“The 17th Street High Heel Race is a celebration of our LGBTQIA+ diversity,” says Japer Bowles, the director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. “It started as a wager among friends and drag queens in the Dupont historic neighborhood, and has since blossomed into a D.C. valued tradition.”
The annual event, which features several dozen racers who sprint, stroll, and strut down 17th Street from the starting line on R Street NW to the finish line on Church Street NW, across from JR.’s Bar, attracts several thousand onlookers each year on the last Tuesday before Halloween.
As the event has grown in popularity in recent decades, the pre-race “Parade of Queens” has overtaken the actual race in importance. For several hours prior to the race, participants, dressed either in drag or Halloween costumes, and donning at least 2-inch-high heels, trickle into the cordoned-off blocks between R and P Streets and show off for spectators.
Currently, 546 people have registered to attend the event through its Eventbrite page, although that is typically a mere fraction of those who actually attend. Thus far, 67 participants have signed up to race — for which they must fill out a waiver form — but the bulk of competitors are often last-minute stragglers.
“We’re doing a last big push, so we’re really trying to get thosee numbers up,” says Bowles.
DC Road Runners will be timing the race, with co-sponsor DCW 50 handing out medals to the top 20 finishers.
Bowles says there are some minor changes or adjustments this year, with the pre-race parade being a bit more organized. While participants can — and likely will — begin arriving on scene as early as 5 or 6 p.m., beginning at 8 p.m., all participants will be funneled toward the intersection of 17th and Church Streets, where a select number of speakers will give brief remarks, including Bowles, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Trang Nguyen, a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
In addition, Jesse Jackson, the manager of JR.’s, will provide a small dedication to Eric Little, the recently deceased former owner of the popular gay bar and a founder of the original High Heel Race, honoring his contributions over the years.
“There is going to be a lot of joy and happiness,” says Bowles. “This is one of my favorite events. I know this is one of the mayor’s favorite events, and is really just a cherished event among many in the LGBTQ community, and, honestly, across the whole D.C. region.”
After those brief remarks, the participating queens will shuffle and strut down 17th Street towards the starting line, saying hello to old and new friends alike and showing off some of their creative — and often, politically-tinged or tongue-in-cheek costumes.
The main stage will feature a DJ spinning tunes for the assembled crowd, while emcees Rayceen Pendarvis and Citrine the Queen provide entertainment and commentary on this year’s race. A crew from DC News Now will be on hand with a camera, and media and spectators alike will be able to take pictures of the various participants’ costumes.
For participants, Bowles says, there are lots of opportunities to be seen, show off their creative flair, and potentially land themselves a spot in history — at least, Internet history.
“I was scrolling through Google and looking for pictures of past races, and it is so cool to see throughout the years, all the different pictures, all the different costumes,” says Bowles. “And in a true LGBTQIA+ way, a lot of these costumes are political.”
Of course, the District is being mindful of the need for security, having planned out and approved a safety plan in conjunction with the mayor’s Special Event Task Force group. Metropolitan Police Department officers in uniform, including members of MPD’s LGBTQ Liaison Unit, will be on scene to provide additional security, and the several-block area immediately around the race will be closed to vehicle traffic in the lead-up to the race.
“We’re proud to be one of the only jurisdictions in the nation to host and support an event like this, that truly supports and empowers and honors and celebrates our community and its diversity,” says Bowles. “There are currently bills across the country to outlaw drag. And we are here leading and showing that drag is not a bad thing. Drag is art and drag is a part of our community and culture.
“I’m really proud to live in a city that empowers us and really shows so much support for such an event. And that’s one of the main things we’ll be referencing throughout the pre-parade show is ‘Look how far we’ve come,'” he adds. “We need to do more for sure. But this truly is a safe, accepting community where we can empower each other, and that’s something to celebrate.”
The 35th Annual 17th Street High Heel Race and Pre-Race Parade will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m. along 17th Street NW, between R and P Streets. The pre-race parade kicks off at 8 p.m. from Church and 17th Street NW, with the race starting at R Street promptly at 9 p.m. For more information, or to RSVP, visit the event page at www.eventbrite.com or follow the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dclgbtq.
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