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Ross Mathews shares ‘rossipes,’ cocktails, celeb gossip and more

New book ‘Name Drop’ is collection of his favorite happy hour tales

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Ross Mathews, gay news, Washington Blade
Ross Mathews brings his book tour to Washington Sunday night. (Photo by Ricky Middlesworth)

Ross Mathews ‘Name Drop’ Tour

Sunday, Feb. 9

7:30 p.m.

Miracle Theatre

535 8th St., S.E.

GA: $35

VIP (w/M&G): $100

helloross.com

Ross Mathews got his start on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” where he was known as “Ross the intern.” 

The fabulously out gay guru has since been seen on many shows such as “Celebrity Fit Club,” “The Insider,” “Celebrity Big Brother” and, of course, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” where he’s been a staple at the judge’s table since season seven in 2015. 

He launched his book tour for “Name Drop: the Really Good Celebrity Stories I Usually Only Tell at Happy Hour” (out Feb. 4) this week in New York and plays Washington Sunday night. Mathews, 40, dished on all that and more while driving to his second home (he lives mostly in Los Angeles) in Palm Springs last week. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How are things?

ROSS MATHEWS: Good. I feel like everyone has this sense of optimism this year that has been lacking the last couple years. People were like, “Ugh, God — this year can’t end soon enough,” but now, I don’t know, everyone I’ve talked to feels great about 2020 and so far so good. Also I’m driving to my place in Palm Springs, so I’m like in heaven.

BLADE: How were your holidays?

MATHEWS: It was really nice. I got to be with my family in Washington state and it was super nice, then I got to be back here in California and I went to Puerto Vallarta, which is another one of my happy places.

BLADE: Tell us about your book. How did it come about?

MATHEWS: The idea came to me in the shower. I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I could tell everybody the stories I tell my friends at happy hour,” but then I thought, “But that’s so name-droppy.” Then I thought, “Screw it, just lean in — those are the stories people want to hear.” So “Name Drop” really is filled with celeb stories I usually only tell at happy hour and since it’s all about happy hour and I do cook every day, I thought why don’t I include some of my original rossipes in there so people can actually have happy hour while they’re reading the book, ‘cause that’s what the book feels like. It feels like you’re sitting down with me, ordering a drink and a bite and we’re just gushing over celebrities.

BLADE: So it’s cocktail and food recipes?

MATHEWS: Yes, there’s cocktails and rossipes for every single one and I pair them up with a chapter so for instance, I give Celine Dion “My Artichoke Heart Will Go On.” For Faye Dunaway, I give you my rossipe for “Endamame Dearest,” and it goes on from there. 

BLADE: You had an encounter with Faye? Is she as scary as I fear she might be?

MATHEWS: I was too scared to ask her what I really wanted to ask her, but I thought it was so fascinating that I got to meet her, so I included it in the book. You know, some of these stories are when I had my dreams come true from people I’d loved forever, and some of these stories are about people who really disappointed me when I met them but I always say no celebrities were harmed in the making of this book. I tell the reader exactly what happened but I’m not out to hurt anybody.

BLADE: And these are all your own creations?

MATHEWS: Yes

BLADE: How did you get into that?

MATHEWS: So the cocktails are all sort of like my spin on cocktails that already exist and I make them original to me. The rossipes are all things I actually make. I’ve always loved cooking. I learned from my mom and I loved watching her. I love going to a restaurant and trying something and thinking, “Oh, I’d do it this way,” and then going home and cooking. I do that with Food Network too. I watch and go, “Huh — I would make it with this,” then I try it. Cooking is art — just another way to create.

BLADE: Do you have a favorite?

MATHEWS: Oh my gosh, I love them all. I make “Baked Ziti with a Z” for the Liza Minnelli story and that one’s really delicious.

BLADE: Please tell me there’s a chapter on Omarosa (she and Mathews were on “Celebrity Big Brother” together in 2018). 

MATHEWS: Absolutely! We do an Omarosa Mimosa and then just a TV dinner because that chapter’s all about reality TV. Which by the way, an Omarosa Mimosa is made with blood orange juice.

BLADE: What was going through your head in real time when she was telling you all that stuff during your little tete-a-tete on “Big Brother”? 

MATHEWS: Listen, I write all about that in the book. It was so surreal being locked away from the outside world for 30 days with cameras following us 24-7 and then Omarosa walks in and this was right after she had left the White House. I was fascinated by her and knew we had to talk about it or people wouldn’t think we were being real in that house. It’s impossible not to be real when they’re filming you 24 hours a day. So that conversation, to sit there and ask her those questions and what I was thinking and also what happened afterwards, which nobody knows about, that’s all in the book.

BLADE: Do you get a clothing allowance on “Drag Race”?

MATHEWS: No. I have to get my own wardrobe and of course, you have to step it up because you’re sitting next to RuPaul. I partner with Mr. Turk and I’m sucking up to friends who are designers. I’ve worked with Mr. Turk and Trina Turk for a long time and I’ve worn Tallia Orange before, so I try to find people who can partner with me so I’m not spending mazillions of dollars on these clothes.

BLADE: Is the stuff you wear on “Drag Race” the kind of stuff you wear in your private life or do you glam it up for the show?

MATHEWS: Well you have to wear something noticeable on that set. What am I going to do? Show up in corduroy or khakis? In real life, I love clothes but I’m not always in a suit. Usually I’m in like a jacket with a leopard scarf and a Gucci slide. When I go to Palm Springs, it’s elastic head to toe (laughs). 

BLADE: Do you do your own shopping?

MATHEWS: I’ve had stylists in the past. My partner all those years, Salvador (Camerna), was my stylist but lately I’m not using a stylist. It’s just me partnering with various designers and trying to express myself however I feel that day. The other day I had on ripped jeans and boots and I was feeling all butch, like green Army Surplus jacket and right now I’m wearing Gucci fur slides and a leopard scarf, so I’m feeling more Nellie today. It’s fun to express fashion, always a joy.

BLADE: Was there ever a “Drag Race” contestant you thought went home too early?

MATHEWS: Yes. I’ve never disagreed with the winner, but I have opinions on who should stay and who should go. That’s part of my job, I get to argue my point to Ru who makes the ultimate decision. So I have of course thought somebody should have stayed who went home at a certain point, but the cream always rises to the top and I agree with every winner who’s been chosen.

BLADE: Did you ever feel somebody who sashayed away should have won the lip sync?

MATHEWS: (long pause) Yes (laughs). But I don’t want to give specific cases. Ru is the Supreme Court and I defer to Ru all the time. But there’ve been a couple times when someone won and I go, “Huh — I didn’t see that one coming.” But that’s not my job to decide that. I’m just there to give my two cents.

BLADE: Do you hang out with Michelle (Visage) and Carson (Kressley) outside the show?

MATHEWS: Absolutely. Michelle and I just went to lunch in Calabasas the other day. She got gluten-free grilled cheese. She’s like a sister to me and Carson’s like a brother. I love them all. And we really just make each other laugh all day long.

BLADE: You’re all so chummy now but Michelle had a rather prickly relationship with (former judge) Santino (Rice). Does a little tension there help the show?

MATHEWS: Well, I can’t really speak to her relationship with Santino, but Michelle and I are like brother and sister. If we disagree, we’re not gonna keep it in. I’ll tell her she’s nuts, but we laugh about it later. We have absolutely had strong disagreements where we each draw a line in the sand and we’ll never agree on something but then we go to lunch afterwards. I’m not afraid of her.

BLADE: Who’s been your all-time favorite “Drag Race” guest judge?

MATHEWS: Oh my gosh, there are so many. I can’t believe the people we get to sit next to. I’ll come home and say, “I just sat next to Lady Gaga for like 12 hours,” or Miley Cyrus. I have to be careful not to say some of the names coming up ‘cause they’ll blow you away, but I’ll get in so much trouble. It’s one of the greatest gifts of the show the artists that Ru and World of Wonder allow me access to. It blows me away.

BLADE: Who would be your dream judges?

MATHEWS: Liza, Cher, Bette, Madonna — you know, the icons.

BLADE: Do you guys write all your own puns for the runway commentary or do you have help?

MATHEWS: No, we come up with it as it’s happening. As we see it, we say it.

BLADE: They’re pretty clever most of the time. I’ve always thought, “They must get some help with this.”

MATHEWS: No, we just try to make each other laugh. There’s no better feeling than making really funny people laugh. There are some stinkers from time to time and the editors help us out. 

BLADE: About how long does it take to tape a full “Drag Race” season?

MATHEWS: Well, there’s a lot going on. I don’t want to ruin it for people but of course, it takes longer than just what you see. There are outfit changes and you have to stop for production and sometimes there’s a lighting cue that goes wrong you have to redo. There’s a lot that goes into a production of this size but as someone who loves showmanship, I don’t want to give too much away.

BLADE: What’s the biggest thing being behind the scenes on these kinds of shows that stands out to you that you’d never have thought about as a viewer at home?

MATHEWS: Well, like the first time I went to the Oscars, I was staring at all the stars on the red carpet then you turn to the left and see 12 portapotties. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know those were there,” they cut those out of the shots for TV. Or being in the “Big Brother” house and hearing the camera operators in the wall saying, “I’ve got a close up on Ross’s face, he’s going to bed.” I was like, “Oh my god, I didn’t think about that.” Or there’s a microphone hanging over the toilet, the one toilet you share with 11 other celebrities. It’s not all glamorous but it’s all a piece of the puzzle. 

BLADE: Have you seen Ru’s new Netflix show?

MATHEWS: I have! Michelle and I went to the premiere. We were basically wearing the same red suit, it’s on my Instagram. It’s so great, I’m so proud of Ru. You know, Ru refuses to be put in any box. You think you know what Ru can do, then Ru goes, “Oh, I can also do this.”

BLADE: When Ru was on the cover of Vanity Fair in December, the article suggested he’s only knowable to a point, down to earth and candid in some ways — I’m paraphrasing — but also with a bit of aloofness, like he only lets you get so close or never totally lets his hair down. Is that your impression?

MATHEWS: Um, I can’t really speak for other people’s impressions of Ru, but I can tell you what Ru has been for me. Ru has been so kind and so supportive and so welcoming and you know, there’s one quote on the cover of my book and it’s a quote from Ru and that’s on purpose because for this phase of my career, Ru’s been the one who has sort of given me a platform and said, “Hey, look at this guy, he’s really funny.” ‘Cause Ru could have picked anybody for that seat next to him and so for me, he’s a mentor and a friend.

BLADE: You’ve made self-deprecating cracks about your sex life on “Drag Race.” You gettin’ any these days? Or dating anyone? 

MATHEWS: (laughs) I am dating a lot actually. I never did this before. I didn’t really date in my 20s because I was figuring out how to be a famous person and I felt like a clown a little bit, so I felt like I had to choose between being funny or sexual. Then I got in a relationship and we were together for 10 years and now I found myself out dating again and I’m really confident now in who I am and I’ve never been single and confident at the same time, so I’m having a really good time dating. I find people fascinating. I like meeting people and I like learning from people and I think if you’re inquisitive and confident, you’re a really good dater.

BLADE: Reality TV and media can be rather soul sapping. And Ru is always spouting great spiritual wisdom. How do you refuel spiritually yourself?

MATHEWS: Not to sound cheesy, but I’m really fueled by living my dream. I don’t need anything else. 

BLADE: Good luck with your book and tour.

MATHEWS: Thanks! Please come out. It’s just an hour and a half where we shut the door on the world,  ‘cause everything’s fucked right now …

BLADE: Yeah, especially in Washington!

MATHEWS: I know, right? We just shut all that out and have some laughs. 

Ross Mathews combines his love of cooking, cocktails and Hollywood in new tome ‘Name Drop.’ (Photo by Ricky Middlesworth) 
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Paradise lost: Remembering the popular Rehoboth men’s guest house

Beach town’s pioneering B&B welcomed gay clientele before arrival of AIDS

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The Paradise Guest House operated at 40 Maryland Ave. for eight seasons. Herbert and Mami are depicted in this painting. (Painting by Pamela Bounds)

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.”

The Rehoboth Guest House today.

Remembering Paradise

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.”

Paradise Lost

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.

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Lesbian Bar Project to the rescue

Founders complete second year fundraising campaign to save businesses

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Directors Erica Rose and Elina Street created a documentary about the history and significance of lesbian bars. (Photos courtesy Lesbian Bar Project)

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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a&e features

Adopting an older child from overseas — one couple’s story

‘He really wanted a forever family, it didn’t matter that we’re gay’

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Jim and Ethan at their wedding, with Juan Carlos and Isabelle. (Photo courtesy the couple)

Jim Walker and Ethan Taylor had talked about adoption but weren’t sure how to go about it. Ethan himself was adopted and the biological father of a 13-year-old daughter (Bella) from a previous relationship.   

Then, one evening in 2018, a Rainbow Families Facebook post caught their attention. “It mentioned Kidsave,” Ethan said, “a non-profit organization that brings older Colombian orphans to stay with host families for five weeks to experience life here with an American family. They’re unadoptable in their own country because they are over eight years old.”

Jim and Ethan had been together five-plus years by then and known each other for 18. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this!’ Next thing we know, we’re signed up to host Juan Carlos,” reminisced Jim. 

After a five-week visit, many families decide to adopt the children. In fact, 80% of the children who participate in Kidsave’s “Summer Miracles” program are eventually adopted, and those who are not, often come back for a second visit and are adopted later.

During those five weeks, Kidsave and the host families help the children meet potential adoptive families. The children may or may not know adoption is a possibility, but host families aren’t allowed to talk openly about it during the visit.

Jim and Ethan plowed through the paperwork at warp speed and were approved to host. They attended orientations and training with other host families.  Soon they were at Dulles Airport, wearing their yellow Kidsave T-shirts so the kids could easily identify them.  

When Juan Carlos came through the customs doors, “He ran up to us, gave us big hugs, and then presented each of us with a braided bracelet from his home country,” recalled Jim. “Right then and there, we fell in love with him and knew we were going to adopt him.”  

Juan Carlos didn’t care that a same-sex couple hosted his visit. “Since he never had a father figure in his life, he was thrilled to have TWO dads — and a sister,” said Ethan. “Juan Carlos just really, really wanted a forever family that would love and protect him. It didn’t matter that we happened to be gay.”

“The most surprising thing was how happy, resilient, and adaptable he was — and continues to be,” said Jim. “He had spent more than half his life in an orphanage but he never complained about his circumstances,” said Jim. 

After hosting, the process of adoption includes many additional steps and hurdles, and unexpected things can and do happen so an effort is made not to get the children’s hopes up. After a two-week “quiet” period people can apply to adopt. The interest must be two-way – the children must want to be adopted by that family.  

“When we did bring him home for good,” recollected Ethan, “he immediately ran upstairs to his bedroom and pulled out a bag of quarters that he had hidden and declared, ‘I always knew that I would be coming back!’”

“We learned about that we have a lot of love and patience to give to a child. Being a parent, especially to two device-obsessed teenagers, can be stressful on any relationship but we have learned effective communication and the value of doing things with each other that don’t always involve the kids.”

Jim and Ethan were married in 2019, and both Juan Carlos and Isabelle participated in the wedding. 

“Kidsave is very welcoming for people of various backgrounds and sexual orientations,” said Ethan. “There is a great and growing community of Kidsave families in the D.C. area, including several same-sex and single-parent families. We have made some wonderful friends though Kidsave. We strongly encourage others to consider hosting through Kidsave’s ‘Summer Miracles’ program!”

Summer Miracles kids are here until Aug. 14, and desperately need forever families. Visit Kidsave.org to learn more.

Now 16 years old, Juan Carlos is adjusting well to life as an American teenager. “Every night, when I tuck him into bed, the smile on his face says everything. Being his dad,” noted an equally smiley Jim, “is a dream come true.”

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