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Full reopening of bars, clubs boosts Pride celebrations

June 11 marks end to nearly all COVID restrictions in D.C.

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This was the scene at Dupont Underground last Friday as a sold-out crowd turned out for the Blade’s ‘D.C.’s Royals, a Celebration of Drag’ event. Crowds are expected at LGBTQ events and businesses all weekend as the city celebrates Pride. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Some owners of D.C. gay bars have said Mayor Muriel Bowser’s announcement on May 10 that the city’s restaurants and bars could resume operations at full capacity and return to pre-pandemic operating hours on May 21 caught them by surprise.

After several months of business shutdowns followed by a partial reopening with strict limits of only 25 percent of the normal number of customers inside bars and restaurants, a ban on standing in bars or being served while sitting at a barstool, the mayor’s reopening order left many bars and restaurants short on servers and bartenders.

But nearly everyone associated with D.C. gay bars who spoke with the Washington Blade — including owners, employees, and customers — have said they were ecstatic to see a full reopening after more than a year of COVID-related restrictions and hardship.

“We didn’t really open at a 100 percent capacity,” said John Guggenmos, co-owner of the D.C. gay bars Trade and Number 9, immediately after Mayor Bowser issued her full reopening order. Like other bar owners, Guggenmos said Trade and Number 9 had to bring back employees who had to be let go due to the shutdowns and operating restrictions over the past year.

“But you know, seeing people again, hearing the stories of some of the struggles they went through, and our customers just talking to each other and saying how glad they are to be back gave us a sense of our community and how much we are more than just four walls and some chairs and music,” Guggenmos said.

Dito Sevilla, who works as bar manager at the 17th Street restaurant Floriana, and as longtime host of the restaurant’s lower-level space known as Dito’s Bar, said the May 21 lifting of COVID restrictions has returned business to pre-pandemic levels.

“We were not fully staffed on day one either,” Sevilla told the Blade. “Everyone had to work a little extra,” he said. “And that was OK with them because they had gone without working for so long that working some extra shifts that week wasn’t going to hurt anyone. They were thrilled to do it.”

Doug Schantz, owner of the U Street, N.W. gay sports bar Nellie’s, said he too was caught off guard by the short advance notice of the mayor’s May 21 full reopening of restaurants and bars but like other bar owners said he is pleased that the full reopening has come to D.C.

He said Nellie’s put in place a “soft” reopening on May 21, with operations limited to his second-floor space that has a roof deck and he continued to close at midnight instead of the resumption to normal closing times with the mayor’s order at 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

Schantz said he timed his full reopening to take place this weekend to coincide with the kickoff of the city’s LGBTQ Pride events. And by July 1, he said, Nellie’s will resume its popular drag brunch.

“We’re taking it one step at a time, but so many people were happy to be back,” he said. “They want to be back to normal.”

David Perruzza, owner of the Adams Morgan gay sports bar Pitchers and its adjoining lesbian bar A League of Her Own, said he and his regular customers, many of whom continued to show up at the two bars during the height of the pandemic restrictions, are delighted over the full reopening. Like several of the other bar owners, Perruzza said he will continue to operate outdoor seating under the “streetery” program the city established when indoor seating was initially banned and later resumed at just 25 percent capacity.

One COVID-related rule remaining in place for bars and restaurants, which is expected to be lifted soon, is the requirement that bars and restaurants obtain a name and phone number for at least one person entering as part of a group and for each individual entering for contact tracing purposes in the event someone tests positive for COVID on the day the customer was present. The city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which initiated the requirement during the height of the pandemic, was expected to end the requirement in the next few weeks, according to sources familiar with ABRA.

In addition to the full reopening of bars and restaurants on May 21, the city has cleared the way for the full resumption of large indoor and outdoor events on June 11, including parades and sports stadiums. That development has prompted D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes the city’s LGBTQ Pride events, to add to this week’s Pride events a June 12 Pride Walk, which will begin at Dupont Circle at noon and travel to Logan Circle before heading south to Freedom Plaza, where a rally will take place.

“The excitement has been palpable since bars and restaurants in D.C. recently reopened at full capacity and without limit or activity restrictions,” said Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, a local trade association representing bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

“The enthusiasm is especially evident at LGBT venues, with long lines common after a long period of shutdowns and slowdowns,” Lee said. “The celebration will expand on June 11 when nightclub-licensed dance clubs fully reopen, and large music venues begin hosting tour acts and special shows in the coming days.”

But Lee said a “flip side” to the reopening celebrations is the reality that many bars, restaurants, and nightclubs must grapple with a massive debt burden of back-rent owed to landlords that threatens their survival.

Lee and others point out that the forced shutdowns and capacity restrictions that these mostly small businesses have faced during the pandemic resulted in a drastic reduction in revenue that forced them to rely on local D.C. and federal COVID moratoriums on evictions for commercial and residential tenants. With the moratoriums ending, the businesses must now repay the back rent owed that Lee says often exceeds $100,000 or more.

“That’s why the D.C. Nightlife Council and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington are urging Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council to utilize a small portion of the city’s federal relief monies to create a Rent Relief Fund for local establishments facing unsustainable past-due lease obligations,” Lee said.

Perruzza said that in addition to facing back rent payments related to the pandemic, he and other bar and restaurant owners had to pay D.C. property taxes under their lease agreements at a time when their revenue was greatly suppressed from the pandemic. He said he believes he will be able to cope with the rental payoff, but the relief fund proposed by Lee and others would be immensely helpful for his and other struggling small businesses.

Bowser and members of the D.C. Council have said they were considering the relief proposal.

“We’re thankful for the support the community showed throughout the pandemic and the eagerness to want to get back to us,” said Guggenmos of Trade and Number 9. “We are thrilled and it’s great seeing everyone, but it doesn’t mean the sleepless nights are over,” he said in referring to the rental debt and other COVID-related expenses that his clubs continue to face.

Among the other D.C. gay bars whose representatives or customers said they are pleased over the reopening at full capacity include Uproar, Dirty Goose, JR.’s, Larry’s Lounge, Window’s, Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, Duplex Diner, and Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va.

Lee said the downtown D.C. nightclub Sound Check at 1420 K St., N.W., was scheduled to resume its weekly Avalon Saturday “gay” nights on June 12. Before being put on hold during the pandemic, the event featured drag shows and dancing.

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District of Columbia

Judge postpones ruling on whether Casa Ruby should be dissolved

Request by Corado for gag order to stop ‘one sided’ information denied

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A judge denied Ruby Corado’s request for a gag order in the ongoing case. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Thursday said she was not ready to issue a ruling on whether the LGBTQ community services center Casa Ruby should be dissolved as recommended two and a half weeks earlier by a court-appointed receiver that took control of Casa Ruby’s operations.

Judge Danya A. Dayson stated at a Sept. 29 court status hearing that the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, which filed civil charges against Casa Ruby and its founder and former executive director Ruby Corado in July, needed more time to complete its investigation into Casa Ruby’s operations.

“We think it may be premature to immediately commence proceedings for dissolution while our investigation is still pending,” Cara Spencer, an official with the Office of the Attorney General, told the judge. “We’re still gathering information. We still intend to shortly serve discovery so we can bring it to a resolution promptly,” she said.

The AG’s office filed a civil complaint against Casa Ruby and Corado on July 29 alleging that the LGBTQ group had violated the city’s Nonprofit Corporations Act for the past several years. The complaint says improper actions by Corado, including the unaccounted-for expenditure of funds and a failure by the Casa Ruby Board of Directors to provide oversight led to a financial crisis.

The complaint notes that Casa Ruby employees were not getting paid and over $1 million was owed to landlords in back rent for at least three buildings Casa Ruby used for its offices and to provide emergency housing for homeless LGBTQ youth.

With Corado spending most of the past year in El Salvador, according to Casa Ruby employees, the employees and managers struggling to keep its operations going said they were forced to shut down all operations in late July.

Corado, who attended the Sept. 29 status hearing through a phone hookup, said she had yet to retain a lawyer due to a “shortage of funds.” She told Dayson she expects to finally retain an attorney but said she had not received a copy of the receiver’s report that recommended Casa Ruby be dissolved. One of the attorneys with the AG’s office told Dayson the office sent a copy of the report to four email addresses it had for Corado and Casa Ruby.

At the judge’s request, one of the AG office officials sent another copy of the report to Corado during the hearing to an email address that the judge asked Corado to provide.

Dayson on Aug. 12, at the recommendation of the AG’s office, appointed the Wanda Alston Foundation, a D.C. organization that provides housing for homeless LGBTQ youth, as the Casa Ruby receiver. One day earlier, Dayson approved the AG office’s request that Casa Ruby be placed under receivership.

On Aug. 3, also at the request of the AG’s office, the judge issued an order that all of Casa Ruby’s bank accounts and financial assets, which had been under the sole control of Corado, be frozen. Dayson lifted that freeze after the Alston Foundation assumed control of Casa Ruby under the receivership.

As she had at the Aug. 11 court hearing, Corado stated in the Sept. 29 hearing that Casa Ruby’s financial problems were caused by the D.C. government withholding as much as $600,000 in grant funds for services Casa Ruby had provided.

Officials with the D.C. Department of Human Services, which initially approved the grants, have said some of the grant funds were withdrawn or cancelled because Casa Ruby failed to comply with the terms of the grants. In some cases, the officials said, required financial reports were not filed to substantiate how the funds were spent.

Corado also asked Dayson at the Sept. 29 hearing to order the receiver and officials with the AG’s office stop releasing “one-sided” information that she said was falsely placing her and Casa Ruby in a negative light through reports in the press.

“The story that has been painted is that Casa Ruby left the clients in the cold,” Corado said. “That is not accurate.”

When asked by Dayson what she wanted the court to do, Corado said, among other things, she did not want the receiver to be allowed to disclose information about what happened in the court proceedings that Corado said was being reported by the press inaccurately.

She said highly negative publicity resulting from the release of information from the previous court hearing resulted in her receiving death threats and damage to the engine of her vehicle in an act of vandalism that cost $1,700 to repair.  

Dayson said Corado appeared to be seeking a gag order to prohibit the receiver or the AG’s office from discussing or releasing information that was part of the public record. Saying there were insufficient grounds for such an order, Dayson announced she was denying a request to seal court records or issue a gag order against the receiver.

The judge ruled in favor of a request by the AG office attorney to file an amended complaint for the case, directing them to file the amended complaint by Nov. 28. Court records show that Dayson directed the parties to return to court for scheduling hearings on Oct. 28 and Jan. 6. 

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Maryland

Former FreeState Justice executive director denies allegations against them

Jeremy LaMaster denies they launched ‘coordinated attack’

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Jeremy LaMaster (Photo courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

The former executive director of FreeState Justice on Tuesday denied they have launched a “coordinated attack” against their former organization.

Jeremy LaMaster on Sept. 19 announced their resignation after they said FreeState Justice”s board of directors declined their request to step down. 

FreeState Justice two days later in a federal court filing against LaMaster said they “immediately began a coordinated attack on FreeState’s operations; in particular, its IT assets” after they left a Sept. 16 meeting in which the board informed them they “were relieved of their duties, and the final two weeks of their employment were to be spent cooperating in the transition of FreeState’s operations.”

“When FreeState discovered LaMaster’s improper interference, it terminated their employment effective immediately, ordered them to cease and desist and to rectify their actions,” reads the court filing. “LaMaster did not abide and continued to hijack and misappropriate FreeState’s IT infrastructure and documents.” 

“What would hacking into someone’s email and deleting an email do,” LaMaster told the Washington Blade during a FaceTime interview. 

LaMaster, who uses they/them pronouns, told the Blade they started “working on this transition stuff” once they returned home from the Sept. 16 meeting and “I started getting error messages for our intake system.”

“After the Sept 16 meeting, someone else, not me, began deactivating email accounts, including mine, breaking workflows for our client intake and other processes, causing a lot of problems for our IT infrastructure,” said LaMaster on Wednesday in a follow-up text message.

LaMaster said they began to receive text messages on Sept. 18 about “criminal charges” and “allegations.” 

LaMaster told the Blade they tried to call now FreeState Justice Executive Director Phillip Westry on Sept. 18, but he did not accept his call.

“I sent an email to the team about this is what happened, this is what I was doing,'” said LaMaster. “Some of our things are down. Please let me know.”

LaMaster said they sent a Slack message to Westry and now Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on the morning of Sept. 20 in order to “help transition IT.” LaMaster told the Blade they “learned about the restraining order and a number of IT issues and allegations when everyone else did.”

LaMaster, who is representing themself, attended a court hearing in Baltimore on Monday. 

LaMaster told the Blade that they said they could provide passwords to their FreeState Justice email account. LaMaster said they provided the passwords to all other software systems the organization uses.

LaMaster sent the Blade a screenshot of a text message thread between them and Jones.

“Please provide the the (sic) appropriate login credentials and administrator access to all FreeState Justice systems,” Jones told LaMaster. “Please do not attempt to access any systems or the office.”

“As I mentioned yesterday — I do not know the passwords off the top of my head and will need to either 1) test them or 2) reset them. This required accessing the systems,” responded LaMaster. “I’m not being obtuse — but you’ve all made a large number of false (and impossible) accusation based on the very limited understanding of our tech, or tech in general (not being rude, but y’all know it’s true.)

“Like I said, I think a phone call or Zoom, we can even record it so that I cam (sic) do/show exactly what I am doing,” added LaMaster. “I’m here for the lawyer robot responses and the desire for retaliation to continue to block FreeState legal services delivery, and then turn around and blame you (sic) lack of cooperation and knowledge on me.”

Text messages between former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and FreeState Justice Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on Sept. 27, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)
Text messages between former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and FreeState Justice Deputy Executive Director Tina Jones on Sept. 27, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

LaMaster told the Blade they were “supposed to return items and keys and such” to FreeState Justice’s offices at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, but “no one was there.” The text thread shows LaMaster texted Jones at 4:43 p.m. to let her know that they’re “here to drop off keys and pick up my stuff, but no one is answering the door.”

“They’re still holding my personal belongings and not accepting my keys and FSJ (FreeState Justice) checks,” LaMaster told the Blade.

Board has ‘white supremacist culture’

LaMaster in June 2020 succeeded Mark Procopio as executive director.

LaMaster in their resignation letter said they stepped down after board members refused their request to immediately step down “due to persistent violations of our board handbook, consistent failures in their fiduciary responsibilities, and using positions of power to engage in partisan lobbying within FreeState Justice and their repeated refusal to add new members and leadership to the board.”

LaMaster in his email noted they “exhausted every avenue over the past two years to get our board fully staffed and running, and I made good faith efforts to work with the board to ensure that our clients and low-income LGBTQ Marylanders remained at our center.” 

“Instead, the board has refused to accept any new board members since 2021 and refused to staff and run core board activities as per our handbook,” wrote LaMaster. “Instead, they have worked to consolidate power and amend the board handbook in secret to lower the minimum number of board members required and ensure that our policy positions prioritize relationships with legislators, not the best interests of our clients and community. I have provided clear warnings and consistent concerns over these issues that were repeatedly ignored.”

LaMaster reiterated his criticism of the board when they spoke with the Blade.

“As with most nonprofits, I’m sure if you talk to any executive director, they will tell you the large number of challenges that comes to board and nonprofit boards and cultivating and building them and supporting them. There have been chronic issues for two years now,” they said.

“I think everyone gets a pass with the (COVID-19) pandemic, but at some point, stop getting passes,” LaMaster added. “There was just a lot of really poor decision making that was costing the organization money, and really not fulfilling core responsibilities laid out in our board handbook.”

LaMaster specifically noted the board’s abrupt decision in May 2022 to stop offering COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness after FreeState Justice’s landlord “did a full Karen” and “went to the board and was complaining about a whole lot of things, the majority of which were not true.”

“It basically screwed six or seven of our homeless clients out of getting their second dose,” they said.

LaMaster also said board members did not take their calls for more advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ students in Maryland seriously. LaMaster further accused board members of threatening FreeState Justice’s 501(c)(3) status because of their ties to politicians they didn’t specifically identify.

“We don’t exist to help politicians get easy wins and in the General Assembly,” said LaMaster. “We exist to provide widespread advocacy work and transparent information to the community.”

LaMaster also accused board members of engaging in unethical behavior. 

They said Brianna January, the board’s vice president, repeatedly asked FreeState Justice staff to secure funding that would allow her to be hired as the organization’s policy director. LaMaster provided the Blade with a text message in which January asked them to hire her.

A text message between now former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster and Brianna January, vice president of the FreeState Justice board of directors. (Screenshot courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

LaMaster further reiterated their previous claim the board engages in white supremacism.

“When I say white supremacist culture within the board, this response is case and point of that culture, of that type of culture,” they said.

Westry on Wednesday declined to comment on LaMaster’s allegations.

“FreeState Justice has provided comments on this issue to several publications about the ongoing litigation with Jeremy LaMaster,” Westry told the Blade in an email. “We are in active litigation with LaMaster and will offer no further comment.”

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Virginia

Va. students stage mass walkout over anti-LGBTQ policies

Activists from more than 90 schools across state hold rallies

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Youth activists in schools across Virginia walked out of class to rally against proposed changes to school policy for LGBTQ students. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Thousands of students in schools across Virginia participated in walkouts and rallies on Tuesday to oppose the revised “model policies” on transgender students released by the Virginia Department of Education.

VDOE policy revisions were released on Sept. 16 and differ substantially from the policies passed into law in 2020.

The original policies on the treatment of trans students were intended to protect LGBTQ students; but the revised “model policies” have been criticized by activists, educators and legislators for mandating students use school facilities for the sex they were assigned at birth and bars students from changing their names and pronouns without parental permission. Further, the policies direct teachers and staff not to conceal a student’s gender identity from parents, even when a student asks to keep that information private.

The student-led Virginia-based Pride Liberation Project responded to these policy changes by organizing mass walkouts and rallies in more than 90 schools from Alexandria to Williamsburg.

“These proposed guidelines are essentially taking that cornerstone and using it to undermine our rights. If these guidelines are implemented, it will be the single biggest loss for queer rights in Virginia in years,” Natasha Sanghvi, a student organizer with the Pride Liberation Project, said in a statement.

Openly gay Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) in a statement said “these new model policies, which are in flagrant violation of Virginia law, will do serious harm to transgender students. They are not based in science or compassion and will lead to students being outed before they are ready, increased bullying and harassment of marginalized youth, and will require students to jump through legal hoops just to be referred to with their proper name.”

Ebbin joined several hundred students at West Potomac High School in Alexandria in a rally opposing the model policies proposed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The new policy drafts are only going to do more harm to trans students who are already at risk for being outed, harassed and harmed,” Jules Lombardi, a Fairfax County high school senior, told the Washington Blade. “These drafts will take schools, which are supposed to be safe environments for students, and make them spaces where students have to hide themselves for fear of their parents finding out about their identities.”

“This isn’t a matter of ‘parental rights,’ it’s a matter of human rights and we deserve to be treated with the same respect as cis students,” Lombardi added.

Students in more than 90 schools across Virginia participated in walkouts on Tuesday, Sept. 27. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Andrea-Grace Mukuna, a senior at John R. Lewis High School in Springfield, told the Blade that “gender affirmation matters. Something so easily given to cisgender people is a right that our trans and gender non conforming youth deserve. I am walking out because schools will no longer be a safe place for queer students to be in if these policies get passed.”

“Requirements for teachers to refer to students by their birth name and pronouns aligning with their sex, rather than trusting our students to know themselves and who they are best, reinforces the idea that we as students have no power, no control and no knowledge over anything in our lives. Gender queer youth exist, and no policy can change that,” Mukuna said.

Mukuna continued, “making an attempt at denying them their ability to be who they are is a malicious attack on vulnerable students that could cause deathly harm.”

“I walk out for my queer community — there is no erasing us,” Mukuna said.

Several hundred students walked out of McLean High School. The walkout was lead by members of the school’s GSA and organizers from the Pride Liberation Project including McLean High School senior Casey Calabia.

Calibia asked the crowd, “Do we want Gov. Youngkin to understand that this is not what Virginia looks like?”

The crowd roared, “yes!”

“Virginia stands for trans kids. Trans and queer people are a fact of humanity. We will be accepted one way or another and to see everybody here today is another step toward that change,” said Calibia through a bull horn.

Calibia told the Blade in a pre-walkout statement said “to call these policies in favor of respecting trans students’ rights and privacy is to call an apple an orange. The 2022 Transgender Model policies, even as a draft, have begun to actively hurt my community’s mental health.”

“Instead of focusing on academics and our future, we have to sit in class and wonder if we will be safe in school,” Calibia concluded. “To not only take away the 2021 policies, a cornerstone in LGBTQIA+ rights for Virginia, but to mock them with these replacements, is a devastating blow to myself, trans students, queer students, and the whole of Virginia’s public school student body. How can we be safe, if we can be taken out of school-provided counseling, maliciously misgendered, and denied opportunities given to other students simply because of our gender? Accepting queer students in class does not indoctrinate or brainwash kids. It tells queer students like me that it is okay and safe to be ourselves in school.”

Students walk out of McLean High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, to protest the Youngkin administration’s school policies. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The student protests in Virginia have made national news.

“This is a president who supports the LGBTQI+ community and has been supporting that community for some time now as a vice president, as senator, and certainly as president now,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in response to a question about the protests during her daily press briefing. “And he . . . always is proud to speak out against the mistreatment of that community … We believe and he believes transgender youth should be allowed to be able to go to school freely, to be able to express themselves freely, to be able to have the protections that they need to be who they are.”

“When it comes to this community, he is a partner, and he is a strong ally, as well as the vice president,” Jean-Pierre stated.

Walkouts and rallies were held at middle and high schools in Arlington, Bedford, Buchanan, Chesterfield, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Frederick, Henrico, James City, Loudoun, Louisa, Montgomery, Powhatan, Prince George’s, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, Warren and York Counties as well as in the cities of Alexandria, Chesapeake, Newport News, Portsmouth, Richmond, Williamsburg and Winchester.

“Every parent wants Virginia’s laws to ensure children’s safety, freedom, and to encourage a vibrant and engaging learning experience. But the Virginia Department of Education is rejecting those shared values by advancing policies that will target LGBTQ kids for harassment and mistreatment simply because of who they are,” said Ebbin.

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