It was years ago at Nob Hill, listening to all the gay guys calling themselves queens that Carlene Cheatam first used the title she most prefers.
“I was like, well, if you’re a queen, I’ve got to be the queen mother,” she laughs. “I’m affectionately known as such to my face. I don’t know what they say behind my back.”
After twenty-five prominent years as a leader for black gay and lesbian civil rights in D.C., the appellation seems apt. Now 55-years-old, Cheatam’s trademark locks and distinctive voice have been a part of the local landscape since her days organizing the P Street Beach festival (later to become Capital Pride) and the Black Lesbian and Gay Pride festival in the 1980s and 1990s. Her work with the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and many other groups and causes have made her one of the most well-known and most-honored activists in the city.
This spring, Cheatam will be honored at Black Pride with the Wellmore Cook leadership award. But while she’s being honored for her work in the past, she’s focusing on a different project for the future: herself.
In the living room of her home in D.C.’s Marshall Heights neighborhood, which she bought last September, Cheatam sets out her three goals: take care of her new home, build her fledgling home mail-order business, and lose one hundred pounds. The may seem like modest goals compared to those of the civil rights movement she spent so much of her life pursuing.
“Probably six years ago I realized that I didn’t really have a life,” she says. “I started pulling myself away [from organizing], and then I’d go back because people would say ‘We need you.’”
She feels it’s time for that to change.
“It’s time for me to stop. It’s time for me to focus on the rest of my life for a change. It’s not something I do — I’m a Cheatam, and that’s not something we do. It’s always working for the community, helping somebody else.”
For Carlene Cheatam, it’s time to say farewell.
METRO WEEKLY: So you’ve been working in GLBT activism since the late seventies or early eighties?
CARLENE CHEATAM: The early eighties. And you say activism, while I say I’m an organizer in the community.
MW: What was the first thing you did as an organizer/activist in the community?
CHEATAM: I joined the D.C. Coalition [of Black Lesbians and Gay Men] — it was called the D.C. Black Gays at that time. When I first came to D.C., it was just a very exciting place to be. I had never been involved with gay politics or gay organizing. I was looking around for something to do, because I have to always do something. So I said, I’m black and I’m gay, I can do that. There was a time when I was a member of everything: Sapphire Sapphos, Gertrude Stein [Democratic Club], the Gay Activists Alliance. I was even a member of Black and White Men Together. I was trying to see who we were as a community. The D.C. Coalition really gave me my niche. I could help other black people.
MW: Is it surprising to think about that choice and that work going on for twenty-five years?
CHEATAM: No, because it was a good thing for me. I utilized my skills for something I could get excited about — the opportunity to love my people. It was an act of love, so it didn’t feel like twenty-five years, up until recently. I was touching people, I was helping people, I was making things happen, and so it didn’t seem that long because I was like living. [But now] there is truly a need for leadership. You have a lot of unnecessary dynamics because too many of us have different agendas. You think you’re coming to the table to help build an organization, and you realize that other people are just there to socialize. That ain’t what I’m here for. Too often you only have a handful of people to do the work. People say that all organizations have just a handful of people — well, it’s too much work to be done for there to be so few people. I just got to the point where I decided I’d rather give the time to myself, instead of wanting to conquer the world.
MW: How long had you been out when you became active in the community?
CHEATAM: I was never in, so the concept of being out is different for me. I was involved with women since about 1970. It was just how I lived — I didn’t have a different lifestyle. I didn’t think about it as different or wrong because it isn’t for me. I don’t refer to myself as a lesbian — I’m an individual who knows the virtues of intragender affection.
MW: What about your religious beliefs?
CHEATAM: I’m a spiritual, universal child in this world. I don’t attend any particular church. If I go to church my preference is to go to the black gay churches. But I don’t have a need. I’m very connected to the spirit, to the creator. I know that I’m only here because of the creator. I don’t find a lot of what I want to feel when I go into churches, so I don’t bother. I’m just living.
MW: If you had to point out the most important things you’ve done in the past quarter century, what would they be?
CHEATAM: The biggest is my participation in the development of Black Pride, because of the impact that it’s had for the black gay and lesbian community around the country. And the economic impact that it has on the city, which is tremendous. And I was real proud of myself for P Street Beach — no matter what they say, when we had [the Pride festival there] before we got down on Pennsylvania Avenue, that year was the biggest and the best. It brought in many more women, many more blacks. I feel real proud because I did a lot to have that kind of expansion. And third, working with the D.C. Coalition as an organization and knowing that there have been times when the Coalition has made a difference [politically].
I think that we lack political education. You can play the electoral politics, you can act like you’re a politician, but if you’re not empowering the people then you’re just playing with yourself. Too many people play with that, and it angers me because I know that if we took the time and energy to keep our eye on the prize, things would be much different.
MW: When you say playing with themselves, do you mean that people are too involved with the process?
CHEATAM: People are too involved with the process, people have their own agendas, that kind of thing. There are too many distractions, people don’t come to the table to work. My objective every day I wake up is to advance our position, to move us forward. As black people that’s necessary, as gays and lesbians that’s necessary. If we all stood up together, George Bush would be in trouble.
MW: What’s your full-time job right now?
CHEATAM: I’m a special assistant for the bureau of program integrity in the mental retardation and developmental disabilities administration in the District’s Department of Human Services. I’ve been a special assistant most of the time that I’ve been in the government. A special assistant is a person who does whatever has to be done at any particular time — all those other duties as assigned.
MW: You were in also in Mayor Anthony Williams’ office for a while.
CHEATAM: I was very fortunate to have served as the director of the office of the public advocate, and then I was the Mayor’s first special assistant for gay and lesbian affairs.
MW: How did that experience go?
CHEATAM: It was interesting, because I’m not a politician. I know that I represented the community well enough, but I don’t know that I served the community well enough. The reality is that I don’t deal with gay and lesbian affairs as issues. I’m interested in human rights and civil rights and I’ll stand up for that. But gay and lesbian issues, I don’t know that I have anything burning inside of me on that. It’s coincidental that my stuff has been with the black gay and lesbian community for the last twenty-five years. I was with black people as far as I was concerned.
It’s part of who I am, it’s the human thing. How different are you from any straight person you know? We don’t have that many differences, we don’t have that many different desires even, or rights, we’re not different. That’s the problem. Crazy people who are opposing us because they think that we’re different, they think we want special rights, that we want extra. No we don’t. We want what you want.
MW: What’s really pinging your political radar that people should be paying attention to right now?
CHEATAM: George Bush. His actions are turning this country in a bad way. Not only is he manipulating laws and policies that impact our lives on a daily basis, but he is not helping us be loved by the rest of the world. They hate us because of what he is doing. I’m registered as a Democrat, but I’m really an Independent. I don’t care if you’re a Republican, even Republicans can’t think that they’re being helped by this, and if they are, then they’re not friends of mine. If you are agreeing with his policies, knowing what they are, then I can’t be your friend, I can’t love you, because he is a madman. I’m advocating that people choose somebody else. I’m not advocating who to choose, but choose somebody else, because this man is not the one. He’s hurting us.
MW: Do you think that his support of a constitutional amendment against gay marriage and that whole battle will cause the gay community to become more politically active?
CHEATAM: I hope they will, but I hope it won’t be because of that because not all gays and lesbians are thinking about marriage. If they want to use that as an excuse that’s fine, but there are many reasons why we need to be actively involved. At minimum, you have to be aware and you have to vote.
MW: You say that marriage isn’t an issue that should be a big motivator, but this is a big national issue at the moment, with people on both sides at all levels girding up for battle. How do you feel about marriage as an issue?
CHEATAM: I applaud those who advocate for the issues, [but] it’s the organizations that are getting a lot of publicity. How is [marriage] on the grassroots level? I don’t know, and that’s part of my point. It is a big issue, it’s all part of the civil rights thing, and so the major organizations taking action is necessary. And we’re winning. I recognize that you have to do that all the lobbying and the letter writing to have an impact, and I applaud those who do that. But I don’t know that it will empower the community as a whole by itself.
MW: Do you feel, though, that this is a watershed moment for the gay and lesbian community?
CHEATAM: I’m of the opinion that [the constitution] won’t be amended because of the absurdity of it. If every gay and lesbian person in this country participates in the process, they can make a difference. There are also so many straight people who know better than that, who know that that’s not necessary. I have faith in the human nature. We’ll just see if Americans will empower themselves to stand up to something that stupid. Changing the constitution? I want you to change the constitution and give D.C. residents the right to vote. That makes sense to me. You can’t tell me gay marriage is one of the most important things happening in this country at this time — I’m sorry, it isn’t. We’re not educating our kids, we’re not getting jobs, providing training, providing healthcare. I’m sorry, there are more important things than gay marriages.
MW: What about the award you’re getting from D.C. Black Pride?
CHEATAM: It’s the Wellmore Cook Award — a leadership award. I was pleased to get a letter [about it] from Black Pride. I left the group on fairly good terms. I attempted to go back to Black Pride and I was rejected, and I had my feelings hurt. But I got over that, because it isn’t about me. I think the award is just a recognition of what’s happened. But it’s also a recognition that there aren’t that many black gays and lesbians in this city who can be awarded. You know, you have Earline Budd, she’s gotten a couple, and Darren Buckner, who hasn’t gotten enough, and Philip Pannell. There aren’t enough to choose from so I guess they had to go deep down to get me. [Laughs.] But I appreciate it, I like all of them that I’ve gotten. I don’t do the work for that, but when you get it it’s nice.
MW: With Black Pride weekend not that far off, and you receiving an award from the group, what are your thoughts on the growth and evolution of the event? It’s changed a lot since your initial involvement, from the number of attendees to the location to all the ancillary parties and events.
CHEATAM: I’m not crazy about the convention center, but it is a workable situation. It’s a different experience being inside. [Banneker] Field was fabulous. It’s a different experience, and you can’t separate the ancillary parties that go on, because that’s why Black Pride is as successful as it is. We still have not developed the education side of the experience as well as we should. You could probably put on one of the best seminars, but will the people come? There are just too many people who are only thinking about partying and sex. But Black Pride has much more to offer than that, and that’s a side that’s lacking for me. People don’t like to do the political thing, but it’s just the perfect opportunity to do the political thing. Look at those numbers, look at that possibility. But we ain’t political. That’s what they tell me.
MW: Between that and what you said about there not being enough people to give awards to, are you saying there’s a lack of leadership in the black lesbian and gay community?
CHEATAM: There is a lot of leadership, but they’re the same ones. Philip Pannell is a leader, Brad Lewis is a leader, Carlene Cheatam is a leader. But we’ve been the leaders for the last 25 years. It’s very possible that I don’t know everything that’s out there because I’m not out there like I used to be, but I am not feeling nothing. So I’m assuming that it ain’t there. The other reality is that blacks are more often than not do their stuff in smaller groups in their homes as opposed to putting it out here and broadcasting it kind of thing. But there’s not enough of the collective work and crossing over that I think is necessary in order to make a difference.
MW: Why do you think that’s the case? Are younger people not coming into the movement?
CHEATAM: The experience for the younger people is very different. We organized because we were standing up for our rights, we were going for getting those freedoms. The young people nowadays are just claiming it. As a member of the D.C. Coalition, we were not successful in creating new interest with younger people. But because the times are different for younger people, they don’t think that they have to participate. They think they have the rights, they can do whatever they want — they don’t need D.C. Coalition in order to be who they are. I disagree because I think that there are things that you don’t learn if you’re not participating in the process.
MW: Have you ever considered running for public office?
CHEATAM: There was a moment I thought about it, knowing my level of popularity and that I am known across the city. I could go anywhere in this city and somebody’s going to know me — I go to karaoke regularly, and this woman remembered me from sitting in my favorite restaurant. I could run, but I didn’t want to give up my life.
MW: Where do you sing karaoke?
CHEATAM: At the Best Western on Third Street, right below Massachusetts Avenue. Most of the people who go to this karaoke are very good singers. You don’t have those crazy drunk people getting up there and singing off key and stuff like that. These are just amazing people — D.C. has so much talent it’s outrageous. The Blue Penguin is where I started karaoke, and I fell in love with it. I’m a shower singer, I’m not a performer, but I have a halfway decent voice. And karaoke gave me an opportunity to be out in the community without having a flyer in my hand. I have a concert coming up on March 27 with all my karaoke buddies. Four of those women could be cutting CDs tomorrow, they’re fabulous. We’re doing two shows, because it’s a popular group. Both of them should be sold out.
MW: I had no idea you sang.
CHEATAM: There are people who know that I sing, people who know that I’m gay, people who know that I’m an organizer. I’ve got all kinds of hats that I wear. You don’t go around saying, “Hey, I’m a karaoke singer!” We don’t often take time to get to know each other, find out what other people like. We just relate on one level. But I’m a multifaceted individual.
MW: I asked you earlier what you were proudest of being involved in — what’s something you consider the biggest thing you’ve not succeeded at?
CHEATAM: It’s not a matter of failure, because at least I tried, but it’s disappointment that our actions didn’t create more. That we weren’t able to help people to see that what we were doing was to build something to help everyone. And I wish we appreciated each other better. I have had many daggers in my back over the years, for no reason as far as I’m concerned. I do wish that we all loved one another. But people have different agendas that don’t come together and I know that’s hurt us as a community.
MW: It’s sounds like you’re not really involved in the community right now.
CHEATAM: Right, I’m finished. I’m finished being an organizer in the community, trying to work through those dynamics that I have a problem with. If I accept the responsibility that I have to show up and be ready and others don’t, then you’re wasting my time. Even with the D.C. Coalition I have put in a lot of time and energy, and stepped up to the plate when it was necessary. But there were too many others who I think were just going along for the ride. I can hear somebody saying, “Well, if you don’t do it her way, then she doesn’t want to do it.” Not exactly. I’m willing, I compromise.
For a little while now I’ve been wanting to pull out. I’ve realized that I kind of feel like I’ve done as much as I can do. There are times where I know that I’m just supposed to be still and wait to see what I’m to do next. I’m in that position now. There may not be anything else for me to do the rest of my life. Which is fine. Now that I have this house, I like this. I like coming home, I like my space. I like inviting people over instead of always going out.
MW: Do you feel that your pulling out burns bridges with groups or with anyone in the community, or do you worry about that?
CHEATAM: I can’t worry about it. I have been there as long as I have been there. My leaving shouldn’t make a big difference. I haven’t burnt any bridges because I was committed — people knew that if I was involved something was going to happen. Otherwise it would have been a waste of my time. There will be people who are disappointed, there’ll be people who won’t believe it, because they want me to keep working. If they were working with me I probably would. But I just don’t want to do it anymore. There’s a piece in the back of my mind that says, well maybe if you weren’t there others would step up, so I want to give them the opportunity, I don’t want to block. I don’t want people to think that I’m the only one who can do this.
MW: But there’s a chance of you coming back?
CHEATAM: Give me a break, that’s what I’m saying. People just assume that I’m going to come back. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. What am I going to do for me? With the time and energy that I put out, what will happen for me if I go this way? The work, the meetings — if we changed it where everybody who comes to the table is coming to the table for the same agenda, I could do that. But that’s unlikely, especially with the people that I know who would be at the table. I’m not fighting anymore, and it’s a fight, where you just try to keep people on the track. [But] you don’t do it for the attention, or the awards, or for the articles you get. I want people to know that’s what I want to do. I will always be in this city. [Chokes up] I’ll periodically pop up just to support something. [But] I don’t want to do the work anymore. I want to say goodbye.