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(Photo by Todd Franson)
MW: Moving around, when did you start to develop your own sense of the gay community?
SVOBODA: That wasn’t until L.A. Finally, I got involved. With friends, we’d volunteer for the AIDS Ride. I got involved with The [Gay and Lesbian] Center.
I was on the board of ALSO, the Alternative Lifestyle Scholarship Organization. I don’t think it exists anymore. Some guy’s family had cut him off, stopped paying his college tuition when they found out he was gay. Twenty years later, he had some money and started this organization. We would pay out — not big grants — a thousand dollars, $2,500, to gay students whose parents had cut them off when they found out they were gay. That helped expand my community and my exposure.
MW: So, no big epiphany? No running out into the street shouting, “I’m a lesbian!”
SVOBODA: No, no, no. I finally just got to a place where I started feeling it was okay to be me.
I was able to get involved with GLAAD out there. And HRC. There was another organization I was on the board of called Hollywood Helps. It was an organization that had representatives from all the different studios, production entities, the Chamber of Commerce, and we raised money. This was a behind-the-scenes organization to help people in the industry living with AIDS, people who were having financial troubles, whether it was their insurance wasn’t covering the cocktail or they couldn’t make the car payment or they used their money for meds and didn’t have money for food. I was the treasurer. The coolest thing was, every month, being like Santa Claus. I got to write them checks, directly, for whatever their request was. I can’t remember what the maximum was, but it was like $850 for a mortgage payment or whatever was needed to tide them over. It was just the greatest thing to be able to do that.
MW: The AIDS epidemic really pushed the direction of your activism?
SVOBODA: It did. I had friends who…. [Tears up.] It was that time.
MW: I’m sorry to upset you.
SVOBODA: You read the reports, the stories of the history of what slowed down the research advances, the stuff between American scientists and French scientists, and the government, and then you get religion into it — and there are lives at stake. And to a certain extent, once they identified transmission, then you get upset with people who don’t change their habits. That’s one of the things that really upsets me so much with kids today, with youth who think they’re immune and aren’t practicing safe sex and they aren’t educating themselves. They’re pretending it’s something that’s not going to get them. They’re being foolish. We have discussions about that, us adults.
MW: This must come up at the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth.
SVOBODA: It does. And the kids are amazing there, because we really do give them a sense of family, a safe place. ROSMY is a wonderful, wonderful organization. We have a 24-hour “911 service” for kids, pre-cleared foster homes for kids who might get thrown out or locked out in the middle of the night by parents. They call our 911 and they have a place to go immediately.
MW: On a different Richmond note, hadn’t you told me you were working on a restaurant there with your brother?
SVOBODA: No, my brother and I have invested in a brewery that’s going to open in Silver Spring. It’s two married lesbians, and the brother-in-law of one has moved here from Denver to be the brewmaster. They’re building it now on East-West Highway. Hopefully, they’ll be opening by the end of May.
The restaurant I’m working on is actually with my first boyfriend. In seventh grade, David was my boyfriend. David is gay. He was the executive [sous] chef at the Inn at Little Washington. He’s one of the most creative chefs, ever. And I’m a foodie. I’m a gourmand and foodie, two different things. I love sort of the highbrow stuff, but I also love the creative genius. I really enjoyed Minibar when it was the six or eight seats. Because I’m a geek! I love the science. I have all the stuff to do that, all the agar agar, all the different chemicals.
MW: How do you feel about foam?
SVOBODA: Hello! I’ve got my foam guns up there. [Points to a cabinet.] I’ve got both the carbon dioxide and the nitrous oxide to make the different whipped creams and foams.
MW: How much time do you spend in D.C. versus Richmond?
SVOBODA: It all depends on the projects. When I’m working on the restaurant with David, I’ll be in Richmond for most of the next three months. If something pops up in D.C., I’ll be here.
MW: There’s no day job, per se? Just projects?
SVOBODA: Right. I turned 50 a year ago. I had been doing a lot of stuff. A lot of my life had been doing stuff for others, being there for family. I hit 50 and it was the epiphany of it was time for me to figure out what I am going to do with my life, separate from everyone else’s lives. So last year I just started doing things that mattered to me, that I wanted to do.
MW: Looking at the video you made recently with Michael Rohrbaugh, is that something you would’ve done five years ago?
SVOBODA: I would not have had the luxury of the time to be able to drop everything. It was just me and Michael, for the most part, pulling that thing together. The week before shooting, it was just me and Michael trying to raise the rest of the money and get the equipment we needed. I dropped everything and got on the phone and started re-connecting with folks I hadn’t spoken to in eons out in L.A. Little by little, everybody was like, “I don’t have that piece of equipment, but so-and-so owes me a favor so call them and use my name.” Within that one week, we raised the money — well, not all the money, we’re still raising money.