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‘Equal’ explores LGBTQ life before Stonewall

Queer heroes come to our screens during LGBTQ History Month

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Equal, gay news, Washington Blade
Keiynan Lonsdale as Bayard Rustin in ‘Equal.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

We’re still in October, and that means as we cast our eye on our screens this month, it’s inevitable for us to also be casting our eyes on the past. 

The most relevant offering this week is surely the debut of a new HBO Max docuseries, “Equal,” designed to fill in a few gaps in our education about what queer life was like in the days before Stonewall – just in time for LGBTQ History Month. Premiering on Oct. 22, it’s four episodes of slick, smart, and star-powered television that profiles various “leaders and unsung heroes” of the community who stood up, each in their way, to become pioneers in a movement for equality that might never have happened were it not for their refusal to stay invisible.

Narrated by Billy Porter, this look back at the giants upon whose shoulders we stand is not what you might call a “deep dive” into pre-Stonewall queer history; instead, it provides a sweeping overview of LGBTQ life in the middle of the 20th century, through a focus on some of the individuals who cast a long shadow in the ongoing fight for equality. That doesn’t mean it’s short on information though; a lot of detail is packed into each hour-long episode, and viewers are sure to walk away feeling much more informed about this long-obscured era of queer history.

From a collaboration of producers that includes the likes of Greg Berlanti and Jim Parsons, “Equal” looks to shine a light on figures whose stories took place within the shadows of past American culture: founding fathers of the LGBTQ equality movement like Harry Hay, Dale Jennings, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin; pioneering trans women like Christine Jorgensen and Sylvia Rivera; and men and women of color, like Lorraine Hansberry and Bayard Rustin, who brought their queerness with them into the larger fight for civil rights in the arts and politics of the mainstream world. To that end, real-life archival footage is blended with newly filmed “re-enactments” – and a healthy dose of artistic license – to bring their histories to life.

Among the cast of queer and allied actors taking part are quite a few familiar names and faces. Cheyenne Jackson stands in for One Magazine founder Jennings, with Anthony Rapp as Mattachine Society founder Hay; Heather Matarazzo (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and Shannon Purser (“Stranger Things,” “Riverdale”) play Lyon and Martins, respectively; Jamie Clayton (“Sense8”) is Jorgensen, and Hailie Sahar (“Pose”) is Rivera, while Samira Wiley (“Orange is the New Black,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Keiynan Lonsdale (“Love, Simon”) portray Hansberry and Rustin. The cast also includes Sara Gilbert, Anne Ramsay, Alexandra Grey, Jack Starr, Isis King, and Jai Rodriguez, as well as many additional performers, playing a mix of other real-life and fictional composite roles.

If you can’t wait for Oct. 22 to watch, you might be in luck, thanks to NewFest. The series is included as part of the line-up during the long-running LGBTQ Film Festival scheduled run between Oct. 16-27. 

Celebrating its 32nd edition in the year of COVID-19 might not have been what this venerable film fest would have preferred to do, but like other prominent festivals that have had to adapt to life in 2020, it’s taken its show online – at least for the most part. That means that film fans who want to participate in NewFest without actually making the trip to NYC have gained an historic opportunity.

Organizers have put together what they describe as “an incredible virtual lineup” of screenings, special events, and panels, available nationwide for the first time in the festival’s history; and if you feel you must go in person to really feel a part of it all, there are even a few special drive-in screenings scheduled during NewFest’s 11-day run. 

If you’re not a documentary person, NewFest has you covered, too. Don’t get us wrong – it features plenty of them. But it also offers a lengthy list of narrative options, both short and long form, from which film fans will be sure to find something to fit their personal tastes.

Among the highlights: “Ammonite,” the new semi-biographical 19th-century period romance from “In God’s Country” director Francis Lee, starring Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan; “No Hard Feelings,” a debut feature from German filmmaker Faraz Shariat that explores a romance between two Iranian immigrants who meet in a refugee camp and has already won a German Teddy Award for Best LGBTQ-themed Feature; “Ahead of the Curve,” Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s documentary tracing the legacy of the groundbreaking lesbian publication Curve Magazine; filmmaker Mike Mosallam’s feature debut “Breaking Fast,” a cross-cultural gay romcom about a Muslim-American (Haaz Sleiman) whose blossoming romance with an All-American white boy (Michael Cassidy) is set against the backdrop of his family’s celebration of Ramadan; Laurie Lynd’s “Killing Patient Zero,” a riveting documentary about the scapegoating of Gaëtan Dugas, the gay French-Canadian flight attendant who was blamed for spreading AIDS to North America; and Stanley Kalu’s “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” a timely drama about a black teenager struggling with coming out to his parents while dealing with the trauma he experiences from both being closeted and being black.

There’s a long list of other features and shorts, most of which are available for the entire run of the festival after their official “screening” times and dates; there are also numerous special events – such as an all-trans cast doing a table read of “Brokeback Mountain. The full line-up can be found, along with all-festival passes, tickets and ticket packages, on the festival’s website at newfest.org.

With so much exciting queer content at our fingertips, even in the middle of a pandemic, even the gloomiest among us would have to call it an embarrassment of riches – more than enough to see us through until long past Thanksgiving. If not, don’t worry. LGBTQ History Month is barely halfway through, and there’s sure to be plenty more, still in store.

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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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