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Politics, sex, activism highlight memoir on AIDS survival

Sean Strub, AIDS, HIV, Body Counts, gay news, Washington Blade

Sean Strub’s new memoir revisits closeted Washington in the ‘70s and the AIDS fight in New York. (Photo courtesy Public Impact Media Consultants)

Sean Strub’s newly published book Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival provides a vivid, first-hand account of how his own struggle with AIDS intersected with his role as an AIDS activist during the tumultuous early years of the epidemic in New York City.

But Strub, 55, also reveals a part of his life that those who know him as founder of the influential AIDS publication POZ magazine may not have known – his political and personal coming out following his move to Washington, D.C., from his home state of Iowa in 1976 at the age of 17.

After delaying his start at Georgetown University for a year to work on political campaigns in Iowa and through help from then-Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa), Strub landed a patronage job as an elevator operator at the U.S. Capitol in March of 1976.

“I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting for an ambitious political junkie than employment literally a few steps away from the Senate chamber,” he writes in his book.

Strub is scheduled to read from his book and take questions from listeners Tuesday night, Jan. 28, at D.C.’s Politics and Prose bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W., from 7-9 p.m.

As Strub tells it, over the next three years (from 1976-1979) he cautiously came to terms with his status as a gay man after having struggled with self-denial in his younger years. His gradual evolution toward self-acceptance, he writes, came in part through the help of closeted gay men in influential political positions in Washington and later in New York who became his mentors.

Like them, Strub writes, he became comfortable with his own sexual orientation but remained deep in the closet, fearing that public disclosure of his “hidden” life would destroy his long-held aspirations to become involved in politics and public policy making. His earlier dream of one day getting elected to public office would no longer be possible due to his sexual orientation, he concluded during the years from the late 1970s to early 1980s.

Before going on to chronicle his early career operating a direct mail fundraising business while helping to raise money for AIDS-related causes, Strub provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the closeted gay scene in the nation’s capital in the late 1970s.

Gay men of the Baby Boom generation who lived in D.C. at that time will likely relate to Strub’s stories about meeting and befriending Capitol Hill staffers and others involved in politics at the Lost and Found, the then highly popular gay disco located in a hidden warehouse district in Southeast D.C. less than a mile from the Capitol.

“Going to the Lost and Found marked my first appearance in a public gay venue, and that felt irreversible, crossing a threshold from which I could not return,” he writes.

“I learned that meeting gay men in a gay context – whether at a bar, private party or other circumstance – invoked an unspoken omerta-like agreement not to share the secret life with others, even if it meant pretending we didn’t know each other,” he says in the book.

Among those who became his mentor was Washington political operative turned journalist Alan Baron, publisher of the widely read Baron Report on Washington politics. Others – both gay and straight – gave him what he called the equivalent of a Harvard MBA in the field of fundraising through direct mail and telemarketing techniques.

Still others introduced him to the world of gay sex and gay male cruising spots both in D.C. and during his first few years in New York. It was at a time just before AIDS burst on the scene that epidemiologists later described as a “perfect storm” for the sexual transmission of HIV between men who have sex with men.

Through a friend he met at the D.C. gay bar Rascals, Strub says he was invited to a dinner party in 1978 at the home of D.C. gay businessman Bob Alfondre and his partner Carroll Sledz. Strub says it was there that he met and became friends with famed playwright Tennessee Williams, a guest of honor at the dinner party, who later invited Strub to visit him at his home in Key West, Fla.

Other VIPs with whom Strub met and befriended in subsequent years included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Gore Vidal and Larry Kramer.

In what his activist friends considered a major coup, Strub tells of how he mustered all of his courage and salesmanship in 1982 to persuade Tennessee Williams to sign his name to a fundraising letter for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, an arm of the then Gay Rights National Lobby that became the forerunner to today’s Human Rights Campaign.

The letter was written by Baron at the request of Steve Endean, the executive director of GRNL and whose idea it was to create the HRCF. Among other things, the letter urged potential donors to give money to HRCF, a political action committee or PAC, to help prevent anti-gay candidates backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell from getting elected to Congress.

“I emphasized how influential the new PAC would be and how critical his signature on the letter would be to its success,” Strub wrote in describing his pitch to Williams at a hotel room in New York City where Williams was staying at the time. When Strub entered the hotel room Williams was dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe and had a glass of wine in his hand.

“I said he could set a powerful example to others,” Strub wrote. “Getting him to sign the letter, I declared, would be the most important thing I had ever done in my life.”

Over the next 90 minutes or more Williams talked about his plans for a new play and all kinds of things unrelated to the letter. At one point the then 24-year-old Strub nearly froze when Williams asked him what he would do to persuade him to sign the letter, thinking Williams might be making a pass at him, Strub writes.

“Almost anything, but I hope I don’t have to,” Strub says he replied.

Finally, thinking Williams was politely indicating he wouldn’t sign the letter, Strub got up from where he was sitting and put on his coat and walked toward the door. “Wait a minute, baby, what about your letter?” Strub quotes Williams as shouting.

The famous playwright signed the letter, which, according to Strub, became the most successful gay rights fundraising appeal to date, generating over 10,000 new donors to the gay rights cause and paving the way for the future HRC to become the nation’s leading LGBT rights organization.

Strub’s success in getting Tennessee Williams to sign the fundraising letter came after he moved to New York in 1979 to continue his studies at Columbia University. A short time later Strub and various partners established a direct mail fundraising businesses that did work for gay rights and other progressive causes as well as for Democratic Party candidates running for public office.

By the mid-1980s, around the time he discovered he was HIV positive, he helped raise money for AIDS advocacy groups, including New York’s pioneering Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR), and ACT UP.


NIH official Fauci disputes claim he was ‘uncooperative’


By 1987, Strub says he became further disillusioned over the federal government’s response to AIDS when fellow activist Michael Callen told him about a tense meeting in May of that year between Callen and several other AIDS activists and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who headed AIDS research programs at the National Institutes of Health.

Callen and the other activists urged Fauci to arrange for the NIH to issue guidelines recommending that doctors treating AIDS patients prescribe the drug Bactrim as a prophylaxis to prevent the onset of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the opportunistic infection that killed most people with AIDS at the time. Strub notes that Callen cited promising results in New York and other places where AIDS doctors, especially New York physician and researcher Joseph Sonnabend, reported Bactrim was succeeding in preventing patients from contracting the deadly pneumonia.

“Fauci was uncooperative,” Strub reports in his book. “He dismissed previous research, saying he wanted data proving that prophylaxis [Bactrim] helped prevent PCP specifically in patients with HIV.”

Strub noted that NIH ultimately issued the guidelines two years later after confirming through a drug trial that Bactrim did, indeed, effectively prevent PCP.  But during the two years prior to the release of the guidelines, Callen estimated that nearly 17,000 people with AIDS died of PCP, Strub says in his book. He says Callen expressed outrage that many of them might have survived if their doctors were informed of the effectiveness of Bactrim as a preventive measure.

When contacted by the Blade last week, Fauci disputed Callen’s account of what happened, saying he made it clear to Callen during their 1987 meeting that he did not have the authority to issue guidelines on prescription drugs.

“So what actually happened is that Michael came to me and said you know there is this preliminary activity and some small trials that Bactrim works,” Fauci said. “Would you come out and make a guideline to say it should be used by everybody. And I said ‘Michael I can’t do that but what I can do is help design and make sure that the grantees that we fund do a clinical trial in Bactrim to prove or not that it was safe and effective,’” he said.

“So I did exactly what I promised Michael,” Fauci said. “It took obviously longer than he would have wished. But I didn’t blow him off and say I don’t want to issue guidelines. The fact is that’s neither within my purview nor within the responsibility or authority I have to issue guidelines.”

In 1990, Strub ran for Congress in a district just north of New York City where he had been living while operating a fundraising business. Although he lost in the Democratic primary, many familiar with his race said he broke new ground by becoming the first openly HIV-positive candidate to run for a federal office.

Four years later, in 1994, he founded POZ magazine, a first-of-its-kind upscale publication reporting on the experiences of people with HIV and the trials and tribulations they faced – including Strub himself – in struggling to stay alive.

By that time Strub was out publicly, was a veteran of AIDS protests, and had experienced several years earlier the death of his first partner from AIDS.

In keeping with the belief at the time that nearly everyone with AIDS would die, Strub raised the bulk of the capital needed to launch POZ by selling two life insurance policies he had to a “viatical” investment company for $345,000.

The company expected to yield $75,000 in profit by cashing in the $450,000 combined value of the two policies when Strub died.

Although Strub survived, he tells in great detail how during the years immediately following the launching of POZ, he struggled with Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. His says his decision to discontinue treatment with the harsh drug AZT, which had side effects that caused fellow patients to become sick and weak, most likely kept him alive long enough to be saved by the new generation of protease inhibitor drugs.

In 2004 Strub sold POZ and began spending more time at his home in the small town of Milford, Penn., while retaining his home in Manhattan.

Following are excerpts of the Blade’s interview with Strub.


Washington Blade: What prompted you to write the book at this time?

Sean Strub: I had thought about it over the years and I kind of resisted it in the years after I left POZ. Then about five years ago enough time had passed from the very worst days that I thought I was getting more perspective on it. I felt more of a sense of wanting to remember people and I think most importantly to document a history that had not been well documented.

And there are fewer and fewer people who are around to tell the story firsthand who were really on the front lines over such a long period of time.


Blade: You describe in a moving way in your book how sick you were in the middle 1990s. You wrote that you expected to die. Why do you feel you survived long enough to benefit from the new generation of effective drugs such as protease inhibitors when others did not?

Strub: I think that is the question thousands of people who survived that time ask themselves often. I thought of it once as a sort of survivor’s guilt. But today it just seems like an existential question. It’s a question I don’t think I will ever answer but also one I don’t think I should ever stop asking.

The quality of care a person received is probably the most important factor, but there are others. When [the late New York AIDS activist] Michael Callen wrote “Surviving AIDS” in 1990 he recognized three shared traits amongst people with HIV at that time that were surviving. This was before combination treatment, of course. The three were, one, a belief that some people would survive; two, they could identify a reason to survive — raising a child, loving a partner, running a business, completing school, etc.; and, three, when asked how they treated their illness, they could list many different strategies. It wasn’t so much which strategy they pursued, but it was the length of the list that mattered because that indicated they were people who were seeking to survive. I think that is apt for me. I sought to survive…

Survival for me was a path, not a place. The bullet I narrowly missed was AZT mono-therapy. My doctor recommended it to me. Michael Callen constantly harangued me against it. I took it for a few weeks then stopped it. I believe if I had continued on AZT mono-therapy, I wouldn’t have survived to benefit from protease therapy.


Blade: To jump ahead a bit, what are you doing these days?

Strub: I’m the executive director of the Sero Project, which is a network of people and their allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice. And that’s our tagline. And we are particularly focused on HIV criminalization. So we have been engaged with a lot of the decriminalization advocates across the country.


Blade: You go into that in the last chapter of your book, saying in no uncertain terms that laws making it a crime for someone who is HIV positive to have sex with another person without telling them they are positive should be repealed.

Strub: You can see If you go to that website there is a little short film. It’s the trailer to a documentary I’ve been working on called HIV is Not a Crime. It really explains our work.


Blade: Wasn’t there a bill introduced in Maryland to increase the penalties for so-called intentional HIV transmission?

Strub: A couple of years ago – I think it was State Sen. [Norman R.] Stone [D-Baltimore County] who wanted to increase the maximum penalty from three years to 35 years. And that was beaten back. And then last year Del. Shirley Nathan Pulliam [D-Baltimore County] introduced a bill to get rid of the statute entirely.

In Maryland like every other state they have assault statutes and someone who maliciously intends to harm someone else they can prosecute, whether they use a gun or a baseball bat…And the HIV specific statute doesn’t contribute anything to public safety or public health. It hurts public health and it’s profoundly stigmatizing. So she introduced that bill last year. It’s been withdrawn.


Blade: Is it mostly states that have these statutes? Is there a federal statute?

Strub: There is not a federal statute. So it’s state by state. About two thirds of the states have these HIV specific statutes; although in every state they can use someone’s HIV-positive status inappropriately in some criminal prosecutions in heightened charges. In Texas and New York, for example, they don’t have HIV-specific statutes.

But there is a guy in Texas spending 35 years for spitting at a cop and a guy in New York who just got out of jail after serving six and a half years for spitting when a New York appeals court ruled that in New York State saliva cannot be considered a deadly weapon. So the specific statutes are in about two thirds of the states.

At the federal level we did just get through Congress recently an amendment to the Armed Services Appropriations bill to have the Secretary of Defense have a review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and how it relates to HIV to make sure that their policies and procedures are consistent with contemporary science and not inappropriately stigmatizing people. So that’s our only legislative victory so far on this. There will be more to come. We’re organizing in individual states and I hope there will be some pretty good action in a couple of them this year.


Blade: So is this your main activity at this point?

Strub: That’s correct – that and here in Milford [Pa.] I also co-own a historic hotel-restaurant called the Hotel Fauchere. So that’s my sort of business here. But I spend most of my time on the advocacy work.


Blade: Are you in Milford, Pennsylvania right now?

Strub: I’m in Milford at the moment. I live in Milford and also in Manhattan. But lately, for a year or so, I’ve been much more in Milford than in New York.


Blade: That seems to be the type of thing you have done throughout your professional career – a combination of activism and as you called it entrepreneurial activity. Would that be correct?

Strub: That’s correct.


Blade: Do you have any interest in going back into the direct mail and fundraising field?

Strub: Not really – I’m always, I’m frequently giving pro-bono counsel to the efforts I support around fundraising. But I’ve really been much more focused on the advocacy work, particularly recreating a grass roots network of people with HIV engaged in advocacy on the state and local level, which we had in the ‘80s and even in the early ‘90s and then it kind of dissipated through the ‘90s. And now it’s enjoying a bit of a revival. We are recreating these networks of people with HIV.


Blade: What is your assessment of the status of the national AIDS advocacy organizations right now? Some people have referred to them as AIDS incorporated. Some people say they have overlapping functions and maybe there is duplication of efforts and there should be more consolidation.

Strub: Well, this AIDS, Inc. phrase is often used in a pejorative way. But it’s also just descriptive. It’s a big industry now. Careers are made – institutions – it isn’t the epidemic of 30 years ago by any means – and thank goodness. But in terms of the advocacy organizations, I don’t really see the advocacy organizations at the federal level…

HRC was pretty consistent in terms of advocating for the Ryan White program in some of the big funding streams. But the other issues outside of funding for service providers, for example, the issues involving privacy, confidentiality, stigma, patient autonomy, criminalization and the whole range of human rights approaches to the epidemic became an orphan in Washington and no one was really working on those.

Now what has happened in the last several years…there is sort of a growing pressure on the national LGBT groups to re-engage in the epidemic. After combination therapy came out – first of all, a lot of advocates left AIDS work because a lot of them were personally concerned about – their engagement and advocacy was due to their own fear, right? And their AIDS activism was a singular effort. It wasn’t connected to any broader social justice movement. And so a lot of those people kind of left after combination therapy came out.

And a lot of the LGBT groups turned to other opportunities and exciting things – ‘Don’t ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and marriage equality and so on. And all of these human rights-related issues kind of got neglected. And so then we end up with things like criminalization.

Now, that is a growing and scary phenomenon that leaves every person with HIV in the country just one disgruntled, ex-partner away from being in a courtroom.

And yet the survey work has shown that gay men overwhelmingly support having it be a criminal act for someone with HIV not to disclose that fact prior to being intimate, independent of whether there is any risk involved and independent of whether there is any HIV transmission involved.

So we’re kind of playing catch up in the gay community on these issues. There are good things happening. I think HRC is certain to focus on this. They’ve been quite receptive toward us and some other groups. So I think we’re going to see more advocacy from gay groups.


Blade: What about the issue of prevention and what is possible? The issue of sex is always with us. Frank Kameny, the veteran gay rights pioneer, said back when the epidemic began and we learned the virus was sexually transmitted that you can never change the sex urge.

Strub: Well, even in the worst years when people were presumably the most frightened we never got much more than half of gay men to consistently use condoms. So there definitely is a limit on how far that will go. But I’m also not a fan of just relying on the biomedical approaches.

I think in terms of prevention the things we need to do – first we need to target prevention funding. Two-thirds of the new cases are among gay men. Only a small percentage of federal prevention funds are targeted to men who have sex with men…

That’s one thing. Second, there still is a reluctance to talk honestly about how gay men have sex. And this goes back to the first days of the epidemic. I write about that in New York – the conflict between the AIDS establishment and [AIDS activists] Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and [AIDS doctor and researcher] Joe Sonnabend. Too much of the prevention messaging is either fear based, which is sort of relying on what might have been effective in the epidemic 25 years ago. But the truth is the consequences of HIV infection today are very different than they were 25 years ago. And you can’t use tactics and strategies that worked for that epidemic and expect them to work for this epidemic. You need to deal with the epidemic we have today and the realities of that today…

The New York City Health Department has this one ad that centers on HIV and the next minute you’ve got a brain fog and anal cancer and your bones are snapping. And all of those things can be side effects of the treatments. And I’m not saying they don’t happen. They do happen. I’ve said a lot about the side effects. But they aren’t happening to everybody. And to gay men they know this is a wild exaggeration. I compare it to the anti-drug campaign that sort of implies that if you smoke a joint and two weeks later you’re going to be starting heroin. People know better than that.

And we’re not focusing on getting people real practical information for them to integrate into their own risk reduction analysis, which is what I think most gay men and most people do before they have sex with someone they don’t know a lot about.

We need to give people the information so that they are doing that risk analysis. We need prevention campaigns that are fact based, that are non-judgmental, and that are supportive of gay male sexuality.

You know, Joe Sonnabend said early in the epidemic and I quoted him in the book, he said we’ll never defeat AIDS until we treat the anus as a sex organ with the same respect given to the vagina or the penis. And that remains true today.


Blade: You mentioned that Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared to be an impediment to the use of the drug Bactrim back in 1987 as a prophylaxis to prevent pneumocystis pneumonia for people with AIDS.

Strub: Absolutely.


Blade: Did he have what he might consider legitimate reasons for needing more time to promote this drug?

Strub: Well I don’t know what he would say. It was written about at the time. Michael Callen referred to it as one of the most egregious examples of federal indifference to the lives of gay men. At the time Michael met with him in 1987 and begged him to support publicizing and making this a recommendation because Bactrim… was around a long time and was very effective. It has been used in immune compromised patients before. There were even clinical trials done in transplant patients. So there was a fair amount of literature on its use by immune compromised patients to prevent PCP [pneumocystis carinii pneumonia].

So Callen went and met with Fauci and Fauci was doubtful. He wanted clinical trials done to prove it…So when the trial results were in that’s when the feds came out with the recommendation around Bactrim. And in that intervening period – I have the number in there — something like 12 or 14 or 16,000 people with AIDS died of pneumocystis, which is a horrible death. You probably know people who died of it. They suffocate to death.

And if they had been on this treatment the majority of them would not have died of pneumocystis. They may or may not have lived until combination therapy came up. Who knows? Some of them surely would have. You know I don’t get into personally bashing Fauci. But this is kind of an example indicative of the federal response then and to a certain extent today and how all sorts of bureaucracy and funding get in the way of what is effective and needed.


Blade: Going back to your years in Washington you name certain members of Congress as being gay. Do you ‘out’ some of these people or were they known publicly to be gay?

Strub: The people I talk about I knew before they were outed. I talked about [former Rep.] Gerry Studds [D-Mass.]. I talked about [former Rep.] Barney [Frank (D-Mass)]. I think I referenced [former Rep.] Peter Kostmayer [D-Penn.]. I talked about the Bob Bauman scandal [former Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.)]. I referenced [former Rep.] Stuart McKinney [(R-Conn.)]. I don’t think I’m outing any current or former member of Congress that isn’t already known to be gay.


Blade: You appear to be more than a little critical of the Clinton administration on the AIDS front.

Strub: I thought I went easy on him.


Blade: Richard Socarides, Clinton’s White House liaison to the LGBT community, may disagree with some of the things you say in the book about Clinton.

Strub: Well, Richard Socarides – there are a lot of people who will disagree with Richard Socarides’ version of that history. I tried not to take things personally because there is always another side. But the indifference and the opportunism and the manipulation of the issue for political purposes are something I and a lot of other people saw really clearly – really visibly. And there is no question about it. The needle exchange stuff. You know, that’s a sin right up there with Fauci on the Bactrim. That is something that was so immediate, so clear.

One of the biggest reasons that the heterosexual transmission in New York has declined so precipitously is because of needle exchange.


Blade:  Would the Clinton people argue that they didn’t have the political support in Congress and elsewhere to fund and promote needle exchange?

Strub: That’s always the argument – that’s always the argument. But you know that’s also a decision. The other way of saying it is they weren’t willing to expend the political capital to do that. And that becomes a little chicken and egg-ish, right? They could have done it. They could have gotten it done. There would have been some price they would have had to pay. Maybe it would have screwed up the rest of their legislative agenda. I don’t know. And I suppose they could have tried and ended up failing. But I think if the president had shown the leadership on it I think it would have happened because the science was so clear.


Blade: Didn’t at some point Congress enact into law a funding ban on needle exchange programs?

Strub: Sure. But that isn’t a reason for the Clinton administration not to have sought to change it. There are many different strategies. The problem was they decided to roll over on it. They were not going to go out on a limb on this issue and to bring about a change was not that important to them. You can say they had other priorities. Everyone in office only has so much political capital and they have to use it on what’s important to them. And we learned that this was not something that was important to them.


Blade: What can you say about the status of your marriage to a woman friend Doris O’Donnell that you tell about in the book? You said the marriage, among other things, would have allowed her to obtain your disability benefits and pass them on to your life partner Xavier Morales in the event of your death. Are you still married to her?

Strub: No. We got married. And then when my health came back and she had qualified for Medicare and Social Security we then got divorced because for tax reasons it made sense. She subsequently has died.

Blade: I’m sorry to hear that.


Strub: She was quite elderly. She used to joke that when we got married the only good reason to get married was for money. Her parents were both journalists. Her father was the Washington bureau chief for the Daily News for decades – John O’Donnell. And her mother was Doris Fleeson, who was the first female political columnist who was syndicated and was very close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. I think her columns started in the 1940s and went right up into the 1960s. She was in a hundred and some papers. Mary McGrory was her protégé. So that’s just an aside but she grew up in that Washington media political world.


Blade: You mention in the book that your partner Xavier was not all that pleased about your decision to get married to a woman. Is he still part of your life now?

Strub: He’s roasting a chicken in the other room. After my health came back – there was a real stress on my relationship as this is for a lot of people. For most of the time we were together – it was usually unspoken – but the assumption was I was going to die and he would go on with his life. And he had moved in with me and then I got sick. And after my health got better there were stresses on the relationship and we broke up for a while and a number of years ago we got back together. We’re now [together] 22 years believe it or not.


Black Pride Picnic

The annual picnic for Black Pride was held at Fort Dupont Park on Memorial Day. (Washington Blade photos by Damien Salas) Black Pride  


From Stonewall to marriage equality at lightning speed

Stonewall to marriage, gay news, Washington Blade, National Equality March

Even those of us involved in the fight for women’s rights and civil rights would never have believed the speed at which things are changing for the LGBT community. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The progress from Stonewall to marriage equality in my lifetime is amazing. My accepting who I am mirrored the evolving LGBT movement. Coming of age at 21 in New York City, a gay man deep in the closet, hiding my sexual orientation to become a teacher. At 25, starting a political career and working for the most gay-friendly politician in the nation, the congresswoman who introduced the first ENDA bill in Congress, yet still deep in the closet.

Then moving to Washington, D.C. at 31, a city that just elected a mayor who credited the LGBT community and the Stein Democratic Club with making the difference in his election. Pride events were gaining in strength and visibility and my first in Dupont Circle had me hiding behind a tree to make sure my picture wouldn’t end up in a newspaper. Then life started moving faster for me and the LGBT community. By the time I was 34, we were beginning to hear about AIDS and that coincided with my coming out to friends. Then began the process of my morphing into an LGBT activist joining in the fight against HIV/AIDS and openly participating in marches for LGBT rights, openly attending Pride events on a muddy field in Dupont, and being a regular at Rascals, the bar of the moment.

Over the ensuing years the organized LGBT community would get stronger and stand up for our rights and I would find that being “out” still had its consequences. Being rejected for a job for being gay was one of them. As the community turned to more activism, my role in politics was becoming more identified with being gay. First becoming a columnist for the Washington Blade and then finding my picture on the front page of the Washington Post supporting a mayoral candidate and being identified as among other things a gay activist.

As the fight for marriage equality heated up in D.C., GLAA activist Rick Rosendall and I met at a little outdoor lunch place on 17th Street and set the plans in motion to form the Foundation for All DC Families, which begat the Campaign for All DC Families, which helped coordinate the fight for marriage equality in the District.

For so many who grew up in the Baby Boomer generation, life continues to hold many surprises. But even those of us involved in the fight for women’s rights and civil rights would never have believed the speed at which things are changing for the LGBT community.

The courts are moving at a much faster pace than anyone could have predicted even a year ago, striking down bans on gay marriage enacted by state legislatures. State constitutional amendments banning marriage equality are being declared unconstitutional by a raft of federal judges. From Oklahoma to Kentucky, Utah to Virginia, federal judges are saying that states must recognize these marriages. While the cases are being appealed there is a clear path for one or more of them to reach the Supreme Court in its next term. While they weren’t ready to make a decision when they rejected the Prop 8 case in 2013, they will now probably have to decide the fate of marriage equality nationwide and determine whether it is constitutional to discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens.

Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen in her decision in Virginia added to the so-far unanimous group of federal judges who have thrown out these bans. Judge Allen quoted from Mildred Loving, who was at the center of the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. At the time that case was decided only 14 states had laws allowing interracial marriage and already there are 17 states and the District of Columbia that allow gay marriage. While people are hailing her decision she clearly had to be embarrassed when she had to amend her written opinion because she confused the U. S. Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. She isn’t the first and won’t be the last to do that.

Clearly the time has come in our country for full equality. The decisions made by these federal judges have been based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor. Then Attorney General Eric Holder announced “the federal government would recognize legal same-sex marriages in federal matters including bankruptcies, prison visits and survivor benefits.” He stated that, “It is the [Justice Department's] policy to recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible, to ensure equal treatment for all members of society regardless of sexual orientation.”

In what seems like lightning speed, the LGBT community is moving toward full civil and human rights.


SPECIAL REPORT: ‘You can’t let adversity get you down’

Cedric Burgess, poverty, gay news, Washington Blade

Cedric Burgess says he lives ‘check to check’ while relying on government assistance to pay bills. Despite his struggles, he works to give back to the LGBT community. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part look at how poverty affects elder members of the LGBT community and part of a yearlong Blade focus on poverty. To share your ideas or personal story, visit us on Facebook or email Click here to read previous installments.


“I did my dirt,” said Cedric Burgess, a black gay man and longtime Washington, D.C. resident who grew up in the District. “I was young and full of fun!”

Today, Burgess, 61, is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from depression. He’s been HIV positive for more than 30 years. “I live from check to check,” said Burgess, who receives Social Security disability benefits.

Before undergoing a hip replacement four years ago, he struggled to walk up to his second-story apartment.

“It is a wonder to be able to walk without my cane,” Burgess said. “No matter what pain pills I took, I couldn’t get to sleep. You don’t realize how much pain you’re in. You adapt. I couldn’t cross my legs. Steps weren’t an option.”

At 19, Burgess came out to his family.

“I was accepted by my family. I was taken in,” he said, “that was a blessing!”

For some years, he worked in a series of clerical jobs. In 1982, Burgess, then living and working as an administrative assistant in Atlanta, was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left him with back pain, nerve damage and sciatica. For two years, unable to work, he did physical therapy. In 1984, Burgess returned to work. After returning to D.C., he went back to doing clerical work.

During the AIDS epidemic, his family confronted Burgess.

“They said ‘you gotta get tested,’” he said. “In 1991, after I found out I was positive, I took a two-week vacation. I got HIV through a blood transfusion I received when I had my accident.  They weren’t screening transfusions for HIV then.”

In 2006, his back pain became so severe that Burgess left the workforce. He said he retired from the Green Door, a D.C. organization that helps people with mental challenges, where he worked as a program assistant.

“You can’t let adversity get you down, you have to have a positive attitude,” Burgess added.  Fortunately, he said, social safety net programs help him to make ends meet. In addition to his monthly disability check, Burgess receives food stamps. His health care is covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

“I receive energy assistance from Pepco and two-thirds of my rent, with funding from the Ryan White Act, is subsidized by the Washington, D.C. Housing Coalition,” Burgess said.

These programs are a lifeline for him. “Without the rental assistance and the Medicare and Medicaid, I wouldn’t be able to afford housing and health care,” Burgess said. “I couldn’t pay for my HIV medications and I couldn’t have had my hip replacement.”

Cedric Burgess, poverty, gay news, Washington Blade

Cedric Burgess says many elders don’t know their legal rights when it comes to housing and other issues. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite living with economic hardship, Burgess leads an active and full life. Committed to helping others, he has volunteered for groups serving everyone from homeless youth to elders.  “I’m a goodwill ambassador for the DC Center for the LGBT Community and for AARP,” Burgess said. “I help seniors learn about their rights in housing and in nursing homes. Many seniors don’t know their rights.”

“I believe in God’s healing,” he went on, “I go to church. I have no prejudice against any other religion. I’m a spiritually free person.”

Burgess’s situation is far from unique. Many LGBT older adults (aging Baby Boomers over 50) live with economic insecurity.

“Media and marketing stereotypes view the LGBT community as an affluent niche group filled with couples with double incomes,” said Matthew J. Corso, chief communications officer and board member of the DC Center for the LGBT Community. “The poverty rate among LGBT older adults is much higher than people would think from the marketing view. Older adults can often feel isolated.”

The DC Center’s Coffee and Conversation is a safe space where older adults can connect with others in the community and discuss issues related to living with economic insecurity, Corso said.

People rarely look at economic insecurity and aging, said Robert Espinoza, senior director of public policy and communications for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), “People studying poverty don’t look often enough at poverty among LGBT and older people.  On the other side, people studying LGBT issues aren’t looking often enough at aging and poverty.”

But studies that have been done show that poverty is high among elders and even higher among LGBT older adults, Espinoza said. Among the findings:

• One in six Americans aged 65 and older lives in poverty, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.

• The poverty rate is as high or higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual people than for heterosexual people, and lesbian couples, 65 and older, are twice as likely to be poor as straight married couples, according to a 2009 Williams Institute Report.

• There are an estimated 1.5 million gay, lesbian and bisexual elders in the United States today. The number is expected to increase to nearly 3 million by 2030, according to “Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults” from SAGE, the Movement Advancement Program (MAP) and Center for American Progress.

• Because historically LGBT people have not been able to marry, many LGBT older adults face the economic insecurity and health issues that come with aging without the support from families that heterosexual older adults often receive. LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and three to four times more likely to be without children as their straight peers, according to the MAP report.

• Transgender adults encounter profound discrimination, according to a SAGE and National Center for Transgender Equality 2012 report. They experience “striking disparities in … health care access … employment and more,” the report states, “with a growing older transgender population, there is an urgent need to understand the challenges that can threaten financial security, health and overall well-being.”

Several factors contribute to poverty among LGBT elders. “In the past, many faced employment discrimination because they were LGBT. LGBT people of color and lesbians faced even more severe discrimination,” Espinoza said. “Too many LGBT older adults have little, if any, retirement savings.”

• LGBT older adults face health disparities and 47 percent of LGBT people over 50 have a disability, said Imani Woody, Ph.D., chair of SAGE Metro D.C. “More than one in 10 LGBT people aged 50-plus have been denied health care or provided with inferior health care,” she said. “This can lead to economic insecurity, which can translate to poverty. If you don’t have access to health care, what do you have?”

Even older LGBT adults with moderate incomes, who wouldn’t think of themselves as facing poverty, can become impoverished if they become disabled or need long-term care, Espinoza said. “If you only have savings of, say, $60,000, it will go quickly.”

Lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination are key reasons why many LGBT older adults live in or near poverty. Same-sex older couples encounter discrimination when seeking housing in senior living facilities, according to a report, “Opening Doors: An Investigation of Barriers to Senior Housing for Same-Sex couples,” released last month by the Equal Rights Center, a civil rights organization in partnership with SAGE.

“We saw a number of adverse treatments with a high economic impact,” said Don Kahl, executive director, Equal Rights Center. “Sometimes they were charged for having an ‘extra person.’ At other times, they were told they’d have to take a more expensive two-bedroom apartment when they wanted a one-bedroom,” he said, “In other cases, they were treated in such a manner, that they wouldn’t accept the housing even if it was offered.”

It’s a misperception to think that as people age, they accumulate wealth and live out their days in comfort, said Peter Johnson, director of public relations for the Center on Halsted in Chicago. “It’s even more true for LGBT older adults. Before we began to experience marriage equality, LGBT seniors might have shared finances unevenly with their partners,” he said. “Without marriage, if one partner dies or the relationship ends, a huge financial burden is placed on the remaining partner.”

The Halsted Center is working with the Heartland Alliance to provide LGBT older adults with affordable housing in the LakeView neighborhood of Chicago. “While not exclusively LGBT it will be LGBT focused and friendly,” Johnson said. “It will be 70 units of subsidized housing with the rent being no more than 30 percent of residents’ income.”

LGBT elders live in or near poverty nationwide — from rural to metropolitan areas, Johnson said. “We are fortunate to have Heartland [Alliance] dealing with us on these issues.”

      Next week: Meet elder members of the LGBT community coping with unemployment and economic insecurity.


Queery: Brandon Montgomery

Brandon Montgomery, DHS, Department of Homeland Security, gay news, Washington Blade

Brandon Montgomery (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pride group within the Department of Homeland Security may sound big — it has about 500 members — but Brandon Montgomery, its president, says it’s really not when you consider that the department employs about 250,000 people.

“Just like in the military, there’s a lot of stigma people have to overcome,” Montgomery says. “I think giving people in the federal law enforcement world a sense of belonging is paramount. … Every employer that can offer that kind of support should do so.”

Montgomery has been with the DHS a little over seven years and has served in several departments. Now he’s a public affairs officer and liaison for film, TV and multimedia producers who need information on the department. The 47-year-old San Antonio native moved to Washington about 10 years ago when his ex-wife was pursuing a doctoral degree and got transferred.

Married 19 years, he divorced in 2010 and later started a relationship with his current partner, Stevan Johnson. They have joint custody of his two daughters, Katherine and Claire (14 and 8 respectively), and live together in Silver Spring.

Montgomery enjoys Broadway, museums, reading, movies and cooking in his free time.


Brandon Montgomery, DHS, Department of Homeland Security, gay news, Washington Blade

Brandon Montgomery with family. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?

About five years. The hardest person to tell was my wife. The second hardest were my kids who were pretty young at the time, though in the end they were the quickest to accept and adapt to it.


Who’s your LGBT hero?

I admire the unsung heroes who stand up for what they believe, battle bullying and discrimination and show the “rest of the world” that being is gay is normal. But if I have to pick someone, it would be Harvey Milk.

What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present? 

I’m old. Best nightspot to me is home with friends and Stevan dishing dirt but I really enjoy the Green Lantern — hot men, not boys and all very friendly. It’s what I imagine the gay “Cheers” would be like.


Describe your dream wedding.

Well, I had the big fancy formal one in my previous life. But, if I were to marry again, my dream wedding would include Stevan and me on a beach, with my children, friends, family, lots of laughter, dancing and Champagne.


What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?

Equality. Gay or not. I think it is the basis for anything that gets me all riled up.


What historical outcome would you change?

That’s a toss-up between the “hanging chad” in Nov. 2000 and the assassination of Lincoln. Both were horrific.

What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?

Wow, I’ve had so many — meeting Adam Levine at a Super Bowl party where he performed and meeting and chatting with Prince, at a Grammys after party. Watching the New York City premiere of “The King’s Speech” with my Academy Award-winning producer and friend and chatting and being caddy with Leslie Jordan.


On what do you insist?

Be honest. Be bold. Be compassionate.


What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?

Photo of snow in backyard: “Peaceful day of constant snow. Looking out bedroom window. Expect 7” when done. As a gay man … that’s pretty much average … of snow for one day.”


If your life were a book, what would the title be?

“Me Talk Pretty One Day”


If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?

Why change perfection, just because you can?


What do you believe in beyond the physical world? 

Well, I’m Episcopalian. Catholic-lite.


What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?

Be honest. Be bold. Be compassionate.


What would you walk across hot coals for?

My children. And to sing and dish with Kristin Chenoweth


What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?

“Straight acting” — that’s ridiculous. Really, what does that mean?

What’s your favorite LGBT movie?

“A Single Man.” However the one that most impacted me emotionally wasn’t a movie, but the play “The Normal Heart.”


What’s the most overrated social custom?

Thank you notes.


What trophy or prize do you most covet?

The ring Stevan gave me. It’s funny, we had the girls in the car and singing like fools to “Single Lady,” and he put a ring on it. Awe…


What do you wish you’d known at 18?

That life would be good being gay. Life would be tough being gay or playing straight. In the end it doesn’t matter, life is tough but make the best of it.


Why Washington?

It’s an incredible city filled with history, culture and inspiring leaders creating social and world change right in your midst. Not to mention the gays are beautiful and it’s an easy gateway to the Caribbean and Europe!



Washington businesses told to extend benefits

Washington, benefits, gay news, Washington Blade

Washington voters approved same-sex marriage in the fall of 2012, and the law took effect that year. (Photo by François de Dijon; courtesy Creative Commons)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state officials penned a joint letter last week to insurers and companies in the state saying that health benefits must be provided to same-sex spouses if they are provided to heterosexual spouses, the Associated Press reports.

The joint letter, written by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and Human Rights Commission Executive Director Sharon Ortiz, said they are concerned about “legally married Washington residents who are negatively affected” when same-sex spouses aren’t provided with equal health coverage, the article, which ran in the Seattle Times, said.

“This practice violates Washington State law,” the letter reads.

“Most health insurers doing business in our state understand they cannot discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation,” Kreidler said in a written statement. “But we’re taking this extra step today to ensure they understand their responsibility to do due diligence when selling insurance policies in Washington.”

Kreidler said later in a conference call that the letter was sent to 48 insurance companies. Ferguson said that other outreach was being used to notify the state’s business community, the AP report says.

Officials said they released the letter to provide clarity on state laws following a recent investigation by Ferguson’s office of O’Reilly Automotive Inc., that resulted in the company’s agreement to extend health benefits to same-sex spouses as of April 1.

“The purpose of this letter is to do everything we can to make sure businesses are aware of changes in state law,” Ferguson was quoted as having said by the AP.

Washington voters approved same-sex marriage in the fall of 2012, and the law took effect that year. Protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation were codified by the Legislature in 2006.


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.


Catania, Gray in dead heat for mayor: poll

David Catania, Vincent Gray, gay news, Washington Blade

Council member David Catania (left) predicts a ‘competitive’ race should he decide to run for mayor against Vincent Gray. (Washington Blade file photos by Michael Key)

A poll released by the Washington Post on Tuesday shows that gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) is in a statistical tie with Mayor Vincent Gray if the two were to run against each other for mayor.

The poll, which consisted of a sample of 1,003 city residents contacted by phone Jan. 9-12, found that among registered voters, 43 percent support Gray and 40 percent support Catania. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, the Post said.

Catania has said he’s seriously considering entering the mayoral contest in the November general election. The close polling numbers indicate that if Gray wins the Democratic nomination in the April 1 primary he could face a competitive race against Catania in November.

“Today’s Post poll results are encouraging,” Catania said in a statement released on Tuesday. “They indicate that should I choose to run for mayor this year the race will be very competitive.”

The poll showed that Gray had a substantial lead over his challengers in the primary. Among registered voters, 24 percent said they support Gray, 12 percent support Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), 11 percent said they support both Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), 9 percent said they back Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large), 5 percent said they support businessman and Busboys and Poets Restaurant owner Andy Shallal.

The remaining candidates, including Reta Lewis and Christian Carter, had 1 percent or less support, the poll shows.

Among likely voters, the poll showed Gray would receive 27 percent support, with Evans coming in second with 13 percent. Bowser and Wells each had 12 percent among likely voters. Orange had 7 percent, Shallal had 5 percent, Lewis had 2 percent and Carter had 1 percent.


Catania is superior candidate for mayor

David Catania, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As a lifelong Democrat, I was interested to read Lateefah Williams’ March 12 piece in which she argues that LGBT voters should look no further than the political party of a candidate when choosing our next mayor. First, I know Williams and find her to be a passionate advocate for the causes close to her heart. However, the notion that we should blindly fall in line and support the candidate with a “D” at their end of their name does a disservice to our community and is not in the best interest of our city.

Williams would have us look only at a label rather than the quality of a candidate’s character and record. David Catania has fought for the LGBT community and stood up for “Democratic values” more than any other elected official in the District. His efforts to improve public schools, expand healthcare coverage to all District residents regardless of their immigration status, create a medical marijuana program and foster economic opportunity for the entire city speak for themselves and clearly reflect our shared values.

There is no other candidate in the race who can hold a candle to David Catania when it comes to issues affecting both the future of our city generally and our community specifically.  David not only authored the bill that brought the District marriage equality, but he was the chief executive of the tireless and relentless campaign to guide it to passage. It was David who brought the various voices of our community together behind an effective and unified strategy and it was David who fought against and stared down the prospect of a ballot initiative that could have been its undoing.

Because of David’s leadership as chair of the Council’s Committee on Health, the District increased the number of publicly funded HIV tests from 8,320 in 2005 to nearly 138,000 in 2012, the final year of his tenure as chair. Further, he was instrumental in taking the District from a place of ignorance about its epidemic to being a national leader in effectively tracking and understanding the spread of the disease. The District’s annual HIV/AIDS epidemiology report that David funded and championed is now a model for jurisdictions across the country. As a result of this work, the number of newly diagnosed cases fell from 700 in 2008 to 363 in 2012 and the number of HIV-related deaths went from 238 in 2008 to 69 in 2012. What’s more, because of his efforts to uncover and address the mismanagement of the city’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, the number of District residents receiving life-saving medication for free has tripled since 2008 and there is no waiting list.

When the only acute care hospital east of the Anacostia River faced imminent collapse, David took action. He held hearings, rooted out the problems, championed the cause of saving the hospital, and led the effort to secure grants and loans to ensure the hospital’s survival. What was once a facility at risk of being unable to ensure basic patient safety was reborn as “United Medical Center” with new equipment, facilities and patient services. The hospital has seen patient volumes increase and its bottom line drastically improve. If not for David’s intervention, this critical component of the District’s healthcare infrastructure and social safety net would have been lost forever.

In 2013, David introduced legislation to undo the District’s prohibition on surrogacy agreements. Under District law, couples and single people wanting to have children face a fine of up to $10,000 or a year in jail if they enter into a surrogacy agreement. The District is the only jurisdiction in the country with such a prohibition. The legislation authored by David permits surrogacy agreements and establishes a legal framework to protect those agreements.

David authored and guided to passage legislation to undo laws that burdened our transgender brothers and sisters. Until last year, the District required expensive medical procedures before individuals could obtain a birth certificate that reflects their true gender identity. Seeing these laws as outdated and discriminatory, David did something about it. He introduced the “JaParker Deoni Jones Birth Certificate Equality Amendment Act of 2013,” which aligned the District’s requirements with modern medical standards and implemented privacy protections for those seeking a new birth certificate.

Yes, there was a time when David Catania was a Republican. But our community stands for being true to ourselves, true to our beliefs and true to the values of acceptance and fairness.  David Catania’s decision to leave the Republican Party more than a decade ago when it was clear that it did not align with his core values and go on to serve as an independent member of the Council is the logical extension of that same ethic.

David Catania may not have a “D” after his name, but I would put his record up against anyone who does. While some have spent their time worrying about labels, David Catania has been busy putting the District of Columbia first.

John Klenert has been a D.C. resident since the Lyndon Johnson administration. He is a longtime member of the Stein Club and serves on the Victory Fund Campaign Board.


Grosso endorses Graham opponent

David Grosso, D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council member David Grosso has endorsed Brianne Nadeau over incumbent Jim Graham. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) raised eyebrows within the city’s political establishment on Tuesday when he confirmed he has endorsed Brianne Nadeau, one of the candidates running against gay Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) in the city’s April 1 Democratic primary.

“I think it’s an opportunity for Ward 1 and the D.C. Council to get a strong, new, good-government voice on the Council,” Grosso told the Blade in a phone interview. “I think she’s a viable candidate who would step in and do a really good job as a Council member and be a strong ally up here on the Council.”

When contacted by the Blade for comment, Graham released a statement saying he didn’t think Grosso’s endorsement of Nadeau would make a difference in the race.

“Having a non-Democrat comment on a Democratic primary won’t mean much,” he said. “My opponent is grasping for straws and she got one.”

Graham has received strong support from the LGBT community in each of his four previous election campaigns for his Council seat. With Nadeau and another challenger, Ward 1 civic activist Bryan Weaver, having a record of support for the LGBT community, some observers think the LGBT vote could be split between Graham, Nadeau and Weaver.

But many observers believe Graham’s more than 30 years of advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community as an activist and Council member and his past role as a leader in the fight against AIDS as head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic will prompt most LGBT voters to stick with him.

Both Nadeau and Weaver have cited the Council’s decision to reprimand Graham last year over allegations that he violated a city ethics rule by improperly intervening in the contract approval process involving Metro and the D.C. lottery contracts were grounds for voting him out of office. Graham has disputed the allegation, saying he favored one contractor over another on grounds it was better qualified for the work.

Grosso said that while Graham played an important role as an openly gay member of the Council during his early years in office he doesn’t think his replacement by a non-gay Council member would have an adverse impact on the LGBT community.

“I think we’ve come to a point in this city where as leaders you’d better be accepting of every single human being and who they are as a person,” Grosso said. “And I certainly hope that whether you’re straight or gay you are standing up for that and standing up for all the people in the District.”

Added Grosso, “That doesn’t take away from having representation on the Council of every group of individuals in our city. But I think we can do a god job of representing folks ourselves whether you’re straight or gay, and that’s important to us.”

Grosso has a strong record of support on LGBT issues.

The Washington Post reported that Grosso has recorded a robocall message urging Ward 1 residents to vote for Nadeau that’s expected to be released shortly.