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“I feel like I’m forgetting we exist,” Be Steadwell confesses. The last eight months of quarantine have been a strange time for the local performer, coping with the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic—specifically social distancing and imposed isolation that all but halted community gatherings. “I forgot that we’re beautiful,” Steadwell continues, referring to D.C.’s QTPOC and LGBTQ communities.
The singer-songwriter, whose music puts queer people of color, like themselves, at the story’s center, isn’t alone. As the virus spread across the country this spring, bars and businesses closed. Cities canceled large celebrations, making 2020 a year without Pride, a nationwide annual event meant to honor the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the start of the LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S. But the canceling of Pride represents something much larger than a kibosh on parades in cities across the country—for queer and trans communities, it symbolized a year without gathering.
“For queers, we gravitate to [in-person gatherings] because of how much time we spend not feeling all of our energy come back to us,” says Frances Reed, founder of Freed Bodyworks, a trans and queer-centered space offering massage therapy, acupuncture, and energy work. “Having a community that mirrors yourself back to you, it’s generative. It makes us feel better, more whole, more engaged in the world.”
Attending queer parties, Pride events, even being in LGBTQ-led spaces, Reed suggests, allows queer and trans folks to store energy that staves off isolation in non-LGBTQ environments. Offering communal space is a tenet of Freed Bodyworks, which turned nine in August. “It became a place where people knew they’d be safe,” Reed explains.
Pre-Covid, the business was thriving, with a large, predominantly LGBTQ staff and full appointment books. Freed had started offering mental health services, but in light of Covid, that program is no longer available as therapy has switched over to telehealth platforms. Though the space has reopened at 50 percent capacity, money is tight. After a zeroed-out second quarter, Freed took an extra month after D.C. allowed businesses to reopen, installing additional air flow protocols. Now, the operating hours are shortened to ensure the building airs out, and the team has picked up additional work to help disinfect the space. While they’re seeing a decent return in clients, there’s no waitlist to fill last-minute cancellations. “No small business that I know is set up to run on 50 percent revenue for more than a tiny blip on the screen,” says Reed.
But it’s not just money woes and new office protocols, it’s a change in culture. Reed describes “lobby moments” from the pre-pandemic era, where clients would pass one another in the lobby and start conversations. (A client once called Freed the “Queer Community Center of D.C.”) Those moments are discouraged now.
Likewise, the last eight months have been difficult for Tagg Magazine, another of D.C.’s LGBTQ-owned businesses and the only queer, Black woman-owned LGBTQ publication in the country. The pandemic forced Tagg to skip, for the first time in eight years, the publication of a print issue—the Pride Issue. “There was no Pride. We weren’t out at festivals. It just didn’t make sense,” Tagg’s editor-in-chief, Eboné Bell says. The coronavirus and its fallout put a hold on “any sort of growth” at the magazine.
“Businesses. We plan for A, B, and C, but we never plan for Z,” Bell says. “Like a lot of companies, we just weren’t prepared for this scenario. It completely flipped everything upside down.” Like many publications, Tagg is funded through advertising. With businesses shuttered and in the red, advertising dried up. Bell estimates Tagg lost around 40 percent of its revenue this year. Writers, most of whom are freelancers (not to mention members of the LGBTQ community), were put on hold. The amount of content dropped. And Bell found herself crunching numbers to figure out which bills needed to be paid first. “It’s a scary feeling to not know if you’re going to make it to the end of the year,” she says.
Bell worries that, if the city loses queer, trans, and QTPOC businesses to the pandemic’s crashed economy, the LGBTQ community will lose visibility and healing spaces. “Time has proven that we need these spaces,” Bell says, clarifying that media creates space just as physical locations do. “We need spaces where we can relate to one another.”
Both Bell and Steadwell spoke of a weekly Monday happy hour for queer women of color held at Wicked Bloom on North Capitol and Florida. The event hasn’t happened since the city shut down in March and the two worry it might not return. “There was something about being in that space as a Black queer woman,” Bell says, “because we share a lot of those same microaggressions or things that happen to us. It’s a place where we can heal.”
Even before the pandemic hit, D.C. was hemorrhaging LGBTQ and QTPOC gathering spaces as bars closed. In 2014, Remington’s closed, as did Delta Elite Social Club and Lace on the Avenue—both catered to D.C.’s Black LGBTQ commutinty. Phase 1, once the longest operating lesbian bar in the U.S., closed in 2016. And two staples of gay men’s nightlife, Town and Cobalt, closed in 2018 and 2019 respectively. As Steadwell notes, the loss of these spaces, especially spots for queer people of color, has been “frustrating—we haven’t had a place to go every day of the week for a few years now.” (XX+, another popular gathering spot, opened in summer of 2018, and has been closed since January; though uncertain about when it’ll reopen, the bar’s staff says it has not yet closed for good.)
The August 2018 opening of A League of Her Own, a queer/lesbian bar located in the basement of the Adams Morgan gay sports bar Pitchers, has been a bright spot for many. According to ALOHO’s manager, Jo McDaniel, the staff has worked hard to create a loving, safe space. “We hold expectations for people who are visiting our community and they’re non-negotiable,” McDaniel says.
During the pandemic, ALOHO has “kept the lights on,” McDaniel says. Since the end of May, the bar, along with Pitchers, has been able to partially operate thanks to its restaurant license and kitchen. By the end of June, 18th Street NW was permitted to host streeteries, making room for ALOHO and Pitchers to expand table service into the blocked-off streets. Now, because they can seat some patrons inside, McDaniels says the front area has become a designated space for ALOHO. When she spoke with City Paper in mid-October, the bar was figuring out its plan for winter.
Though McDaniels is optimistic ALOHO and Pitchers will survive the pandemic, they’re currently operating with limited bar options and a much smaller staff—largely McDaniels and her second-in-command, Rachel Pike. McDaniels says it’s a lot of work, but worth the effort—the bar’s goal has always been to create connections and community, as it did for one 22-year-old who quarantined outside of D.C. with family. According to McDaniels, when the girl returned this summer “she walked in and embraced her friend, [she] was racked with sobs. Just actively sobbing to be back in the space and see people,” McDaniels remembers. “It was heavily emotional.”
The relief that being around others in the LGBTQ community brings is the shared thread keeping so many space-makers and businesses going.
In October, Steadwell decided they’d had enough of isolation. A D.C. native who’s always found comfort in Rock Creek Park, Steadwell threw a QTPOC dance party in the woods complete with masks and social distancing. Describing how the gathering came to be, Steadwell says, “As a queer Black woman … I feel hopeless a lot of the time. I love to see our communities coming together in protest in the face of tragedy, but I want some of our gatherings to be motivated by joy.”
Devon Trotter, a.k.a. DJ Dvonne, has been throwing queer parties in D.C. since 2010 and is part of the DJ collaborative CTRL that puts on a monthly party, on hold since March, at Trade. As a longtime maker of queer space, Trotter is optimistic about virtual gatherings after helping organize two fundraisers this summer for local nonprofits. Both raised more money than anticipated. And while there can be a disconnect between computer screens—as a DJ, Trotter feeds off energy from the crowd—Trotter notes that finding a common goal to celebrate, such as coming together to support queer youth, fosters that missing connection.
As Trotter sees it, the need for queer parties is about safety, community, and “for us to feel like we aren’t alone in the world, because for so long queers have felt alone … We created these spaces because we didn’t have other places to go. The fact that we don’t have that opportunity right now, it forces us to lean into our resilience, into our creativity.”
The resilience of LGBTQ/QTPOC communities came up a lot in these conversations. Bell noted ways in which people were joining forces and lending time, if not money, to support one another, even in small ways like buying bar merchandise. McDaniels applauded the community’s continued support of ALOHO’s virtual tip jar. And though times are tough at Freed Bodyworks, Reed has been overwhelmed with support via GoFundMe—they need to raise $100,000 to ensure they make it through next year. Seeing queer clients donating even $10, Reed says, “feels like our community is putting what it can behind us.”
It ties back to what Trotter described as a silver lining of the pandemic. “My friends and I have really honed in on what’s important,” Trotter says. “I think in doing so, you have to have a reckoning of who you are, who you show up for, and why.”
That’s what Steadwell hopes people take away from this moment too: How important these spaces are and the need to support them. Steadwell also predicts the queer community will create something bigger on the other side. “When we were out in the woods together I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re all still here. We’re amazing. We’re gorgeous. Look at us.’”