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Richard Blanco: Humanities can help country heal from Trump

Gay Cuban American poet read at second Obama inauguration

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Richard Blanco, gay news, Washington Blade
Richard Blanco (Photo courtesy of Mark Neveu)

Richard Blanco in “How to Love a Country,” a book of his poems that he published in 2019, recalls a comment he made to his mother shortly before he read a poem at President Obama’s second inauguration six years earlier.

“I remember turning to my mother and whispering, ‘Mamá, I think we’re finally americanos,'” he wrote. “That indelible moment and my experiences as the first Latinx, immigrant and gay man to serve as Presidential Inaugural Poet set a newfound place for me at the proverbial American table, one that I had not expected.”

“Indeed, I came to definitely understand and believe that my story — alongside the stories of millions like me from marginalized walks of life — is, and always been, a grand part of our country’s cultural and historical narrative,” added Blanco. “Granted, it’s a part that has witnessed outright discrimination and oppression, and has been scarcely acknowledged and barely honored. But it’s also one that has been, and continues to steadily be, written into the work-in progress that is our nation.”

Blanco, 52, was born in Madrid less than two months after his mother and family fled Cuba. They emigrated to the U.S. 45 days after Blanco was born.

“Richard Blanco was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States — meaning his mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid where he was born,” reads his bio. “Only 45 days later, the family emigrated once more and settled in New York City, then eventually in Miami where he was raised and educated.”

Blanco grew up in the Miami suburb of Westchester in which many Cuban exiles live. He graduated from Florida International University with a degree in civil engineering in 1991. Blanco in 1997 received an MFA in creative writing from FIU.

Blanco in 2015 read a poem at the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana after the Obama administration moved to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“How to Love a Country” contains poems that, among other things, address the Pulse nightclub massacre and Blanco’s ability to marry his partner of more than 20 years, Mark Neveu, after same-sex couples received marriage equality in the U.S. in 2015.

Blanco and Neveu are now engaged and plan to get married once the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Blanco on Monday told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from his home in Bethel, Maine, that “How to Love a Country” also details his struggle to reconcile his identity as a gay Cuban American man within American society that he said President Trump and his administration made even more difficult.

“I finally felt accepted in this place, and suddenly it has turned its back on me, sort of speak, and suddenly all those ugly narratives started coming back up and there’s only a certain America that’s right and having to reexamine all of that and my relationship with that country was a kind of divorce and I really thought about it,” he said. “I thought, how much can I stick it out? What do I do as a poet? What do I do as a human being?”

Amanda Gorman ‘perfect choice’ for Biden inaugural poet

Blanco spoke with the Blade two days before the inauguration of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris.

The inauguration will take place at the Capitol, even though Trump supporters on Jan. 6 stormed the building.

Upwards of 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to the nation’s capital, and authorities have cordoned off large swaths of downtown D.C. because of security concerns in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. The Presidential Inaugural Committee had already limited the number of inauguration attendees and in-person events because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Blanco described the inauguration to the Blade as a “moment that’s supposed to be about this wonderful tradition and celebration.” He also said he has spoken with former Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, 22, who is this year’s inaugural poet, after she reached out to him on Instagram.

“She’s just an amazing human being, inside and out,” said Blanco. “Her poetry is amazing, a real presence and so humble. And I think just a perfect choice for this time right now.”

Blanco said he told Gorman “what a beautiful experience it’s going to be, regardless of these weird circumstances for this inauguration.”

“I wish that’s what somebody would have told me because you’re going to write a poem and you’re living in all this apprehension and rush here and do that,” he told the Blade, recalling his own experience at Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. “In my case I had to read a poem in front of a million people. I just told her trust it’s going to be one of the most beautiful experiences of your life, just center yourself, it’s going to be gorgeous.”

“It was truly a wonderful, amazing experience and I just wanted to make sure she knew that,” added Blanco.

Richard Blanco reads a poem at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 15, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Richard Blanco)

Blanco said he plans to watch the inauguration — and Gorman’s reading — from his home.

“I live in a small town here in Maine, so I will just be watching, watching Amanda of course,” said Blanco.

Blanco told the Blade he is “of course relieved” Biden will become president and the country will be “moving in a different direction.”

“It’s not over just because someone else won an election,” said Blanco. “A lot of things have come up, a lot of issues that we’ve been sweeping under the rug, a lot of issues that we haven’t had our moment of reckoning with and I just hope that the presidency can take that on. We really need another conversation in this country.”

Blanco also said the humanities can play an important role in healing the country after Trump leaves office.

“One of the things that the humanities does best is that it humanizes abstract issues that we can continue talking about in political terms,” he told the Blade.

“The humanities, not just poetry, teaches us to have empathies for ourselves, to get in touch with ourselves, first and foremost, and understand our own strengths, our own biases, our own assumptions and also then empathy for others,” added Blanco. “And by empathy I don’t mean sympathy and I don’t mean getting a pass either. I mean the idea that there’s something underneath the conversation that we’re having … there’s something else, there’s a deeper place to get to.”

Blanco, paradoxically, also said he is unsure whether the country is “ready to heal” after Trump.

“We don’t even know what we’re suffering,” said Blanco. “I mean we sort of do, but we haven’t really gotten down to the nit grit and we can’t heal until you really, really have a good diagnosis. And I think the humanities help us get to that diagnosis.”

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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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