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Fall means Artscape, John Waters, The Wiz, and more in Baltimore

Major concerts, opening of M&T Bank Exchange among highlights



John Waters brings his show ‘A John Waters Christmas: Let’s Blow It Up,’ to the Baltimore Sound Stage on Dec. 21. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Can Baltimore walk and chew gum at the same time?

The question came up this summer when leaders of several local arts organizations voiced concerns that the fall arts calendar is so full of events that they feared the city wouldn’t be able to handle them all.

The biggest change is that Baltimore’s popular three-day Artscape festival, one of the largest free arts gatherings in the country, is shifting from its usual mid-July date to mid-September for the first time. In the past, it has drawn upwards of 350,000 people over three days.

The dates selected for Artscape this year, Sept. 22-24, coincide with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Sept. 23 fall gala at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where new music director Jonathon Heyward will begin his tenure, and four comedy shows by Nate Bargatze at Lyric Baltimore – all within the relatively compact Mount Royal Cultural District.

How will the city control all the traffic, the doubters asked. Where will everyone park? And what about the Ravens-Colts football game at Camden Yards the same weekend?

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott promised that the city can put on more than one big event at a time.

“We are a major city,” he said last month. “Major cities are going to have multiple events at the same time…Walk and chew gum, as my grandmother would say.”

The concerns about Artscape weekend are a sign of how much Baltimore has rebounded from the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused festivals and other public gatherings to be cancelled for public health reasons. This month’s event will be the first time Artscape has been held since 2019.

But it’s not just one weekend that has so much going on. Artscape is one of many big festivals, shows, and exhibits that are coming to Baltimore this fall, including the launch of a new national touring production of “The Wiz,” Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks appearing at the M&T Bank Stadium; and another packed lineup at the recently refurbished CFG Bank Arena, including Queen + Adam Lambert; the Jonas Brothers; Kiss and Pentatonix. Just about every weekend this fall has multiple big events scheduled, even without factoring in how the Orioles do in the playoffs.

Here are some of the highlights:  

Artscape 2023: Artscape celebrates the visual arts, dance, fashion, music, the culinary arts and other creative endeavors. This year’s musical headliners will be: DJ Pee.Wee (the persona of Anderson .Paak) on Friday night; composer, producer, arranger and guitarist Nile Rodgers & Chic on Saturday afternoon; Angelo Moore of Fishbone performing with his band Dr. Madd Vibe on Saturday night; and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon.

The festival’s footprint has expanded from the Mount Royal cultural district to include part of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District farther north. A complete list of events is available at

Fell’s Point Fun Festival: Two weeks after Artscape, from Oct. 6-8, the Fell’s Point Fun Festival will draw crowds to Baltimore’s waterfront ( This annual showcase for Baltimore’s art, crafts, food and music typically draws 50,000 visitors, while helping raise funds to support the programs and activities of the Preservation Society of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point, a non-profit that works to protect two of the city’s most historic neighborhoods.

Baltimore native and country music star Brittney Spencer will be the headliner Friday night. The eclectic lineup for the three-day event includes: Better Off Dead, a band that celebrates The Grateful Dead; ilyAIMY (i love you And I Miss You); Shelby Blondell; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids; Orquestra Nfuzion from Washington, D. C.; The Cover Up; Old Eastern; DJ Allure; Annapolis’s 8 Ohms Band, Rufus Roundtree & Da B’more Brass Factory; The Trinidad & Tobago Steel Drum Band; Baltimore All-Stars; DJ G-Money, and, in honor of Indigenous People’s Day on October 9, Mark Tayac and the Piscataway Nation Singers and Dancers, a group that educates audiences about Native American history and culture as part of their performances.

Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks concert: On Saturday, Oct. 7, Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks will perform at M&T Bank Stadium, 1101 Russell St., starting at 7 p.m. It will be one of the only times that the Camden Yards sport complex is used for a major concert this year, after Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band cancelled a Sept. 9 performance at Oriole Park.

More performing arts events:

CFG Bank Arena, 201 West Baltimore St. ( Concerts include: 50 Cent: The Final Lap Tour, September 19; Jonas Brothers: Five Albums. One Night. September 22; SZA – SOS Tour with special guest D4VD, September 28; Queen + Adam Lambert – The Rhapsody Tour, October 4 and 5; Carin Leon – Colmillo De Leche Tour, October 7; Disney on Ice presents Magic in the Stars, October 12-15; John Mayer – Solo, October 20; Lauren Daigle – The Kaleidoscope Tour, Oct 21; Katt Williams, October 27; Baltimore R&B Music Experience: Xscape, Bell Biv DeVoe, 112, October London, Silk, Next, October 28, and Romeo Santos – Formula Vol. 3 Tour, November 2.

Also, The 1975 Still…at their very best, November 8; Bronco – En Vivo y A Todo Color!, November 17; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents The Greatest Show On Earth, November 24 to 26; Kiss – The End of the Road Tour, November 29; Old Dominion – No Bad Vibes Tour, December 2; Pentatonix The Most Wonderful Tour of the Year, December 3; Travis Scott Utopia Tour Presents Circus Maximus, December 6; Billy Strings, December 8 and 9, and Andrea Bocelli, December 10.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: The Baltimore Symphony marks the arrival of Jonathon Heyward as its new music director with a gala celebration at Strathmore in North Bethesda on September 22; a gala celebration at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore on September 23 and a free public concert at the Meyerhoff during Artscape on September 24. More information about the symphony’s fall schedule at the Meyerhoff, including speakers such as Sonia Sotomayor (September 27); David Sedaris (October 5); Fran Lebowitz (October 6) and Jane Fonda (October 12) is on its website at

Hippodrome Theatre, 12 S. Eutaw St., The fall season starts with an all-new revival of The Wiz, a musical that debuted in Baltimore in 1974, with shows from September 23 to 30. Other shows include: Heilung, October 19; The Rocky Horror Picture Show 48th Anniversary Spectacular Tour with Patricia Quinn, the original Magenta, on October 21; Chris Tucker: The Legend Tour 2023, October 22; Funny Girl, October 24 to 29; the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine Presents Snow White, November 4; ‘Twas the night before…by Cirque du Soleil, November 24 to December 3; Moulin Rouge! The Musical, December 5 to 17, and Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet, December 18 and 19. A new performing and events venue next to the Hippodrome, called the M&T Bank Exchange, will have its grand opening on October 11.

Lyric Baltimore, 140 West Mount Royal Avenue, Justin Willman: Magic for Humans in Person Tour, September 16; Wild Kratt Live 2.0 Activate Creature Power! Starring the Kratt Brothers, September 22; Nate Bargatze — The Be Funny Tour, September 23 and 24; Raphael Saadiq Revisits Tony! Toni! Tone! Just Me and You Tour, September 26; Trey Kennedy Grow Up Comedy Tour, September 28; Buddy Guy — Damn Right Farewell, September 29; Ms. Pat: Ya Girl Done Made It Tour, September 30; Casting Crowns: 20th Anniversary Tour, October 1; Anthony Jeselnik: Bones and All, October 5; Charm City Blues Festival, October 6; Blippi: The Wonderful World tour, Oct 7, and Stavros Halkias: The Fat Rascal Tour, October 12-14;

Also, Nick Offerman: Live! October 26; Steve Martin & Martin Short, October 28; Encanto: the Sing-Along Film Concert, October 29; Maverick City Music, November 2; The Fab Four: The Ultimate Tribute, November 3; Nikki Glaser: The Good Girl Tour, November 4; One Night of Queen, November 9; Shane Gillis Live, November 10; The Princess Bride, November 17; Chris D’Elia: Don’t Push Me, November 18; Brian Culbertson: The  Trilogy Tour: November 19; Joe Bonamassa, November 25; A Drag Queen Christmas, November 26; Peppa Pig’s Sing-Along Party1, November 30; David Spade: Catch Me Inside, December 1; The Nutcracker, December 14; A Charlie Brown Christmas: Live On Stage, December 15, and Mark Normand: Ya Don’t Say Tour!, December 16.

Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., ( In the main gallery through September 30 is “God Couldn’t be Everywhere…That’s Why He Made Momma,” an exhibit by Salome Sykes and Lendl Tellington. In the Amalie Rothschild Gallery through October 21 “Taking Space,” an exhibit featuring work by Baltimore based Latino artists, including Tito Rosa; Christina Delgado; Jessy DeSantis; Jaz Erenberg and Edgar Reyes. Other events: Tianquiztli, a Latin American Artisan Market and Festival on September 16; the Alejandro Brittes Quartet, September 23; Walters Art Museum he Charm City Burlesque & Variety Festival September 29 to October 1; and Kavita Shah & The Cape Verdean Blues Project, October 4.

Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. ( In partnership with the Baltimore American Indian Center, the theater recently opened an Indigenous Art Gallery that is free and open during box office hours. Shows include: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, September 14 to October 8; Imprint: Jazz’s Timeless Legacy, September 30; Locally Grown Festival, October 21 to 22; The Rocky Horror Picture Show Interactive Movie Night, featuring Chocolate-Covered Rocky Horror in Partnership with Creative Alliance; October 27-28; Baltimore Butterfly Sessions, part of a civic dialogue series, November 10, and Cinderella (Enchanted Edition, co-produced with Artscentric), November 25 to December 23.

Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave.: Amal Walks Across America, September 16, 4:30 p.m. Little Amal, an internationally celebrated 12-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, will arrive in Baltimore as part of a 6,000-mile journey across the United States.

Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street (  The current production, running through September 29, is A Doll’s House. It will be followed by The Chinese Lady, a Baltimore premiere, October 22 to November 19; and Dial M for Murder, December 3 to 31.

Arena Players, 801 McCulloh Street ( Celebration A Musical Revue, with shows September 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 and 29 and October 1.

Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place: Writer and filmmaker John Waters returns with: “A John Waters Christmas: Let’s Blow It Up,” on December 21. The complete fall lineup is at 

Visual arts events:

Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, ( “Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800,” opens October 1 and runs through January 7, 2024. This blockbuster exhibit will feature more than 200 paintings, sculptures, textiles, works on paper, pieces of furniture and decorative arts that show how women contributed to the visual arts of Europe from the 15th to 18th centuries. Other exhibits opening this fall include: “Tiona Nekkia McClodden: Play Me Home,” September 13, 2023, to May 12, 2024; “Art/Work: Women Printmakers of the WPA,” November 5, 2023, to June 30, 2024; “Eyewinkers, Tumbleturds and Candlebugs: The Art of Elizabeth Talford Scott,” November 12, 2023, to April 28, 2024, and “Raul Nieves: And imagine you are here,” November 19, 2023, to May 1, 2025. Current exhibits closing this fall include: “Recasting Colonialism: Michelle Erickson Ceramics,” and “The Matter of Bark Cloth,” which will end October 1, “Matsumi Kanemitsu: Figure and Fantasy,” which ends October 8, and “Wild Forms: Fauve Woodcuts,” which ends October 15.

American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, ( The next “mega exhibit” at the American Visionary Art Museum is “If You Build It, They Will Come,” a look at visionary artists and their handcrafted environments, from October 7, 2023, to September 1, 2024. Featured artists include: Zebedee Armstrong; Gayleen Aiken; Ruby C. Williams; Leslie Payne; DeVon Smnitha nd Loring Cornish.

Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles Street, (thewaltersorg.) Opening on December 3 and continuing until March 3, 2024, is “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” celebrating the artistic traditions of Ethiopia from their origins to the present day. “New on the Bookshelf: Expanded Narratives,” a look at recent additions to the museum’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection, runs through December 7, 2023.

The Peale, 225 Holliday Street, (thepealeorg.) Exhibits include “The Guardians of Baltimore,” a documentary and storytelling project that celebrates the unrecognized community work of Black female leaders from city neighborhoods, through October 1; “Dark Beauty,” featuring artist Daisy Brown’s portraits, stills and filmed interviews of Baltimore women with dark skin completions, through October 1, and “Soul of a Butterfly,” a look at Chicory, a poetry magazine published by the Enoch Pratt Free Library from 1966 to 1983, through October 8.

Maryland Center for History and Culture: 610 Park Avenue, ( “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” a multi-media tribute to the creator of the Muppets, continues through December 30.

Doors Open Baltimore, citywide, ( A popular annual program that allows participants to tour places that aren’t usually open to the public returns on October 7 and 8, with approximately 50 sites open this year.


Music & Concerts

New dance single pays tribute to Town Danceboutique

Local musicians pen ‘Town’ in honor of shuttered club



Bryce Bowyn (Photo by Clarissa Villondo)

The closing of the LGBTQ nightclub Town Danceboutique in the summer of 2017 was heartbreaking to local musician Bryce Bowyn. He and his Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter friend Lexie Martin decided to honor its legacy in their new single, “Town.”

For Bowyn, who moved to the District about a decade ago to attend school at American University, the memories he has from Town Danceboutique are endless. And when it closed, it was a massive loss to Bowyn and many others. 

“It was such a cool space,” Bowyn said. “It was just disappointing to see a place that brought so many people together become part of the landscape again.” The building Town Danceboutique used to be housed in is now home to upscale apartments and a CVS. 

Town Danceboutique was a formative place for Bowyn and Martin, and it was Bowyn’s first experience in an open and accepting LGBTQ environment. His favorite memories at the club were always on Halloween, he said. Patrons, including Bowyn, would go all out with their costumes to look their very best. 

Bowyn and Martin met while they were both in the musical theater program at American University. Despite their years-long friendship, “Town” is the first song they have written together. They sat down over FaceTime and got to work. It was Martin’s idea to pay homage to Town Danceboutique, and the song follows the story of pre-gaming, going out, and hitting the dance floor. 

But the single also serves as a hype song for going out in any city, at any place. 

“It was important to me for the song to remain relatable and accessible,” Bowyn said. “So the whole foundation of the chorus, ‘Let’s go to town,’ can either mean Town Danceboutique, or painting the town red and having the night of your life.”

Bowyn started writing and producing his own music in 2018. He released an EP titled “A Rosy Retrospect” in 2022, and most recently released a single “A Bridge Burned Down” in June. His music is inspired by late 2000s pop and ‘80s synthpop, influenced by stars like Madonna and Charli XCX. Lexie Martin released her self-titled EP in 2019 and most recently came out with her single “SUPERPOWER” in 2021. 

Bowyn has been a lifelong pop music enthusiast. He distinctly remembers watching Britney Spears perform “Oops!…I Did It Again” at the MTV Video Music Awards when he was a kid and thinking “That was what I wanted and what I was set to do in life.”

“My heart was always with pop music,” Bowyn said. 

“Town” is available now for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud.

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Bernal shines as real-life gay wrestler in ‘Cassandro’

A polished, engaging film about a real-life figure that carries message of hope



Gael García Bernal in ‘Cassandro.’ (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

For most Americans, any knowledge of the Mexican wrestling style known as lucha libre is probably limited to what they gleaned from the 2006 Jack Black comedy “Nacho Libre,” which (it should go without saying) is not a movie that anyone should consider “factual.”

Now another movie about the subject has arrived, and this time it’s not an anything-for-a-laugh fantasy but a biopic about a real luchador who rose to international fame in the 1980s and remains one of the most celebrated and popular figures in Mexican professional wrestling to this day.

The luchador in question is Saúl Armendáriz – better known to his fans as “Cassandro” – and the eponymously titled movie about his ascendency begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 22 after a limited theatrical release on Sept. 15.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who may not be a household name but has the distinction of being the first Black director to win an Oscar, thanks to the 2009 win of his “Music by Prudence” for Best Documentary Short), “Cassandro” stars Gael García Bernal – a longtime ally who became a queer fan-favorite thanks to his work in films like “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education” – as the openly gay Armendáriz and tells the story of his rise to fame in direct defiance of the culturally reinforced homophobia that permeated the professional environment of his field. Set in the 1980s, it follows the future superstar from the early days of his career, tracing his steps as he forges a path to success as an exótico – a wrestler who assumes a flamboyant persona based in queer (and largely homophobic) stereotypes – while simultaneously rising above the stigma of his sexuality and his impoverished upbringing to become a pioneering force in LGBTQ+ acceptance within the deeply traditional Latino culture to which he belonged.

Like most biopics, it also focuses on the personal: much of the film’s first half is dominated by the relationship between Armendáriz and his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a professional “good-time girl” whose acceptance of his queer identity is absolute yet tempered by her fear for his well-being. There is also a long-running thread about his desire for approval from his father – a married man with a “legitimate” family in which he is decidedly not included – and the pattern in his personal life of repeating that same dynamic in romantic relationships with lovers like closeted big-name luchador “El Comandante” (Raúl Castillo) and an apparently fluid but firmly “on the DL” associate named Felipe (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny for those unfamiliar with his “real” name) who clearly meets more than just his need for a reliable supplier of cocaine – it is the ‘80s, after all – while maintaining a strict-if-not-quite-convincing “no homo” stance.

Ultimately, though, as presented by first-time narrative feature director Williams (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague after previously covering Armendáriz’ story in the 2016 documentary short “The Man Without a Mask”), “Cassandro” is driven by a narrative about overcoming and reclaiming the pejorative cultural tropes around queer sexuality and turning them on their ear as a means toward fully inhabiting queer identity. Blessed with a relatively supportive mother – a plainly-implied career sex worker who is depicted as much as a kindred spirit as she is a maternal figure – and comfortable enough in his own skin to flaunt his “deviance” in the public eye, the film’s version of Armendáriz moves through a clearly defined arc toward self-acceptance on his own terms.

Much of this is mirrored, of course, in the tale of his accelerated rise to stardom, in which he wins the hearts of lucha libre fans enough to subvert the accepted formula that the exótico is always the loser, and reinforced by the ways in which he responds to the various long-term relationships in his life – some nurturing, some toxic – as his career trajectory helps him to recognize his own worth. In this way, “Cassandro” becomes a true-life tale of queer affirmation, the saga of a person who overcomes hardline traditional expectations and deep-rooted social prejudice to use his own queer identity as an avenue to personal empowerment.

That, of course, is exactly what it sets out to be: it’s an unabashedly pro-queer narrative that brings the highest level of professional artistry into the mix, using it to convey that subtle blend of aloof observation and emotional engagement that can sometimes win viewers’ hearts and minds.

In recognition of that artistry, the foremost acknowledgement must go to Bernal, who turns in a career-highlight performance as both Armendáriz and his over-the-top titular alter-ego, which requires an impressive display of physicality in addition to keen emotional intelligence. The actor is more than capable on both fronts, and while it would frankly be nice to see one of our queer heroes portrayed in a mainstream film by an actual queer actor, it’s hard to complain when the actor is someone like Bernal, who finds within his own lived experience the authenticity to make it all ring true. Kudos are also deserved for both De La Rosa, who establishes an emotional core to the story that endures even after she leaves it, and openly-queer actor Roberta Colindrez as the trainer (and friend) that helps “Cassandro” conquer the world of professional lucha libre wrestling by literally flipping the script.

Still, though there is clearly a heartfelt desire to inspire behind the movie’s portrayal of its hero’s unlikely rise to glory, “Cassandro” doesn’t quite deliver the kind of unequivocal “feel-good” validation for which it aims. There’s something rote about the story as it’s told to us; Armendáriz’ success seems a foregone conclusion, and his personal struggles – though impeccably acted and depicted with sincerity – feel somehow manufactured for the sake of a desired emotional response. There’s a sense of “Hollywood” about the film’s approach, a deliberate framing of the material which makes this real-life success story seem much too easy, its subject’s struggles too much like tropes to deliver the kind of authentic satisfaction the movie clearly aims for. Built on familiar formula, it all feels a little too predictable to ring true – especially for a saga centered in such a messy, wild-and-wooly environment as professional lucha libre. Yes, it inspires, but much of that is accomplished by playing to sentiment, by what seems a deliberate effort toward building and reaffirming a legend rather than revealing the real human experience behind it, and many details of Armendariz’ real story are left out  – a suicide attempt, a struggle with substance abuse, even the origin of his iconic stage name as a tribute to a brothel-keeper of whom he was fond – that might have made for a less-sanitized and much more interesting story.

Such quibbles, however, are probably a moot point for most viewers; while “Cassandro” might feel a little too hollow to satisfy completely, it’s a polished, entertaining, and engaging film about a real-life figure that should – and does – carry a message of hope and transcendence for queer audiences.

Why would we ever complain about that?

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Celebrating sports history: DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season

Head of District’s premier league says it’s ‘groovin’ to its silver anniversary



The DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season is underway. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

What started when gay football fans got together in the 1990s to play their favorite sport is now a D.C. institution with 270 players in 20 teams spread over three fields, playing in both fall and spring. 

“Get off the bench,” shouts the slogan on the league’s website. “Get in the game!” 

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League turns 25 years old this month and is considered not only the premier league of its kind in the District, but is recognized across the country for its players, organization, and spirit.

“The way we run our league and the way we compete make us stand out relative to the rest,” DCGFFL Commissioner Logan Dawson told the Washington Blade. 

For those who don’t know flag football from any other kind, the difference is easy to spot: There’s no contact allowed. As the rules say, “That includes tackling, diving, blocking, and screening. Instead, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. To ‘tackle’ the person in possession of the ball, the opposing team needs to pull one or both of their flags off.” There are a lot more rules, but that’s the one that really sets it apart from tackle football. 

The sport itself dates back to World War II and its origins have been traced to Fort Meade, Md. 

What’s the secret to the league’s longevity? “I think we attract and hold on to great athletes who are highly competitive, not only on the field, but also, in our professional and personal lives,” he said. Dawson, 32, plays flag football as well as manages the league. He’s currently single, but says his first love is the weather. 

“I knew in second grade that I wanted to be a meteorologist,” said Dawson, who moved to the District to be a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. 

A prolific swimmer since high school, he came out as he started grad school at Purdue University in Indiana in 2012. In an op-ed appearing in Outsports in 2014, Dawson wrote about competing in his first Gay Games in Cleveland along with a group of other gay swimmers from Colorado, and left that experience determined to join a gay sports league. 

He found it in the fall of 2018 in the DCGFFL, the same year the league’s Generals team won Gay Games XVIII. The league supports up to five travel teams, which take part in annual tournaments nationwide. It also hosts a summer tournament each year in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“There’s a good amount of participation by people who played in the league from the very early days,” Dawson said. “I think we’re just in the sweet spot, where we have a lot of the original participants, a lot of new players, and we’re just kind of grooving right now.”

The first group gathered at Francis Field near Dupont Circle in 1994. Three years later, another group formed to play just steps from the Washington Monument Mall. They came together in 1998 to form what is now the DCGFFL. 

“For the majority of those seasons, we mainly had one division that played that was co-ed,” said Dawson. “This is our second season that we’ve had a Womens+ Division made up of [cisgender] women, trans and nonbinary individuals.” The Womens+ teams are called the Senators. 

Jayme Fuglesten is director of the Womens+ Division and has played in the league in most seasons since 2011.

“The DCGFFL has been a major part of my adult life,” she says. “I came out while playing in the league in no small part because of the love and support of this community.”

Why does she think the league has been such a success to have lasted 25 years?

“I think the league has been so successful because of its focus on inclusion and community,” she says. “I remember being so surprised in my early years when JJ and so many others would just come right up to me, hug me, and welcome me. And that really hasn’t changed in the 20+ seasons I’ve been around. It also continues to grow and respond to the needs and desires of our players. One example of that is the new Womens+ division, which gives an additional space for people who identify as womens+ to play and cultivate stronger relationships.”

DC Gay Flag Football plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Next month, the DCGFF will send both Generals and Senators to Gay Bowl XXIII in Seattle. “That’s going to be the first time we’re going to have two Womens+ teams at the Gay Bowl,” Dawson told the Blade. “It’s reflective of the new generation of the league.” 

Earlier generations had trouble attracting new players. As the Blade reported in 2019, what had been a steady number of 20 to 22 teams dropped dramatically to 14, its lowest roster since 2011. The league’s leadership turned it around with new recruiting events, new sponsors, changes in their social event locations, changes to their player draft and a change of venue for league play beyond Carter Barron fields in Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. 

Brentwood Hamilton Park in Northeast Washington is now home to the recreation division and Randall Field south of the Capitol is the league’s third venue. 

Just like every facet of society, from coast to coast, what happened next hit the league hard. “COVID happened in spring of 2020,” recalled Dawson. “Everything shut down, and we did not play for what amounted to three full seasons for a year and a half.”

But once the world emerged from quarantine and lockdowns, flag football players started flocking to the DCGFFL. “We’ve had probably over 150 new players join our league in the last two years,” he said.

One thing is certain, said Dawson: Despite the name, not everyone who plays in the gay flag football league is LGBTQ+. 

“It’s a really great community. There’s a straight couple that’s married and will be soon having a child in the next month or so,” Dawson said. “They met playing in the league, just like we’ve had gay couples who meet in the league and eventually get married and have children.”

Prominent among the league’s many sponsors is the NFL hometown team, the Washington Commanders. “They are highly supportive of us, not just financially, but also publicly supporting what we are, and our mission,” Dawson said. 

This current NFL season is the first since 2021 without an out gay player on the gridiron. That’s when Carl Nassib became the first active pro football player to come out as gay. 

(Washington Blade file photo by Adam Hall)

While Dawson said, “I’m sure there are more out there” who have not yet come out, Nassib’s retirement makes this anniversary of the DCGFFL even more significant. 

“It’s unfortunate people still feel they cannot be out while they’re playing and doing what they love, but that’s the reason why something like the D.C. Gay Flag Football League is so important,” he said. “To show that there are gay and trans athletes who exist and love playing sports.”

The league plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23 starting at 8 p.m. Check the website for ticket information.

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