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Coronavirus wreaks havoc on D.C. queer nightlife

Promoters, drag queens, performers all brace for extreme income loss

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queer nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade, coronavirus
The last Avalon Saturday event — for now — was held March 7 to a packed house with nearly 500 in attendance. (Photo by Yaro Vargas; courtesy Dougie Meyer Presents)

As coronavirus continues its surge across the U.S., little will remain unaffected. Millions will likely manage to remain uninfected but few will not feel the economic impact in some fashion, especially those whose economic lives were tenuous before. With practically all performances and concerts canceled indefinitely, Washingtonians in the gay nightlife world are reeling.

Dougie Meyer presents weekly Avalon Saturdays at Soundcheck, which bills itself as “D.C.’s No. 1 weekly LGBTQ+ dance party.” The parties have been canceled at least through the end of March and Meyer, who’s gay, says between this and other events he runs (some in New York), he expects a severe loss.

“This is so serious,” he says. “I will not only lose thousands and thousands of dollars personally, but this is coming into what would normally be my busy season. As is fairly common in nightlife, January and February are always your slowest months and we pretty much keep things going in the red. People are maxed out from the holidays, it’s bitter cold out and not only are we not making any money, we’re actually losing money because we still have to pay employees, still have to pay lighting cost, decor, drag queens, the expenses keep adding up. Things usually start to rebound in March and April and people are finally going out again, the weather has warmed up and people are in a better mood but now, even that has been completely stripped away from us.”

Actress/comedian Beverly “Miss Chocolate” White works by day as an executive assistant at a local non-profit but says her nightlife gigs help her pay bills and give her some financial cushion in the pricey District (Investopedia places it as the fifth most expensive U.S. city). All 10 bookings she had coming up have been canceled, she says. Her day job, too, is uncertain because of the virus.

“I probably won’t starve or be put out from that income, but it does help,” White, a lesbian, says. “It’s enabled me to be a sponsor, to have a little bit of disposable income, to sponsor with ‘Ask Rayceen,’ to donate to Casa Ruby and Wanda Alston House … but I do pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, so I don’t know what will happen next month, next week. I was finally to a point where it wasn’t costing me to do a show, they were paying me, so I don’t know where this will all lead.”

Ask Rayceen, gay news, Washington Blade
Beverly ‘Miss Cchocolate’ White (photo courtesy Ask Rayceen Show)

Losses across the wider financial sector are expected to be staggering. The 30-day U.S. travel ban for most of Europe is expected to result in 2 million unsold airline seats, the Wall Street Journal estimates. Ticket sales in the $100 million ballpark will be lost while Broadway stays dark for four weeks. The suspended NBA season could result in $972 million in TV ad revenue based on last year’s figures, the Journal reports.

In the arts world, even industry leaders one thinks of as robust will also feel the sting. The Kennedy Center, of course, is closed at least through month’s end. In New York, where the Metropolitan Opera usually runs on a $308 million annual budget, the effect of the virus could be catastrophic. That sounds like a huge figure but with the high cost of mounting opera, box office tenuousness even under normal circumstances and a heavy reliance on donations, impact is likely to be “severe,” as Peter Gelb, general manager, told the New York Times.

That kind of impact has a “trickle down” effect on nightlife performers, White says.

“It’s impacting everybody,” she says. I had a show that would have been this Saturday in Anacostia, I was going to be going back to New York. I know these are just small things, I have to count my blessings, but it’s really impacting everyone and everything.”

Chris Smith/Kristina Kelly, one of the city’s most well-known drag performers, is also facing a suddenly free schedule. Smith, who has been doing drag in the region full time for 10 years, says under normal circumstances, it’s a solid, realistic income, though that often involves working six or sometimes even seven nights per week. Smith’s mother lives on Social Security income in Lexington, Va., (where he’s from) so he sends her money as well.

“It could be weeks before we go back to work and even if we do, people still have to be able to afford to come see us,” he says. “People with regular jobs, if they’re not getting paid, they’re not going to be able to come see a drag show. You can’t come and laugh and enjoy yourself if you don’t have the money to do so.”

Kristina Kelly says all her bookings have been cancelled. (Photo courtesy Kelly)

Meyer says he knows of one New York bartender who moved back home with his parents to Pennsylvania this week. There was no way to continue New York rent with income suspended indefinitely. He says his drag queens, bartenders, barbacks, DJs, go go dancers — all are feeling the pinch. He guesses there are about 50 people impacted by the closure of his various events.

“It’s crippling the entire industry,” he says. “Everyone is depressed in capital letters. Very depressed and upset. It’s just really bad.”

Meyer was managing a bar in New York during the 2008 financial meltdown. He remembers many slow months then but says this is shaping up to be worse.

“I don’t even think that is even close to what we’re dealing with today,” he says.

Smith says he feels “overwhelmed.” He was already somewhat in rebound mode having had gastric bypass surgery in early December (he’s lost about 190 pounds total, pre- and post-surgery, he says).

“It’s a lot coming at once and when you’re that person who feels you can fix everything and then you’re at a point where you just can’t, I feel helpless,” he says.

Could some of this move online? Smith says that’s unrealistic.

“We’re in an emergency situation — you think people are gonna pay money to watch some damn drag queen in her basement? I just don’t see any scenario where that would work at all.”

What about Pride? Nobody has a crystal ball, but what are people feeling? Will things be back to normal by then?

“I could see this affecting Pride all over the country,” White says. “We may have to take this down time to go back to the drawing board and think about what plan B looks like, not just keep our fingers crossed that things will be back to normal by then. Now is the time to think about that.

Meyer says LGBT folks may even be disproportionately impacted. Sure, there are straight DJs and bartenders but drag and gay nightlife, to some degree, are their own things without as many straight-world counterparts.

“To some degree, yeah, it’s across the board, but when you think about drag queens and the time and expense they put into pulling off a look … it’s gonna affect them at a much higher rate,” he says.

Smith says he’s working hard to stay positive.

“I always say, the next 30 seconds is not guaranteed,” he says. “If I wake up today, I’m blessed and I’m already winning. A lot of people don’t have that option. If you’re able to wake up and start your day, you’re already in a winning situation.”

Businesses and sidewalks are empty along 17th Street. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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