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Man charged with assaulting lesbian activist pleads guilty, gets 14 months in jail

Aiyi’nah Ford hit in head with barstool at Congress Heights restaurant in August

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Lesbian activist Aiyi’nah Ford was attacked in August. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Nov. 17 sentenced a 46-year-old D.C. man to 14 months in jail after he pleaded guilty in September to an assault charge for an incident in which he attacked lesbian activist Aiyi’nah Ford at a restaurant on Aug. 3

An arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police on Aug. 12 states that Donnell Anthony Peterson allegedly knocked Ford to the floor at the Player’s Lounge restaurant and bar in the city’s Congress Heights neighborhood before hitting her in the head twice with the metal legs of a barstool.

Ford told the Washington Blade that Peterson, who was a regular customer at Player’s Lounge as was she, assaulted her while repeatedly calling her a “dyke bitch” after the two got into a verbal argument over, among other things, the city’s violence interruption program. Ford said she told Peterson and others who were having a discussion that she considers the program to be ineffective and a “joke.”

According to court records, witnesses reported seeing Ford bleeding profusely from the head before an ambulance took her to George Washington University Hospital, where she received multiple stitches to treat a serious head wound.

Court records show that D.C. police, who were called to the scene at the time of the assault, initially charged Peterson with Assault With a Dangerous Weapon. The records show that Peterson through his attorney agreed in September to accept a plea bargain offer by prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C.

The offer called for lowering the charge to Assault With Significant Bodily Injury in exchange for pleading guilty with a promise by prosecutors to seek a sentence of no more than 14 month in jail.

The court records show that Superior Court Judge James A. Cromwell sentenced Peterson to 32 months of incarceration but suspended 18 months, requiring that he serve 14 months after which he would be released on probation. Court records show the probation was to last 18 months. Under court rules, if someone violates the terms of their probation, which almost always prohibits them from breaking the law or threatening a person they were charged with assaulting, the released person is ordered back to jail to serve the remaining time that had been suspended.

At the time Peterson was arrested in August a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, in response to a question from the Blade, declined to disclose why prosecutors chose not to classify Peterson’s assault against Ford as a hate crime based on her sexual orientation.

Ford told the Blade this week that the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alec Levi, was supportive of her throughout the case and told her a hate crime designation sometimes makes it more difficult to obtain a conviction if a case goes to trial. Ford said Levi told her prosecutors wanted to do all they could to bring Peterson to justice for his attack against her.

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District of Columbia

Nex Benedict honored at D.C. candlelight vigil

Upwards of 100 people paid tribute to nonbinary Okla. student at As You Are

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A candlelight vigil is held outside of the LGBTQ café and bar As You Are on Feb. 22, 2024, for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Nearly 100 people turned out on Feb. 22 for a candlelight vigil hosted by the D.C. LGBTQ café and bar As You Are to pay tribute to 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict.

Benedict died Feb. 8 at a hospital in Owasso, Okla., one day after family members say Benedict was beaten up by three older female students in an Owasso High School bathroom after a fight broke out. Owasso police have said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death but said preliminary autopsy findings do not show the death was caused by physical injuries.

Family members, including Benedict’s mother, told news media outlets that Benedict suffered severe bruises to their face and head and the family believes the injuries from an assault caused their child’s death. Family members have also said Benedict had been targeted for bullying at school because of their status as a nonbinary person.

People who spoke at the As You Are candlelight vigil said they considered the death an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

“Today we are brought together to mourn the loss of Nex Benedict,” As You Are co-owner Rachel “Coach” Pike told the gathering, which was held on the As You Are outdoor patio and surrounding sidewalk. “Nex Benedict, your life matters. It will always matter, and more than that your life was precious,” Pike said.

“You had the right to live as you were and all parts of your identity were beautiful and should have been celebrated, supported, and safe,” Pike added.

Pike and other speakers, some of whom identified as nonbinary and transgender, pointed out that Benedict’s family are members of the Choctaw Nation, a Native American community. A speaker at the vigil who identified himself as Bo and said he identified as a two-spirit individual called on the gathering to pay tribute to Benedict’s role as one of the Choctaw people.

“When I first heard the news of Nex Benedict’s murder I was shocked,” Bo said. “I thought of how young. I thought about how much life was taken from this child.”

Another speaker, native American advocate Shiala King, whose family are members of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, arranged for her father, Frank John King, a faith leader and medicine man, to speak to the gathering by phone hookup from his residence in South Dakota. After greeting the gathering and expressing his condolences over the death of Benedict, Frank King further honored Benedict by singing a spiritual song in the Lakota language as part of a tradition of uplifting the spirit of beloved people who pass away.

Jo McDaniel, the other co-owner of As You Are whose also Pike’s spouse, said they were pleased with the response to their announcement of the vigil on social media. 

“To see this child taken from us this way, it’s chilling and it’s horrible and it’s not right and it’s not fair,” McDaniel told the Washington Blade after the vigil ended. “And so, we knew that the only thing we could do to help our community heal was to gather. And we wanted to do that in as honorable and wonderful a way as possible as that kid deserves,” she said.

Sue Benedict, Nex Benedict’s mother, told the British newspaper The Independent that Nex was a “courageous, smart teenager who had simply been living their true identity.” The Independent reports that Sue Benedict said Nex had been subjected to taunts, insults and bullying due to their gender fluid identity for over a year. 

Owasso police officials have said detectives were interviewing school officials and students to obtain more details on how the fight started and whether charges will be brought against those who allegedly assaulted Benedict. A police spokesperson told The Independent police were awaiting the findings of toxicology and autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office to determine whether anyone will be charged with a criminal offense.

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District of Columbia

New gay bar on 14th Street to open in April

Owners say Crush to offer ‘cozy, inclusive space’

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Exterior of Crush. (Photo courtesy of Crush)

A new D.C. bar catering to the LGBTQ community called Crush is expected to open for business in April in a two-story building with a roof garden at 2007 14th St., N.W., in the center of one of the city’s bustling nightlife neighborhoods. 

A statement released by co-owners Mark Rutstein and Stephen Rutgers says the new bar will provide an atmosphere that blends “nostalgia with contemporary nightlife” in a building that once was home to a popular music store and radio supply shop.

“This new venue, catering especially to the LGBTQ+ community, offers a cozy, inclusive space that reminisces about the times of record stores and basement hangouts with friends,” the statement says. “In its past life as a music store and radio supply shop, Crush transforms its legacy into a modern-day haven,” the statement continues. “It features top-notch DJ booths, a dance floor and a summer garden, alongside a premium sound system to ensure every night is memorable.” 

Rutstein told the Washington Blade the new bar will have a capacity of accommodating 300 people on its two floors. He notes that the name ‘Crush” stems from the romantic crush that people often have for one another and his and Rutgers’ new bar is aimed at providing a friendly space for people to meet and socialize. 

“We’re looking to be inclusive to everyone,” Rutstein said. “It’s certainly going to be heavy on the LGBT community” because he and Rutgers have been part of that community for many years. But he added, “We want to be inclusive to gays and lesbians being able to bring their friends and allies in along with them and not feel weird about it.” 

Crush will be located across the street from the Reeves Center D.C. municipal building where government agencies and community groups, including the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, has its office. 

“Crush isn’t just our name,” the statement issued by Rutstein and Rutgers says. “It’s the essence of our space. We aim to create an atmosphere where everyone can celebrate life and love.”

Editor’s note: Stephen Rutgers is the Blade’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

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District of Columbia

Capital Stonewall Democrats host forum on proposed ranked choice voting, open primaries

Initiative 83 supporters, opponents attended event at Shakers

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Vote No On Initiative 83 leader Deirdre Brown, front left, joins pro-Initiative 83 leader Phil Pannell, front right, in a friendly toast following their sometimes-heated debate over the proposed D.C. ballot measure hosted by the LGBTQ group Capital Stonewall Democrats and held at the gay bar Shakers. Standing behind Brown and Pannell are Capital Stonewall Dems President Mike Haresign, at left, the group’s vice president, Monica Nemeth, and secretary, Howard Garrett Jr. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The Capital Stonewall Democrats, one of D.C.’s oldest LGBTQ political organizations, hosted a forum on on Monday night, Feb. 19, on the proposed D.C. ballot measure known as Initiative 83, which calls for the city to put in place a ranked choice voting system and for party primaries to be open to all registered voters regardless of their party affiliation, including independent voters.

The forum included presentations by one of the leading supporters and a leading opponent of the controversial initiative. Longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights and Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who serves as treasurer of Make All Votes Count DC, the lead organization advocating for Initiative 83, spoke on behalf of the initiative.

Deirdre Brown, who identified herself as a longtime Ward 3 Democratic Party member and LGBTQ community ally, spoke on behalf of Vote No on Initiative 83, the lead group opposing the initiative. 

Brown pointed out that her organization was separate and distinct from the D.C. Democratic Party, which also opposes Initiative 83 and has filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court to prevent the measure from being placed on the ballot. A judge was expected to hand down a ruling on whether the lawsuit should be dismissed or continue at a Feb. 23 hearing. 

Capital Stonewall Democrats President Michael Haresign, who introduced both speakers, told the Washington Blade after the event, which was held at the D.C. gay bar Shakers, that the LGBTQ Democratic group may not take an official position on Initiative 83. He said that if it does take a position, it would not do so until later this year if the initiative is approved for placement on the ballot in the city’s November election. 

An informal survey of local LGBTQ activists conducted by the Blade shows the LGBTQ community appears divided over Initiative 83, with prominent activists emerging as both supporters and opponents of the measure.

In his presentation in support of Initiative 83, Pannell called ranked choice voting an important electoral reform that has worked successfully in many states and cities across the country. He noted that ranked choice voting serves as an instant, automatic runoff election if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in a primary or general election. 

As proposed, Initiative 83 would allow voters to rank candidates running for office in order of their preference. Under this system, if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote during the initial ballot counting process, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. 

The votes cast by voters who picked that candidate as their top choice would then go to their second-choice candidate. This process would continue, under the ranked choice system, until at least one candidate emerges with at least 50 percent of the votes and is declared the winner.

The second part of Initiative 83 would allow more than 80,000 D.C. residents who currently choose not to register as a member of one of the local political parties and who are not allowed to vote in a primary, to vote in the city’s primary elections, including the Democratic primary. Political observers point out that the Democratic primary usually decides who will win the general election in D.C, where registered voters overwhelmingly elect Democratic candidates to public office. 

“In terms of ranked choice voting, it’s very basic,” Pannell told the gathering. “You have to start with , do you believe people who are elected should have a simple majority of the vote? If you don’t believe that, I’m not going to be able to convince you,” he said. 

Pannell pointed out that in recent D.C. elections, under the city’s public campaign finance law, as many as 20 candidates have run for both at-large and ward seats on the DC Council, with some of them winning with just 30 percent or even a little over 20 percent of the vote. 

Calling himself a lifelong, loyal member of the Democratic Party, Pannell criticized party leaders for opposing what he calls broadening the democratic process by allowing all residents to vote in primaries, especially independents, and for opposing a ranked choice voting system that Pannell said also broadens the electoral consensus by requiring that a candidate receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election.

“Initiative 83 will make politics more inclusive, less divisive,” he told the forum. “Let’s embrace it. Closed primaries are the result of closed hearts and closed minds,” he said. “Let’s open the windows and the doors … Let’s change our party for the better and vote for Initiative 83.”

Brown, who also described herself as a loyal Democratic Party member from Ward 3 and a native Washingtonian, disputed arguments by Pannell and his colleagues in support of Initiative 83, saying the democratic process is alive and well under the current D.C. electoral system and backers of Initiative 83 are waging a “propaganda campaign” to confuse voters.

Among other things, she said it’s not an infringement of democracy by requiring people to register for a party to vote in a party primary. All they need to do is register under D.C.’s rapid registration system, vote in a primary, and then withdraw their registration at any time. She also said independent voters, who Initiative 83 supporters say have a right to vote in primaries, often do not agree with the principles of the Democratic Party.

“And normally independents will tell you I’m independent because I don’t believe in Democratic Party values. I don’t believe in Republican Party values. I don’t believe in statehood values,” she told the gathering. “So, the question becomes, is it okay for people who don’t share your values to pick your leaders? There is no other club or organization that allows people who are not members to pick their leaders. It’s just that simple,” she said.

“That’s not disenfranchising you,” Brown added. “You just have to choose whether you want to work within a party to promote their values and issues or not. And if you don’t, that’s okay, that’s your choice. But you just then don’t get to vote until we get to the general election.”

Regarding ranked choice voting, Brown cited studies conducted by independent research organizations, including universities, that she said show it “marginalizes black and brown voters,” voters in low-income neighborhoods, and voters whose native language is not English, many of whom, she said, become confused by the ranked choice voting system. 

She also disputed claims by ranked choice voting supporters that citizens already participate in a ranked choice system in everyday life, including D.C.’s ranked choice public school lottery system, and public housing system and a ranked choice voting system will be similarly easy to understand.

Brown pointed out that unlike the school lottery or public housing system, where making a mistake will not result in serious consequences, ranked choice voting usually doesn’t accommodate people who fill out the ballot incorrectly.

“If you make a mistake if you undervote, overvote, your ballot is thrown out,” she said.

Brown concluded by pointing out that financial reports filed by supporters of Initiative 83 filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance shows large sums of money backing the initiative are coming from out of state Political Action Committees or PACS as well as large corporations. 

During a rebuttal period, Pannell pointed to other studies he said show that minority voters, especially African American voters, do not have a problem with ranked choice voting, calling it an insult to say Black people and other minorities who would not adopt to ranked choice voting. 

He said Brown’s suggestion that there was something wrong with out of state organizations contributing money to a political cause was unfair and baseless.

“I’m the treasurer of this campaign,” he said. “And anyone who knows me knows that  I will not play tricks and trash with any political cash,” he told the forum. “And this is in the same way that we in the LGBTQ community had to get donations from outside the city when we were fighting for our rights,” Pannell said. “There is nothing wrong with getting donations from outside of D.C. Candidates do it all the time.”

Pannell drew objections from Brown and other Initiative 83 supporters at the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum when he added, “If we’re going to talk about donations, check out the donations going to the Vote No On 83 committee. And you will see that two of the most virulent opponents of marriage equality are contributors to that committee.”

Brown replied that she and others involved in the No On 83 campaign are not aware of all the political views of the hundreds of mostly small donors who contribute to their committee. She said an examination of the donors for the Make All Votes Count DC committee might also find some who at one time expressed opposition to LGBTQ rights. 

One person who attended the forum, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said they believed the two individuals Pannell was referring to, who Pannell said were officials with the D.C. Democratic State Committee, supported holding a voter referendum to decide on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized in D.C. The source said the two did not specifically oppose same-sex marriage but wanted the voters to decide the issue rather than the D.C. Council. 

As it turned out, the DC Board of Elections rejected the matter as a voter referendum on grounds that the D.C. Home Rule Charter bans voter initiatives or referendums that could lead to discrimination against minority groups, including LGBTQ people. Opponents of same-sex marriage appealed the election board’s decision to the courts and lost in a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a lower D.C. court ruling agreeing with the election board’s decision. 

After Pannell and Brown concluded their remarks, Haresign opened the forum to questions from those attending the meeting in person as well as those watching on the organization’s Facebook page. The questioners who expressed their own views on Initiative 83 appeared to be divided evenly among the measure’s supporters and opponents. 

“I think the forum went well,” Haresign told the Blade. “We were able to get a high level of information,” he said. 

“If we were to take a position it would be after everything is certified and we have a full membership vote,” Haresign said, referring to Initiative 83 being certified by the Board of Elections to be on the ballot in November. 

Under D.C. election rules, the board’s certification would come after the lawsuit is dismissed or settled and after Initiative 83 supporters obtain the required number of petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot.  

Pannell urged Capital Stonewall Democrats members and others in the LGBTQ community to sign the petition to get the measure on the ballot, even if they don’t support it, saying voters should be given the right to decide the issue.

Brown disagreed, saying “I’m asking you if you believe in I-83, then go ahead and sign the petition. But if you do not, I’m asking you not to sign the petition.”

The video recording of the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum can be accessed here:

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