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A life well lived: Peter Rosenstein publishes new memoir

Longtime Blade contributor on activism, politics, travel, and more

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Peter Rosenstein, a longtime D.C. activist and Washington Blade columnist, has published his first book, “Born This Gay: My Life of Activism, Politics, Travel, and Coming Out,” reflecting on a lifetime of fighting for LGBTQ equality and other experiences. He recounts meeting presidents and even a life-changing encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a powerful read from the perspective of a gay elder who overcame persecution, survived the AIDS epidemic, and lived to see a remarkable transformation in how America treats its LGBTQ citizens.

The book is available at Barnes and Noble as well as on Amazon in various formats, including kindle, soft-cover, and hard-cover. 

Rosenstein will be interviewed about the book, and his life, by WTOP journalist Jimmy Alexander at Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th St., N.W., on Thursday, June 6 between 6-8 p.m. It is an open event at an affirming church.

Rosenstein answered questions about the book for the Blade; his responses have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Why did you write this book and why now?

PETER ROSENSTEIN: There are a few reasons. As many know, I enjoy writing, and do much with my regular Blade columns, travel blogs, and theater reviews. I had thought about writing a memoir for a number of years, and began to plan some chapters while I was still working full time. As I put down random thoughts, and experiences, it became clear to me if I wrote a memoir it would have to include my coming out story. That made sense as I was fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. I always knew I was fighting for those rights for future generations, and it made sense to me that my story could be something young people could maybe see something in, to help them live better and more honest lives. I grew up without much money, and in the closet, and still made a good life for myself. In recent years, as we faced Trump and his cult, I realized my talking about how much working for civil rights, women’s rights, the rights of the disability community, and finally my own, enhanced my life. Maybe I could inspire others to do the same.  As to timing, when I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I realized life wasn’t endless. When with luck, and good healthcare at NIH, I survived, it was time to get serious about writing this book. 

BLADE: Who’s your audience for the book?

ROSENSTEIN: My audience is, I hope, a lot of people, but I guess any author would say that. First, it is for my friends, who will actually learn things about me they may not know. Then it is for other first-generation Americans, whose parents are also immigrants, who may see themselves in some of how I lived my life. Then it is for young people, who may find something in my life to help them, as they move forward living theirs. It is for the LGBTQ+ community, to remind them, and teach young people, it wasn’t always the way it is today. And for those young people, who may be trying to figure out who they are, and for their parents, hopefully supporting their children, as they become their true selves. 

BLADE: How long did it take to write and what was your process?

ROSENSTEIN: It took me years to do this book. I never kept a journal, so I began the process by setting up the chapters, and then trying to remember the things that happened in the different stages of my life. That wasn’t all that easy; trying to remember accurately what happened 60 years ago, when sometimes you can’t remember what you had for breakfast yesterday. There were times I thought I remembered something, and then looked up a date, or place, and realized I remembered it wrong. I apologize if there are things in the book others remember differently. This is my life, as I remember it. It is why I don’t use a lot of names in the book. Those who find stories about them in the book, will know who they are. 

The actual writing took about three years. I never set a time aside each day to write. I interspersed writing of the book with my other writing. I actually got a lot done on the cruises I love to take. There I wouldn’t be distracted. Actually, I would get up early each morning, open the balcony door, have coffee, juice, and a bagel, delivered to my cabin, and then write for a few hours. 

BLADE: Given all the change you’ve lived through on LGBTQ rights, what surprised you most? And what keeps you up at night?

ROSENSTEIN: There are so many things that have surprised me. I lived in the closet for nearly half my life. I never believed how open we in the LGBTQ+ community could be today. I hid behind a tree at my first gay Pride in 1981 so as not to have my picture taken. Then was honored as a Pride Hero in 2016, riding in a convertible toward the front of the parade. I lived through the AIDS crisis, and lost so many friends but saw our community come together in such wonderful ways. I love seeing so many young men and women coming out early and living their lives to the fullest. I joined the fight to allow gays in the military, and have many friends who benefitted. I remember working for Rep. Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) when she introduced the first Equality Bill in 1974, while I was still deep in the closet, and know it still hasn’t passed today. That gives me pause. I was honored to help lead the fight for marriage equality in D.C., and excited when the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. But it gives me pause when I recognize in 37 states that we can be married on Sunday, and thrown out of our apartments, and fired from our jobs, on Monday. I am thrilled when I see young people being open and out, but then listen to Republican governors and Trump and his MAGA cult threaten our progress. We need only look to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, to know we have to be ever vigilant to protect the rights we have won for the LGBTQ+ community. 

BLADE: There are many queer memoirs out there. What’s unique about your story?

ROSENSTEIN: I am not claiming my story is totally unique, but I am proud my story involves not only working for LGBTQ+ rights, but working for civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of the disability community. I have been given such great opportunities to do these things, living in exciting times. From meeting and talking to Martin Luther King Jr., as a 16-year-old high school senior, to teaching elementary school in Harlem, to working for the amazing Bella S. Abzug, and then in the Carter administration. 

I had the chance to volunteer for and meet the brilliant Hillary Rodham Clinton, and volunteer for and meet Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, among so many other amazing people. I had the chance to make a difference in D.C. by helping to write the platforms, and elect, a number of D.C. mayors. Then working for 35 years as CEO of healthcare, and education, non-profits. Add to this my travels beginning at age 13 to a Boy Scouts Jamboree in Colorado Springs, driving across country twice, getting body painted and wearing flowers in my hair to hear Janice Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, traveling the world from China to the Galapagos, from Ibiza to Mykonos, to going through the Panama Canal. It has been an amazing life, and it is fun to now share it with others.

Excerpt from the introduction to “Born This Gay” by Peter Rosenstein:

This is my story, that of a first-generation American whose life has often been one surprise after another. I never had a structured life plan, but instead, I’ve lived my life to the fullest in many ways. I could never have imagined at sixteen that I would, in the course of my life, meet six presidents and have a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I consider myself fortunate to have had all the spectacular experiences I’ve had and been given so many opportunities to work to make a positive difference in people’s lives. My story may resonate with other first-generation Americans because we have a shared history in which our parents came to the United States in search of better lives, whether they’d fled turmoil at home or had simply heard the streets of America were paved in gold for all who were willing to work hard. My parents, Dorrit and Heinz, escaped from Hitler and the Holocaust… 

It’s my hope that others, especially young people, can find something in the story of my experiences that will help them create opportunities to build their own future. Maybe reading about my work and the challenges I’ve faced can help someone make the most of their own potential. And not only might my journey as a first-generation American help in enlightening the reader, it’s also possible that the story of my journey through life might provide some comfort and direction for those in the LGBTQ+ community in trying to determine whom they were born to be. If it does, then they may be able to come out and live their truth at a much younger age than I was when I did so, leading them to live fuller and happier lives. Since my youth, significant progress has been achieved in fostering acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. I am proud to have helped drive some of the advancements that led to this progress. Hopefully, these advancements—as well as my journey, as I’ve detailed it in this book—will help questioning readers feel comfortable enough to become out and proud…

When I was a boy growing up in a lower-middle-class Jewish home in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, New York City, I understood how much my parents suffered just for being Jewish. That knowledge drew me to community activism and then politics. I saw these things as a way to make life better for others and help ensure that what my parents experienced in Europe wouldn’t occur here in the United States. I was convinced it couldn’t—until Donald Trump was elected president. Watching what he and his administration did during his presidency and what he and his cult continue to do today has been a wake-up call. Seeing him condone some of the worst of the far-right agenda makes me wonder if it could all happen here. Seeing eleven people slaughtered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a rabbi and his family attacked in their home in New York brought home to me the reality that it could. The rise in antisemitism is frightening. Those events, as well as the slaughter of nine Black people in a church in Charlotte and forty-nine people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, not to mention other atrocities, have only spurred me to work harder to ensure this is not what America will stand for. It’s not an America I want to leave to future generations…

Hopefully, those who read my story will take from it something to help them more readily accept who they are and understand that in each of us there is good. I also hope that readers will come away with the understanding that their wanting to live a great life should not interfere with their meeting the responsibility to better the lives of others; rather, it should compel one to work for the benefit of society in both large and small ways. We can only hope that what people remember about us is the good we did during our short time here on Earth. The brevity of that time allotted to each of us came home to me in the past few years as I faced cancer, which, luckily, I have survived. In this story, I will share some of my amazing experiences while traveling around the United States and the world. I’ll discuss my passion for activism, politics, policy, and people. This passion has allowed me to meet and work with so many who have influenced me and have played roles in how I live my life. You don’t need to be rich to live a rich and full life. Working to make life better for others will consequently make your own life better. So here begins the story of how so many people, along with small and large events, have helped to make me who I am and have allowed me to live a life full of fun, excitement, activism, politics, and policy. Here we go!

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‘Queering Rehoboth Beach’ features love, loss, murder, and more

An interview with gay writer and historian James T. Sears

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'Queering Rehoboth Beach' book cover. (Image courtesy of Temple University Press)

James T. Sears book talk
Saturday, June 29, 5 p.m.
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

When it comes to LGBTQ summer destinations in the Eastern time zone, almost everyone knows about Provincetown, Mass., Fire Island, N.Y., and Key West, Fla. There are also slightly lesser known, but no less wonderful places, such as Ogunquit, Maine, Saugatuck, Mich., and New Hope, Pa. Sandwiched in between is Rehoboth Beach, Del., a location that is popular with queer folks from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Rehoboth Beach came to be what it is today can be found in gay historian James T. Sears’s revealing new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024). As educational as it is dishy, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” provides readers with everything they need to know (and possibly didn’t realize they needed to know) about this fabulous locality. Sears was kind enough to make time to answer a few questions about the book.

WASHINGTON BLADE: James, it’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed you. The last time was in 1997 about your book “From Lonely Hunters to Lonely Hearts: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life.” At the time, you were living in Columbia, S.C. Where are you currently based, and how long have you been there?

JAMES T. SEARS: It has been great reconnecting with you. After that book, we moved to Charleston, S.C. There I wrote several more books. One was about the Mattachine group, focusing on one largely misunderstood leader, Hal Call. Another book shared reminisces of a 90-year-old gentleman, the late John Zeigler, interweaving his diaries, letters, and poetry to chronicle growing up gay in the South at the turn of the last century. From there I moved to Central America where I chronicled everyday queer life and learned Spanish. We returned several years ago and then washed up on Rehoboth Beach.

BLADE: In the introduction to your new book “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” (Temple University Press, 2024), you write about how a “restaurant incident” in Rehoboth, which you describe in detail in the prologue, became a kind of inspiration for the book project. Please say something about how as a historian, the personal can also be political and motivational.

SEARS: I want to capture reader’s interest by personalizing this book more than I have others. The restaurant anecdote is the book’s backstory. It explains, in part, my motivation for writing it, and more crucially, introduces one meaning of “queering Rehoboth.” That is, in order to judge this “incident”—and the book itself—we need to engage in multiple readings of history, or at least be comfortable with this approach. I underscore that what is accepted as “history”—about an individual, a community, or a society—is simply a reflection of that era’s accepted view. Queering history challenges that consensus.

BLADE: Who do you see as the target audience for “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: Well, certainly if you have been to Rehoboth or reside there, this book provides a history of the town—and its queering—giving details that I doubt even locals know! Also, for those interested in the evolution of other East Coast queer resorts (Ptown, Fire Island, Key West) this book adds to that set of histories. My book will also be of interest to students of social change and community organizing. Most importantly, though, it is just a good summer read.

BLADE: “Queering Rehoboth Beach” features numerous interviews. What was involved in the selection process of interview subjects?

SEARS: I interviewed dozens of people. They are listed in the book as the “Cast of Narrators.” Before these interviews, I engaged in a systematic review of local and state newspapers, going back to Rehoboth’s founding as a Methodist Church Camp in 1873. I also read anecdotal stories penned by lesbians and gay men. These appeared in local or regional queer publications, such as Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and the Washington Blade. Within a year, I had compiled a list of key individuals to interview. However, I also interviewed lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals, and heterosexuals who lived or worked in Rehoboth sometime during the book’s main timeframe (1970s-2000s). I sought diversity in background and perspective. To facilitate their memories, I provided a set of questions before we met. I often had photos, letters, or other memorabilia to prime their memories during our conversation. 

BLADE: Under the heading of the more things change, the more they stay the same, the act of making homosexuality an issue in politics continues to this day. What do you think it will take for that to change?

SEARS: You pose a key question. Those who effectuated change in Rehoboth — queers and progressive straights — sought common ground. Their goal was to integrate into the town. As such, rather than primarily focus on sexual and gender differences, they stressed values held in common. Rather than proselytize or agitate, they opened up businesses, restored houses, joined houses of worship, and engaged in the town’s civic life. 

To foster and sustain change, however, those in power and those who supported them also had to have a willingness to listen, to bracket their presuppositions, and to engage in genuine dialogue. Violent incidents, especially one on the boardwalk, and the multi-year imbroglio of The Strand nightclub, gradually caused people to seek common ground.

That did not, however, come without its costs. For some — long separated from straight society — and for others — unchallenged in their heteronormativity — it was too great of a cost to bear. Further, minorities within the queer “community,” such as people of color, those with limited income, and transgender individuals, never entered or were never invited into this enlarging public square.

The troubles chronicled in my book occurred during the era of the “Moral Majority” and “Gay Cancer.” Nevertheless, it didn’t approach the degree of polarization, acrimony, fake news, and demagoguery of today. So, whether this approach would even be viable as a strategy for social change is debatable.

BLADE: In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books about LGBTQ bars, a subject that is prominent in “Queering Rehoboth Beach.” Was this something of which you were aware while writing the book, and how do you see your book’s place on the shelf alongside these other books?

SEARS: Queering heterosexual space has been a survival strategy for generations of queer folks. These spaces — under-used softball fields, desolate beaches, darkened parks, and out-of-the-way bars — are detailed in many LGBTQ+ books, from the classic, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” to the recently published “A Place of Our Own” and “The Bars Are Ours.” Of course, these spaces did not encompass the kaleidoscope of queer life, but they provide us a historical gateway into various segments of a queer community and culture.

This was certainly true for my book. Unsurprisingly, until The Strand controversy, which began in 1988, all of Rehoboth’s queer bars were beyond the town limits. There were, however, homosexual watering holes in the liminal sexual space. For instance, you had the Pink Pony on the boardwalk during the 1950s and the Back Porch Café during the 1970s. So, in this sense, I think “Queering Rehoboth Beach” fits well in this ever-enlarging canon of queer history.

BLADE: As one of the most pro-LGBTQ presidents in U.S. history, how much, if it all, did the Biden Delaware connection have to do with your desire to write “Queering Rehoboth Beach?”

SEARS: It is just a coincidence. Interestingly, as I was researching this book, I came across a 1973 news story about Sen. Joe Biden speaking at a civic association meeting. One of the 30 or so residents attending was James Robert Vane. The paper reported the senator being “startled” when Vane questioned him about the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. civil service and military. Uttering the familiar trope about being “security risks,” he then added, “I admit I haven’t given it much thought.” In Bidenesque manner, he paused and then exclaimed, “I’ll be darned!”

Biden was a frequent diner at the Back Porch Café, often using the restaurant’s kitchen phone for political calls. Like the progressives I spoke about earlier, he had lived in a heteronormative bubble—a Catholic one at that! Yet, like many in Rehoboth, he eventually changed his view, strongly advocating for queer rights as Vice President during the Obama administration.

BLADE: How do you think Rehoboth residents will respond to your depiction of their town?

SEARS: Well, if recent events are predictive of future ones, then I think it will be generally positive. My first book signing at the locally owned bookstore resulted in it selling out. The manager did tell me that a gentleman stepped to the counter asking, “Why is this queer book here?”— pointing to the front table of “Beach Reads.” That singular objection notwithstanding, his plan is to keep multiple boxes in stock throughout the summer.

BLADE: Over the years, many non-fiction and fiction books have been written about places such as Provincetown, Fire Island, and Key West. Is it your hope that more books will be written about Rehoboth Beach?

SEARS: My hope is that writers and researchers continue to queer our stories. Focusing on persons, events, and communities, particularly micro-histories, provides a richer narrative of queer lives. It also allows us to queer the first generation of macro-histories which too often glossed over everyday activists. So, as the saying goes, let a thousand flowers bloom.

BLADE: Do you think that “Queering Rehoboth Beach” would make for a good documentary film subject?

SEARS: Absolutely, although probably not on the Hallmark Channel [laughs]! It would make an incredible film — a documentary or a drama — even a mini-series. Because it focuses on people: their lives and dreams, their long-running feuds and abbreviated love affairs, their darker secrets, and lighter moments within a larger context of the country’s social transformation. “Queering Rehoboth Beach” details the town’s first gay murder, the transformation of a once homophobic mayor, burned-out bars, and vigilante assaults on queers, the octogenarian lesbian couple, living for decades in Rehoboth never speaking the “L word,” who die within months of one another. It, too, is a story of how the sinewy arms of Jim Crow affected white Rehoboth — gay and straight. In short, “Queering Rehoboth Beach” is about a small beach town, transformed generation over generation like shifting sands yet retaining undercurrents of what are the best and worst in American life and culture.

BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book?

SEARS: The manuscript for this book was submitted to the publisher more than a year ago. During that time, I’ve been working on my first book of fiction. It is a queer novel set in early nineteenth century Wales against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and industrialization. I want to transport the reader into an era before the construction of homosexuality and at the inception of the women’s movement. How does one make meaning of sexual feelings toward the same gender or about being in the wrong gender? In the process of this murder mystery, I integrate Celtic culture and mythology and interrogate how today’s choices and those we made in the past (and in past lives) affect our future and those of others.

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D.C. Latinx Pride seeks to help heal the community

Much history lost to generations of colonialism

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Latinx History Project will host its 18th annual Latinx Pride with a series of 11 events this year.

Latinx History Project, or LHP, was founded in 2000 to collect, preserve and share Latinx LGBTQ+ History. Six years later, they began hosting DC Latinx Pride.  

Board member Dee Tum-Monge said organizers saw a need for the event that centered Latinx community members. 

“LHP knows our queer history as Latinx folks has most often been lost to generations of colonialism and imperialism,” they said. “Which is why we focus on documenting and highlighting the impact our community has in D.C. and beyond.”

According to UCLA School of Law, there are more than two million Latinx LGBTQ adults that live in the U.S.

“Events specifically for the Latinx community are important not only to make our experience visible but also to create spaces where we can grow closer with other groups and each other,” said Tum-Monge.

This year they kicked off DC Latinx Pride with a crowning ceremony for their royal court on May 31. 

Their three-part series, “La Sanación”, is underway with part two planned for June 16. 

“Sanación in Spanish means ‘healing’ which is a big part of what we want to bring to Pride,” said Tum-Monge. “Our communities go through a lot of trauma and hate, but we know there’s more to us. Our goal is to foster connection with ourselves, nature, community, and spirituality.”

In conjunction with the series there is a slate of other events; tickets can be purchased at latinxhistoryproject.org/pride.

In addition, Latinx Pride will march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday and participate in the festival on Sunday. To stay involved with Latinx History Project after Pride and hear more about future events visit latinxhistoryproject.org.

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D.C.’s queer nightlife scene thriving, bucking national trends

Deep Cvnt, Crush, other bars and events keep city venues bustling

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Deep Cvnt is a ‘mini ball deluxe-inspired party.’ (Washington Blade photo by Joe Reberkenny)

John Etienne is familiar with the drifting sounds from vodka-fueled conversations and the tapping of feet against the floorboards of Trade, a gay bar in D.C.’s Logan Circle. On any other Thursday night, Etienne — a party host, judge, and queer nightlife socialite — would be up on the dance floor, sipping a gin and ginger ale, dancing to the new Beyonce song with friends.

But this is not just any Thursday.

Tonight he is sitting directly beneath the dance floor in a salon chair, adjusting his sparkly green dress and white go-go boots, flipping between checking his phone and looking at the clock, waiting for the other judges to arrive. It is just after 9 p.m. and Deep Cvnt is about to begin. 

Deep Cvnt is a “mini ball deluxe-inspired party.” Etienne hosts the event once a month at Trade where queer people from across the city come to walk down a runway in categories, show off their best outfits to an established theme, and ‘vogue the house down’ making the “dive bar with a dance floor” feel like the set of a 2024 Paris is Burning. The party’s name is based on a slur, reclaimed into a symbol of feminine and queer empowerment.  

During the day, the 25-year-old works as a Digital Fundraising Director for the House Majority PAC. To him, gay bars that host events are instrumental in fostering a feeling of welcome and belonging for those who identify as LGBTQ.

“[For me] It’s the sense of community,” Etienne said. “ I think that being able to go to a spot where there are people who are like me, in some shape or form being that they’re queer or from a marginalized community, and can find refuge in these spots is something that’s incredibly important. And then, too, I think that these [queer] spaces are just a lot more fun.” 

Historically gay bars have acted as places for the LGBTQ community to gather, celebrate, and mobilize for political causes when the general attitude was more hostile to the community. D.C.’s unique queer nightlife scene sets it apart from other major gay hubs, like New York or San Francisco, due to the city’s number of welcoming spaces, its business appeal, and the strong presence of the federal government in its culture, allowing for the country’s capital city to be a statistical anomaly. 

Nationwide, gay bars have been on the decline since the 1980s. Damron’s Travel Guide, a database that has been recording the locations and ratings of queer/gay bars since the 1960s, found that in the year 1980 there were approximately 1,432 gay bars across the United States. A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine found that the number of gay bars in the U.S. has nearly been cut in half, with only 803 queer-identified bars in existence despite increasing numbers of public support for the LGBTQ community.

This trend is occurring at the same time as a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation is popping up in state legislatures across the U.S. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced so far in 2024. These laws restrict the ability of transgender Americans to get gender-affirming care, force teachers to out their students to parents, and ban First Amendment-protected actions like performing in drag, among other issues. 

Meanwhile the number of bars that cater to the LGBTQ community in the nation’s capital has increased from six in 1980 to at least 22 in 2024. 

The LGBTQ population is still large in D.C., with some estimates putting the number at just over 66,000. Historically the “gayborhood,” or primary LGBTQ neighborhood was on 17th Street and in the Dupont Circle area. That has changed as numbers have increased over the years, making the whole city feel like the gayborhood.

“Being one of the gayest cities in the world — with one of the gayest per capita populations — that is kind of baked into the fabric of the nightlife economy,” said Salah Czapary, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, when asked about how the LGBTQ community has changed the landscape of the city. “If you look at these certain neighborhoods [17th Street and Dupont], their character has really been defined by the ‘gayborhood’ in the area. That has kind of changed and now you can’t really point to one area as being the sole gayborhood.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, causing the government to pause all non-essential businesses, including bars. After the pandemic, the growth in the number of gay bars accelerated.  “I think that’s kind of just generally after COVID, people are willing to take a risk on something new,” Czapary explained when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the gay bar community. 

Ed Bailey, a well-known DJ and co-owner of gay bars Trade and Number Nine, located around the corner from each other in Logan Circle, agrees about the economic opportunities COVID was able to provide but says that gay bar success boils down to the economics of real estate. 

“I have a very boring and not very sexy answer to why I think these things happen,” Bailey said when explaining the history of the prominent locations of gay bars in D.C. “At the end of the day, it’s all about real estate. Over time the gay community’s bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that catered specifically to, or were owned by, gay people were in underdeveloped neighborhoods… It wasn’t available to us to be in the high-priced areas. All the clubs and the bars were kind of on the ‘other side of town,’ whatever that meant.”

Bailey said the COVID-19 pandemic helped create a path for the current sprouting of gay bars all over D.C., especially in what are the mainstream, popular areas. “I think luckily the pandemic, at least in D.C., did open up an opportunity for a number of entrepreneurs to say ‘Hey! I have an option here.’ Some of these businesses are looking for people to buy them out or to move in, and so a bunch of people took advantage of that.”

The LGBTQ community has always had a presence in the city. It has been recorded that as early as the 1950s, Washington had become a space recognized for its ability to bring LGBTQ people together. 

“I feel like every time I take two steps, I run into another gay person,” Etienne said about living in Logan Circle and the queerness of the city. “I love it. I also think about the nature of what goes on in D.C. Historically, the government has always had a significant number of gay people working for it. Looking back to the Lavender Scare and even before then it’s always been a spot where gay men have either come professionally or personally.”

Mark Meinke, a 76-year-old self-described gay historian founded The Rainbow History Project, an organization that works to “collect, preserve and promote the history and culture of the diverse LGBTQ communities in metropolitan Washington, D.C.” His research supports exactly what Etienne described. 

“Between the [19]20s through the [19]60s, most of the gay spaces were owned by straight people,” Meinke said. A consequence of this, he explains, is that there was less of an outward recognition of these spaces as being LGBTQ friendly, keeping the community a secret. “Tolerance comes and tolerance goes,” he said as he explained why the number of accepting spaces increased and decreased during that time. 

This fluctuation of accepting bar owners began to change in the 1960s, as places that offered a safe space for LGBTQ people to meet, dance, drink, celebrate, and politically organize became more frequent and owned by more LGBTQ people. Meinke was able to track the increase of acceptance for the LGBTQ community by collecting advertisements from past issues of the Washington Blade (originally called the Gay Blade) from the ‘60s on as more gay-owned or more publicly gay-friendly establishments began to distribute the newspaper. Meinke also tracked additional gay literature in these gay bars, like that of Franklin Kameny’s Mattachine Society literature and their “Gay Is Good” buttons. The literature Kameny distributed was some of the first documented forms of LGBTQ activism in the U.S. and encouraged LGBTQ people to mobilize. 

Meinke noticed that during this time, one gay bar called JoAnna’s on Eighth Street in Southeast D.C. became a popular designation for gay people after the owner installed a dance floor. 

“In 1968, in Capitol Hill with JoAnna’s, a new social option had emerged for women, one with a dance floor,” Meinke said. In his presentation for the 2002 Washington Historical Conference titled “The Social Geography of Washington, D.C.’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community,” Meinke said that the gay community wanted more gay dance floors.

This inspired others in the gayborhood to create more dance spaces. “Johnnie’s (across the street [from JoAnna’s]) saw the future and installed a postage stamp-sized dance floor, and began getting lots of customers…Same-sex dancing in the clubs was perhaps one of the greatest innovations on the social scene in the 1960s,” Meinke wrote.

Not only did the expanding gay bar scene impact who was visiting the city, but the presence of the federal government and the number of universities located in the area also helped attract the gay community, Meinke explained. 

As more LGBTQ people moved to D.C. to pursue careers related to the federal government, a backlash was brewing and created a time we now call the McCarthy era. This era, which extended from the early 1950s into the 60s, brought in political repression of left-leaning individuals in D.C.

This repression and eventual prosecution of people based on the fear of communism was led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became a major part of the Republican Party’s platform. This fear also heightened political tensions, eventually leading to Republicans accusing homosexuals of espionage. This period was known as the “Lavender Scare.”  

Robert Connelly, an adjunct senior professorial lecturer for American University’s Critical Race Gender and Culture Studies Department, explained that this scare was real for many LGBTQ people working in the government. “In [McCarthy’s] mind, homosexuals’ perceived duplicity and emotional instability made them susceptible to foreign espionage and blackmail, you know, which meant that the gays were giving away our secrets,” Connelly said. 

This fear prompted the 34th president to take more legal action against the LGBTQ people working in government. “When Eisenhower took office in 1953, one of his first executive orders that he signed was Executive Order 10450,” Connelly explained. “This codified the exclusion of perverts from government employment and thousands of lives were ruined because of this in the early 1950s.” This homophobia eventually led to the firing of thousands of LGBTQ people within the federal government during the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

This systematic injustice triggered many LGBTQ people to adapt techniques other marginalized communities were using, mostly inspired by the increasingly successful Civil Rights movement, to politically mobilize and reclaim their power. The homophile movement, one of the earliest precursors to the modern gay rights movement, had major players located in Washington to help push for gay rights. The activism ignited by LGBTQ people during this time endured for decades, addressing a multitude of issues, including anti-war protests and the fight for expanded civil rights.

Some, like Chadd Dowding, 35, a regular patron of gay bars across Washington said that Washington’s gay bar scene has been successful due to the high number of LGBTQ residents and their desire to feel connected to their community. 

“I think D.C. has the largest gay population per capita of any city in the country, so that draws a larger audience of queer folks here,” he said. According to the Williams Institute, D.C. still holds the highest percentage in the U.S.  “I think there’s also a need for spaces for community, mostly because a lot of people in D.C. are transplants from other parts of the country.” 

Others, Like Bombshell Monroe, a drag queen from the House of Mulan (a chosen family, that works to support and mentor queens in Balls and beyond) said that contrarian attitudes are baked into the nature of the city. 

As Bombshell slipped on her flower-adorned flared jeans and orange tank top, getting ready to make her first appearance on the dance floor of Trade for Deep Cvnt, matching the spring bling theme of the night, she explained why she felt D.C.’s gay nightlife has been able to grow.

“I feel like D.C. has always been a place of independence and where people, even if we’re not accepted, will fight to be accepted,” Bombshell said while pulling on a fuzzy white and orange bucket hat. “I’m D.C. born and raised and can attest personally. I think that it’s so crazy because it’s political, but it’s not political. I feel like once we get the pushback from other states, we’re the ones that take it and say, ‘Well, bitch! We got something for y’all. You don’t want the gay bars here, we’re gonna put another one here!’” 

And put another one they did. Within the past three years, at least six new gay bars have opened up with very different styles and goals. Some bars cater to particular groups within the LGBTQ community, like that of Thurst Lounge on 14th Street N.W., which is a predominantly Black gay space. As You Are Bar, at 500 8th St., S.E., seeks to make an accessible and comfortable space for all in the LGBTQ community, focusing on often overlooked female and non-binary members of the community. Others focus on creating unique nightlife experiences, like that of the craft cocktails in Logan Circle’s Little Gay Pub with its Instagram (and Grindr) famous selfie mirror, or like that of the freshly opened Crush bar, focusing on creating a dance bar for LGBTQ people. 

Regardless of the specific reason people visit gay bars, It is clear that they offer platforms to authentically express queer identity in a world that does not always deem this acceptable. 

“If we get to a point where we have to start sacrificing more physical spaces for online ones, these spaces could be easily invaded by people who may not have the best intentions,” Etienne said, preparing to head up the scuffed stairs to Beyonce’s Jolene.  “There is something very valuable about having a physical space with a physical location because, at the end of the day, that’s what we have fought for.”

As the lights dimmed the Trade dance floor began to hush. A path opened up in front of the stage as the crowd of floral wearing ballroom fans stepped back, accommodating Etienne’s entrance. With the glittery green dress, knee-high go-go boots, and oversized sunglasses it is clear he is in charge of the night. 

“Since this is Deep Cvnt I need everyone to raise their hand up,” Etienne said with a smile. “And now put it below your waist. Check how deep your motherfucking cunt is.” The crowd roared with laughter and cheers. “Alright let’s get into it!” Deep Cvnt has begun.

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