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Robin Roberts comes out — take that Duck Dynasty

Robin Roberts, ABC, gay news, Washington Blade

Robin Roberts (Photo public domain)

Sometimes I wonder if we should care any more when a celeb comes out. When seemingly every couple you know is planning their same-sex wedding; openly LGBT politicos serve in the U.S. Congress; and gay hosts are an indelible part of awards shows – what difference does it make if someone in the public eye is openly queer? Yet when Robin Roberts, an anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” recently came out as a lesbian, I felt as if a cultural milestone had been reached.

Back in the day, we rarely saw (openly) LGBT people on TV. The few images of gay life then showed us to be “deviant,” monstrous or “sick.” An out game show host, sit-com star — let alone news anchor — would have been inconceivable. If Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Joan Lunden, David Hartman, Tom Brokaw or any of the many morning shows co-hosts over the years had been gay, their careers would have ended instantly if they’d left the closet. When Ellen came out, you’d have thought the Apocalypse had arrived. News outlets blazed with the story and her career, for a time, hit the skids.

It’s hard to imagine a morning show anchor coming out even five years ago without risking being fired and unleashing vociferous homophobia. If an anchor had opted to be openly gay then, the announcement would have entailed as much choreography as a Busby Berkeley production number. The complex, nervous dance would have involved publicists, magazine covers and handwringing over sponsors and ratings.

Yet Roberts’ coming out on Dec. 29, like that of many celebs lately, appeared almost as an aside. As is often the case now with revelations from news anchors, actors and others, Roberts bypassed old school outlets for social media. Most tellingly, no Barbara Walters interview or “After School” type special was involved. In 2012, Roberts had a bone marrow transplant to treat a rare blood disorder. “I am grateful for my entire family, my long time girlfriend, Amber, and friends as we prepare to celebrate a glorious new year together,” she wrote in a Facebook post on her recovery.

Far from firing her, ABC supported Roberts. “We love Robin and Amber, who we have all known for a long time,” the network said in a statement, “We were so touched by Robin’s Facebook message today and so thankful for all the loving support she has in her life.”

The Twitterverse lit up with love for Roberts.  “I am so happy for you and Amber!  You continue to make us all proud – mo,” Michelle Obama tweeted.

“Go on with your bad self,” comedian and actress Wanda Sykes wrote on Twitter.

“Sending good thoughts to Robin Roberts#Loveislove,” wrote Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons.

Sure, nearly every celeb seems to be queer now, and another famous person coming out can be as exciting as your BFF’s sister’s Facebook status update. Yet, Roberts’ coming out matters.

Broadcast TV doesn’t have the power it had in the days of Yesteryear. TV audiences today are fragmented, smaller and many of us watch shows (or pieces of shows) on mobile devices.  But the TV morning shows still earn big profits and ratings. The hosts of these programs continue to serve as our morning “families” and to kick-start pop culture. A politician who appears on “Today” or “Good Morning America” makes news and a movie or book plugged on these shows is likely to do well.

The TV show morning co-hosts have to daily “appear alive and alert and attractive on the air…no matter how sleepy or stressed or ugly they really feel,” writes Brian Stelter, author of “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV.”

Homophobia remains alive and well. Think “Duck Dynasty.” Roberts will encounter haters.  Still, an anchor of the No. 1 morning TV show in America coming out is a moment to celebrate.

07
Jan
2014

Muriel Bowser’s vision includes all eight wards

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4, Washington D.C., D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council Member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It is with great pride that I strongly support Muriel Bowser and encourage all Washingtonians to vote for her in the Democratic primary on April 1, 2014. I have lived in Washington for more than 35 years and had the privilege of working for a mayor and serving as an ANC commissioner. What I have learned from those experiences is that our great city needs a leader with passion, determination and a willingness to hold people accountable regardless of personal loyalty or political expediency. We need a leader who understands that unifying the city takes more than putting a logo on government letterhead. We need a leader who isn’t satisfied with maintaining the status quo and has a vision for the future of our great city. Muriel Bowser is that kind of leader, which is why I support her.

I met Muriel during the 2006 Fenty campaign. She and I knocked on countless doors and helped him win the election. She was elected to replace him as the city Council member representing Ward 4 and has provided outstanding service to her constituents and been a vocal champion for economic development throughout the city. Muriel is a fifth generation Washingtonian who received her master’s degree in public policy from American University. Prior to serving on the Council, Muriel worked with Montgomery County government on economic development issues and helped develop plans for the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. She also served her neighbors as an ANC Commissioner prior to joining the Council.

In 2011, Muriel authored and guided into law several comprehensive ethics reform bills. These reforms created the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, consolidated ethics laws into a single code of conduct, and required all City Council and other government meetings to be open to the public. In 2013, Muriel created Kids Ride Free, legislation allowing all D.C. students free bus rides to school in order to remove a barrier to attendance.

Muriel has been a strong advocate for our community. She voted for the marriage equality bill, held hearings on combating school bullying and co-introduced recently passed legislation that will provide additional resources for homeless LGBT youth.

Each election provides us with an opportunity to choose how we want to grow as a city. I have a great deal of respect for Mayor Gray and it would be folly not to acknowledge the support he has provided the LGBT community. That being said, I am disappointed in his challenges in presenting a compelling vision for the rest of this city. Supporters of Mayor Gray are absolutely correct when they state that this election is not about what happened in 2010. The shadow of that campaign provided a distraction that has made it difficult for him to govern. Mayor Gray takes great pride in restoring our fiscal reserves yet seemed blindsided by a growing problem with homeless families. It is great that we are well respected on Wall Street but that is cold comfort to those that are struggling. Mayor Gray is a very loyal leader. That loyalty is one of his most admirable traits but it is costing the city when he stands by agency directors whose slow reaction to crisis might put citizens’ lives in danger.

As mayor, Muriel Bowser will create a city that is second to none in providing economic opportunity to everyone and will help prepare District residents for high-paying jobs. She will lead a government that respects the great diversity of our city and speeds up school reform. She will be a champion of local business and wants to take steps to reduce the barriers to their success. She will hire agency directors who are committed to providing world-class city services.  She will continue to promote the restoration of unimpeachable ethics to city government. She will once again make D.C. proud across all eight wards. Please help this city move forward and vote for Muriel Bowser on April 1.

18
Feb
2014

Make a safer selfie during sex

condoms, gay news, Washington Blade

If a condom appears intact after use, you’ve lowered by 125,000 times your chance of contracting HIV.

These days, everything is about the selfie. We listen to our personalized music playlists on our phones, binge-watch entire seasons of our favorite program on demand and target our social media shout outs to specific people on our friends list.

So it’s no surprise that you can now customize your strategy for staying safe from HIV. Here’s the new menu of choices for staying safe. Create your safer selfie.

Condoms:  Lots of guys use condoms when they hook up with someone who looks like he gets around, but then skip the rubbers when they meet a “quality” guy.  Even quality guys may have had playful pasts, and many are telling the truth when they say they don’t think that they’re infected — even though they haven’t tested in years. So how well do condoms protect you?

Best case: If a condom appears intact after use, you’ve lowered by 125,000 times your chance of contracting HIV. Condoms also offer this undeniable benefit: you can check to see if the other guy is really wearing one right now.

No guarantees: Condoms only work when someone is wearing them. Gay guys who claim to use condoms all the time reduced their HIV risks by 70 percent. Rule out the guys who seem to be forgetting the nights they skipped the condoms, and protection is much higher. Condoms break or slip off in as few as 0.4 to 0.6 percent of uses, and that’s because these numbers include the people who fumble with them drunk or use wildly inappropriate lubricants. Still, if you just can’t stand using condoms, there are other choices.

PrEP: Never heard of it? You will. With PrEP, an HIV-negative guy takes the anti-HIV combination medicine that people living with HIV take. The difference is that he takes it every day before a possible exposure to HIV.  That’s the “pre” in PrEP.

Best case: PrEP can offer almost complete protection from an HIV exposure. In the largest studies conducted, none of the guys who took at least most of their PrEP medications became infected. PrEP does take advance planning, though. You can’t start taking PrEP the day you’re planning to have sex (it takes about a week to build up in the body).

No guarantees: Truth is, in the largest PrEP study, new HIV infections were only reduced by 44 percent, mainly because some people who said they were going to start PrEP never did, or they only took a few of their pills.  So just like condoms, you have to use it to get the benefits.

Treatment as Prevention: If your HIV+ partner is taking anti-HIV medications, that helps him and protects you. Less virus in his bloodstream makes him far less contagious. The first large study said that the risk of catching HIV from a treated person drops 96 percent.

Best case: taking anti-HIV treatment is something many positive guys are already doing.

No guarantees: there’s no way to see if the other guy is taking his treatment the way you could check for a condom. Once they’re off the meds, the drugs start draining out of their system, and that means you’re not protected anymore.

Test twice, Talk, and Trust: This is not the same as only hooking up with guys you think are HIV-negative. Here, you take an HIV test with your partner, and discuss whether you’re both comfortable having a “closed” relationship (or open only with protection).  If you both are, you test again to confirm neither had a new HIV infection that the first test missed, and then you may choose to take the condoms off.

Best case: Many guys have been using this strategy for years (including me), and it appears to work for those who follow all the steps.

No guarantees: If you do allow “playing,” remember that condoms protect better against HIV than against some other STDs that are easier to transmit.

PEP:  Whichever safer selfie method you choose, if something goes wrong and you realize you’ve been exposed to HIV, there’s one more option. If you get on a six-week prescription of anti-HIV medicines right away (“post-exposure”), you can often stop the virus from “latching on.”

Best case: Officially, you have 72 hours to start treatment, and your odds of becoming HIV+ drop by about three-quarters.

No guarantees: Don’t take the deadline too literally, and wait the whole weekend. The same studies show that the earlier you start PEP, the better the protection.

Why choose any option?  Maybe you just don’t consider staying HIV-free that important anymore. If and when you catch it, you’ll just take a pill a day, and live forever. Well, you’re not entirely wrong, but there’s more to it than that.

Best case: If keep to your doctor’s appointments and take your medicines faithfully, you can live a long life these days with HIV. Some studies predict that people can live with HIV for three or four decades, or even up to 53 years.

No guarantees: HIV treatments still cause side effects, from the unpleasant and common ones (diarrhea, fatigue, sleeplessness) to the silent bodily changes that can add up over time to cause other serious health problems in some people to trigger cardiac events, kidney failure, liver failure, and bone fractures.

Whichever safer option you choose, the best thing you can do is just to make a choice.  Condomless sex is up 20 percent among gay men over the past five years. HIV is still causing the equivalent of five 9-11s in U.S. deaths each year. Almost all new HIV infections are happening to guys who aren’t following any of these strategies. So pick one, stick to it, and make a safer selfie.

Stephen Fallon is president of Skills4, a healthcare consulting firm. Reach him via skills4.org.

01
Apr
2014

‘Secret’ app brings out the worst in D.C. gays

Secret app, gay news, Washington Blade

Being mean and nasty to each other isn’t a new phenomenon in our community.

Just in time for Pride season, a story appeared in the “social media” that some members of our community are using an app called “Secret” to share some not-so-proud information about each other.

This smart phone based app allows members to anonymously post information about other people. This has been used in other cities to share industry news but in the gay male community in D.C., it has been used to trash each other and spread malicious gossip. This “app” has become the modern high-tech equivalent of writing nasty things about someone on the bathroom wall and reflects a side of our gay community that isn’t so fabulous.

To be fair, I haven’t actually used the app, but some of my friends have and their reports aren’t glowing. I recognize the irony that I am relying on “gossip” to write a column about gossip but while I have some morbid curiosity about the content, I haven’t downloaded this app because it just doesn’t sound like we are being very nice to each other and if I wanted to see gay men get bullied, I would hang out with the Westboro Baptist folks.

Being mean and nasty to each other isn’t a new phenomenon in our community. Just read some of the ads on Craigslist and other “dating” sites where people proudly request “no fems, no fats.” I have been “cyberbullied” by a younger gay man who didn’t quite get or appreciate my drag persona. It hurt because it brought me right back to my days in grade school where I was picked on for wearing glasses, being overweight and having the temerity to burst into tears when I was being picked on. Not fun. But I got over it because I knew lots of people loved me. I have also felt alienated from parts of my community due to an internal fear that I’ve gotten over but it takes a toll.

All of these feelings and this “bullying” we do to one another is in part a reaction to growing up different. I realized that we all have been put in a locker either physically or metaphorically and that has helped me understand why we can be so darn mean.

That being said, I know we can do better. Disclosing someone’s HIV status for entertainment isn’t fabulous. Ridiculing someone for their alcoholism isn’t fabulous. Hiding behind an unsigned comment in cyberspace isn’t fabulous. I would like to claim perfection but I too have indulged in negative behavior. I have shared gossip and said mean things but I don’t hide behind an app. I read the “bitch session” columns of the Blade with a sense of horror but laughed at some of the more ingenious cruelties. I have also been guilty of dismissing parts of my community as part of the “fuzzy sweater crowd.” I thought the Stonewall Kickball group was a “cult” for people who like to get together and be drunken messes. Of course, I am wrong.  Stonewall Kickball has created a place for our community to gather and be part of the tribe. Stonewall Kickball has raised a lot of money for community groups and their members are awesome.

“Secret” and similar apps reward the worst behavior in our community. But fortunately, there are many great things in our community that counteract the negativity of “Secret.” The recent broadcast of “Normal Heart” is a reminder of our history of coming together as a community to take care of one another. We have stood up repeatedly to those who want to deny our very existence and are winning. We can also change the story on “Secret” and flood the app with stories of success. It might not be as interesting as who is sleeping with who but it might be more rewarding. Or we could just step away from the computer and go to a parade. I hear there are going to be several across the country this month.

Christopher Dyer is an LGBT activist in D.C. Reach him at chris@christopherdyer.com.

03
Jun
2014

How the makers of D&D won my family’s heart

D&D, gay news, Washington Blade

Wizards of the Coast publicly embraces an inclusive view of gender and sexuality.

I played the original Dungeons & Dragons game in high school, back in the early 1980s. I’ve been delighted to see it is experiencing a resurgence and capturing my son’s interest as well. A recent encounter made me love the game, and the company behind it, even more.

During July 4th week, my spouse, son, and I went on a cruise from Seattle to Alaska with her family and my mom. Our son spent most of the time playing D&D with his cousin and some other kids they met on the boat. After the cruise, my spouse, son, mom, and I visited Seattle for a few days, staying at Marriott’s Springhill Suites in the suburb of Renton. We’d never been to that hotel before, but chose it for availability, reasonable price and location near (but not too near) the airport.

Our son was less interested in the Space Needle than in finding a miniature elf wizard figurine for his D&D game. We perused a couple of Seattle’s many game shops, but to no avail. Little did we know that powerful magical forces were at work.

Sitting in our hotel room, I launched Google Maps to find a nearby place to eat—and shrieked. By complete coincidence, Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes D&D, had its headquarters on the same block. I looked out the window. Across the parking lot, gleaming in the sun, was their building.

I quickly brought up the Wizards’ website (wizards.com) to see if they gave tours. Alas, no, but they did boast of a dragon named Mitzy in the lobby. We decided that we would at least go snap some photos with Mitzy.

Mitzy loomed on the left as we entered the reception area. Shelves along the walls held D&D books and sets for Magic the Gathering, the company’s trading card game. I explained to the receptionist, Angela, that my son and I were D&D players, and we couldn’t let the coincidence of our hotel location pass us by without a visit. Our son said that he’d just spent hours playing the game on our cruise. She seemed amenable to having us take some photos, so we did.

My mom noticed, however, that there was a line of D&D figurines along the reception desk. She asked Angela if she knew a nearby place to purchase them. (Wizards doesn’t sell things from its headquarters.) She said no, and then excused herself to head down the hall.

A few minutes later, she came back with a woman who introduced herself as Shelly, part of the D&D brand team. Shelly handed our son a bag full of D&D goodies—pencils, stickers, books, T-shirts, some polyhedral dice (every player’s key accessory), and a pre-release copy of the Starter Set for the long-awaited D&D Version 5, which wouldn’t officially come out until July 15. My son’s eyes got about three sizes bigger.

They went beyond just giving him corporate swag, however. Shelly told us that she had told the D&D product team in the back that there was a boy in the lobby looking for an elf wizard miniature. Since the team members were also long-time players, they each had extensive personal collections of figurines at their desks. One found an elf wizard for us—a gesture that touched us all.

Shelly also took a photo of our whole family with Mitzy, which we said would use on our family holiday card this year. We thanked her and Angela profusely before leaving.

As if that wasn’t good enough, later that day I went to the Wizards’ website to get the full Version 5 rules (which they’d just made available for free download) to read on the plane home.

Lo and behold, but the new rules urge players to: “Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. . . . You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.” For example, the rules say, some elves are made in the image of a god who is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, and “You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”

Many of us LGBTQ players (and maybe even some straight, cis ones) have been bending our characters’ genders and sexual orientations for years, but it’s terrific to see the game officially embrace this.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Wizards’ parent company, Hasbro, only scored a 25/100 on the most recent HRC Corporate Equality Index. (Competitor Mattel scored a 95.) Despite the lackluster score, its equal opportunity policy does include sexual orientation, and it has not participated in actions that would undermine LGBTQ equality, according to HRC. It seems to me, then, that it might be persuaded to improve its policies, especially if a subsidiary like Wizards is publicly embracing an inclusive view of gender and sexuality. It doesn’t take a D&D perception check to know that’s good business.

In the meantime, thanks to the Wizards of the Coast employees who made one 11-year-old elf wizard and his moms very happy.

18
Jul
2014

My partner is 34 years my senior — so what?

Michael K. Lavers, Andrés Dornberg, gay news, Washington Blade, senior

The writer (on left) and his partner, Andrés. (Photo by Damien Salas; courtesy Michael K. Lavers)

The way that some have reacted to British Olympic diver Tom Daley’s acknowledgement he is in a relationship with a man — rumored to be Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who is two decades older — has certainly piqued this humble reporter’s interest.

“Creepy,” “strange” and “way too old” are some of the myriad adjectives and phrases used to describe Daley and Black’s rumored relationship that I have read in the media and online. I don’t find my beloved partner who is 34 years older than I “way too old.” And I most certainly do not find the life we share “creepy” or “strange.”

Sheer coincidence brought us together for the first time.

I met Andrés at a Northwest Washington gay bar on July 8, 2010. It was the last night of a three-day trip to the nation’s capital to visit a good friend and his partner. I was extremely happy because my father had just called me from New Hampshire to tell me that I was to become an uncle for the first time.

Andrés and I continued to chat as we left the bar and walked toward Logan Circle on that sultry July evening. I was momentarily surprised when he told me he was 62 – I was 28 at the time, but the age difference truly did not matter. I thought to myself as I returned home to Brooklyn, N.Y. – and my summer job as managing editor of the Fire Island News – the next morning that I had just met a genuinely nice man with whom I wanted to keep in touch.

Andrés and I reunited a few weeks later when he came to New York to visit his family and I quickly realized there was something more to our friendship than our daily phone calls and lengthy streams of text messages. We officially became a couple a few weeks later when he spent Labor Day weekend with me on Fire Island.

A handful of people noted our age difference when we began dating or when they saw us together. These include an airline ticket agent at BWI who asked me whether I was Andrés’ son when we were trying to get onto another flight to travel to a friend’s wedding in New Hampshire. A person who is thankfully no longer a part of my life rather foolishly concluded that I had a “sugar daddy.”

Andrés and I have done many of the same, mundane and dare I say boring things that I assume most couples do since I moved in with him here in D.C. in October 2011. These include kvetching over the day’s news while drinking our morning coffee; making weekly grocery lists and deciding who is going to pick up the dry cleaning or put gas in the car. He also takes a keen interest in my work as a reporter for the Washington Blade and the front-row seat to LGBT history that my colleagues and I continue to enjoy.

My nephew who turns three in March recently called Andrés to wish him happy birthday. And my parents routinely ask about him when we speak and send them their love.

There is certainly nothing “creepy” or “strange” about the life we share as an inter-generational couple. Our friends, family and other loved ones who knew us as single for way too long agree.

Andrés and I are comfortable enough with who we are as people and especially with our relationship not to worry about whether someone may have an issue with our age difference. The same argument should certainly apply to Tom Daley and his rumored boyfriend.

Those who concern themselves with the age difference of two adults who have made the decision to share their lives with each other almost certainly need to spend more time worrying about themselves and assessing their own issues, insecurities, fill in the blank. It is the very simple mantra of mind your own business as those of us from New Hampshire know all too well.

Michael K. Lavers is a news reporter for the Washington Blade. Reach him at mlavers@washblade.com.

21
Jan
2014

Keeping Dem mayor trumps loyalty to Gray

Vince Gray, Vincent Gray, David Catania, District of Columbia, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) (on left) and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. (Washington Blade file photos by Michael Key)

Now that Council member David Catania (I-At Large) is running for mayor, it is more important than ever for Democrats to elect a candidate who cannot only win the Democratic primary, but who can also prevail in the general election.

I like Catania on a personal level, despite his public brashness, and I understand how significant it would be to have an openly gay mayor, but I am a loyal Democrat and I make no apologies for that. I strongly believe in the principles of the Democratic Party and I believe that candidates who support those principles are the best candidates to lead. While many D.C. Council members who have held one of the two seats reserved for the non-majority party have been Democrats who have changed their party to qualify for the seat, Catania was a Republican when he was first elected to the D.C. Council. He changed his party affiliation to independent due to homophobia in the national Republican Party. Ideologically, he is not my choice for mayor.

In past columns, I have used this space to acknowledge that I am undecided in the mayor’s race. While I am not going to endorse a candidate today, I will not pretend that the shadow campaign does not factor into my final decision. Truth be told, if there were no shadow campaign, I would have already made up my mind to support Mayor Vincent Gray. He is doing a good job running the city and his support for the LGBT community, specifically transgender people, has been groundbreaking. Though Gray fell just short of receiving the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club endorsement, the overwhelming support he received over the other mayoral candidates is a testament to his wonderful LGBT initiatives.

That said, specific details about the allegations against Mayor Gray that came out on March 10 during shadow campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson’s guilty plea make it difficult for me to support Mayor Gray. I’m not going as far as others and suggesting that he drop out of the race, but, at this point, to support him, I need to know that there is no smoking gun that proves Thompson’s allegations and that the overwhelming public perception is that Gray, and not Thompson, is telling the truth. Sadly, it seems unlikely that these conditions will be met.

These questions need to be answered in less than one week. Early voting starts on March 17 and by that time, Democrats may need to start lining up behind one candidate.  I am going to stop short of saying who that candidate should be.

One saving grace is that this news is coming out now and not after the Democratic primary. Even as I have leaned toward supporting Mayor Gray, my greatest fear during this election season has always been that Gray would be implicated in the shadow campaign after the Democratic primary and Catania would use that to defeat him in November.

Democrats cannot afford to lose the mayoralty and no individual is bigger than the party. At some point, we may have to decide to put personalities and petty differences aside and, for the good of the D.C. Democratic Party, unite behind the candidate with the best chance of prevailing in the general election.

We are in a unique situation, not just because of game-changing allegations leveled against the mayor shortly before the Democratic primary, but also because, for the first time since home rule, a non-Democratic candidate has a legitimate chance to be elected mayor. A January Washington Post poll listed a potential race between Gray and Catania as a statistical dead heat before this latest bombshell. Most likely, if the poll were taken today, Catania would be in the lead.

I believe we should still hear Mayor Gray out and give him a chance to clear his name. However, while it may not be fair and it is against my legal training, the burden of proof has clearly shifted. Generally, the prosecution must prove a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the same rules don’t apply in the court of public opinion and if, in another week, Gray has not convinced a significant portion of the electorate that he is telling the truth, for the sake of the D.C. Democratic Party, it may be time to unite behind one of the other frontrunners.

Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at lateefah_williams@msn.com or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms

12
Mar
2014

D.C. zoning board’s curious battle over city transit policy

Shaw, zoning board, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The District government knows it can’t have it both ways. City agency adjudicators at the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, however, appear not to have gotten the memo.

Or perhaps there is more to their intransigence than is readily apparent.

One thing is certain: poor attendance delaying board decisions coupled with an astonishing lack of concern for the huge costs of decision-making deferral and a startling lack of appreciation for the expense factors in the business of building are indefensible in a city no longer willing to countenance pitiful government administration.

At issue are policies simultaneously encouraging car-less households and development in public-transit-intensive areas while fulfilling housing needs at affordable cost.

Caught in the crossfire is the local development team of Brook Rose and Gregg Busch. The duo, partners in both business and life, have encountered inexplicable opposition to their languishing proposal to provide housing in one of the most in-demand areas of a city enjoying strong and sustained population growth.

On Tuesday, after an already 10-month-long process, BZA board members again postponed a decision on an application by Rosebusch LLC for a zoning variance allowing renovation of three historic rowhouses with integrated construction of 37 micro-unit apartments spanning 1456-1460 Church Street, N.W., in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

The developers are seeking an exemption to provide four parking spaces instead of the 19 required in exchange for an appropriate and allowable offsetting mitigation measure. As proposed, the micro-unit tenants would not be allowed residential permits for on-street parking.

In other words, they wouldn’t own automobiles. The encouragement of which has specifically been adopted as city policy – alongside what many consider deliberate discouragements to possess one.

Never mind that it is acknowledged as impractical to provide so many parking spaces underneath the tiny infill lot. Even if feasible, the prohibitive expense would add a cost burden to each housing unit and subsequent rental pricing – for an amenity many, if not most, would neither need nor use.

It’s simply a deal breaker.

All this despite the project being backed by the Office of Planning, the Historic Preservation Review Board, the Department of Transportation and the neighborhood advisory commission. Not unusual in local regulatory situations, opposition is limited to a small number of Gladys Kravitz types in an adjacent condo building. Of note, the ringleader is the boyfriend of a BZA board member, with both men sharing a unit in the building. (The boyfriend has recused himself from voting on the matter.)

That’s where the story gets interesting, and may explain why some board members have expressed an unwillingness to grant the same parking relief recently approved for several projects, including one nearby.

The oft-unusual universal support of relevant agencies and entities recommending approval combined with prior BZA blessing of others with no compelling variable distinction and without credible or coherent board proffer in this instance, is troubling. It would seem that developers might be well advised to light votive candles hoping that a regulatory board with immense power not include someone with a personal connection in a public matter involving their project.

Ironically, the city intends to downwardly revise parking requirements for housing developments in transit-bountiful locations. Transparent is the dysfunction of a government incapable of consistently implementing public policies designed to benefit local residents and achieve larger goals. Likewise any inability to enforce the proposed conditions, expressed as a concern. Claiming lofty objectives requires the competency to manage the details.

The controversy doesn’t involve the modest apartment sizing – a market-driven trend proving popular with a variety of diverse demographics less interested in large housing spaces and more concerned with convenience and adversely affected by affordability.

More compact and less costly housing are desired by many single adults, younger residents and older “empty nesters” with modern lifestyles. They seek proximity to vibrant streetscapes brimming with socialization options – fundamentally altering the way some residents perceive and utilize their living spaces.

It’s only a mixed-message-sending D.C. government that appears confused about what it wants.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

18
Apr
2014

Bowser is right not to prematurely debate Catania

Muriel Bowser, gay news, Washington Blade

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Ever since Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser won the primary, her presumed opponent, Council member David Catania, has been attacking her credibility.  One of Catania’s most consistent attacks is that Bowser is afraid to debate him.  However, upon further examination, there is simply no credence to this statement.  Bowser’s decision not to prematurely debate Catania is astute because he is not officially a candidate in the race.

To that end, neither is former Council member Carol Schwartz, but she has not made any premature requests to debate Bowser. However, Schwartz’s announced candidacy does show what a slippery slope it would be to have mayoral debates before all of the candidates qualify for the ballot. In addition to Catania and Schwartz, there are four additional candidates who picked up petitions to run for mayor as independents. They are: James Caviness, Nestor Djonkam, Michael Green and Frank Sewell. Should these candidates also be given the opportunity to prematurely debate Bowser, who has already earned her spot on the ballot by winning the Democratic primary?  What about Libertarian Party nominee Bruce Majors and Statehood Green Party nominee Faith, who have already earned their way onto the ballot by winning their party primary? Why should Catania be given priority over these primary victors?

Waiting until Catania is officially a mayoral candidate may seem like a technicality, but it is much more than that. Catania, and the other five announced independent candidates, may decide not to run for mayor. I will concede that if Catania continues with his mayoral run that I do not foresee him having a problem obtaining the requisite amount of petition signatures to get on the ballot.

However, when Catania first started demanding that Bowser debate him shortly after she won the April 1 Democratic primary, there was still plenty of time for him to use the debate as a barometer for his chances of prevailing against Bowser in the general election. In an ideal scenario for Catania, an early debate would give him the opportunity to gauge what impact, if any, a potentially strong performance would have on his poll numbers.  If he then decides that he is unlikely to prevail in the mayoral race, he would still have the opportunity to run for re-election for his at-large Council seat. It is not Bowser’s job to help Catania make that decision by giving him additional insight into the race.

The D.C. Board of Elections made mayoral petitions available on June 13 and the required signatures are due on Aug. 6. According to the DCBOE website, “Beginning on the third (3rd) day after filing, for a period of ten (10) days, the Board makes available for public inspection photo copies of the candidates’ petitions. During this challenge period, any registered voter may review the petition copies. If he or she believes that a candidate did not meet the minimum requirements, the registered voter may file a ‘CHALLENGE’ detailing the petition’s defects.” Thus, the challenge period will begin on Aug. 9 and will end on Aug. 19. The DCBOE will then rule on the validity of the challenges. So, we will not know which candidates qualify for the ballot until late August.

If the reason for holding debates is truly about ensuring that the electorate is well-informed on where the candidates stand on issues impacting the District, then holding the debates in September and October, after most residents have returned from their summer vacations, makes more sense.

Thus, Bowser’s decision not to prematurely debate Catania has nothing to do with fear, as alleged. Rather, it is a logical decision not to participate in an activity that will only benefit her potential opponents and will have no impact in helping the public make an informed decision in November.

While Catania’s campaign is trying to falsely portray Bowser as inexperienced and delude the public into thinking that this will be a close race, there is no evidence to suggest that it will. Voters should take time during this pre-debate period to research and get to know the mayoral candidates who prevailed in their party primaries, as well as their announced independent challengers. Once the field is set, there will be plenty of time to attend debates and make a final decision.

Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at lateefah_williams@msn.com or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.

18
Jun
2014

14th Street shows need for parking

parking meter, 14th Street, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The following was submitted as a letter to the editor in response to Mark Lee’s column of Jan. 31, “Stop counting cranes, it’s embarrassing all of us.”

After nearly 10 years of reading this newspaper, I have come to respect the viewpoints of many of the columnists. Mark Lee, for instance, provides an interesting perspective each week as a community business advocate. I have come to recognize his regulation-is-bad-private-business-is-the-savior editorials well in advance. Many times I agree with him, but I think he has some misconceptions on the parking issue.

In the last year I have been fortunate enough to relocate to Logan Circle, and subsequently moved into one of the large 14th Street buildings that now dominate the area. Lee argues that legally requiring a certain amount of parking spaces hinders development and leads to higher rents. He seems to miss the impact on the residents, however. In my building, the street level is for businesses. As such, the first parking level under the building is used for their employees. If these folks did not have access to the parking structure, where would they park? Many are not D.C. residents, and thus couldn’t park on the street for more than two hours because they don’t have the resident permit.

Secondly, well over 50 cars are parked on the resident parking level of my building.  If this option were not included, that would mean 50-100 more cars on the street. Those familiar with the area know that off of 14th Street you have blocks of rowhouses, some with parking in back alleys and some without. Since several of these structures are divided into multiple apartments, there is barely enough parking currently to support all these people. If my building, in this example, did not have optional lower-level residential parking, this would create parking gridlock throughout the neighborhood.

Lee also suggests that taking away the parking requirement would reduce rental/condo rates. I doubt that considering the demand for city living. I also point out that in many buildings parking is not free. My building offers one space for several hundred dollars a month. That is not part of rent, but a separate fee for those that don’t want to search the street for parking.

I don’t argue his frequent point that the city is an overwhelming maze of confusion for permits, zoning and bureaucratic nonsense. However, a lot of progress could be made for the positive just by following some of Lee’s other suggestions. Putting more cars on the street will only negatively impact our way of life. Until D.C. becomes more pedestrian and bike friendly (such as more shopping options that don’t require a trip to Maryland or Virginia), cars will remain a part of life. Let’s keep them underground and out of the way.

—Chris Greaver, Logan Circle

05
Feb
2014