Living Check to Check
IN ONE OF THE MOST striking moments of 2005, Whitman-Walker Clinic announced in May that it would be unable to meet its payroll. It was a stunning development for an agency that prides itself on being the largest GLBT health organization in the nation. And the financial crisis has pushed the HIV/AIDS services stalwart to the edge.
“Because of [the] 9/11 [terrorist attacks], the economic downturn, the loss of AIDS Ride, we’ve lost a little over $3 million in fundraising,” interim executive director Roberta Geidner-Anoniotti told Metro Weekly at the time. “It doesn’t give us the same kind of cushion we used to have.”
According to the Clinic, much of the financial difficulty also stemmed from the inability of D.C.’s HIV/AIDS Agency (HAA) to provide timely reimbursements for services rendered. Those financial delays threatened the stability of a number of the city’s HIV providers, leading to contentious hearings before the D.C. City Council where David Catania (I-At Large) took the lead in berating the agency’s poor performance. Before the summer ended, controversial HAA director Lydia Watts was out, replaced by former AIDS Action executive director Marsha Martin.
Adding fuel to the fire of the Clinic’s financial situation was the discovery that Whitman-Walker had apparently over-billed some government contracts for laboratory services by more than $2 million. Geidner-Antoniotti said that the Clinic discovered the overbilling and alerted D.C.’s HIV/AIDS Agency. Audits are underway to completely assess the Clinic’s billing.
While the Clinic’s situation appeared to stabilize over the course of the year, the emergency took a toll. Many staff, including senior level positions, left for other jobs, and news of plans to eliminate programs such as Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia drove continued criticism of the Clinic’s financial management. How much and how fast it can recover is a question for the new year.
Center of Controversy
THE CENTER-HOME to GLBT in Metro D.C. saw some sweeping changes in 2005. First, Michael Sessa came on as president in January. Shortly thereafter, in February, The Center opened the doors to its first physical address: office space at 14th and L streets NW. But with growth often comes pain.
In August, controversy erupted with firings, resignations and accusations of financial mismanagement. ”I’m not sure people expect press releases when we make changes in staffing,” Sessa said as the rumors flew. He also promised to pull together some figures to allay fears that The Center was mismanaging funds. He, and other board members, presented their data in October.
”I’ve put a sort of a chokehold on spending,” Sessa told reporters at that meeting, pointing out that The Center was no longer aiming to acquire Stead Park as the site of a much more ambitious gay community center, as former Center President Patrick Menasco had suggested. Instead, Sessa explained, 2005 was the year that The Center downsized. It was not the year it went bankrupt.
UHU Comes Home
AS US HELPING US (UHU) evolved over the course of two decades, this non-profit powerhouse fighting for the physical and mental health of the local African-American community under attack from HIV, it got harder and harder to find a home. At the height of its residential reach, UHU occupied six different rental spaces clustered around Eight and L streets SE. That all changed in 2005.
While UHU purchased a new home in 2001, extensive renovations were required. It wasn’t until last year that the fresh new space on Georgia Avenue NW was ready. UHU Executive Director Ron Simmons gave Metro Weekly a tour in early May, a few weeks before the grand opening. For the most part, everything looked beautiful, making the new space a big hit with clients and employees alike.
But when you move from six addresses to one, there are bound to be problems. ”We’ve got six water coolers,” Simmons pointed out with a laugh, conducting a tour of the new building. ”We’ve got six of this, six of that…. It took us four years to move into it, but it was worth it.”
IN 2005, ADVOCATES of a smoke-free D.C. had a lot to smile about. In March, the Whitman-Walker Clinic officially joined the effort to get smoking banned in all workplaces — including bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
”As the leading provider of HIV-related medical care and social services and as a provider of LGBT health services, Whitman-Walker Clinic must take a stand in support of legislation that would provide the most protection to the community at large,” WWC Interim Executive Director Robert Geidner-Antoniotti said at the time.
Also at the time, David Mariner, an expert on tobacco use in the gay community, said he hoped openly gay City Council member Jim Graham would join the smoke-free side as well. In June, he got his wish.
”What this comes down to for me is this is a health issue,” Graham said at the close of a town-hall meeting held June 9 at the Lincoln Theatre to discuss the smoking issue. ”The evidence is clear beyond any question…. Whatever we’re going to do has to be mandated. I’m prepared tonight to say I will support the smoke-free legislation.”
Graham kept that pledge, joining 11 other members of the 13-member Council voting in favor of the ”Department of Health Functions Clarification Amendment Act of 2005” on Dec. 6. The year closed before the Council could cast a second vote on the amendment. But if successful, the next stop is the mayor, who has expressed serious reservations about a ban on smoking in all D.C. entertainment venues.
Mark Lee, nightlife advocate and promoter of the gay Sunday event, Lizard Lounge, has been the most prominent opponent of the move to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and clubs. He ended the year on what optimism he could muster, telling Metro Weekly after the Dec. 6 vote, ”It ain’t over till it’s over.”
The Heat Goes On
HANK’S OYSTER BAR at 1624 Q St. NW is a bustling fixture just off a very gay stretch of 17th Street. Lesbian Chef Jamie Leeds restaurant might blend in perfectly with the surrounding neighborhood, but 2005 is the both the year it was born and the year it was nearly killed.
”I have thousands of supporters, and only six against me. And they have the power to hold me up,” Leeds told Metro Weekly in April, determined to open on schedule. After all, she’d already sunk quite a few thousand dollars into turning the leased space from an old pizza dive into a lofty space of exposed bricks and muted colors.
Among the handful of neighbors who presented the hoops for Leeds to jump through repeatedly: Alexis Rieffel, who lives just across 17th Street from Hank’s. ”It’s not obvious to me that the neighborhood will be measurably better because Hank’s Oyster Bar is there,” he said as the battle ensued. ”How can you be a resident of the neighborhood and believe that it would be in your interests to have 60 or 70 percent of the storefronts with liquor licenses? You’d have to be on something to believe that.”
Not too far away, another venue faced heat from the neighbors. Summer saw a small turf war at U and 15 streets NW, home to Cada Vez, and the gay, Latin Saturday night event, Fuego. On one side, some neighbors — backed by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission — accused Cada Vez or being a licensed restaurant that behaved like a nightclub. Cada Vez argued they were a responsible neighbor being singled out with petty regulations that were hurting business. Neighbors — including the commissioner in whose jurisdiction Cada Vez sits, Ramon Estrada, a gay Latino — proactively collected evidence to argue their point, including videotaping patrons.
”I don’t want to say it was harassment, but [Estrada] was making people feel uncomfortable,” Fuego promoter Philip Doyle said in July.
2005 won’t go down as they year they resolved their differences. The issue continues into 2006.
THE DISTRICT’S same-sex — and other unmarried — couples may have gotten an end-of-year gift when the City Council approved a plan to increase domestic-partnership benefits Dec. 6. The Council will need to cast a second vote on the legislation. The legislation, introduced by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At large), would then go to the mayor’s office. From there it would head to an unfriendly Congress, leaving the future of inheritance rights, power-of-attorney rights, legal standing to sue in the case of a partner’s wrongful death, and some other choice bennys in doubt.
Still, it’s bound to raise fewer congressional eyebrows than asking for approval of same-sex marriage in the district. As Bob Summersgill, a longtime activist in D.C.’s gay community, told the Washington Post, such a proposal would prompt from Congress ”a huge, bipartisan effort in both houses to squash us, and there wouldn’t be a peep from anywhere in the country.”
“I have always, from the very first time I campaigned, supported civil unions…. And the reason why I support it is that I’m adopted and I think these kids need homes and who are we to deny them a home if a loving couple can provide support for that child? That’s just my own slant. There are many other reasons, from a human rights perspective and others that I support. But I am very fearful that if we don’t approach this properly we can lose the gains we’ve already realized, however incremental and episodic and limited they may be, because of the environment in Congress.”
— Mayor Anthony Williams, interviewed shortly before the district’s first-ever summit on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, on some of the political limitations entailed by the continuing oversight of D.C. government by the Congress. (“Mayor Anthony Williams: The Metro Weekly Interview,” April 28)
Virginia Is (Not) for Lovers
IT WASN’T A pretty year to be gay or lesbian in Virginia. The effort to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage was mean-spirited, but certainly expected given the conservative nature of the legislature and the successful efforts in other states across the nation.
But then there was the bill to make a license plate supporting “Traditional Marriage.” And the proposed ban on gay-straight alliances in schools. Oh, and don’t forget the adoption law modeled after Florida’s that stops homosexuals from adopting. Or a bill to allow local churches to secede from national organizations over gay issues and keep their real estate and other assets.
And all that was on top of the previous law that stripped gay and lesbian Virginians of the ability to even enter into basic contracts together if they even resemble a benefit or right of marriage (sort of a “Kiss Your Living Will Goodbye” act).
“The homosexual left has been on the attack against marriage and family for 40 years, and we’ve been taking it,” said State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax). “If you’re going to start a war, if you’re going to invade a country, expect a counterattack. All we’re doing is regaining lost ground.”
How very Jeffersonian.
The only bright spot: The business community successfully lobbied for a change in the law to allow private companies to provide health insurance benefits to domestic partners of their own employees.
(Well, gee, thank you very much Virginia. That’s mighty big of you.)
Despite valiant efforts by Equality Virginia and other metro area GLBT groups, don’t hold your breath waiting for things to get better in 2006. Gay and lesbian Virginians have a long road to travel.
“The tone in Richmond has gotten much sharper. The divisions have gotten much sharper than they’ve been in past years. But only having been there for two years, I don’t know any better. It’s kind of like you go in as a freshman and these awful things are happening, but you’re looking up at this capitol and seeing that Patrick Henry used to be a member of this body, or you think of Thomas Jefferson for a little while — that gives you some solace. Unless you think about what they’re doing to Jefferson’s words.”
— Virginia Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the only openly gay member of the state legislature, on the atmosphere in the statehouse around gay issues. (“At Home in the Old Dominion,” Sept. 29)
Out, Not Down
FEW YEARS ON record were as pivotal to the African-American GLBT community’s fight for equality as 2005. And the front line was in Washington.
After years of inactivity, early 2005 marked the return of the D.C. Coalition, originally founded in 1978 to promote the black GLBT community. The group was spurred to action in part to push for gay participation in the Millions More Movement event commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the Million Man March (MMM) in D.C. The D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition was also moving to get gays included in the event, and say they secured an invitation from MMM National Executive Director Rev. Willie Wilson to participate.
With the commemoration scheduled for Oct. 14-16, NBJC leadership said they suspected GLBT voices were being pushed aside by May. That’s when MMM organizers held the official press conference announcing the event — and did not invite NBJC.
Suspicions grew mightily in July. Wilson, who had not been returning queries from gay activists about participation in the MMM events, took to his D.C. pulpit and declared: ”You’ve got to be careful when you say you don’t need no man…. If you don’t need a man, what’s left? Lesbianism is about to take over our community….
”I ain’t homophobic, because everybody in here got something wrong with him…. But when you get down to this thing, woman falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something — it ain’t real…. It ain’t natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind to stick something in you, there’s something wrong with that.”
In the weeks leading up to the MMM event, Wilson did not back down. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and organizer of the event, did little to intervene. And the black gay community got stronger, with more people saying enough was enough, and shows of solidarity from mainstream GLBT institutions such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Task Force. The interim even allowed NBJC some time to host the group’s first Black LGBT Leaders Summit in September.
Just days before the MMM event, it all came to a head with a private meeting between Farrakhan, Wilson and NBJC leadership, including Keith Boykin, the group’s president. After the closed-door meeting, NBJC leaders announced that Boykin had been invited to speak on the MMM stage. Boykin, along with NBJC Vice-President Donna Payne arrived at the speakers’ tent early on Oct. 15 as organizers prepared for the MMM commemoration on the Capitol grounds. Wilson was there, too.
”He smiled and said, ‘You will not be speaking today,” Payne said, telling a ancillary gay gathering at Freedom Plaza that Boykin’s slot had been pulled, going instead to Cleo Manago of the Black Men’s Xchange, a group with which not everyone was familiar. ”I’m so angry.”
Payne wasn’t alone. She and a group of about 200 soldiered on, marching to the Capitol grounds to make sure their collective voice was heard. And though they didn’t make it onto the stage, they did make it as far as the press tent, ensuring that the story was widely circulated.
Carlene Cheatam, a longtime fixture in the D.C. gay community, summed up the effort — and the reward — of 2005: ”I’m of the opinion that the efforts of the last month were not a waste of time,” she said in October. ”It enabled us to come together and start the dialogue about homophobia and oppression in the community. We have work to do. It’s just the beginning.”