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Local queer students receive national awards for art, writing

Work explored race, sexuality, gender and heartbreak



The fifth picture in the photo essay “Anything But Simple” shows a school hallway with gray lockers lit up by sunlight shining through ceiling-length windows and two bodies tightly embracing. One, with large hairy arms, holds the other, draped in a maroon hoodie with a sign that says “faggot” stuck to its back.

The photo essay, curated by Spencer Strebe, was part of a legion of portfolios honored by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for their poignant and intelligent exploration of young identity. Strebe, 18, received a silver medal with distinction for his work that explored the rugged terrain that is navigating queer relationships as a teenager fresh into understanding their sexuality. He was a student at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., and will attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall to study art. 

“I wasn’t out as gay dating my first boyfriend,” read his artist statement. “The frustration of keeping their love secret…led the guy in the gray hoodie [to] out his partner as gay in a desperate effort to make their love known. This is more of a thought, a want, rather than an action done.”

Like many his age, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Strebe to pursue a hobby to stave off boredom. He began by taking photos of his friends, documentary-style, which then evolved into in-depth projects for his high school photography classes.

Although he said he quit more photography classes than he took, the desire to continue using the medium as a form of expression persisted. And, when he was required by one of his classes to submit for a Scholastic award, he heeded. 

Strebe described “Anything But Simple” as a “breakup portfolio” that followed a ceramics tradition of using clay to make secret keeper jars. Because he hadn’t come out yet while creating the photo essay, taking the photos felt like molding a pot into which he’d whisper. 

“Heartbreak is having a lot of love with no place to put it,” he said.

This kind of raw expression is what Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has championed for 100 years now. 

The organization, which adjudicates submissions blindly, awards skill, originality, and the emergence of personal voice. Past recipients of the award include poet Amanda Gorman and artists Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon. Avedon, who received the award in 1941, described the honor as a defining moment of his life.

“Teenagers are incredible young people. They’re not adults but they’re also not children,” said Christopher Wisniewski, executive director for Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. “[This] is a time when [they] feel raw and start to express this in their art and writing.”

For Taiwo Adebowale, 17, her gold medal-winning poetry was a fierce effort to affirm her Black immigrant and queer identities. Adebowale, who goes by she/they pronouns, was a student at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, Md., and will study English and advertising at Howard University in the fall. 

“I do not exist. I am not fiction. I am not walking delirium. I’m not even considered a person. I’m Something,” read her essay “subspaces.” “Something, that according to all laws of nature, shouldn’t exist. Something that goes into spaces, softening our tones, crouching down, telling security guards and mothers ‘do not be afraid’ like we’re angels at Christ’s second coming.”

Adebowale, who is also the first Scholastic award winner at her school in six years, draws inspiration from Black queer authors like Akwaeke Emezi, whose work highlights life’s absurdities through mysticism and surrealism. Thus, for her submission, she wanted to embrace the concept of beauty as taboo. 

“Beauty is one of the things I find integral to myself as a person,” she said. “I don’t feel beauty can exist without embracing yourself as a whole.”

In embracing her wholeness, Adebowale harked to a lesson from her poetry teacher about writing about the things that make one uncomfortable. 

In “My Fault, Doctor,” written to mimic a doctor’s note, Adebowale wrote about the annoyance her nameless character had with a doctor who asked about the character’s sexuality. 

“My fault, Doctor. I swallow up the fact I like a girl. Fact beats wings in my stomach,” read the poem. “Fact tries to crawl up with the acid reflux. Fact infests my throat and nests as a knot. Don’t be alarmed by that. I chose to kiss the girl at church, behind my family’s back, with the knot.”

All in all, this uninhibited opining about societal ills is what Scholastic Arts and Writing lauds. Wisniewski believes the award validates budding artists’ and writers’ work, and more importantly, their humanity. 

“Creativity should be a universal value,” he said.



PHOTOS: Miss Glamour Girl

Maryland drag pageant held at McAvoy’s



Miss Shantay is crowned Miss Glamour Girl 2023 at McAvoy's in Parkville, Md. on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Miss Glamour Girl 2023 Pageant was held at McAvoy’s in Parkville, Md. on Sunday, Oct. 1. Miss Shantay was crowned the winner and qualified to compete in the Miss Gay Maryland Pageant in November.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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New book explores why we categorize sports according to gender

You can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think



‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’
By Katie Barnes
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/304 pages

The jump shot happened so quickly, so perfectly.

Your favorite player was in the air in a heartbeat, basketball in hand, wrist cocked. One flick and it was all swish, three points, just like that, and your team was ahead. So are you watching men’s basketball or women’s basketball? Or, as in the new book, “Fair Play” by Katie Barnes, should it really matter?

For sports fans, this may come as a surprise: we categorize sports according to gender.

Football, baseball, wresting: male sports. Gymnastics, volleyball: women’s sports. And yet, one weekend spent cruising around television shows you that those sports are enjoyed by both men and women – but we question the sexuality of athletes who dare (gasp!) to cross invisible lines for a sport they love.

How did sports “become a flash point for a broader conversation?”

Barnes takes readers back first to 1967, when Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both ran in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time women had audaciously done so and while both finished the race, their efforts didn’t sit well with the men who made the rules.

“Thirty-seven words” changed the country in 1972 when Title IX was signed, which guaranteed there’d be no discrimination in extracurricular events, as long as “federal financial assistance” was taken. It guaranteed availability for sports participation for millions of girls in schools and colleges. It also “enshrine[d] protections for queer and transgender youth to access school sports.”

So why the debate about competition across gender lines?

First, says Barnes, we can’t change biology, or human bodies that contain both testosterone and estrogen, or that some athletes naturally have more of one or the other – all of which factor into the debate. We shouldn’t forget that women can and do compete with men in some sports, and they sometimes win. We shouldn’t ignore the presence of transgender men in sports.

What we should do, Barnes says, is to “write a new story. One that works better.”

Here are two facts: Nobody likes change. And everybody has an opinion.

Keep those two statements in mind when you read “Fair Play.” They’ll keep you calm in this debate, as will author Katie Barnes’ lack of flame fanning.

As a sports fan, an athlete, and someone who’s binary, Barnes makes things relatively even-keel in this book, which is a breath of fresh air in what’s generally ferociously contentious. There’s a good balance of science and social commentary here, and the many, many stories that Barnes shares are entertaining and informative, as well as illustrative. Readers will come away with a good understanding of where the debate lies.

But will this book make a difference?

Maybe. Much will depend on who reads and absorbs it. Barnes offers plenty to ponder but alas, you can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think. Still, if you’ve got skin in this particular bunch of games, find “Fair Play” and jump on it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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An exciting revival of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre

Out actor Caesar Samayoa on portraying iconic role of President Perón



Caesar Samayoa (center) and the cast of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by DJ Corey Photography) 

Through Oct. 15
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.

When Eva Perón died of cancer at 33 in 1952, the people’s reaction was so intense that Argentina literally ran out of cut flowers. Mourners were forced to fly in stems from neighboring countries, explains out actor Caesar Samayoa. 

For Samayoa, playing President Perón to Shireen Pimental’s First Lady Eva in director Sammi Cannold’s exciting revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a dream fulfilled. 

As a Guatemalan-American kid, he had a foot in two worlds. Samayoa lived and went to school in suburban Emerson, N.J. But he spent evenings working at his parents’ botanica in Spanish Harlem. 

During the drives back and forth in the family station wagon, he remembers listening to “Evita” on his cassette player: “It’s the first cast album I remember really hearing and understanding. I longed to be in the show.”

As an undergrad, he transferred from Bucknell University where he studied Japanese international relations to a drama major at Ithica College. His first professional gig was in 1997 playing Juliet in Joe Calarco’s off-Broadway “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Lots of Broadway work followed including “Sister Act,” “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” and most significantly, Samayoa says, “Come From Away,” a musical telling of the true story of airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. He played Kevin J. (one half of a gay couple) and Ali, a Muslim chef.  

He adds “Evita” has proved a powerful experience too: “We’re portraying a populist power couple that changed the trajectory of a country in a way most Americans can’t fully understand. And doing it in Washington surrounded by government and politics is extra exciting.” 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you tap into a real-life character like Perón?

CAESAR SAMAYOA: Fortunately, Sammi [Connald] and I work similarly. With real persons and situations, I immerse myself into history, almost to a ridiculous extent. 

First day in the rehearsal room, we were inundated with artifacts. Sammi has been to Argentina several times and interviewed heavily with people involved in Eva and Peron’s lives. Throughout the process we’d sit and talk about the real history that happened. We went down the rabbit hole.

Sammi’s interviews included time with Eva’s nurse who was at her bedside when she died. We watched videos of those interviews. They’ve been an integral part of our production. 

BLADE: Were you surprised by anything you learned?

SAMAYOA: Usually, Eva and Perón’s relationship is portrayed as purely transactional.  They wrote love letters and I had access to those. At their country home, they’d be in pajamas and walk on the beach; that part of their life was playful and informal. They were a political couple but they were deeply in love too. I latched on to that. 

BLADE: And anything about the man specifically? 

SAMAYOA:  Perón’s charisma was brought to the forefront. In shows I’ve done, some big names have attended. Obama. Clinton. Justin Trudeau came to “Come From Away.” Within seconds, the charisma makes you give into that person. I’ve tried to use that.  

BLADE: And the part? 

SAMAYOA: Perón is said to be underwritten. But I love his power and the songs he sings [“The Art of the Possible,” “She is a Diamond,” etc.]. I’m fully a baritone and to find that kind of role in a modern musical is nearly impossible. And in this rock opera, I can use it to the full extent and feel great about it.

BLADE: “Evita” is a co-production with A.R.T. Has it changed since premiering in Boston? 

SAMAYOA: Yes, it has. In fact, 48 hours before opening night in Washington, we made some changes and they’ve really landed. Without giving too much away, we gave it more gravity in reality of time as well as Eva’s sickness and the rapid deterioration. It’s given our second act a huge kind of engine that it didn’t have. 

BLADE: You’re married to talent agent Christopher Freer and you’re very open. Was it always that way for you?

SAMAYOA: When I started acting professionally, it was a very different industry. We were encouraged to stay in the closet or it will cast only in a certain part. There was truth in that. There still is some truth in that, but I refuse to go down that road. I can’t reach what I need to reach unless I’m my most honest self. I can’t do it any other way.

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