October 29, 2020 at 4:45 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
WATCH: 17th Street High Heel Race goes virtual
High Heel Race (Washington Blade file photo by Tom Hausman)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs on Oct. 27 released a 38-minute video on its Facebook page that showcases highlights of the annual 17th Street High Heel Race in which thousands of spectators have turned out to watch as many as 100 or more drag queens compete in a three-block race to celebrate the spirit of Halloween.

The video, entitled Best of the High Heel Race Retrospective, was produced by the mayor’s office to commemorate the race’s 33-year tradition at a time when it had to be cancelled this year due to public health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The High Heel Race is an incredibly unique expression of LGBTQ culture for the District and celebrates our diversity and creativity,” said LGBTQ Affairs Office Director Sheila Alexander Reid in the video’s opening scene. “While we cannot gather in person this year, I wish you all a really fabulous Halloween and a glamorous rest of the year. Give your ankles a rest and be assured that Mayor Bowser and I will gather again and run with you soon.”

The race was first organized in 1986 by a group of drag queens who were customers of the just opened 17th Street gay bar JR.’s. David Perruzza, the former JR.’s manager who currently owns the gay bar Pitchers in Adams Morgan, said the race was initially held on Halloween night.

He said over the next several years it drew more and more race participants and spectators. In addition to the drag queens participating in the race, many of the spectators began coming in creative costumes, turning the event into a Halloween costume party as well as a race.

It soon became so large that D.C. police asked organizers to hold it on a night other than Halloween because police didn’t have the resources to close off nearby streets and manage crowds that exceeded 1,000 or more while having to also oversee Halloween events in other parts of the city.

By around the middle 1990s, JR.’s became the official sponsor and organizer of the High Heel Race, with him serving as lead coordinator, Perruzza said. The date of the event was switched from Halloween night on Oct. 31 to the Tuesday before Halloween.

In 2018, after the crowds turning out for the event had swelled to many thousands and it became a highly popular Halloween gathering for people from the entire D.C. metro region, the mayor’s office stepped in to take over its sponsorship and production as an annual city event coordinated by the Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

The video released by the mayor’s office, which is available for viewing on the Office of LGBTQ Affairs Facebook page, includes interviews with some of the leading participants over the years, including drag performer Shi-Queeta Lee. Others interviewed had helped in various ways to support the event. Among them are gay Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Randy Downs, whose ANC district includes the 17th Street business strip where the race is held; gay activist and nearby resident Peter Rosenstein; and LGBTQ activist and talk show host Rayceen Pendarvis.

The video includes many photos taken of the colorfully dressed race participants and spectators taken from news media coverage of the event, including photos from the Washington Blade.

Longtime host and emcee at the High Heel Race for many years, Jimmy Alexander, served as emcee on the video.

The video can be accessed here.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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