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Rainbow Families debuts 2nd virtual conference, ‘Forward Together’

Two-day digital event features Rep. Mondaire Jones, Indigo Girls

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In 2019, Rainbow Families partnered with Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va., to host a weekend for LGBTQ families. (Photo courtesy of Darren Paul-Vance)

Prospective parents, families and kids — no matter your household makeup, Rainbow Families has you covered at its second annual virtual LGBTQ+ Family Conference this weekend.

This year’s conference, “Forward, Together…,” will offer a variety of resources, workshops and special guests like the Indigo Girls and Congressman Mondaire Jones, who is this year’s “Hero of the Year” and keynote speaker. Rainbow Families is one of the nation’s few non-profit organizations educating and empowering LGBTQ families, parents, and prospective parents.

“The theme of ‘Forward, Together…’ represented hope, to honor where we’ve been and what we’ve been through,” said Darren Paul-Vance, executive director of Rainbow Families. “And yet we still went through this year-plus, solid as a community, strong and motivated to make change.”

The conference will operate under a “come and go” model, Paul-Vance said, and will include events for kids and a silent auction. Attendees can select which programs suit their needs to avoid sitting in front of a screen all weekend, he said.

The cost of admission is reduced to $44 for two participants due to donations to the organization and the lack of in-person accommodations like meals and daycare. If families cannot afford the price, participants can email [email protected] to get the fee waived, Paul-Vance said.

“The economic hardship is by no means over for a vast majority of people,” he said. “All they have to do is reach out to us in confidence.”

Despite the event being virtual for the second year in a row, the incoming Rainbow Families board president and current Vice President Liz Dean said she’s excited to bring the digital conference to communities across the United States, especially where LGBTQ health care is not accessible.

“We’re offering our workshops and giving an overview of different elements of creating or starting or growing a family that you might not have access to in different parts of the country or the world,” she said.

Coming from an LGBTQ family himself, Paul-Vance knows first-hand the importance of resources and programming for LGBTQ families.

“We continuously hear from people how significant and powerful having these opportunities to be in safe spaces,” he said.

Rainbow Families began the Hero of the Year recognition three years ago to recognize revolutionary work in the LGBTQ community. Past honorees include local LGBTQ family law attorney, Michele Zavos; and Ellen Kahn, the senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign.

Since beginning his tenure in January, Rep. Jones has introduced legislation aimed at supporting at-risk LGBTQ youth and reintroduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, which would establish a network of federally supported, locally administered child care options.

Jones said he’s honored to receive the award at this year’s LGBTQ Family Conference.

“Every LGBTQ+ family deserves the right to grow, and Rainbow Families works tirelessly to ensure that LGBTQ parents receive the support they need by offering educational programs, support groups, and so much more,” Jones wrote in an emailed statement to the Blade. “While we’ve made great strides toward true equality, our work is far from over. I’m so grateful to have partners like Rainbow Families in the fight to affirm justice for all LGBTQ+ people and families.”

The first Black and gay congressman along with fellow Democrat Ritchie Torres, Paul-Vance said Jones’s “existence at the table is revolutionary.”

“For many, he gives representation and voice to those who’ve had none,” Paul-Vance said. “He is radical. We’ve coined radicalism as a bad thing, but where would we be without radical leaders — especially queer ones.”

The Rainbow Families LGBTQ+ Family conference is set to feature 25 live workshop discussions on Saturday and a digital expo, school fair and kids programs on Sunday.

Tara Cheston, the LGBTQ and sexual health program specialist for D.C. Public Schools, will host the workshop, “Collaborating for Change: Finding, Accessing, and Advocating for LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Schools” at the school fair Sunday at 2 p.m.

Cheston will give her insider perspective to parents and caregivers on how to more effectively advocate for children in school and share what resources are available. She said she’s looking forward to collaborating with Rainbow Families, a frequent partner at DCPS resource fairs.

“It’s an opportunity for us to collaborate and create more of that intentional focus on parent caregiver outreach, so that folks feel supported and know where to go for information and resources,” Cheston said.

Dr. Jessica Fish, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, will present a workshop, “Parenting Strategies to Support our LGBTQ+ Youth” on Saturday at 3:40 p.m.

In the workshop, Fish will provide tips for parents to have honest, educational and caring conversations with their LGBTQ kids about growing up and making positive choices in the outside world.

Laura Jones, a therapist in the District, will host the workshop, “Reviewing & Renewing Our Ideas of ‘Health'” and will address issues like body image and diet culture at 2:20 p.m. on Saturday.

In her practice, Jones specializes in eating disorders and gender identity and works in expanding treatment to better support marginalized identities. Jones discovered Rainbow families a few years ago and wanted to give back to the organization by presenting a workshop, she said.

“My wife and I are in the middle of family planning, and we’ve hit multiple obstacles,” Jones said. “It’s nice to know that we’re not alone.”

Sara Mindel, also a therapist in the area, will lead the workshop, “The In’s and Out’s of YELLING (for all ages!)” at 2:20 p.m. on Saturday. Mindel served on the Rainbow Families board of directors previously, as well.

“Living in the pandemic has created a pressurized system for so many folks,” Mindel said. “I’m hoping to spend the workshop time talking about what it means to even lower or lessen our relationship with yelling, and what it means to find different strategies, other than yelling so we can be effective and communicating boundaries.”

Rainbow Families delayed the conference in May 2020 like many other organizations at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to shift events to digital platforms. That effort in development last year helped the team develop this year’s programs, Paul-Vance said.

“There is a great deal that’s different about the scheduling because of doing it virtually, and that does take a great deal of careful attention,” he said.

Paul-Vance took on the role of executive director in December 2017 after undergoing an organ transplant due to kidney failure. This was “life-changing,” he said, and decided he wanted to turn his passion for LGBTQ rights and issues into a job after working in the entertainment travel industry.

Taking on the role of executive director “was the best decision, professionally, that I’ve made,” he said.

Rainbow Families also offers year-round programs like support groups, programs for kids and families and “Maybe Baby,” a multi-week course for prospective LGBTQ+ parents that educates on topics like adoption and assisted reproduction, financial and legal issues and how to build a support network.

To learn more about the Rainbow Families LGBTQ+ Family Conference, visit rainbowfamilies.org.

Rainbow Famiiles, gay news, Washington Blade

Darren Paul-Vance (left), Alex Paul (middle), John Paul (right). (Photo courtesy of Darren Paul-Vance)

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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