Even though most of us assumed he was gay, Paul Reubens never officially came out.
He scarcely had to, really. His public image – indelibly associated with a character whose name became essentially synonymous with his own – was built on a foundation of camp, and the children’s TV series that brought him into the households of millions of grateful parents was renowned for its ability to offer genuinely innocent entertainment for kids while simultaneously keeping the grown-ups in the room laughing with the kind of winking adult humor that would go right over the little ones’ heads. Much of that humor was laced with obvious queer subtext, and the overall look and tone of the show, from its kitschy design to its to Pee-Wee’s starry-eyed fondness for his friend Cowboy Curtis (as portrayed by a young Laurence Fishburne), made his queerness appear so obvious that coming out would be a mere formality. This was queer underground culture exploding into the mainstream under camouflage of whimsy, all being orchestrated by a master showman who had to know exactly what he was doing.
Yet in the public record, there was never any verification of Reubens’s place on the sexuality spectrum. Indeed, the facts favor a heterosexual orientation – a temporary “marriage” to Doris Duke heiress Chandi Heffner, concocted as an impromptu publicity stunt, and his long-term relationship with actress Debi Mazar, whom he credited with helping him overcome his depression after the notorious 1991 public indecency charge that derailed his career.
As to that incident, Reubens came to be as known for it as much as for being Pee-Wee. Arrested for public masturbation during a surprise police inspection at an adult theater in Sarasota, Fla., he avoided the misdemeanor charge with a plea bargain and 75 hours of community service – but the real punishment, which no court of law could stay, was assured as soon as the news of his salacious “crime” broke to the press the day after his arrest.
A victim of “cancel culture” before the term had ever been coined, he became the butt of 1,000 prurient jokes by late-night TV comedians; worse, he was the target of countless tabloid “exposés” playing to the alarmist fears and prejudices of religious conservatives. Both Reubens and his bow-tied alter-ego quickly became persona non grata in the eyes of pop culture.
A decade later, there was another scandal. In 2002, after Reubens was named by an informant in the child pornography case against fellow actor Jeffrey Jones, Los Angeles police raided his home and found images they claimed depicted minors engaged in sexual conduct; though the material consisted mostly of old beefcake magazines and other gay-themed vintage erotica, he was charged with misdemeanor possession. There was another plea bargain, this time leading to a three-year registration as a sex offender, but Reubens maintained his innocence, characterizing the images in question as art rather than pornography – an eternal debate that hardly mattered to anyone who had already made up their mind about him.
Incredibly, perhaps, that wasn’t the end of his story. In 2010, he mounted a new version of “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” stage performance that had originally launched the character in the early 1980s, and thanks to a shift in attitudes, coupled with inexorable childhood nostalgia from the now-grown fans of his TV show, the rebooted Pee-Wee was a hit once more. After a sold-out Los Angeles run, the production moved to Broadway for a limited engagement and played to equally packed houses.
Reubens would continue to be active. After several attempts to develop a new film project for the character – the first, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985), had been a surprise sensation that established director Tim Burton as a star in his own right – he succeeded with Netflix’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” (2016), which took him on a cross-country quest fueled by his budding “bromance” with hunky actor Joe Manganiello. More overtly gay in subtext than any of his prior efforts, it still became a hit; in retrospect it felt like the moment when Reubens – and Pee-Wee, of course – finally achieved redemption.
Looking at the legacy he has left behind, however, perhaps he never really needed redemption. In the context of their time, his “crimes” were surely sensationalized by what is now an all-too-familiar pattern of culture warfare, in which the hardcore religious right, emboldened by the Reagan-era political maneuvering that amplified their influence and bent on enforced conformity to social “norms” as they defined them, embarked on a campaign to dismiss, demean, and demonize a beloved public figure they saw as dangerous. That he was never officially “out” was immaterial – what he represented was queer as could be, and that was all that mattered. They took him down with gleeful abandon, either way, because they recognized the subversive message of acceptance embedded in his goofy comedy.
They weren’t wrong. It’s easy to draw a direct line of influence between the subversive camp of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and the drag queen story hours that have so many conservatives clutching their pearls today. Pee-Wee was paving the way for a future they feared, and they made it their mission to stop him. That might sound like a conspiracy theory, but no conspiracy is necessary when there’s a shared commitment to a common goal; given the well-documented history of police persecution toward openly queer expression, it doesn’t take much imagination to read between the lines to surmise a deeper intent behind his arrests, and all that would then be required from civilian homophobes would be to decry his immorality in the name of “saving the children”— a tactic so familiar as to be banal.
Of course, it’s easy to see patterns and speculate about what’s behind them; but even if Paul Reubens was an unfortunate victim of overzealous law enforcement who literally got caught with his pants down, the result was the same. He was made into a pariah because he carried a vision of a world where queerness could be family-friendly, too.
Seen that way, the eventual comeback of Paul Reubens seems less like a redemption than a triumph against small-minded bigotry. In the end, the good will he temporarily lost came back with a vengeance, because instead of giving up, he kept fighting. He survived the best efforts to erase him from cultural memory and was welcomed back to the spotlight with open arms.
Now, in the wake of his passing at 70 after a six-year bout with cancer that he kept secret, headlines of his obituary are describing him as “beloved.”
Reubens’s real contribution may well be summed up in the example he set for the rest of us. Though he never declared himself to be queer, he became a queer hero, simply by outlasting the hatred until it was forgotten and irrelevant. In a time when such hate has turned itself against so many, and with such terrifying virulence, that accomplishment stands as a much-needed reminder that though it may sometimes overwhelm us, it can never truly defeat us if we stay the course – and if Pee-Wee was able to do it, then maybe the rest of us can, too.
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Taste of Pride celebrates LGBTQ and allied restaurants
Weeklong event will feature local eateries and bars
Get ready to celebrate LGBTQ-owned, managed, and allied restaurants at Taste of Pride from Oct. 2-8.
The weeklong event is a new initiative by Capital Pride Alliance. In 2021, the organization put on a single-day brunch event in June at LGBTQ and allied restaurants, but this is the first weeklong iteration.
About 15 local restaurants and bars are set to participate, including As You Are, Shaw’s Tavern, Jane Jane, and Code Red. There’s also an opening party on Monday, Oct. 2 featuring food and drink vendors without a traditional brick-and-mortar space, like Suga Chef and Vegan Junk Food.
Taste of Pride will raise funds for the Pride365 fund, which supports local LGBTQ organizations. There will be a three-course prix fixe menu at several of the participating locations, with lunch and brunch menus offered at $30, and dinner menus offered at $40 or $55.
Kareem Queeman, known as Mr. Bake, will be headlining the opening event on the evening of Oct. 2 at Lost Generation Brewery. Queeman, the founder and owner of the renowned bakery Mr. Bake Sweets and a James Beard Award semi-finalist, said he’s excited to spotlight LGBTQ chefs and mixologists.
Queeman said he’s proud to be a part of bringing queer culinary experts together to celebrate the work they’ve all done and discuss what changes need to come to the industry — there will be a panel discussion on Oct. 2 covering those topics. LGBTQ chefs have long gone unnoticed, he said, despite the innovative work they’ve done.
“Queers have been in the industry doing the work for a very long time and we just haven’t really gotten that acknowledgment,” Queeman said.
Providing this space for LGBTQ people in the restaurant industry is paramount to giving a sense of power and ownership in the work they do, Queeman said. He wishes there was this kind of space for him when he was coming up as a chef when he was younger.
Taste of Pride is also a great opportunity for LGBTQ people looking to get into the industry to find safe spaces to work that are run by queer people, Queeman said.
Rob Heim, the general manager at Shaw’s Tavern, said he’s looking forward to being a part of the event. And new fall menu items at Shaw’s Tavern will be available during Taste of Pride, which he’s thrilled to showcase.
“I was really excited to help out and participate,” he said. “It’s a great idea.”
The smaller number of participating restaurants in Taste of Pride is intentional, said Brandon Bayton, a volunteer executive producer organizing Taste of Pride. It’s so each restaurant can be well-represented during the week, and different restaurants will be highlighted on social media on separate days. Capital Pride Alliance is also partnering with influencers to get the word out.
Visibility — all year long
It’s important to have events like Taste of Pride outside of June, Bayton said.
“We exist 365 days,” Bayton said. “So we need to make sure that we continue the celebration and invite others to celebrate with us and just be authentically ourselves. We enjoy and do a lot of things other people do. There’s no reason why we should just be constrained to one month.”
Queeman agrees. His identity as a queer Black man doesn’t stop or start at any given month.
“I’m not just a queer or gay man in June or I’m not just a Black man in February,” he said.
And food is a major intersection that all people of all identities enjoy, Bayton said. It’s a simple way to bring people together.
“We do the exact same things that everyone else does,” Bayton said. “We all eat. We all love to eat.”
Taste of Pride will run from Oct. 2-8. For more information and to make reservations, visit capitalpride.org/event/taste-of-pride.
Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Cuisine and culture come together at The Square
D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors
Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.
After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”
Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.
Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.
“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.
The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination.
The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:
• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).
• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.
• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.
• Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.
• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.
• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.
• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.
“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.
Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.
The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.
For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.
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