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The boldness of Randy Downs

Ward 2’s daring Council hopeful deserves your vote

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GLAA ratings, Randy Downs, gay news, Washington Blade
Randy Downs is running for Ward 2 Council.

What better place to sit down and chat with Randy Downs than at Annie’s on 17th Street, itself an institution, a significant strip in Downs’ Dupont ANC constituency. We sat on Annie’s new outside “strEATery,” one of the many wildly popular outside patios now taking over streets across the city, COVID measures meant to support the District’s restaurant industry. And do note, you saw them on 17th Street first. And all thanks to Randy Downs, Neighborhood Commissioner and candidate for the Ward 2 seat on the District Council.

Downs believes that these strEATeries make the neighborhood more lively, as well as safer.

Traffic is slowed and calmed, there’s more space for social distancing, and more activity at night means a decrease in crime. Asked if we can keep the popular ‘strEATeries’ post pandemic, Downs replied with a confident “absolutely.” And Annie’s is what you’d expect it to be — adorned with festive paper lanterns, colorful tablecloths, and planters. It’s very them. It’s very 17th Street. And this is just one of Randy Downs’ myriad accomplishments.

From his mere four years as an ANC Commissioner, positions too often dismissed as powerless or even perfunctory, Downs’ list of achievements reads like a litany of good deeds any current D.C. Council member would kill to have on their resume. Downs helped usher the much-needed Stead Park community center renovation and expansion slated to break ground next year. The $16 million project will add a badly needed community multi-purpose meeting space to Ward 2. Look for that starting early next year.

There’s also the clever workaround to long sought for rainbow crosswalks, appearing in cities across America but blocked here by federal highway officials. Downs threaded that needle by creating the popular rainbow banners, not obstructing the walks themselves, but rather bordering them. Then there’s the rainbow and trans flag banners, also Downs’ doing, adorning the street lights up and down 17th. These two things could be dismissed as largely symbolic.

But symbols are important. Perhaps even more so to minority groups seeking visibility. Downs recognizes that. Then there’s the decades-old and foolhardy 17th Street liquor moratorium, that seemingly did very little but stymie growth in development along what is now one of the city’s most charming streets. Since then, 17th Street has seen somewhat of a renaissance, with new and inventive restaurants moving in, everything from Astoria, to Duke’s, to Mikko. They now share the blocks with mainstays such as Floriana and JR.’s. All of this bolsters 17th Street now vibrant and teeming with life on any day of the week.

There is practically no one left out of Downs’ vision. He’s actively pushing the District for dedicated and permanent community and housing space for LGBTQ seniors, a segment of our community too often overlooked. He’s worked tirelessly as an advocate for our trans community, earning a well-deserved endorsement from the unsinkable Ruby Corado and her life-saving operations at Casa Ruby.

Downs has a real plan for those in the District experiencing homelessness, advocating for a “Housing First” strategy in the city, a process that places those experiencing homelessness directly from the street to an apartment, bypassing the current delayed, cumbersome, and bureaucratic shelter/voucher process. And what District residents may not understand — is there are currently no coed shelters in the city, making those experiencing homelessness and who also are partnered reluctant to go into the shelter system alone. Downs is seeking to remedy this.

As a gay man, Downs has a unique perspective on what this city can provide, and who exactly needs these services. And frankly, It’s been too long since we’ve had queer representation on the Council. David Cantania and the late Jim Graham have been our only openly gay members in its entire history. Ward 2, arguably the gayest ward in the city, cutting through Dupont, Logan, and Georgetown, needs this representation more so than perhaps any other.

As a gay man who grew up poor, Downs is no stranger to struggle. Growing up in rural Missouri, Downs started working in the restaurant industry at the age of 13. This was not some cushy job for pocket money either, as Downs told me. But rather taken on to help support his family. All in all, it’s a background that has installed a useful empathy, in that Downs knows exactly what it takes for some District residents to make ends meet.

Downs moved to the District almost 10 years ago. And on why Washington remains so special to him, Downs told me that the city “has offered me so much,” adding that “D.C. has simply allowed me to be who I wanted to be.”

Downs, too, you should know, is no stranger to a fight. In 2013, he was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer. He’s been cancer-free for six years now, “technically cured” he told me. But the experience instilled in him greater patience and determination toward life. He also got one of D.C.’s first medical marijuana cards. “Card 104,” he told me, to help with his cancer treatments. It has made him a supporter of Ballot Initiative 81, the only initiative on this year’s ballot seeking to decriminalize the possession and distribution of entheogenic plants and fungus.

The District of Columbia is the most physically fit, the most educated, and the gayest city in the country. It takes a special man to represent such a place. And many have come to recognize this. His list of his endorsements is long — including the Washington Teachers Union, Persist DC (formerly DC for Elizabeth Warren), the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and many of the restaurants in Downs’ contingency such as the Tabard Inn, Annie’s, and Agora. Downs’ main challenger is the incumbent, 28-year-old Brooke Pinto, who won the seat by just over 300 votes in a special election. And there’s a stark contrast to the Missouri-born Downs and the Connecticut-born Pinto. Downs’ campaign has been largely funded through small local donations, with Downs taking advantage of the city’s new Fair Elections Program, a funds-matching initiative meant to get big money out of politics. Pinto’s campaign has largely been funded by her family’s significant largess. There are donors for sure, many of whom are both wealthy and not residents of the District. And scanning the list of those included you’ll see the fervently anti-gay and anti-choice former Attorney General of Michigan, Trump Republican Bill Schuette. That is troubling to say the least.

There are many reasons Randy Downs is running, and many reasons why he deserves the seat. I’ve listed just a few here. But know that there’s a certain boldness to Downs. That a 34-year-old gay man from rural Missouri would somehow find his way to Washington, D.C., and then run for its Council. That’s daring. But he’s proven to be a man of quick and thoughtful action that let loose on our city, beyond his few blocks he currently oversees, will bring nothing but good things to the District.

Vote Randy Downs on Nov. 3.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | LGBTQ Virginians advocate D.C. statehood

The right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society

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My hometown will always be Washington, D.C. It’s the place where I was born and spent all of the first seven days of my life. As a lifelong Virginian however, where I live and attended schools, I straddle two communities important to me. 

As a business owner of 30 years in Washington, D.C., I pay many of my taxes and payroll taxes to the Nation’s Capital while I also pay income tax to Virginia where I’m a citizen.

Most important of all, as a gay Virginia voter, I can think of few lifelong political goals more important to me than achieving statehood for Washington, D.C. One of the compelling reasons I still make my home in Virginia and cross the Potomac River every day of my life, is because of my right as a Virginian to vote for two U.S. senators and for a member of the House of Representatives with the power to vote in Congress.

(It is still shocking to know that, with Washington, D.C. statehood still beyond grasp, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never yet had the authority to vote on the floor of the House.)

At an early age, I was dumbfounded to know that D.C. then did not even have a local government. We lacked an elected mayor and city council, with almost all decisions for the District of Columbia made by the federal government. Yet today, even with a mayor and local government in place, it is breathtaking to know that my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have zero voice in the Capitol and no one to vote for them – and for us – in Congress.

Consider that one of the world’s most diverse and educated cities has so often been bullied by extreme conservative leaders on Capitol Hill who – whenever possible – turn back the clock for D.C. citizens on voting rights, abortion rights, gun measures and our civil rights including LGBTQ equality. Not a single voter in D.C. has much, if any, say over any of those decisions.

The absence of statehood and the lack of real voting rights means that the unforgivable strains of racism and homophobia often held sway not just for Washington D.C., but in denying the United States a true progressive majority on Capitol Hill too. 

Virginians get it. In the past decade, we’ve worked very hard in every county and city in the commonwealth to turn our regressive political past into a bright blue political majority. We have elected LGBTQ candidates to state and local offices in unprecedented numbers. Our vote is our power.

More significantly, through the work of Equality Virginia and its many allies, we are repealing scores of anti-LGBTQ measures and reforming our statutes and constitution to secure equal rights as LGBTQ voters, adoptive parents, married couples, students, and citizens. Doesn’t Washington, D.C. deserve that future?

Virginia needs more states – like D.C. – to join forces and represent all Americans. To achieve this, and to defeat or neuter the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, we need our friends, allies and neighbors, the citizens of Washington, D.C. to share in our democratic ambitions.

Long ago, Washington, D.C. resident, abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass declared that “the District is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Washington, D.C. residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California or any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every American war just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. The District deserves statehood and Congress should act to grant it.” 

Speaking for LGBTQ Virginians, we agree. Conferring statehood is not a gift nor a blessing from the rest of us, but instead, it is the absolute right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society. As LGBTQ Americans, if we are to pass the Equality Act and other fundamental civil rights measures, we need the State of Washington, D.C. and its voters by our side.

Bob Witeck is a longtime LGBTQ civil rights advocate, entrepreneur, and Virginian, with long roots and longstanding ties to D.C.

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years

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OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | Blame Mayor Bowser for violence epidemic?

In a word, ‘no,’ as the problem is nationwide

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The simple answer to the question “Does the Mayor get the blame for the violence epidemic?” is NO! This is not something that can be laid at any one person’s feet. The epidemic of gun violence is gripping the entire nation. 

The frustration and outrage I and everyone else feels are palpable. It’s frightening when you hear gunshots in your neighborhood. It makes bigger headlines when the shots fired are in neighborhoods not used to that like the recent shooting on 14th and Riggs, N.W. When the shots rang out patrons of upscale restaurants like Le Diplomate ran or ducked under their tables for cover. When shots were fired outside Nationals stadium the national media lit up to report it. The truth is we must have the same outrage every time shots are fired and people hurt or killed in any neighborhood of our city.  

Trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the mayor, as some people on social media and in opinion and news columns in the Washington Post are doing is wrong. Some would have you believe the mayor is just sitting by and allowing the violence to happen. There are pleas “Mayor Bowser do something!” as if she could wave a magic wand and the shootings will stop. 

In a recent Washington Post column, “Bowser pressed to act after shootings,” a number of Council members are quoted including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 member Brooke Pinto, Ward 4 member Janeese Lewis George, At-large member Anita Bonds and Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie. They all call for something to be done but not one of them says what they would do. It’s clear they are as frustrated and outraged as the rest of us but have no easy answers. What is clear is casting blame on the mayor and police commissioner won’t help to stop the violence and shootings. 

Again, this epidemic of violence isn’t just an issue for D.C. but a national epidemic. Recently our mayor sat beside the president at a White House meeting called to discuss what can be done about this with mayors and law enforcement officials from around the nation. No one from the president down had an answer that can make it stop right away. Many in D.C. would be surprised at the ranking of the 50 cities with the most violent crime per 100,000 residents showing D.C. with 977 violent crimes per 100,000 residents at number 27 behind cities like Rockford, Ill., Anchorage, Ala., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Crime in nearly all those cities and murder rates have gone up, in many cases dramatically, since the pandemic. 

The solution to ending gun violence is to get the guns out of the hands of those who are using them for crime but that is easy to say and much harder to do. We know ending poverty will make a difference. Giving every child a chance at a better education and ensuring real opportunities for every young person will make a difference. We must also hold people responsible for the serious crimes they commit and often courts are a system of revolving door justice where we find the same people arrested for a serious crime back on the street committing another one and the same gun used for multiple crimes.

There are anti-crime programs that might work but they need buy-in from the entire community including activists and the clergy who must work in concert with our political leadership. D.C. is funding a host of programs including ‘violence disrupters,’ job training, and  mental health and substance abuse programs. They all need more money and more support. 

In D.C., we have only 16 elected officials with real power; the Council, the mayor, the attorney general and our congressional representative. We have community leaders elected to local ANCs. When members of the council attack the mayor, some simply to make political hay for their own future election, it won’t solve any problems. 

This must be viewed as a crisis and our 16 elected leaders should sit down, agree to a series of anti-crime programs and efforts they will adequately fund, and stop attacking each other. Once they agree on the programs to fund they should bring together ANC members from across the city to a meeting at the convention center and work out a plan for what each can do to move us forward to safer neighborhoods. 

We must work together as one if we are to succeed in making life safer and better for all. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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