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Baltimore’s ‘Visionary’ curator prepares to step down

For 26 years, Hoffberger has created a loving haven and championed LGBTQ artists

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Rebecca Hoffberger is retiring from the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy AVAM)

The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has highlighted hundreds of artists since it opened in 1995, and works by LGBTQ artists have featured prominently in both its permanent collection and changing exhibits.

From Andrew Logan’s Cosmic Galaxy Egg sculpture to Robert Benson’s blinged-out Universal Tree of Life to Judy Tallwing’s Prayer for Peace painting, LGBTQ artists have been responsible for some of most memorable creations that visitors will see, whether they know it or not.

This pattern of inclusion is part of the legacy of museum founder, director and primary curator Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community. After 26 years running the museum, Hoffberger announced in July that she plans to retire in March of 2022, and AVAM’s board has launched a search for her replacement.

But unlike some museum directors who have called attention to their recent efforts to promote greater diversity in the range of artists they show, Hoffberger said she has never set out specifically to include a certain percentage of LGBTQ artists, just as she has never set a goal for featuring a certain number of minority or female artists.

She said she simply tries to find the best artists for each show, based on the perspectives they bring and the work they produce. In many cases, she said, she doesn’t necessarily know an artist’s sexual orientation, unless their work is homoerotic or intentionally refers in other ways to their identity.

Hoffberger said her resistance to quotas is not because she’s color-blind or gender-blind.

“I would say I’m color- and race-celebratory,” she said. “There’s a quote by [Canadian writer] Dorothy Maclean: ‘Humankind trend should be to unity, not uniformity.’ That pretty much sums it up. That’s how I feel. Labels like gay or straight or bi, what do they tell you about a person? Not very much. I’m not so interested in people’s sexuality. I’m interested in the person.”

Hoffberger likens curating a museum exhibit to planning a banquet: “If you’re looking to offer…as delicious a feast as possible, it comes naturally that you would have participation by extraordinary people of every stripe.” 

Located at 800 Key Highway near the city’s Inner Harbor waterfront, the museum has been designated by Congress as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which is defined as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training,” which arise from “an innate personal vision that revels in the creative act itself.” 

These creators, sometimes called outsider artists, often try to make sense of the world by making art with whatever materials they have at hand, whether it’s egg shells or toothpicks or more conventional artist supplies. 

Hoffberger said she prefers the term visionary artists, or intuitive or self-taught, to ‘outsider.’ But she notes that it makes sense that many LGBTQ individuals turn out to be visionary artists because of the experiences they’ve had in life. She said many members of the LGBTQ community have lived outside the mainstream in one way or another, and that has both fueled their drive to make art and informed the art they make.

‘Divine’ by Andrew Logan is a larger-than-life tribute to the drag star and actor. (Photo by Dan Meyers)

“How about you’re born into a family where all the girls are gorgeous and you’re the fat one? Or you have a deformity? There’s a myriad of ways that people feel out of step,” she said. “When the life experience is too big for words, it often will come out from non-artists as a creative expression for the first time because there are just no words for it.”

This doesn’t mean LGBTQ artists are inherently better than non-LGBTQ artists, she said.

“Better? No. But anyone who feels for any reason like an outsider, who has experience feeling like a stranger, always has a more in-depth take at reality because they are on some level on the outside…The point is that people who have that little bit of knowing what it is like to be outside the circle actually often will have a perspective that helps evolve and draw a circle.”

Something happens to people when they aren’t from the “established pack,” she said, that makes them look at the world differently and react differently and perhaps get more creative.

“When you’re not from the pack…when you’re forced out of conventional thinking because people are giving you pretty clear signals that you’re not like them in ways that they may even be hostile to, then you start to think more deeply because you can’t coast on being accepted in the same way. It’s not as easy.”

Hoffberger points to the work of gay filmmaker John Waters and his ability to capture what it’s like to live outside the mainstream.

“That’s what I think John Waters has done so unbelievably well,” she said. “He didn’t shock just to shock. He always had this softness for seeing value in people that other people would never have focused on. And in doing that, you sense that you are with someone who’s going to give you a break. That’s why he has yet another generation of fierce fans. This is a person who draws a big circle around the human family, and we’re living in a time when people are getting more and more narrow…So you want to be in the camp of championing more people, the beauty of more people, and the more diverse the better.” 

As director and curator, Hoffberger said, she seeks out the best work she can find by visionary artists to incorporate in the museum’s exhibits. But rather than presenting works of visionary art as objects unto themselves, she curates exhibits that combine art, science, philosophy and humor, with an organizing theme for each show and an underlying focus on social justice and betterment.

In some cases, AVAM has explored themes that touch on gender, gender rights and human sexuality, including a 2005-2006 show entitled “Race, Class and Gender: 3 Things that Contribute ‘0’ to CHARACTER (Because being a Schmuck is an equal opportunity for everyone!) For exhibits such as that, Hoffberger said, works by LGBTQ artists can be particularly appropriate due to the artist’s point of view.

In other exhibits, she has focused on issues ranging from climate change to hunger to public health. AVAM’s next major exhibit, scheduled to open Oct. 9 and run until Sept. 4, 2022, is entitled “Healing & The Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof.) 

Hoffberger said she doesn’t think sex or race are good ways to assess people.

“I don’t think your sexual orientation, I don’t think your color, I don’t think your religion, conveys any quality of character whatsoever,” she said. “That’s why I did that show, Race, Class and Gender. Three things that contribute zero to character but everybody is talking about all the time. I would think it would be more fair, since they’re approximately 50 percent of the population, if there were more women leaders. But do I think that because you are a woman leader you are going to be more spectacular just because of having a vagina? No, absolutely not. None of those things mean much to me, frankly.”

That goes for artists as well as elected leaders, Hoffberger said.

“I don’t even like it when I can look at a work of art and go, I know a woman did this. I really don’t like that,” she said. “I’d rather it just be kind of a soul, with different clothes on. I like magnificent souls, with whatever. And in that celebration, you have a great tenderness to be open to wherever that soul and beauty will manifest.” 

AVAM has become a magnet for LGBTQ visitors, she said, because it’s a place where they feel comfortable with the art and the other patrons. 

“What I love about the museum is that it is such a haven,” she said. “There are so many young teens that are transitioning, who come because, whether you’re wearing a burka or whatever, there’s a safety in being in our museum because there’s such a welcoming, loving vibe. You can see people who you can relate to not only walking through the museum but also in the art.”

Following are some of the LGBTQ artists whose work is or has been featured at the American Visionary Art Museum:

Andrew Logan, (1945- ) His works at AVAM: A 10-foot-tall sculpture of Divine, a tribute to the drag performer who starred in “Pink Flamingos,” “Multiple Maniacs,” “Hairspray” and other movies by filmmaker John Waters; Black Icarus, a figure suspended above the museum’s main staircase, and the Cosmic Galaxy Egg, an eight-foot-high sculpture on a plaza outside the museum’s Jim Rouse Visionary Center, inspired by the deep space images revealed by Hubble Telescope transmissions. Hoffberger is hoping to add a fourth work by Logan, a sculpture of the mythical creature Pegasus.

Logan was born in 1945, the third of five brothers in a family with one younger sister. In 1967 Logan graduated from the Oxford School of Architecture and spent one year in the United States working for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. At the age of 27, Logan gained notoriety as the co-founder, along with Baltimore’s Divine, of the Alternative Miss World contest, an inclusive beauty contest open to transvestites, the old and the young, men and women. His contest emphasized imagination and the radiance of beauty from within. In 1979, Andrew’s Alternative Miss World contest fought off legal action from another event with the help of a budding young defense barrister – future British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Logan is a tap dance and yoga aficionado and a prolific self-taught artist whose sculptures, mirrored jewelry, costumes, stage sets, and performance pieces have garnered a wide audience. He creates his art by using materials that are at hand, often incorporating mirror fragments and fabric remnants, and adding realistically sculpted heads and bodies. In the 1980’s Logan founded his own museum in Berriew, Wales, to house and display a portion of his work.

“The mirror of the universe has been my life for almost forty years,” the museum’s website quotes Logan as saying. “It has an energy like no other material. I have played with mirrors to create monuments, portraits, wall pieces and sculptural jewelry…My life is an artistic adventure.”  

Judy Tallwing, (1945- ). Her work at AVAM: A painting entitled Prayer for Peace is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was a gift of the artist in memory of Sashie Helene Hyatt.

Tallwing is an Apache elder, leatherwoman and multi-media artist who won the first International Ms. Leather contest in 1987. Born in Glendale, Ariz., Tallwing has childhood memories of living in the desert with her parents and seven half brothers and sisters, helping to hunt rattlesnakes, and selling rocks by the roadside. Like many Native American children, Tallwing attended both a Catholic girls’ school and Indian School. She has six children, 23 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.

Tallwing started making art as far back as she can remember. “We didn’t call it art, we called it making things to sell along the road to help the family survive. I used to watch my grandmother, grandfather, and my mother all doing various forms of what I now know is art, to sell, and I wanted to help.” The first thing of hers that sold was a bee sitting on a flower, painted on a rock. It sold for 25 cents.  

In her youth, Tallwing did a little bit of everything, from running her own construction and leather production companies to being the executive director of a domestic violence victims’ program and running an animal rescue operation for 13 years. “I think an ‘aha moment’ for me was realizing I could go to college, even without much other schooling.”

Starting college at age 32 changed her life; she now holds both an associates’ and bachelor’s degree. She travels to what she calls “power places” and brings back tiny fragments from those places to put in every painting or sculpture that calls for them, including copper, silver, turquoise, garnet, prayer ashes, and minute crystal prayer beads. 

“I love trying to bring the stories I’ve heard to life and to add the spiritual aspects of the stories through the medicine of different elements of nature,” she has said. “Each thing that lives on the earth has its own energy and I try to put those energies together to create a healing.” 

Judy Tallwing’s ‘Prayer for Peace’ is on display at AVAM.

Ingo Swann, (1933–2013). His work at AVAM: The Light Bringer, a painting in the museum’s permanent collection.

Swann is best known as a pioneer in the field of remote viewing, the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, also described as “sensing” with the mind. Swann’s high rate of success in this field led him to co-create, along with Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, the Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, launched to investigate psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.

Swann was born high in the Rocky Mountains in Telluride, Colo., on Sept. 14, 1933. His father was a truck driver and he had two sisters. He often spoke of the beauty of his surroundings as a child, particularly the crystal-clear skies where he could see the Milky Way each night. 

Swann wrote that he first experienced leaving his body at the age of three, during an operation to remove his tonsils. At that time he also became aware of seeing “butterfly lights” around people, plants, and some animals, which he later learned were auras. By nine, he wrote that he’d remotely traveled to the Milky Way. He famously claimed to have sent his consciousness to Jupiter prior to the arrival of NASA’s Voyager satellite probe and accurately described many of the planet’s features, including Jupiter’s then-unknown rings.

Swann’s paintings express his passion for exploring the mysteries of the universe and recapture his visions from leaving his body, remote viewing, and seeing auras. Swann was also a musician and a writer of several books, including his autobiography, “Penetration: The Question of Extraterrestrial and Human Telepathy” (1998). He died on Jan. 31, 2013 in New York City.

Bobby Adams (1946 – ). His work at AVAM: His photographs, scrapbooks and shrines have been featured in three exhibits.

Adams is a multimedia artist and a member of filmmaker John Waters’ group known as the Dreamlanders. He was born Robert Reid Adams on Feb. 15, 1946 in Dallas, and grew up in Baltimore. His father, a former boxer and strict disciplinarian, operated a floor sanding business in Dundalk. His “beloved and gentle” mother taught school and would eventually die by suicide in 1976.  

Adams graduated in 1964 from Sparrows Point Senior High School and was able to avoid being sent to Vietnam because of a hearing problem. He became a pirate radio DJ in the late 1960s, playing at gatherings around Baltimore and spinning records for a station he dubbed W.E.E.D. He assembled elaborate scrapbooks stuffed with psychedelic collages and philosophical, often humorous, musings to illustrate his DJ patter and circulate among listeners at gigs. 

In 1970, he began working with John Waters, who filmed “Pink Flamingos” at the Baltimore County farm where Adams was living. Ever since, Adams has been the filmmaker’s unofficial documentarian, taking photographs on film sets and chronicling the exploits of Waters’ band of renegades, the Dreamlanders. “I never learned how to do the camera,” notes Adams. “I just point and shoot. My approach is simple: I start with love, and the camera sees it.”  

A self-professed Christmas addict, Adams makes hundreds of personalized, handmade, labor-of-love holiday cards for friends and family each year. Inspired in part by Waters’ own art making and an Edward Kienholz exhibition he chanced upon, Adams began making art in 1996, after the loss of his toy poodle, Odie. He created 50 multimedia tribute pieces to Odie and installed them throughout his waterfront cottage. Before it was displayed at AVAM, Adams’s art had never been exhibited publicly. When asked if he ever had an unrealistic hope fulfilled, he said, “Yes, being included in this show.” 

Robert E. Benson, (1930 – ). His work at AVAM: The shiny Universal Tree of Life visible near the museum’s main entrance on Key Highway; the fart machine in the museum’s Flatulence exhibit; the ocean beneath Andrew Logan’s Black Icarus sculpture and the sky above it, and other creations.

Benson is a popular classical music radio host who became a prolific visual artist late in life. Born in Chicago, he served in the Army from 1951-1953 as enlisted secretary to General Mark Clark, commander-in-chief of the Far East Command. From 1953-1955 he worked for the B&O Railroad as secretary to the Manager of Industrial Development, and for two years was Assistant Manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Benson’s radio career began in 1958 when he was program director of WFDS-FM, which two years later became WBAL-FM. He was program director and chief announcer there until 1974, when he became Director of Audience Development for the Baltimore Symphony.

In 1975, Benson became coordinator of the Maryland State Arts Council’s Community Arts Development program working to organize county arts councils in all 23 counties of Maryland. He also was in charge of grants to music organizations and individuals, and retired from his state job in 1995. In 1979 he became morning announcer for WBJC-FM, where he remained until 1986. For 10 years beginning in 1987, Benson did programming and announcing for WJHU (now WYPR). He has collected recordings for many years, with particular interest in historic performances. He has written reviews for numerous publications, including Forecast FM, Hi Fi Stereo Buyers Guide, High Fidelity and Stereophile.

Benson lives in Glen Burnie, Md., where he grows orchids in his “underground” greenhouse, a hobby of three decades, and listens to music on his elaborate surround sound system. Since 2004 he has been working with mirrors and stained glass, creating varied art and decorative pieces.

Andrey Bartenev, (1969 –). His work at AVAM: In 2007, Bartenev won first prize in the museum’s “Bra Ball,” for his black and white rubber costume and performance.

Bartenev is a Russian performer, sculptor and experimentalist who won the Alternate Miss World pansexual beauty pageant in 2018 as Miss UFO. He was born on Oct. 9, 1969 in the northernmost Arctic Circle city of Norilsk in Siberia, an industrial town famous for its reserves and production of aluminum. 

Bartenev recalls “three months of total darkness, one month of really hot summer, and 15 days each for spring and autumn.” His only sibling, a sister, was 12 years older. Bartenev’s father was a coal mining engineer and his mother was an industrial safety engineer. Both worked long hours, giving Bartenev free reign to decide how he spent his time alone.

At three, Bartenev loved scissors and began to cut images and patterns from books. “We made all our toys out of snow.” At an early age, Bartenev would organize parties for his friends who were also left alone, getting them to bring over all their pets. He used plastic to sculpt little “castles” for his mice and hamsters, and made costumes for his cats and dogs.

At 16, Bartenev moved with his family to Sochi in the south of Russia — “like Miami with mountains.” In college he studied theater and directing, graduating with high honors. His first job was directing a children’s theater near Chechnya. He also danced and performed in a local cabaret.

Moving to Moscow in 1990, Bartenev supported himself doing collages and graphics and competed in the Big Arts Festival at the Baltic Sea in 1992, where he met one of the judges, Andrew Logan, co-founder of the Alternative Miss World contest. Bartenev made a Snow Queen costume out of papier-mâché that won the top prize. Logan invited him to compete in the Alternative Miss World contest in 1995, 1998, and 2002 in London. There, Bartenev also created programs for the popular BBC children’s TV show, “Blue Peter” and re-staged his original performance show, “Botanic Ballet.” In 2007, he brought his talents to Baltimore and won first prize in AVAM’s “Bra Ball.” He has said his idea of perfect beauty is his childhood vision of “black sky and white snow.”

James Franklin Snodgrass (1922–2000). His work at AVAM: An untitled painting in the permanent collection, the gift of Robert Civello.

Snodgrass was born in Harford County, Md. in 1922. The son of a schoolteacher, he painted mannequins and traveled throughout the United States after graduating from college. During World War II, he declared himself a conscientious objector and worked as an ambulance driver for a Quaker society.

Appearing on television game shows became a peculiar “hobby” for Snodgrass, who won prize money on several occasions. In the late 1950s, he became the focus of public attention after he exposed fraudulent practices on the popular quiz show, Twenty-One. His story inspired Robert Redford’s 1994 film, “Quiz Show.”

Afterwards, Snodgrass grew increasingly reclusive and focused on his art. He was evasive, even secretive, about the untitled painting in AVAM’s collection, which took many years to complete. He died from cancer in early 2000.

Located at 800 Key Highway, the American Visionary Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Advance online purchase of a timed ticket is required to visit the museum. Visiting just the museum store, Sideshow, is free and does not require purchase of a ticket.

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Girls Rock! DC empowers young people through music, social justice education

Organization founded in October 2007

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Youth leaders of Girls Rock DC! (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Girls Rock! DC, an organization operating at the intersection of art and activism, is dedicated to empowering young people through music and social justice education. 

Since its founding in October 2007; Girls Rock! DC has been creating a supportive, inclusive and equitable space that centers around girls and nonbinary youth, with a special emphasis on uplifting Black and Brown youth. At the core of Girls Rock! DC’s mission is a unique approach to music education, viewing it through a social justice and equity lens. 

“It’s a place where people can come explore their interest in music in a safe environment, figure out their own voice, and have a platform to say it,” Board Vice Chair Nicole Savage said.

This approach allows D.C.’s young people to build a sense of community and explore their passion for social change through after-school programs, workshops and camps.

The organization’s roots trace back to the first rock camp for girls in August 2001 in Portland, Ore. Similar camps have emerged worldwide since then, forming the International Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Girls Rock! DC is a member of this alliance, contributing to the larger community’s growth and advocacy for inclusivity in the music industry.

Girls Rock! DC’s annual programs now serve more than 100 young people and 20 adults, offering after-school programs and camps. Participants receive instruction on the electric guitar, the electric bass, keyboards, drum kits and other instruments or on a microphone and form bands to write and perform their own original songs. Beyond music, the program includes workshops on underrepresented histories in the music industry, community injustice issues and empowerment topics that include running for office and body positivity.

“I’ve been playing shows in the D.C. music scene for about six years, and I feel like Girls Rock! DC is the perfect amalgamation of everything that I stand for,” said Outreach Associate Lily Mónico. “So many music spaces are male dominated and I think there is a need for queer femme youth in music.”

Lily Mónico (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is evident not only in its leadership but also in the way it creates a safe space for queer and nonbinary individuals. Language is a crucial component, and Girls Rock! DC ensures that both campers and volunteers embrace inclusivity. 

“It is a very open and creative space, where there’s no judgment,” Zadyn Higgins, one of the youth leaders, emphasized. “It is the first time for a lot of us, to be in a space where we’re truly able to be ourselves.”

In creating a safe environment, Girls Rock! DC implements practices that include name tags with preferred names and pronouns, along with pronoun banners that help kids understand and respect diverse identities. 

“It’s really cool to watch these kids understand and just immediately get it,” said Higgins. 

Zadyn Higgins (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Girls Rock! DC is also more than a music education organization; it’s a community where individuals can embark on a transformative journey that extends beyond their initial participation as campers. Many start their Girls Rock! DC experience as enthusiastic campers, learning to play instruments, forming bands and expressing their creativity in a supportive environment. The organization’s impact, however, doesn’t stop there. This inspiration leads them to volunteer and intern within the organization. 

The unique progression from camper to volunteer or intern, and eventually to a full-fledged role within the organization, exemplifies Girls Rock! DC as a place where growth is not confined to a single week of camp but extends into an ongoing, impactful journey. It’s a testament to the organization’s commitment to nurturing talent, empowering individuals and fostering a lifelong connection with the values for which Girls Rock! DC stands.

One of the highlights of Girls Rock! DC is its summer camp, where kids between 8-18 learn to play instruments, form bands, write songs and perform in just one week. Higgins shared a poignant moment from a showcase,

“To see them go from, like, crying a little bit about how scared they were to going out on the stage and performing their little hearts out was so sweet,” said Higgins.

(Photo courtesy of Frankie Amitrano of Girls Rock! D.C.)

Nzali Mwanza-Shannon, another youth leader, agreed that the camp is the highlight of the program. 

“The summer camp, I’ve met so many friends, and it’s always kind of scary coming up to the end, but after we get to perform and everything, I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten the opportunity to perform and meet new people and be so creative and do it all in a week,” said Mwanza-Shannon.

Forty-three young people who showcased their original songs and DJ sets at D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club attended the first Girls Rock! DC camp in 2007. They performed to a crowd of 700 enthusiastic fans. The organization since then has grown exponentially, with each passing year bringing more energy, vibrancy and fun to the camp experience.

Since the pandemic, however, the organization has struggled financially, experiencing a funding shortage as well as reduced growth in attracting new members. 

Augusta Smith, who is a youth leader and a member of the band Petrichor, expressed concern about the potential impact on the unique and friendly environment that Girls Rock! DC provides. 

“We’ve kind of been really slow and barely making enough money. And this year, we’re having a funding shortage,” said Smith. 

The impact of Girls Rock! DC extends beyond musical skills, fostering leadership, self-expression and a passion for social change through creative collaboration and community power-building. Mwanza-Shannon hopes to be a part of Girls Rock! DC for a long time, 

“I want to keep on meeting new people,” said Mwanza-Shannon. “I want to keep on being able to perform at these different places and have different experiences.”

(Photo courtesy of Frankie Amitrano of Girls Rock! DC)
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‘Blindspot’ reveals stories of NYC AIDS patients that haven’t been told

Former Blade reporter’s podcast focuses on POC, women, trans people

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Kai Wright, a former Blade reporter, hosts the podcast ‘Blindspot.’ (Photo by Amy Pearl)

“We said that people had The Monster, because they had that look,” activist Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, said, remembering how people in her New York neighborhood reacted when people first got AIDS.

They didn’t know what to call it.

“They had the sucked in checks,” Reyes-Jimenez, added, “They were really thin…a lot of folks were saying, oh, you know, they had…cancer.”

“We actually had set up a bereavement clinic where the kids would tell us what they wanted to have when they die,” Maxine Frere, a retired nurse who worked at Harlem Hospital for 40 years and was the head nurse of its pediatric AIDS unit said, “How did they wanna die?”

“Nobody wanted to come on,” said former New York Gov. David Paterson, who in 1987 was Harlem’s state senator.

At that time, Manhattan Cable Television gave legislators the chance to do one show a year. “So I decided to do my show on the AIDS crisis and how there didn’t seem to be any response from the leadership in the Black community,” Paterson added.

These unforgettable voices with their searing recollections are among the many provocative, transformative stories told on Season 3 of “Blindspot,” the critically acclaimed podcast. 

“Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows” is co-produced by the History Channel and WNYC Studios. The six-episode podcast series, which launched on Jan. 18 and airs weekly through Feb. 22, is hosted by WNYC’s Kai Wright with lead reporting by The Nation Magazine’s Lizzy Ratner.

The show is accompanied by a photography exhibit by Kia LaBeija. LaBeija is a New York City-based artist who was born HIV positive and lost her mother to the disease at 14. The exhibit, which features portraits of people whose stories are heard on “Blindspot,” runs at the Greene Space at WNYC through March 11.

If you think of AIDS, you’re likely to think of white cisgender gay men. (That’s been true for me, a cisgender lesbian, who lost loved ones to AIDS.)

From the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, most media and cultural attention has been focused on white gay men – from playwright and activist Larry Kramer to the movie “Philadelphia.”   

“Blindspot” revisits New York City, an epicenter of the early years of the HIV epidemic.

The podcast reveals stories of vulnerable people that haven’t been told. Of people of color, women, transgender people, children, drug-users, women in prison and the doctors, nurses and others who cared and advocated with and on their behalf.

“Blindspot,” through extensive reporting and immersive storytelling, makes people visible who were invisible during the AIDS epidemic. It makes us see people who have, largely, been left out of the history of AIDS.

Wright, 50, who is Black and gay, cares deeply about history. He is host and managing editor of “Notes from America with Kai Wright,” a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.

Recently, Wright, who worked as a reporter at the Washington Blade from 1996 to 2001, talked with me in a Zoom interview. The conversation ranged over a number of topics from why Wright got into journalism, to how stigma and health care disparities still exist today for people of color, transgender people and poor people with AIDS to the impact he hopes “Blindspot” will have.

“I came to work at the Blade in 1996,” Wright said, “the year after I got out of college.”

He’d done two six-month stints at PBS and “Foreign Policy.” But Wright thinks of the Blade as his first proper journalism job.

From his youth, Wright has been committed to social justice and to understanding his community. Reporting, from early on, has been his connection with social justice. “I often say, journalism has been my contribution to social justice movements,” Wright said.

His first journalistic connection to the Black community came when he was 15. Then, Wright became an intern with the Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder.

“That’s how I got the [journalism] bug,” Wright said.

Since then, Wright said, he’s worked almost exclusively with media that have a connection with the community.

Wright grew up in Indianapolis and went to college at Emory University in Atlanta. He didn’t intend to be a journalist, he wrote in an email to the Blade. At Emory, he studied international politics.

Wright’s life and work changed direction when he began working at the Blade. “I was a kid,” Wright said, “I’d just come out. I used journalism to find out what it meant to come out.”

Wright, when he came to Washington, D.C., was, as he recalled, just a kid. He didn’t know anyone in D.C. and there was a Black, queer community. This helped Wright to come out. “I couldn’t have told you that at the time,” he said, “but in retrospect I can see that I moved to  D.C. to come out.”

Journalism was Wright’s way of finding his way through coming out.

“I didn’t know if the Blade was hiring,” Wright said, “I just walked in.”

He didn’t have a deep resume but he had a lot to say. The Blade hired him and immediately put him to work reporting on AIDS.

“It was a pivotal cultural and political moment – a pivotal moment for the community,” Wright said.

That year, when Wright began working with the Blade, life-saving treatments (early drug cocktails) were emerging for AIDS.

“There was no way that HIV and AIDS wouldn’t become a central part of my journalism,” Wright said, “I really wanted to report on it.”

With the emergence of treatments, white gay men with health insurance began to feel that they were turning the page and that AIDS was no longer a death sentence.

“But, as a reporter, I was meeting Black gay men who were going into emergency mode about the AIDS epidemic,” Wright said.

Black people, poor people, drug users and others without health insurance and access to treatment were still dying and transmitting AIDS. “‘This is getting more and more dire,’ the activists said,” Wright recalls.

They told Wright, “The rest of the community is starting to turn the page. We can’t turn the page.”

In D.C., Wright could see, through his reporting, the racial discrimination in the community at large in the AIDS epidemic, and in the queer community.

Two things are true simultaneously, Wright said, when asked if there is still stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS today.

“Science has made so much progress,” Wright said, “It’s no longer necessary for any of us to die from HIV.”

“I take a pill once a day to prevent me from catching HIV,” he added, “I can do that. I am a person with insurance…with a great deal of social and economic privilege.”

But many people in the United States don’t have health insurance, and exist outside of the health care system. The divergence in treatment and stigma that he saw as a young reporter in 1996 are still there today, Wright said.

“The divergence in class and race has grown even more profound,” he said, “among people of color, young people – transgender people.”

Wright hopes  “Blindspot” will make people who lived through the epidemic and whose stories weren’t told, feel seen. And that “they will hear themselves and be reminded of the contributions they have made,” Wright said.

The queer press plays an important role in the LGBTQ community, Wright said. “We need a place to hash out our differences, share stories and ask questions that put our experience at the center of the conversation,” he emailed the Blade.

“There’s more space for us in media than when I started my career at the Blade,” Wright said, “but none of it is a replacement for journalism done by and for ourselves.”

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Valentine’s Day gifts for the queers you love

From pasta and chocolate to an Aspen getaway

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Share the love on Feb. 14 with our thoughtful Valentine’s gift picks for everyone you like and lust.

Centrolina V-Day Pasta Kit

Washington, D.C.-based Centrolina’s seasonally inspired restaurant menu gets the delivered-to-your-door treatment with Chef Amy Brandwein’s holiday gift baskets featuring four handmade pastas and from-scratch sauces, including heart-shaped beet ravioli with ricotta and lemon butter, a mushroom and black truffle ragu, sunchoke tagliolini and oyster cacio pepe, and chestnut pappardelle, among other elevated-Italian recipes that you and your lil’ meatball can whip up on date night. $175, CentrolinaDC.com

La Maison du Chocolat

Heart-shaped candy clichés are much more palatable when the contents within are made in Paris instead of Hershey, Pa., and your intended will be sufficiently satisfied with La Maison du Chocolat’s selection of premium confections – including melt-in-your-mouth ganaches, pralinés and bouchées, oh my – available in festive and indulgent 14- and 44-piece boxes. $60-$140, LaMaisonDuChocolat.com

‘Spread the Love’ Plantable Pencils

SproutWorld’s set-of-eight Love Edition pencils set themselves up for seed-spreading jokes given Cupid’s context, but the real sentiment is sweeter: Plant the lead-free, graphite writing utensils (engraved with romantic quotes on certified wood) in potted soil and enjoy striking flowers and fragrant herbs in one to four weeks. $15, Amazon.com

W Aspen Getaway

Missed Aspen Gay Ski Week? No sweat. You’ll fight fewer crowds as the season winds down – without compromising your commitment to luxury – during a late-winter getaway to the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains at the W Aspen. Book unforgettable outdoor adventures, like heliskiing and dog sledding, with the property’s always-available concierge; spend après hour on the rooftop WET deck before diving into delicious dishes at onsite restaurant 39 Degrees; see and be seen at Ponyboy, the property’s cocktail-focused modern speakeasy rooted in New York City nightlife; and pour yourself a nightcap from your in-room mini bar before relaxing in the suite’s deep soaking tub – because, ya know, all in a day’s work. Marriot.com

Nexgrill Ora Pizza Oven

Not a fan of fancy dining out? Slip into those grey sweats he won’t let you wear in public, top off the Veuve, and fire up Nexgrill’s Ora 12 portable propane pizza oven wherein a to-temp cordierite baking stone will cook your personalized pies to perfection at up to 900 degrees. That’s burnin’ love, baby. $299, HomeDepot.com

‘Just Happy to Be Here’ YA Novel

Have a they/them in your life excited to expand their winter reading list? Gift a copy of Naomi Kanakia’s newly published YA coming-of-age novel, “Just Happy to Be Here,” about Tara, an Indian-American transgender teenager seeking quiet support and acceptance within her school’s prestigious academic group but instead becomes the center of attention when she draws the ire of administrators and alumni. $16, Amazon.com

Perfect Pairings 

Set it off this Valentine’s Day with a curated selection of wine and spirits, including the Pale Rosé, created by Sacha Lichine, of Whispering Angel fame; Flat Creek Estate’s red-blend trio, featuring the 2017 Super Texan, 2018 Four Horsemen, and Buttero; Ron Barceló’s Imperial Premium Blend 40th Aniversario rum; and the Bourbon Rosemary cocktail-in-a-can from Spirited Hive. $17-$199

Moon Bath Bomb

Stars aligned for that little meet-cute you told everybody about on TikTok, and you can trust the universe to provide ample relaxation when you plop Zodica Perfumery’s Moon Bath Bomb in the tub – there’s a specific formulation for every sign, which promises vibe-setting aromatherapy, activated charcoal for deep cleansing, and skin-soothing olive oil for the self-love glow-up you’ve been waiting for. $18, ZodicaPerfumery.com

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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