing bowl; it’s usually used in yoga as a soothing sound, but here we save it for the dramatic, uncomfortable moments. I also sing from offstage. 

We are creating the world of the play on a very minimal set. Oh, and we do kite flying, and I’m able to use the some of the languages I speak. So yeah, lots of challenges. It’s great. 

BLADE: It sounds like you’re in a good place both professionally and personally.

ZMORROD: It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable. My being gay was never something I led with. But I’m on the journey and excited to be where I am, and who I am. 

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Out & About

Orioles to host Pride night on June 27

Baltimore faces off against reigning World Series champion

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The Baltimore Orioles host the annual Pride night Thursday, June 27. (Washington Blade file photo by Kevin Majoros)

The Baltimore Orioles will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Night” on Thursday, June 27. There will be a live DJ at Legends Park before the 6:35 p.m. game against the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers.

The event, co-sponsored by the Washington Blade, will feature Pride-themed activities such as Pride face painting, a 360 photo booth, Pride temporary tattoos, and more. All these events will be in the Bullpen Picnic Area. In addition, the first 10,000 attendees receive a free Pride jersey.

For more details, visit the Orioles’ website

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Calendar

Calendar: June 21-27

LGBTQ events in the days to come

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Friday, June 21

Center Aging Friday Tea Time will be at 2 p.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of choice. For more information, email [email protected]

“LGBTQ+ Pride Comedy Series” will be at 8:30 p.m. at DC Comedy Clubhouse. Get ready to celebrate love, diversity and unity through comedy. Tickets cost $15 and are available on Eventbrite.

Saturday, June 22

Go Gay DC will host “Pride Month Brunch” at 11 a.m. at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Month Social in the City” at 7 p.m. at Hotel Zena. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Sunday, June 23

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Month Funday Social and Games” at 3 p.m. at Moxy. There will be monopoly, chess, checkers, Jenga and many other games. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

AfroCode DC will be at 4 p.m. at Decades DC. This event will be an experience of non-stop music, dancing, and good vibes and a crossover of genres and a fusion of cultures. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Monday, June 24

Center Aging: Monday Coffee & Conversation will be at 10 a.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice. For more details, email [email protected]

“Queer Book Club” will be at 6:30 p.m. on Zoom. This month’s reading is “Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn’t Die.” For more details, email [email protected]

Tuesday, June 25

Pride on the Patio Events will host “LGBTQ Social Mixer” at 5:30 p.m. at Showroom. Dress is casual, fancy, or comfortable. Guests are encouraged to bring their most authentic self to chat, laugh, and get a little crazy. Admission is free and more details are on Eventbrite.

Coming Out Discussion Group will be at 7 p.m. on Zoom. This is a peer-facilitated discussion group and a safe space to share experiences about coming out and discuss topics as it relates to doing so. For more details, visit the group’s Facebook page. 

Wednesday, June 26

Job Club will be at 6 p.m. on Zoom. This is a weekly job support program to help job entrants and seekers, including the long-term unemployed, improve self-confidence, motivation, resilience and productivity for effective job searches and networking — allowing participants to move away from being merely “applicants” toward being “candidates.” For more information, email [email protected] or visit thedccenter.org/careers.

Thursday, June 27

The DC Center’s Fresh Produce Program will be held all day at the DC Center for the LGBT Community. No proof of residency or income is required. For more information, email [email protected] or call 202-682-2245. 

Virtual Yoga with Charles M. will be at 7 p.m. on Zoom. This is a free weekly class focusing on yoga, breathwork, and meditation. For more details, visit the DC Center for the LGBT Community’s website.

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