Phil Pannell tumbled out of Player’s Lounge one summer night in 1987. He’d gone to the Southeast Washington bar after a party and ended up being shooed out at closing. It was 3:30 a.m., and he had 10 muggy blocks to walk home.
As he walked, a man called to him from a stoop. The guy, who seemed to know him, asked Pannell for a voter registration form. Most people who’ve lived in Anacostia a while have seen Pannell passing out voter registration forms from the sidebag he always carries. Pannell obliged and prepared to make his way home.
But the man also wanted help filling out the form, and umpteen beers and screwdrivers got the better of Pannell’s judgment. He agreed to go into the laundry room of a nearby apartment building. There was light there, the man said.
Once inside, the man locked the door. “I want some head,” he announced.
“Well, don’t we all,” Pannell said.
A knife flashed, and Pannell dropped to his knees as ordered. “He came in my mouth,” Pannell recalls matter-of-factly. Then the man told Pannell to pull his pants down and lie face-down on the floor. As he lay there, half naked, the man left.
Reporting the rape to the cops was nearly as degrading as the rape itself. A woman officer was kind, but the man who took his statement at Anacostia’s 7th District was icy. Pannell remembers the officer’s sneering tone— he remembers feeling embarrassed and doubly victimized.
But he also remembers getting mad. Pannell dealt with his rape the same way he coped with a lifetime of painful events: He pushed back. After taking a few days to recover, he stomped down to the 7th District station and verbally butchered the on-duty sergeant. He didn’t even know the sergeant’s name. He just let loose.
Later, Pannell worked with the station on ways to improve officers’ handling of gay-related crime. Today, the 7th District headquarters is the only police station to receive the Washington Blade each week. And Pannell has run two classes at the station designed to sensitize officers to gay and lesbian concerns.
For nearly three decades, Pannell has given meaning to the squishy label “community activist.” The community is Ward 8, a home Pannell adopted in 1982 and now defends and promotes with unparalleled ferocity. His activism ranges widely: Pannell has organized Democratic Party meetings, visited mothers whose children have been murdered, helped ex-offenders find jobs, passed out condoms on the street, taken candidates campaigning in gay bars, and shrieked at do-nothing city officials.
He’s gotten himself arrested at least a dozen times and has won almost that many local elections—all for small and mostly unpaid posts. In some ways, Pannell has appointed himself unofficial ward mayor—the community’s bitchy queen, slaying its critics with his stiletto tongue and embracing its champions with his boundless charm. Every day, in a thousand ways—each of them mundane, but crucial when taken together—Pannell helps the ward help itself. He has proudly blanketed a wall of his meager bedroom with plaques, proclamations, and certificates—the physical evidence of an intangible career.
It hasn’t been easy. Anacostia is a tough, culturally conservative neighborhood that’s an entire queer nation away from Dupont Circle. If America still has an uncertain relationship with its lesbian and gay citizens, in parts of African America that relationship is even more culturally fraught. Ward 8 is one of those places. Pannell says he knows only 20 other openly gay men in the entire ward.
There have been other sacrifices, some chosen (like his neighborhood) and some unchosen. For instance, Pannell’s community work has never paid more than $27,000 a year. And he spends a significant chunk of that income on prescription medication to control diagnosed manic-depression. Pannell has also had a problem with alcohol, which mangles his intensity and induces self-pity and vicious self-righteousness. Although he says he now controls his alcohol use, friends and other associates recall years of beery rants and alcoholic behavior.
Even today, Pannell’s friends say he never lets them forget the sacrifices he’s made, especially for people east of the river. As one of them puts it, “He’s so east-er than thou.”
But Pannell’s constant rabble-rousing and networking and leafleting—he often sleeps at his office, and he never takes vacations—make his righteousness tolerable. Pannell walks his talk all over the streets and alleys of Ward 8.
Pannell told me about his rape about an hour after we met for the first time. He spared few details. We were sitting in Player’s eating lunch, and his openness flustered me: Georgene Thompson, the owner, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary Cuthbert, our waitress, hovered around the bar, chatting and watching TV. Other political figures and regular folks ambled in and out. I thought Pannell might prefer a more private setting, and said so.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “They all know me here.”
They sure do. Nearly everybody who walked into Player’s that day acknowledged Pannell, either with a nod or, more commonly, a congenial, “Hey, now, how you doing?” That’s important because Player’s is to Ward 8 what The Palm is to the K Street crowd—the trough where the cognoscenti feed (see “Sooner or Later, Everyone Comes Down to Player’s,” 6/30/95). And few regulars are as regular as Pannell. He politicks there, drinks there, and schmoozes with his political cronies there. When we get up to leave, Pannell tells Thompson to wrap up the remains of his salmon patties for later.
Pannell is at or near the center of Ward 8’s political circle. He has won seats on Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions three times, and he served as president of the Ward 8 Democrats in 1991. Last year, he became the first Ward 8 Democrat to win an at-large seat on the Democratic State Committee, the party’s ruling body. Recently, he put together a Ward 8–heavy slate for upcoming committee elections. Those elections will help determine the future of the Democratic Party in a one-party town—big stakes for someone hoping to drive resources into his particular ward.
But Pannell’s electoral portfolio is rather small—his reach derives more from experience and charisma. He’s known as someone who gets things done—a tireless whirlwind who can be counted on to do legwork. “Every time you see him, he’s got a petition on something,” says Sandra Seegars, another Ward 8 activist. “He works hard. He works real hard.”
Pannell has three résumés and sundry titles, all of which are yawners—“program developer,” “outreach worker,” “project coordinator”—but they suggest a single function; for 20 years, it has been Pannell’s job to meet people, educate them about issues, and mobilize them for change. Along the way he’s worked with just about every constituency and politician in the city.
His work has earned him IOUs and praise across the city, but especially in Anacostia. “If you want to know what’s going on in Ward 8, Phil is the person to talk to,” says Sandy Allen, who lost last year’s race for Ward 8’s D.C. Council seat by one vote.
“[For those years] before I met him, I consider myself a virgin in D.C. politics,” says Donna Brazile, who is herself a political powerhouse (she works as Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s top aide). When Brazile signed on to help Norton run for D.C. delegate in 1990, Pannell was one of the first people she called for assistance, which he readily gave.
But it’s not just that Pannell shows up. He is, in the way that all successful political people are, beguiling. A balding, lanky man, Pannell smiles so broadly you see the red parts of his gums. His face doesn’t just light up—it blazes. Suddenly he’s all teeth and eye twinkle, and he’s gesturing his spindly arms extravagantly, and you just have to smile with him.
Pannell is both a great person to have on your team and a frightening one to have on your ass. But even those who have tangled with Pannell acknowledge that he’s shrewd and persuasive. “He’s a very smart man, and he has a gift of gab,” says Riley Temple, a former president of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Pannell savagely criticized the AIDS clinic in the 1980s and early ’90s for not moving quickly enough to address the AIDS crisis east of the Anacostia River. “But I’m not troubled by his excess in advocacy at all,” Temple says. “I think it’s been very, very effective.”
“He’s a walking warehouse of information,” echoes Rahim Jenkins, who has clashed with Pannell in the past. “He does not just organize from a grass-roots approach but [from an approach] based on history and examples he has had from other areas. He brings a certain sophistication to an area that needs it,” says Jenkins.
Pannell’s standing in the community is perhaps best illustrated by his relationship with Arrington Dixon, the former councilmember and philanthropist who owns a far-flung consulting and information management business based in Anacostia. When Dixon needed someone to coordinate his “community involvement presence,” as he calls it, he tapped Pannell. “‘Use my paper, use my phones, buy food, buy this, buy that’—I want to help, but I couldn’t do all the specifics,” Dixon says. “Phil was the one right away that I thought was the right person for that.”
Functionally, that means Pannell directs the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC), which Dixon chairs. ACC is a community group for community groups—it allows leaders of different service organizations to pool resources and plan coordinated strategies. ACC itself also takes on projects—currently, it’s trying to save the only playhouse east of the river and remove the ubiquitous go-go music posters plastered throughout the area.
Pannell’s work at ACC plays to one of his primary strengths—charming and cajoling Washingtonians from different wards or different political persuasions into the same place. Last summer, for example, he arranged a well-attended ACC forum called “Anacostia and the Media.” Eminences Jo-Ann Armao, the Washington Post’s city editor, and TV reporter Tom Sherwood showed up alongside editor Barry Murray of the black nationalist News Dimensions.
Indeed, Pannell knows how to drive coverage, a vital skill for an activist. At a recent candidate forum, as Pannell argued a point with particular eloquence, Post reporter Hamil Harris leaned over to a friend and whispered, “That guy can talk, can’t he?” Harris and other reporters rely on Pannell for background information and sharp-elbowed soundbites. Last summer, for example, he lit up Cora Masters Barry for her over-the-top rudeness toward Sandy Allen. He publicly suggested the mayor’s wife needed to “go to charm school and to procure the services of a professional exorcist.”
Phil Pannell, in short, has learned the Washington game and learned it well. Brazile recently conferred on him Washington’s most prized compliment: “He’s a master politician. Phil, on a good day, can whip my ass.”
But the conceit that Pannell is the sum of his talented, activist parts is, of course, just a conceit. Those are the public facts about Pannell. Consider the private ones: Besides manic-depression and borderline alcoholism, Pannell has survived two rapes, three suicide attempts, a broken childhood home, an abusive lover, a 13-year same-sex “marriage” that collapsed, and three stints in St. Elizabeths mental hospital. The private, traumatized Pannell has shaped—and perhaps even created—the public, gregarious one. But occasionally the two collide, with lamentable results.
Pannell has worked himself up from clear, simple sentences to sputtering, lengthy ones. He’s trying to convince the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s premier gay political organization, to endorse his slate for Democratic State Committee. His slate was conceived with a central idea: to increase representation on the committee of those who live east of the Anacostia.
He says “east of the river” so many times, both at the Stein meeting this month and in our interviews, that you realize “eastness” has become a moral value in itself for him. He moved to Ward 8 specifically because it’s the city’s most disadvantaged area. Indeed, whereas many Anacostians complain that the media only cites the area’s parade of negative statistics (most high-school dropouts, most people on welfare, etc.), Pannell offers these details frequently, bludgeoning the contented with them. While he wants to push leaders into helping the area, he also seems to be underlining his own rectitude.
At some point, Pannell decided that the most important variable in his political calculus was not ideology or experience or even race. He has supported Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks, novices and, of course, Marion Barry. Instead, what matters most to him is geography. With few exceptions, he believes that only those with visceral connections to the streets east of the river can truly represent the will of the people.
For all his skill at organizing, Pannell has always had an activist’s sensibility—for him, confrontation usually trumps compromise. Tonight, the Stein crowd—a largely white one—doesn’t share his combative conviction that geography should drive their votes. They prefer names from the opposing, decidedly less east-of-the-river slate—a slate with polished pros like Shadow Rep. John Capozzi—and Pannell can sense it.
“The other slate does not have a single person who lives east of the river in the at-large race,” he says in a preacher’s cadence. “On [our] slate, five of the nine candidates live east of the river.” A debate ensues, since the other slate claims one east-of-the-river address among its at-large candidates; Pannell says the person doesn’t really live there. It’s the sort of blood-on-the-floor tactic that has won him enemies in the past, and tonight is no exception.
In his final remarks, Pannell lurches for a last straw: “It’s not enough to be black and to be gay and to live east of the river,” he says. Instead, one must “feel the pain” in order to represent a struggling city. His voice quavers a bit. “You must feel the pain to understand the people.”
In the end, Stein votes to endorse neither slate. Instead, members vote on individuals, but Pannell fails to win Stein’s endorsement, even though he’s a longtime member. The comfortable, progressive organization is simply not interested in the politics of pain.
Stein members are probably rejecting more than his message. They have seen and heard much worse than his relatively tame tongue-lashing on pain. While most people in Ward 8 see Pannell as an effective organizer with alcohol and depression problems, many people west of the river see him as a depressive alcoholic who can be an effective organizer.
The difference stems largely from the fact that Pannell has berated the western establishment endlessly (though no one I spoke with, east or west of the river, had totally escaped his critical eye). And Pannell was most ferocious in his criticism several years ago, before he says he effectively controlled his alcohol use and depression.
And even if Pannell is healthier, Stein members figure, he’s still a loose cannon. The morning after the Stein meeting, Pannell telephoned some club members he’s known for a long time to denounce them. He also wrote a four-page, single-spaced diatribe that he called “Et tu, Stein? An Open Letter to the Lesbian and Gay Community.” The letter recounts Pannell’s lifetime of work for the community and the attacks he’s suffered as a result, both from fellow blacks and fellow gays. Still, he says in language typical of his florid style, “I refuse to engage in the prioritization of oppressions.” The letter says he’s resigning from the club: “[S]ince I am not into S&M, I will not put myself in a situation where I am made the object of political opprobrium, obloquy and abuse.”
For the record, Pannell admits to being a troublemaker, but he says he’s never been an alcoholic. He says he drinks a couple beers each day, far less than the two six-packs a day he drank in the late 1980s. “I don’t have the problems I used to have,” he says. He says friends and a three-week residential treatment program in the late 1980s have helped him control his alcohol use. Some friends say they want him to quit entirely. They blame his political failures—notably four lost races for seats on the school board—on people’s perception that he is an alcoholic.
Like many gay men of his generation, he began drinking heavily when he started going to gay bars in the late 1960s, when he was a college student in New York City. “That was what you had to do to fit in the clubs,” he says.
Pannell thinks he started drinking heavily for another reason: to deal with the manic-depression that wasn’t diagnosed and treated until 1985. “I was basically self-medicating.” The noxious combination of depression and alcohol eventually led to suicide attempts in 1982, 1985, and 1987. Those attempts and other bouts with depression led him to be hospitalized, sometimes forcibly, 10 times. “I’ve been across the street,” he said while we were at Player’s, indicating St. Elizabeths, the sprawling city-funded mental hospital in Southeast.
The drinking and depression often turned Pannell’s activism into self-righteous reproachfulness. Sometimes he showed up at forums or protests sauced and insolent. But Pannell’s favorite weapon was the telephone. Most associates—friend and foe alike—have received late-night phone calls from him laced with vitriol.
“He’ll call at 2 o’clock in the morning if he has to,” says Christopher Bates, a friend who runs an AIDS service organization. “He gets a bee in his bonnet, and he’s not going to be satisfied till that bee is resolved. Sometimes he’s called me and other people at 3 in the morning because we did or didn’t do something he wanted. And if you’re an enemy, you might get a call at 4 in the morning with him cursing you out. When you’re a friend of Phil’s, you have to be tough, because he’s tough.”
“The combination of the medicine he takes to be sane and the alcohol is not a good one,” says Michael Sainte-Andress, an actor and longtime friend. “Oftentimes, under the influence of drink, he’s been accusatory in ways that aren’t fair or true, and…he has chosen not to respect me and other people….I have had to put him out of my house before.”
Brazile has also been a target: “He said I put the ‘itch’ in ‘bitch.’ Can you believe that?” She had angered Pannell by rejecting some of his copious requests to have Norton speak in Ward 8. “He told me there were probably ice cubes coming from certain of my body parts,” she recalls. “He has given me words that I would not repeat to my mother. Or my father. But I love him. I love him like a sister.”
Others aren’t as charitable. Listening to Pannell, one longtime AIDS activist says, “was like having to crawl through barbed wire…in order to locate the substance of what he was saying.” The activist asked not to be identified because he fears Pannell will resume the battering phone calls. “It’s merciless,” he tells me. “Don’t make this guy out to be a hero, because he is a son of a bitch. He is a son of a bitch.”
Others say Pannell’s activism merely masks a personal neediness. “Meetings with him were very destructive because they were all about him, all about what he wanted and what he felt,” says another AIDS activist who knew Pannell during the 1980s. “The most difficult part of Phil is that he’s not consistent. He’s very erratic because of his mental and alcohol [problems].”
Both of these activists acknowledge that Pannell was articulate, funny, and partially correct in his condemnation of the city and of the Whitman-Walker Clinic for not helping more east-of-the-river AIDS patients. “But we were damned if we did, and we were damned if we didn’t, and fuck you in the process,” says one.
Today, Pannell undergoes regular therapy, which he says has improved his mental health vastly. He also takes Prozac and two other drugs (a total of six pills daily), which he keeps in a plastic pill box that’s always with him. He says he always takes his medication now, although he admits there were times that he didn’t.
Still, depression sneaks up on him occasionally. Pannell was hospitalized as recently as last summer. One night in July, he says he “had pretty much lost it.” He began washing large doses of his medication down with liquor. Talking to him on the phone, Arrington Dixon realized Pannell was ill and drove him to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Pannell stayed there for nine days. “Arrington probably saved my life,” he says.
Pannell knows he made some enemies during his more energetic crusades, and he says some friends have endured worse than they deserve. “It’s very difficult to be involved in politics…at a very intense level without [having] folks dislike you,” he says. “I admit there were times when I really would make a calculated effort to, shall I say, get in touch with my inner bitch.” He laughs. “And so there were times when I’ve had to make many apologies.” Later, he adds, “I wish I could get to the point where I could be tough on issues and soft on people.”
But Pannell argues that his abrasiveness was a necessary tactical weapon in the ’80s, because crisis and denial went hand-in-hand during the first decade of AIDS. By screaming bloody murder, Pannell and others like him put the disease on the agenda. Even after AIDS became a legitimate issue among white liberals in other parts of the city, Southeast festered with the virus without much help. Politicians were doing little, and private organizations such as Whitman-Walker focused almost exclusively on openly gay men, most of them white or middle-class. The District’s east-of-the-river plight demanded a more particularized response, one that recognized that many of the people at risk there didn’t identify themselves as gay and were convinced they couldn’t acquire HIV.
While Pannell and a few other black activists pilloried the city and Whitman-Walker, Pannell also built an ad hoc outreach center from his Congress Heights apartment. On weekends, he began walking up and down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the ward’s main drag, disbursing condoms and armchair counseling to all who would accept them. He always had safe-sex literature in his apartment and still keeps a wicker bowl of condoms on his coffee table.
Eventually, he was hired by two organizations to counsel Anacostia residents and design an HIV/AIDS education program, but he maintained his street ministry. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, for example, when Player’s was still a strip joint, he would drop by at 2 a.m. to have a few drinks and press condoms into the sweaty palms of the men watching the women dance, men who didn’t think straight guys could get AIDS.
It was too late for many. In those early years, Pannell watched friend after friend succumb to AIDS-related illnesses. He says he has known 300 men who died after contracting the disease. AIDS-stricken friends who couldn’t afford proper treatment would spend nights at his apartment, sprawled on the ’70s-era orange rug in his living room.
Somehow Pannell managed to make his way through the years uninfected, in part because he was burned early by other sexually transmitted diseases. Like most gay men, he had unprotected sex before safe-sex education seeped into the community in the 1980s. “I was a total and absolute whore [in the 1970s],” he says. He contracted gonorrhea and syphilis, and spent a month in the hospital at age 20 fighting hepatitis, which almost killed him. After that, he was more careful with sex. And he was lucky.
“There have been times when three people I know, three friends, were having funerals at the same time on the same day,” he says as he sits in his apartment one day after work, sipping a Milwaukee’s Best. He takes out a bulging photo album and begins flipping through the pages, the pictures showing happy men smiling and dancing and snuggling. He points to nearly every one of them and says, bluntly, “He’s dead.”
“I just eventually had to get rid of my phone book, because it was so depressing to see all the names crossed out.”
Yet not only were the city and the Dupont-centric gay organizations doing little to help, Pannell recalls, but the African-American gay community was letting itself die. In 1985, he wrote an extraordinary article called “The Black Gay Avoidance and Denial of AIDS.” He thundered:
“Unfortunately, here in D.C., Black Gays are not confronting the AIDS issue in a collective manner….It is shameful and obscene that Blacks with AIDS, during their waning hours, have to expect and depend upon only the White Gay community to provide the support, assistance, services, and compassion that Black Gays could provide, but are too lazy or unconcerned to produce.” He criticized black gays for spending money on social events while white gays were donating heavily to AIDS organizations.
Pannell says the Blade refused to print the inflammatory piece, which eventually ran in an ANC publication. Many black gays attacked him after the article appeared, but it was a dead-on critique. Today, black AIDS activists like Chris Bates say Pannell, along with a few other early activists like Lawrence Washington and Melvin Boozer, was a pioneer for black gay consciousness.
“D.C. had human rights legislation [protecting lesbians and gays] early on, and Phil made us realize the importance of utilizing that comfort and that safety, and being activists in that environment,” Bates says. Even after he became active, Bates adds, he was afraid to let the Blade print his picture. “Phil, for us, broke all those codings down—‘Get over that,’ he’d say. ‘Treat it like it is—normal, just another form of expression.’ It freed me. I’m always going to be in debt to him.”
Meanwhile, Pannell stepped up his anti-AIDS assault. In January 1992, after years of pressure from Pannell and others, the Whitman-Walker Clinic finally opened the Max Robinson Center, an AIDS outreach center located in Ward 8 and named for the Channel 9 newscaster who died in 1988 after a battle with the disease. Pannell praised the long-overdue move, but brutally attacked Whitman-Walker executive director Jim Graham for his management of the facility. Once again, his biggest gripe was geographic. “This was supposed to be an east-of-the-river center, but he really did not make a good faith effort to find someone east of the river to run it,” he says today. Graham declined to be interviewed on the record.
The Max Robinson episode alienated Graham and others. Says a gay Democratic Party activist, who asked to remain anonymous: “I appreciate greatly what he has done for this community. But Phil is one of those people—what’s the saying?—a person with demons. You wonder what’s happened to him to make him so angry.”
Pannell’s dad wasn’t around much when Phil was a baby; in fact, Pannell never met his father until 1968. Pannell was born in 1950, and his mother, Mamie Pannell, moved to New York in 1952, after she and her husband separated. Mamie didn’t take her son to New York with her. Instead, he lived with her strict Baptist parents in Newport News, Va., as an only child. Pannell did well in school, but his grandparents wouldn’t let him go to movies or join the Boys Club. But he rebelled in his own way. In the fourth grade, a teacher caught him and two friends having sex in the bathroom. It wasn’t one-time experimentation—the three boys had sex from the first grade to the seventh grade, Pannell says.
Chafing at his grandparents’ rigidity, Pannell ran away at 13. When he wound up in family court, his mother said she would take him, and Pannell moved to New York. They lived in Harlem, and Pannell attended Catholic school. His mother wasn’t Catholic, but she converted (and made Pannell convert) because she thought he would fare better with teachers and administrators if he was from a Catholic family. “I set my goal and was determined to get it,” says Mamie Pannell, who’s now 68.
Adjusting to New York was difficult for a Virginia boy with a strong Southern accent. Pannell had never met a white person until he moved there. And Catholic school made the being gay even more tortuous. Even today, his Catholic mother says, “I don’t see the point of [homosexuality]. Eventually you just die of AIDS.”
But by the time Pannell entered Fordham College, he had found his place in the city. He immersed himself in the budding anti-war movement and enjoyed the gay life of Greenwich Village.
One night in June 1969, Pannell was at his favorite Village hangout, Bon Soir, a little basement bar. (“We called it a ‘Nigger-Rican’ bar,” Pannell says, “because it was black and Puerto Rican.”) At around 3 a.m., some people hurried in and screeched, “The cops are beating up the queens again! They’re beating up the queens!” The Bon Soir crowd rushed out to find the queens fighting back, for once. The rioting grew over the next few nights into the now-memorialized Stonewall uprising. (Pannell himself didn’t riot. “I didn’t want to get my ass beaten,” he says.)
Fired up by Stonewall and the anti-war movement, Pannell signed up with Democrat-ic Party causes. Full-time activism was appealing, but party politics seemed more practical. He worked for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and for a state assemblyman from the Bronx. But eventually he tired of New York and moved to the District to build ties with his father, who had moved here. He took a job in Arrington Dixon’s D.C. Council office in 1975. Because that was the first elected council, Pannell has witnessed home rule, warts and all, from the beginning.
Perhaps it’s because he’s seen it mostly from the outside—from his many community organizing jobs—that Pannell has maintained a distant and sometimes critical relationship with the home-rule government, even though he is passionately committed to the District’s right to govern its own destiny. He supported Marion Barry early on, helping him campaign for re-election in 1982 in gay bars. In return, Barry appointed him to the D.C. Human Rights Commission. (Pannell served only a year. In a trivial scandal, he was criticized for accepting a donation for a gay conference from a business with a discrimination complaint pending against it at the D.C. Office of Human Rights. He eventually resigned from the commission, saying his fellow members weren’t working with him enough.)
But politically, Pannell has “always gone against the grain in a way,” as he puts it. In 1986, he enraged fellow black and gay activists by endorsing white, Jewish, Republican Carol Schwartz for mayor. The incumbent Barry not only represented the hopes of many black Washingtonians, he had supported gay rights since the earliest days of his political career. By the mid-’80s, thanks in large part to Barry, even lesbians and gays in San Francisco could not claim as much clout with their leaders.
But by 1986, Pannell says, he saw “the clear cases of substance abuse” in Barry and privately decided he couldn’t support him for that reason. “I could see them, because I was going through those things myself,” he says.
Schwartz has always had a pro-gay record, so campaigning with her in lesbian and gay bars was easy. At the Brass Rail, a mostly black club, one lesbian told Pannell that she wouldn’t vote for Schwartz unless she danced with her. Schwartz did. Campaigning with Schwartz in black neighborhoods was more challenging. At one Ward 8 barbershop, for example, a man wouldn’t shake her hand because she was Jewish. “She showed such dignity and graciousness in the face of that,” Pannell says. “I really cussed the guy out later.”
While he’s one of Ward 8’s most tenacious boosters, Pannell has no patience for his ward’s occasional flings with Islam-inspired black nationalism. He loudly denounced Muslim Ward 8 council candidate Malik Shabazz. He opposed the Million Man March on the grounds that its leader, Louis Farrakhan, is anti-gay and anti-Semitic. (When Muslim council candidate Rahim Jenkins said he didn’t think Farrakhan included “faggots” in his call for the march at a public forum, Pannell burst into tears. Jenkins now says he didn’t realize the term “is politically incorrect” and has apologized to Pannell.)
And Pannell left an Afrocentric church, the Imani Temple, after “a minister made some crack about homosexuality….Nationalist rhetoric often does not include me at the table,” he says.
In fact, Pannell has resigned from many organizations. A gay-related slight drove him from the board of the D.C. NAACP last year. In the 1980s, Pannell split from the Gertrude Stein club to help found the Langston
Hughes–Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, a now-defunct rival to Stein. Hughes-Roosevelt had more black and women members than Stein, and more of its members lived east of the river.
Pannell sees all this as fierce political independence. But some say he merely uses his independent streak as an excuse to leave proj-ects he’s bored with. “Most of the time, when he starts out with something, he doesn’t finish it,” says Robert Yeldell, a Ward 8 colleague who first encouraged Pannell to run for president of the Ward 8 Democrats. “Like with Ward 8 Democrats—he just quit, and he didn’t say anything. And his ANC seat—he ran, he won, and two weeks later, he was gone….With petitions, he’ll go hog-wild and get signatures from everyone in Washington, D.C. But you can’t support an individual who keeps quitting.”
Pannell says he quit Ward 8 Democrats because he was spending too much of his own money on the organization and because friends of Wilhelmina Rolark were constantly trying to oust him. (Pannell had repeatedly attacked Rolark, then the Ward 8 councilmember, for opposing repeal of D.C.’s sodomy law.) But Yeldell might have a point. Pannell has left so many organizations on principle that you begin to wonder if any organization could ever be good enough for him. You begin to wonder if Pannell simply wants to take on the world by himself.
Back at Player’s, I’m quietly asking Pannell whether it’s been difficult to be openly gay in Ward 8 political circles. Pointing to his elected ANC and Democratic Party positions, he insists several times that it’s not, but I’m still skeptical.
“Well, you should ask her, then,” Pannell chirps, pointing to Mary Cuthbert, the local activist who’s waiting on our table.
She answers: “We have accepted his, um—we have no other choice to accept it. In fact, we don’t look at him as gay….That’s his problem.”
Cuthbert yells over to Sandy Allen for her opinion. “He’s just a pain in the ass,” Allen jokes. “No, that’s just his preference. I did not say problem, by the way.”
“He’s a sweetie-pie,” Cuthbert concludes.
Later, Pannell and I are walking through Liff’s, a mom-and-pop supermarket on Alabama Avenue where Pannell has an account. He asks one of the clerks for two six-packs of the beer, Natural Light. “You mean Unnatural Light?” the clerk jokes. “Unnatural? Ha!” He turns to me: “Are you like Phil? Do you fly or do you fall?” As we leave, Pannell makes an excuse: “Oh, he’s just kidding with you.”
It’s evident that many Ward 8 folks love him, but their attitudes on homosexuality haven’t progressed much. Most of the Ward 8 political figures I spoke with agreed: That’s just Pannell’s private issue; we don’t want to talk about it. To be fair, no one said anything bigoted. But to some extent, Pannell has isolated himself in a place where his sexuality is, at best, ignored. Many of his sexual alliances with the men in his neighborhood are closeted affairs. Bisexual and “straight” men who want to have gay sex before returning to their women see Pannell as just “a freak on the side.”
Yet Pannell rarely leaves the ward, even though he knows “there is no, quote, ‘gay community’ here.” His main hangout is Player’s, the only restaurant in the ward licensed to serve alcohol. Very rarely, his friend Sainte-Andress will take him to mostly black gay bars like Nob Hill or Bachelor’s Mill, but Pannell doesn’t get out much. When I ask what he does for a social life, he says, “I go to meetings.” Recently, Pannell attended a reception at one of the larger gay clubs, the Edge. But he spent much of his time passing out voter registration forms.
I ask where he meets men. “You can ride the bus and meet men,” he says. And anyway, “I’m not very much of a practicing homosexual.” He hasn’t had sex in about a year. “I just don’t have time. And I’m very much committed to the work that I do in the community, and since I don’t have time to cultivate a relationship, I don’t want to get into the hassles of dealing with those hit-and-miss type of situations. It’s just too dangerous…not just in terms of [sexually transmitted diseases], but in terms of getting robbed and killed.”
Pannell hasn’t been lucky with relationships, anyway. Shortly after he moved to D.C., he fell in love with a man from graduate school and began a tumultuous 13-year relationship with him. It ended in the mid-1980s, when the lover, a Washington native who remained closeted to his family, asked Pannell to stop being so vocal about gay rights. Another lover, with whom Pannell lived for less than a year, began beating Pannell two months after their affair started. Pannell left him after the man tried to stab him. Characteristically, he tried to connect with other mistreated gay men and wrote an article about his abuse.
It’s tempting to think that Pannell’s activism has replaced his sex life, and Pannell himself encourages that view. “I eventually decided that I, as a single man, while I don’t have the money to support community efforts, I do have the time.” But his activism is even more than a substitute lover. It is all Pannell has.
“Look, I don’t have siblings, children, a roommate, a pet, an insignificant or a significant other. I live in functional poverty. I don’t do crack or reefer….What else would I do with my life?” he says.
And he won’t let people forget it. Friends say Pannell’s worst quality is not alcohol use or depression but self-righteousness. Pannell showed up for a dinner with me lugging a sheaf of papers showing that he had already donated his body to Howard University Medical School. “That’s how much I care,” he said.
But his moralism is loudest when it comes to his neighborhood. Pannell moved to one of the most menacing, least gay neighborhoods in the city. He gave up comfort and tolerance. He’s undeniably valuable to his community. But he revels in the street cred it grants him. He almost seems to like being a victim among the victimized.
“If you promise him something in the community, and you don’t deliver—ooooh, he will give you a verbal beating,” says Brazile. Most friends say they have gone weeks at a time without speaking to him, often because they didn’t deliver on a promise for Ward 8.
But eventually, they all come around. Sure, he’s a little pious, but he puts his heart, his address, and his money where his mouth is. Even Cora Barry, whom Pannell said needed an exorcist, attended his birthday party at Player’s last September.
If the worst thing that can be said about Phil Pannell is that he tries too hard, so be it. His critics are right: Phil is a son of a bitch. The proudest, queerest, blackest, most east-of-the-river, most in-your-face son of a bitch in Washington.CP