Of course, COVID-19 looms large across this year’s annual Year in Review issue. From the shocking death toll, to the devastating impact on local businesses, to the cancellation of Pride, coronavirus upended all of our lives. Here are the Blade’s staff picks for the top 10 local news stories of 2020.
#10: Va. passes major LGBTQ rights legislation
The Virginia General Assembly, which convened in January 2020 with a Democratic Party majority for the first time in more than two decades, passed several major pro-LGBTQ measures, including an LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill that had been blocked for years under the former Republican controlled legislature.
The Virginia Values Act, which calls for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s existing civil rights law, was a top legislative priority among LGBTQ advocacy groups. Both houses of the General Assembly passed the measure with bipartisan support.
The General Assembly passed a separate bill banning so-called conversion therapy for minors, making Virginia the first southern state to prohibit the widely discredited practice that seeks to change people’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. All the nation’s professional mental health associations, including the American Psychiatric Association, have said conversion therapy is ineffective and harmful to the mental health of those who undergo the therapy.
Among the other LGBTQ supportive bills the General Assembly approved in 2020 was a measure that repealed Virginia’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage. Although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country made the statute unenforceable, LGBTQ activists said it should nevertheless be removed from the state’s legal code.
#9: Life and death of Alice Carter
A case study commissioned by the Office of the D.C. Auditor released in August 2020 takes what observers considered an unprecedented in-depth look at a transgender woman’s struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and homelessness and the valiant but unsuccessful attempt by dozens of social services experts from city agencies and community groups to help her over a period of at least a dozen years.
The study, “Lessons From The Life and Death of Alice Carter,” was prepared by the D.C.-based nonprofit group Street Sense Media at the request of D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson. Street Sense Media was among several groups, including the LGBTQ organizations Whitman-Walker Health and Casa Ruby, that provided assistance to Carter.
People who knew Carter, who was 35 at the time of her death, said she became a beloved figure among residents and visitors of the 17th Street business strip where she hung out and often slept on the street.
Patterson said she decided to commission the case study of Carter’s life to determine what, if anything different, the city government could do to help people like Carter survive with substance use disorder and mental health issues.
#8: Most gay candidates lose bids for Council, school board
Gay education advocate Allister Chang won his race for a seat on the D.C. State Board of Education in the city’s Nov. 3 general election, becoming the only one of six openly gay candidates to emerge as a winner for seats on the nonpartisan school board and the D.C. Council.
In the race for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat, incumbent Council member Brooke Pinto (D) defeated gay Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Randy Downs by a margin of 68.3 percent to 20.6 percent in a four-candidate race. Downs ran as an independent.
Gay Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro and gay Libertarian Party activist Joe Bishop-Henchman were among 23 candidates competing for two at-large D.C. Council seats, one of which was held by incumbent Council member Robert White (D-At-Large). White finished in first place with 25.9 percent of the vote. Bishop-Henchman finished in 15th place with 0.96 percent of the vote. Padro came in 18th place with 0.7 percent of the vote.
The other two unsuccessful gay candidates ran for an at-large seat on the State Board of Education in a six-candidate race. Gay former teacher and education advocate Mysiki Valentine finished in third place with 19.4 percent of the vote. Gay Howard University Political Science Department Chairman Ravi K. Perry finished in fifth place with 11.3 percent of the vote.
#7: D.C.’s pro-LGBTQ Archbishop promoted to Cardinal
Pope Francis announced in October that he had promoted Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who has expressed support for LGBTQ Catholics, to the rank of cardinal, making him the first black cardinal in the United States.
Gregory, 73, became Washington’s archbishop in May 2019 after having served as the archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years and where he spoke out on several occasions in support of the LGBTQ community.
Gregory drew attention in D.C. in August 2019 when he told a transgender man during a gathering of young Catholics that the man was welcome in the Catholic Church. His comment came in response to a question by the trans man, who asked Gregory, “What place do I have as a confirmed transgender Catholic and what place do my queer friends have here in this archdiocese?”
“You belong to the heart of this church,” Gregory replied. “There is nothing that you may do, may say, that will ever rip you from the heart of this church.”
#6: Three long-time gay clubs close
The DC Eagle and Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, two of D.C.’s longest operating gay bars, and the Crew Club, the D.C. gym, sauna and bathhouse for gay men that operated near Logan Circle for more than 25 years, closed in 2020 with prospects for their possible reopening uncertain.
Sources familiar with the DC Eagle and Ziegfeld’s-Secrets say their closing does not appear to be related to the COVID pandemic. The Eagle’s majority co-owner filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy following financial difficulties that began long before COVID. Gay businessman Mark Hunker has purchased the legal rights to the Eagle’s name and trademark and has hinted he may consider reopening it.
Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, which featured popular drag shows and nude male dancers, was forced to close when the owner of the building it rented terminated its lease to make way for a real estate development project. The club reportedly is looking for another location but it is uncertain when or if a suitable new space can be found.
Crew Club co-owner DC Allen said he and co-owner Ken Flick, his husband, retired earlier this year. The two entered a business arrangement just prior to COVID with others who were going to operate the club with Allen and Flick remaining as partners. But when COVID restrictions resulted in the forced closing of gyms and other similar establishments, the group that planned to operate the club withdrew. Allen and Flick have since placed the Crew Club building, which they own, up for sale and do not plan to reopen the club.
#5: LGBTQ activists respond to calls to defund D.C. police
LGBTQ activists in D.C. expressed strong support for the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for reform in the nation’s police departments on racial justice issues, but most local activists said they do not support calls by some for fully defunding the D.C. police department.
Some local activists pointed out that LGBTQ people, especially transgender women of color, have been subjected to anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and other violent crime to a greater degree than other population groups. They said fully defunding the police could place LGBTQ people in danger.
Rehana Mohammed, chair of the DC LGBTQ Center’s board of directors, told a D.C. Council hearing in June that the Center opposed a proposal by the mayor to increase the D.C. police budget by $18.5 million in 2021.
“We recommend instead investing those funds in community safety, social services, violence interruption programs, and community support programs,” Mohammed said. “The current strategies of creating reforms and increasing funding are simply not working,” she said.
#4: D.C. Council passes, mayor signs two LGBTQ bills
The year 2020 saw the D.C. Council pass and Mayor Muriel Bowser sign two bills considered a top priority by LGBTQ activists.
The Care for LGBTQ Seniors and Seniors with HIV Amendment Act of 2020, which the Council passed in October, provides nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ seniors who reside in long-term care facilities in the District.
The Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020, approved by the Council in December, bans the use of the so-called gay and transgender panic defense in criminal trials. The legislation also strengthens the city’s existing hate crimes law.
LGBTQ advocates say a ban on the panic defense is needed to prevent defense attorneys from inappropriately asking juries to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for a defendant’s criminal act, including murder. Defense attorneys have argued that their clients “panicked” after discovering the person against whom they committed a violent crime was gay or transgender, prompting them to act in a violent way as a form of self-defense.
#3: D.C. Council member Jack Evans resigns
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of the Council’s strongest supporters of the LGBTQ community during his 29 years in office, lost his attempt to win back his seat in the city’s June 2 Democratic primary after he resigned from the seat in January.
Evans’ resignation came after all 12 of his Council colleagues made it clear they would vote to expel him from office in response to a Council investigation that found he violated multiple ethics rules when he allegedly used his office to assist companies that paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
Evans acknowledged he made some mistakes but denied any wrongdoing and insisted he did not violate any laws. Ten days after his resignation he announced his candidacy for the seat he had just given up in the Ward 2 Democratic primary. But when the June 2 primary votes were counted Evans came in seventh place in an eight-candidate race with just 3.4 percent of the vote.
#2: DC Pride events cancelled
Like other cities across the country, organizers of D.C.’s annual Capital Pride Parade and Festival, which are normally held in June and which draw over 200,000 participants, cancelled the events this year due to restrictions on public gatherings brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashley Smith, president of the Capital Pride Alliance board, said the organization would postpone some of its virtual events so that it could focus on its support for Black Lives Matter protests and advocacy work to fight police brutality and racism.
Capital Pride Alliance joined forces with the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community to hold an alternate Pride event on Oct. 10 called the Out Brigade. The event included a caravan of cars and other vehicles decorated with LGBTQ Pride related signs or ornaments that traveled across the city.
#1: D.C. hit hard by COVID
In addition to the staggering death toll of the coronavirus — more than 300,000 American lives lost as of mid-December — the disease wreaked havoc on small businesses in D.C. and across the country. More than a dozen bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the nation’s capital with a mostly LGBTQ clientele and at least seven nonprofit groups that provide services for D.C. area LGBTQ youth and adults say they were hit hard financially in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists have long considered gay bars to be important meeting places for LGBTQ people who often cannot be out or open at work or at home. The possibility of these clubs being forced out of business, just like dozens of other D.C. bars, restaurants and nightclubs facing financial hardship from the epidemic, could have a greater detrimental impact on LGBTQ people, activists said.
Meanwhile, local LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups like Casa Ruby, Whitman-Walker Health, SMYAL, HIPS, Wanda Alston Foundation, Us Helping Us, and Food and Friends said the pandemic disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.
LGBTQ workers in the D.C. area hospitality industry were also hit hard by COVID related restrictions in 2020, especially those working for hotels and restaurants that were forced to close. LGBTQ people were among many hospitality industry workers furloughed or laid off from their jobs due to the COVID shutdowns and restrictions.
Honorable Mention: Blade, Tagg oppose ad tax
The Washington Blade and Tagg magazine, the local publication that covers issues of interest to lesbians of color, joined the Washington Informer, one of D.C.’s two African-American newspapers, in calling on the D.C. Council to drop a 3 percent sales tax on advertising that it approved in a preliminary vote on July 7.
In response to a groundswell of opposition to the proposed advertising sales tax from local media outlets and small businesses that rely on advertising in newspapers, the Council two weeks later voted 11 to 2 to remove the tax from the city’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget. A request to remove the tax came from Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), who had introduced and backed the proposal at the time of its preliminary approval.
Mendelson said he reversed his position after hearing the outcry from small publications, including the Blade, that such a tax would force some outlets to lay off more employees and would force other media outlets to close as they struggled to survive amid the COVID pandemic.
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