August 11, 2020 at 10:15 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
PHOTOS: The Blade returns to the Deep South
Deep South, gay news, Washington Blade
From left: Yariel Valdés González and Michael K. Lavers outside of Café Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans on July 26, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

A lack of regular sleep, unhealthy food, a roach-infested hotel room, endless hours of driving and cringe-worthy radio stations are among the myriad challenges reporters may face while on assignment for two weeks. An out-of-control pandemic and an approaching hurricane can also make such a trip even more challenging.

Yariel Valdés González and I faced these challenges while on assignment in South Florida and the Deep South from July 21-Aug. 5.

The trip’s stated goals were to report on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on people with HIV/AIDS in the region and to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of the plight of LGBTQ people who remain in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in the Deep South. Yariel and I also planned to interview activists in Tallahassee, Fla., who continue to grapple with the case of Tony McDade, a Black transgender man who was shot to death by a white police officer in May.

Reminders of the pandemic’s grim human and economic toll were clearly evident when I drove to South Florida in late May and spent a week on assignment there with Yariel. Signs of the national reckoning over racism in response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis were also palpable on this trip.

Signs of the dire situation in which we as a country find ourselves were just as visible to Yariel and me while we were in the Deep South. We also saw glimmers of hope, resilience and defiance that left us inspired.

Yariel and I on July 27 interviewed Milan Nicole Sherry and her husband, Za’hair Martinez, who are part of a group of transgender activists who have raised more than $300,000 for a shelter for homeless trans women in New Orleans they are planning to open in 2021. Yariel and I two days earlier were in Jacksonville, Fla., to interview Dayana Mena López, a trans Cuban woman who won asylum in the U.S. last summer.

The U.S. granted Yariel asylum last September because of persecution he suffered in his native Cuba because he was an independent journalist. Yariel, as readers of the Blade know, endured nearly a year of inhumane treatment in ICE custody before his release from a privately-run detention center in Louisiana on March 4, 2020.

Yariel and I on July 29 reunited with his lawyer, Lara Nochomovitz, in Louisiana after driving past the detention center in which Yariel was in ICE custody. We also spent time with the two Natchez Network Immigrant Support volunteers who were godsends in the chaotic days before Yariel’s release.

Here are some photos and videos from our trip.

A sign inside the men’s restroom at the Georgia Welcome Center on Interstate 95 in Port Wentworth, Ga., on July 21, 2020, details ways to protect oneself from the coronavirus. Georgia is among the states without a statewide mask mandate. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Jaime Harrison is running against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). This Harrison ad aired on a Savannah, Ga., television station on July 22, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The Republican National Convention had been scheduled to take place this month at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., but President Trump on July 23, 2020, announced it would not happen there because of the state’s high coronavirus rates. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The parking lot of a gas station in St. Augustine, Fla., became a virtual Blade office on July 22, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., advises it will not allow anyone without a mask into its lobby. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Side Lines, a gay sports bar in Wilton Manors, Fla., on July 23, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
David, one of the owners of Side Lines, a gay bar in Wilton Manors, Fla, explains on July 23, 2020, that the bar remains open following the safety guidelines to avoid the spread of the Coronavirus. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
The front page of a newspaper in Melbourne, Fla., on July 24, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Two cruise ships anchored off shore of Cocoa Beach, Fla., on July 24, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A poster outside a restaurant in the Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville, Fla., on July 25, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Dayana Mena López, a transgender woman from Cuba who won asylum in the U.S., in Jacksonville, Fla., on July 25, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A sign on the entrance to a truck stop in Robertsdale, Ala., notes Alabama’s statewide mask order. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A decal with the Confederate flag for sale at a truck stop in Robertsdale, Ala., on July 25, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Social distancing markers on the sidewalk in front of Café du Monde in New Orleans on July 26, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A sign inside the elevator of a New Orleans hotel that notes the city’s mask order (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A sign on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street that highlights the city’s mask order (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A boarded-up Oz Nightclub in New Orleans’ French Quarter on July 26, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
Milan Nicole Sherry, co-founder of House of Tulip, a shelter for homeless transgender women, in her home in Uptown New Orleans on July 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
Tyler, a cross-dressing tarot card reader, works in New Orleans’ Jackson Square on July 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdéz González)
A flyer taped onto the entrance to the ICE New Orleans Field Office in downtown New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Yariel Valdés González brings luggage to the car in New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Yariel Valdés González photographs Sashika Baunchand, founder of OMG (Outstanding Mature Girls), an organization that educates girls and teenagers about HIV, inside her office in Central, La., on July 28, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A billboard in front of a home in Natchez, Miss., on July 29, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Michael K. Lavers appears on the Miami-based Unity Coalition’s Facebook Live program from Natchez, Miss., on July 29, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
The front page of the Democrat newspaper in Natchez, Miss., on July 29, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A drawing from an ICE detainee at the wall of the house in Louisiana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
From left: Yariel Valdés González, Michael K. Lavers and Lara Nochomovitz in Louisiana on July 29, 2020. Nochomovitz represened Valdés in his asylum case. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A Black Lives Matter poster in Natchez, Miss., on July 30, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A Confederate flag license plate on a car in a parking lot in Natchez, Miss., on July 30, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on June 30, 2020, signed a bill that retired the state flag with a Confederate emblem. The flag was flying alongside U.S. Highway 84 near Brookhaven, Miss., a month after Reeves signed the measure. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
From left: Yariel Valdés González and Michael K. Lavers eat lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Collins, Miss., on July 30, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
Working in the car while driving east on Interstate 10 near Loxley, Ala., on July 30, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The front page of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A sign at a Publix supermarket in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020, notes customers are required to wear facial coverings. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Equality Florida Public Policy Director Jon Harris Maurer speaks in the conference room of his law firm’s office in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A white police officer on May 27, 2020, killed Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, at the Leon Arms Apartment complex in Tallahassee, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
Janel Diaz, a Black trans woman who is a member of the Tallahassee Mayor’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council, speaks at her office in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
The sun sets over Ochlockonee Bay in Panacea, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A convoy of utility vehicles drives east on Interstate 10 near Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 1, 2020, in anticipation of Hurricane Isaias’ approach to Florida’s East Coast. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Hurricane Isaias’ outer bands reach West Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 1, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The front page of el Nuevo Herald newspaper’s Aug. 1, 2020, edition notes Hurricane Isaias has forced Florida health officials to close coronavirus testing cites. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Aug. 3, 2020, edition notes Hurricane Isaias, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm as it brushed South Florida, had minimal impacts in the area. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The main pool at the Pineapple Point Guesthouse and Resort in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Daniela, a transgender woman from Honduras was in ICE custody for several months until her release under humanitarian parole in March, visits Arianna’s Center in Wilton Manors, Fla., on Aug. 3, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
A coronavirus advisory along Interstate 95 near Melbourne, Fla., on Aug. 4, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A banner on the façade of Savannah City Hall in Georgia on Aug. 5, 2020, notes the city’s mandatory mask order. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
A Pride flag flies alongside an American flag in downtown Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 5, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The South Carolina Welcome Center along Interstate 95 in Hardeeville, S.C., on Aug. 5, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
The North Carolina Welcome Center and Rest Area along Interstate 95 in Rowland, N.C., became an office and restaurant on Aug. 5, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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