Three openly gay candidates are running for seats on the D.C. Council and another three are running for seats on the city’s nine-member State Board of Education in an election on Nov. 3 with a record number of candidates competing for Council and school board seats.
At least 47 out LGBTQ candidates are also running for seats on the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, according to a list compiled by the ANC Rainbow Caucus and separate information obtained by the Washington Blade. That number is about double the number of known LGBTQ ANC candidates who ran in the 2018 election.
Two of the gay D.C. Council candidates – Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander “Alex” Padro, who’s running as an independent, and Libertarian Party leader Joe Bishop-Henchman – are among 23 candidates running for two at-large D.C. Council seats up for grabs on Nov. 3.
And gay Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Randy Downs, who’s also running as an independent, is one of three candidates challenging incumbent Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto, the Democratic nominee, in a hotly contested race.
Downs and Padro have been endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national group that raises money for LGBTQ candidates nationwide.
In one of the State Board of Education races, gay former teacher and longtime education advocate Mysiki Valentine and gay Howard University Political Science Department Chairman Ravi K. Perry are among six candidates competing for an at-large seat on the nonpartisan education board.
Gay education advocate Allister Chang, who recently served as a visiting researcher at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is one of four candidates running for the Ward 2 seat on the Board of Education. He is running to replace gay Ward 2 Board of Education member Jack Jacobson, who chose not to run for re-election and who has endorsed Chang. Chang also received the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s endorsement.
Valentine, Perry, and Chang have said the D.C. Public School System’s ability to address the needs and concerns of LGBTQ students would be among their highest priority in carrying out their role as a school board member.
Other races on the ballot this year include the D.C. Congressional Delegate seat currently held by Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, a longtime LGBTQ rights supporter who’s considered the strong favorite to win re-election; and the so-called “shadow” U.S. House and U.S. Senate seats, which have no powers but serve as advocacy positions for D.C. statehood and D.C.’s interests in Congress.
Democratic incumbent Paul Strauss is considered the front runner against Statehood Green Party Challenger Eleanor Ory and Republican challenger Cornelia Weiss for the shadow Senate seat. Democrat Oye Owolewa is considered the frontrunner against Statehood Green Party candidate Joyce Robinson-Paul and independent candidate Sohaer Rizvi Syed for the shadow House seat.
Also on the ballot are races for D.C. Council seats in Ward 4, in which Democratic nominee Janeese Lewis George is being challenged by Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd; the Ward 7 Council seat in which incumbent Democrat Vincent Gray is running unopposed; and the Ward 8 Council seat in which incumbent Democrat Trayon White is being challenged by Republican Nate Derenge and independent candidates Fred Hill and Christopher Cole. George, Trayon White, and Gray are considered the strong favorites to win their respective races.
Similar to past recent D.C. local elections, nearly all candidates running and all those considered to have any chance of winning have expressed support for LGBTQ rights, with most expressing strong support. Local LGBTQ activists have said that means, unlike other cities and states, D.C.’s LGBTQ voters have the luxury of being able to choose who to vote for based on non-LGBTQ issues with the expectation that no serious candidate opposes LGBTQ equality.
However, local LGBTQ activists sometimes disagree over whether an out LGBTQ candidate should be supported on the basis of their sexual orientation or whether other issues should take precedent. Many activists, including members of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, D.C.’s largest local LGBTQ political organization, say it’s important to have LGBTQ people in elective office, especially on the D.C. Council.
There has not been an LGBTQ member of the D.C. Council since gay Council members Jim Graham, a Democrat, and David Catania, an independent, left the Council in January 2015.
The Stein Club has endorsed incumbent D.C. Council member Robert White for one of the two at-large seats up for election. But the club could not endorse any of the three gay Council candidates under its longstanding rules that prohibit the endorsement of a non-Democrat when a Democrat is running in the same race.
The club endorsed all Democratic Council candidates running in the general election except Pinto in Ward 2 after Democrat Pinto was unable to obtain the 60 percent vote needed under club rules for an endorsement. The no-endorsement vote in the Ward 2 race is considered a clear sign of support among Stein Club members for Downs, whose supporters in the club voted against an endorsement for Pinto.
Observers say Downs, while in an uphill campaign, may have a better shot at winning than Padro and Bishop-Henchman, who are competing with several better known candidates, including former at-large Council member Vincent Orange.
In the Ward 2 race, Pinto, a 28-year-old attorney and political newcomer to D.C., won the Democratic primary with just 28 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate race. Two weeks later she won a special election to fill the Ward 2 seat until January after longtime Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D) resigned earlier this year following allegations of violations of ethics rules.
The Democratic nominee for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat has won the general election in every election since D.C. began its local home rule government in 1974, a development that would normally make Pinto the strong front runner. But some political observers say Downs, who has received numerous endorsements from prominent Ward 2 activists and small businesses as well as from the Washington Teachers Union, say he has a shot at breaking the longstanding trend of the Democrat winning the Ward 2 seat.
Pinto has expressed strong support for LGBTQ rights and has advocated for LGBTQ supportive legislation during her four months in office. She has also received prominent endorsements, including from the Washington Post and some LGBTQ activists, including gay bar owner and ANC commissioner John Guggenmos. Also backing Pinto is gay Logan Circle ANC commissioner John Fanning, who was one of the unsuccessful candidates running against Pinto in the Democratic primary, and gay Democratic activist Austin Naughton, who serves as chair of the Ward 2 Democrats organization.
Other political observers, while agreeing that Downs has waged a strong campaign, point out that two other candidates are running for the seat that are competing for votes that Downs needs to win an upset victory. The two are independent candidate Martin Miguel Fernandez, who is vying to become the Council’s first Latino member, and Statehood Green Party candidate Peter Bolton. Both have also expressed strong support for LGBTQ issues and are positioning themselves as left-leaning progressives.
Downs has described himself as a “pragmatic progressive” compared to Pinto, who has positioned herself as a moderate to progressive on some issues, according to D.C. Council observers.
Pinto is ahead in money raised for her campaign, with a cumulative total of $189,243 as of the time of the filing of her Oct. 10 campaign finance report. She has selected to enroll in the city’s traditional campaign donor program that allows corporate donations.
Downs’s Oct. 10 report shows he is running a respectable second with $140,730 raised. He points out that he has enrolled in the city’s public financing program where he receives matching funds from the city with donations limited to a maximum of $50 per donor for a ward candidate and corporate donors are not allowed. Downs says he has far more donors from Ward 2 and from within D.C. than Pinto, who has received a large number of out-of-town campaign contributions.
Bolton’s Oct. 10 finance report shows he has raised a total of $2,841 as of Oct. 10. The most recent report that Fernandez has filed, according to Office of Campaign Finance records, is for Aug. 10, which shows he raised $9,446 as of that time. He told the Blade on Tuesday that he applied for an extension for filing his Oct. 10 report but he estimates his total funds raised are about $12,000.
Downs received a +10 rating on LGBTQ issues from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, the group’s highest rating. GLAA gave ratings of +7.5 for Pinto, +7 for Fernandez, and +4 for Bolton. In a statement accompanying its ratings GLAA says each of the four candidates expressed support for all the LGBTQ related issues the group considers important in its candidate questionnaire. The statement says those with the higher ratings gave a greater degree of substance to their questionnaire responses or, like Downs, had a more extensive record of involvement in LGBTQ endeavors.
Downs created a stir in September when he released a statement criticizing Pinto for accepting maximum campaign donations of $500 each from Michigan’s Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette and Schuette’s wife. Schuette has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people. Schuette also received the endorsement of President Trump when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan in 2018.
“These are not our values and we do not accept large donations from politicians who advocate for those values,” Downs said in his statement.
The Blade confirmed from Pinto’s campaign finance report filed with the Office of Campaign Finance that Schuette and his wife made the contributions to her campaign.
“My support for equal rights and the LGBTQ community is longstanding and unwavering,” Pinto told the Blade in a statement. “Views contrary to the rights of our LGBTQ community are abhorrent, and no contributor, politician, or anyone else is going to alter my beliefs, including my steadfast support for same-sex marriage and civil rights protections,” she said.
“I do not vet the views and actions of the thousands of supporters and contributors to our campaign, but I do take my responsibility seriously to educate and encourage all in our community to be inclusive and supportive,” Pinto said. “Mr. Downs might consider discontinuing spurious attacks on me and start discussing policies he would promote.”
Downs told the Blade his campaign website includes information on his numerous policy proposals and his long record of advocacy for Ward 2 residents. He criticized Pinto for not returning the contributions from the Schuettes.
In the at-large Council race, incumbent Democrat Robert White, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights, is considered the favorite to win the so-called “Democratic” seat. He received a +10 rating from GLAA. Most political observers say the other seat, which under the city’s election law cannot go to a Democrat, is up for grabs among the better known independent candidates.
Under the city’s election rules voters are asked to select two candidates in the at-large race. The two candidates with the highest vote counts are declared the winners.
Padro is well known and has support from his home base in the Shaw neighborhood in his role as an ANC commissioner and as co-founder and executive director of Shaw Main Streets, a neighborhood advocacy and development group. But he doesn’t have widespread name recognition in other parts of the city, although his campaign signs are appearing in each of the city’s eight wards.
Bishop-Henchman, an attorney who lives in the city’s Eckington neighborhood, serves as vice president of policy and litigation for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation and as chair of D.C.’s Libertarian Party. He ran as the Libertarian Party candidate two years ago in 2018 for the D.C. Attorney General’s position against incumbent Attorney General Karl Racine, a Democrat.
D.C. Board of Election returns show Bishop-Henchman received 14,941 votes, or 6.68 percent, compared to Racine, who won easily with 207,451 votes or 92.77 percent.
Records from the Office of Campaign Finance show that Bishop-Henchman this year applied for and received a waiver from having to file campaign finance reports by committing himself not to raise or spend more than $500 for his campaign. That suggests he may be running as the symbolic standard bearer of the Libertarian Party and not running an active campaign. He has not responded to a call from the Blade for comment as of early this week.
Padro’s Oct. 10 finance report shows he has raised $39,010 for his campaign as of Oct. 10. In the school board race, Valentine has raised $14,488 according to his Oct. 10 finance report. Perry’s report shows he raised $5,255 for his at-large campaign as of Oct. 10. Chang’s report for Oct. 10 shows he raised $2,775 for his campaign as of that date.
GLAA gave Padro a rating of +7, saying he has a strong record on LGBTQ issues and provided “good substance” on his questionnaire responses but lost points for disagreeing with GLAA’s position for decriminalizing sex work in the District. Padro instead has called for legalizing sex work with strict regulations to prevent ill effects, a position that GLAA says “creates more barriers and marginalization” for people involved in sex work.
Bishop-Henchman received a +2.5 GLAA rating. GLAA says in its accompanying statement that he agrees with GLAA on all issues but offered “very little substance” and did not provide any record of working on LGBTQ issues.
Among the other LGBTQ supportive candidates against whom Padro and Bishop-Henchman are competing is Christina Henderson, a former staffer to D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large). Henderson received a +10 GLAA rating. Grosso isn’t running for re-election, and his seat is the one the 23 candidates, including Padro, Bishop-Henchman, and Henderson are running for. Grosso, also a longtime LGBTQ community supporter, has endorsed Henderson as his replacement on the Council.
Also running for the at-large Council seat is longtime LGBTQ community ally Monica Palacio who until earlier this year served as director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights. She received a +9.5 rating from GLAA. Former Council member Orange, who some consider one of the frontrunners for the at-large seat, received a +2.5 rating from GLAA on grounds that he did not return the GLAA questionnaire and his positions on various issues couldn’t be determined.
Record number of LGBTQ ANC candidates
Among the 47 known LGBTQ Advisory Neighborhood Commission candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot, 19 are incumbent commissioners and 22 are running unopposed. At least one LGBTQ candidate is running in each of the city’s eight wards, with most running in Wards 1 and 2.
There are a total of 40 ANCs located throughout the city with each having between two and nine single member districts, with a total of 296 individual commissioners. The commissioners hold unpaid elected positions under the city’s Home Rule Charter that are charged with making recommendations to city officials on a wide range of neighborhood issues for which city officials are required to give “great weight.”
Among those running unopposed is incumbent Monika Nemeth in Single Member District 3F06 in Ward 3. Nemeth’s election to the ANC two years ago marked the first known time a transgender person was elected to public office in D.C. She is a former president of the Stein Club and currently serves as one of the club’s two vice presidents.
Another candidate identified by the ANC Rainbow Caucus as LGBTQ is Raymond Chandler who, along with gay candidate Justin Riordan, is challenging ANC 5C05 incumbent Darlene Oliver in the city’s Brentwood neighborhood. Chandler, who goes by the name Rayceen Pendarvis, is well known in the LGBTQ community as an entertainer, emcee, and community activist.
Riordan told the Blade that both his and Chandler’s campaign signs have been torn down repeatedly while Oliver’s signs have been left alone. LGBTQ candidates in the Logan Circle ANC 2F, Rehana Mohammed and Alexandra Bailey, and Dupont Circle ANC 2B09 candidate Kyle Mulhall have also reported having their campaign signs pulled down or damaged.
Following is the list of known LGBTQ ANC candidates and the ANC districts in which they are running as released by the ANC Rainbow Caucus or obtained separately by the Blade:
Judson Wood, 1A06 (Columbia Heights/unopposed)
Kent Boese, 1A08 (Park View/incumbent/unopposed)
Michael Wray, 1A09 (Park View/incumbent/unopposed)
Larry Handerhan, 1B01 (Ledroit Park/unopposed)
Alan Kensek Jr., 1B05 (Meridian Hill Park)
Eric Behna, 1B08 (Columbia Heights)
James Turner, 1B09 (Columbia Heights/incumbent/unopposed)
Rob Hudson, 1B11 (Pleasant Plains/incumbent/unopposed)
Ted Guthrie, 1C03 (Adams Morgan/incumbent)
Japer Bowles, 1C07 (Adams Morgan/incumbent/unopposed)
Chris Jackson, 1D01 (Adams Morgan/incumbent)
Matthew Sampson, 2B01 (Dupont Circle/incumbent)
William Herbig, 2B05 (Dupont Circle/unopposed)
Mike Silverstein, 2B06 (West Dupont/incumbent/unopposed)
Matthew Holden, 2B08 (Dupont Circle/unopposed)
Kyle Mulhall, 2B09 (Dupont East-U Street Corridor)
Michael Shankle, 2C01 (Penn Quarter-Chinatown/incumbent/unopposed)
Will Mascaro, 2C02 (Gallery Place)
Brian Romanowski, 2F01 (Logan Circle/unopposed)
John Guggenmos, 2F02 (Logan Circle/incumbent/unopposed)
John Fanning, 2F04 (Logan Circle/incumbent/unopposed)
Kevin Sylvester, 2F07 (Logan Circle/incumbent)
Rehana Mohammed, 2F07 (Logan Circle)
Alexandra Bailey, 2F08 (Logan Circle)
Lee Brian Reba, 3C01 (Woodley Park/incumbent/unopposed)
Toni Ghazi, 3D02 (Spring Valley)
Christian Damiana, 3D07 (American University Park/unopposed)
Ryan Keefe, 3F05 (North Cleveland Park)
Monika Nemeth, 3F06 (North Cleveland Park/incumbent/unopposed)
Matt Buechner, 3F07 (Forest Hills/unopposed)
Evan Yeats, 4B01 (Takoma/incumbent/unopposed)
Mike Whelan, 4C06 (Petworth)
Ra Amin, 5B04 (Brookland/incumbent/unopposed)
Raymond Chandler, 5C05 (Brentwood)
Justin Riordan, 5C05 (Brentwood)
Salvador Sauceda-Guzman, 5D02 (Trinidad/unopposed)
Michael Lussier, 5D06 (Trinidad)
Rob Dooling, 6A06 (Capitol Hill East)
Drew Courtney, 6C06 (Near Northeast/incumbent/unopposed)
Ronald Collins, 6D03 (Near Southwest/incumbent/unopposed)
Andy Litsky, 6D04 (Southwest Waterfront/incumbent/unopposed)
Edward Daniels, 6D07 (Navy Yard/incumbent)
Michael Eichler, 6E01 (Shaw/unopposed)
Anthony Lorenzo Green, 7C04 (Deanwood/incumbent)
Keith Hasan-Towery, 7E04 (Marshall Heights)
Aiyi’nah Ford, 8A06 (Anacostia)
Isaac Smith, 8A06 (Anacostia)
Following is a list of 24 candidates on the ballot for the at-large D.C. Council seat in the order that they appear on the ballot along with the rating they received on LGBTQ issues from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.
An asterisk indicates GLAA did not receive a returned questionnaire it says it sent to all candidates asking for their positions on LGBTQ issues from which it bases its rating score. Candidates from whom it doesn’t receive a returned questionnaire receive a “0” rating unless GLAA has information about their record on LGBTQ issues.
Christina D. Henderson
GLAA rating: +10
GLAA rating: +2.5
GLAA rating: +8
[Withdrew his candidacy too late to be removed from the ballot.]
GLAA rating: -3
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +6
Michangelo ‘DoctorMic’ Scruggs*
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +6,5
Calvin H. Gurley*
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +1
GLAA rating: 0
Alexander M. ‘Alex’ Padro
GLAA rating: +7
GLAA rating: +10
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +9.5
Ann C. Wilcox*
GLAA rating: +0.5
GLAA rating: +2.5
GLAA rating: -1
Eric M. Rogers*
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +5
GLAA rating: 0
GLAA rating: +8
GLAA rating: +4.5
Featured Local Savings
Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire
Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later
On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.
The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man.
“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens.
Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment.
For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal.
On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America.
As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.
As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”
For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence.
Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said.
Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals.
“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.”
Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business.
“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.”
The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted.
Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.
Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.”
New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt.
When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.”
An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking.
Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider.
By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.”
Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire.
“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989.
Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.
When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire.
Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing.
The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference?
I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation.
Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered.
Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.”
Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”
New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences
Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings
The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.
In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.
Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.
“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”
The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.
And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.
Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”
“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”
One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.
As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.
Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.
Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.
“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”
Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”
Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.
One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.
“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”
Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.
Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.
“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign
Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.
Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.
“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”
The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”
The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.
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