by Athena Naylor
This article was first published in The DC Line.
DC’s annual LGBTQ film festival, Reel Affirmations, showcased a wide variety of films that highlight LGBTQ subjects and issues during its four-day run in early November. Notably, the film roster included a 50-minute TV special by first-time producer Marvin Bowser titled DC Black Pride: Answering the Call, which archives a disappearing history and contextualizes the annual DC event as both a celebration and a legacy.
Marvin Bowser, older brother of Mayor Muriel Bowser, is a proud DC native, a retired U.S. Air Force captain and an active member of the LGBTQ community who, after working as a defense contractor for 18 years, is now developing and pursuing his artistic talents. While he mainly focuses on acting, writing and photography, Bowser felt the need to produce Answering the Call after conducting research for a Washington Blade article on DC’s first Black Pride event, a celebration and commemoration of the area’s black LGBTQ community held each spring. “I realized that the history of DC Black Pride is poorly documented and remembered and that I needed to do something about it while some of the leaders are still alive to tell their stories,” Bowser writes.
Created in collaboration with the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment, DC Black Pride: Answering the Call collects the stories of the original organizers and attendees of DC Black Pride as well as those of current members of the District’s LGBTQ community to communicate a compelling account of Black Pride’s history and importance.
While it’s true that the first DC Black Pride was established in part as a counterbalance to Capital Pride — DC’s primary Pride event founded in 1975 — the main motivator for the event’s launch in 1991 was the AIDS epidemic. In the 1970s and 1980s, DC relished its reputation as “Chocolate City” with a thriving black population, which included a gay community that flocked to the city’s clubs and discos. Yet by the late 1980s, what had begun as a nameless disease was disproportionately affecting the once-flourishing black LGBTQ community, inciting fear on all fronts. To talk about AIDS was taboo, since doing so meant discussing homosexuality, which was still illegal under sodomy laws.
Organizers of the first DC Black Pride sought to raise money for critically needed services that would help combat the AIDS crisis and serve those already affected. The event also connected and celebrated the black LGBTQ community, which was struggling with the inconceivable loss generated by the epidemic.
Original co-founders Ernest Hopkins, Welmore Cook and Theodore Kirkland faced skepticism as they tried to organize the inaugural Black Pride. The choice of Banneker Field in Northwest DC as the event’s location and the very nature of the gathering were seen as deterrents for anyone who might attend. However, the first Black Pride proved a great success, and since 1991 the event has inspired the establishment of Black Pride celebrations throughout the country and abroad.
Bowser’s DC Black Pride: Answering the Call succeeds by utilizing an impressive roster of interviews with LGBTQ activists to tell the story of the first DC Black Pride — which Bowser attended — and to express the continued impact of the event.
Along with Bowser’s revealing interviews with leaders of the first DC Black Pride, the documentary also explores current LGBTQ issues in the District through the insights of figures such as Philip Pannell, a political activist in Ward 8; June Crenshaw, executive director of the Wanda Alston Foundation; and Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
Bowser notably expands the discussion of DC Black Pride beyond its typically cis-male-centric perspectives. The audience gets to hear from Anika Simpson, director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at American University, who describes the need to incorporate voices of queer women of color in academic curricula. Also featured are local trans activists Earline Budd, non-medical case specialist at the DC sexual health and rights organization HIPS; and Achim Howard, founder and coordinator of Trans Men Rising Inc.
Bowser also considers the District’s elderly LGBTQ community through a conversation with Dr. Imani Woody, founding director and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults. Besides archiving the disappearing history of the first DC Black Pride, Bowser clearly prioritizes increasing the visibility of other LGBTQ narratives while looking to the future of the District’s black gay community.
DC Black Pride: Answering the Call emphasizes the importance of understanding the past of Pride to progress into the future. Today, a major concern for DC is the large number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ and often find themselves on the street because their families do not accept their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Black trans lives continue to be endangered, and AIDS, the main motivator for the first DC Black Pride, remains an issue today. During an interview in Answering the Call with an advocate from the organization Impulse Group, which promotes healthier lifestyles for gay men in DC and 17 other cities around the world, Bowser becomes visibly disturbed when told that half of gay black men — an even greater percentage than in the early 1990s — will become HIV-positive in their lifetimes.
Answering the Call suggests that perspective is the main difference between older and younger generations of DC’s LGBTQ community. As expressed by various interviewees in Answering the Call, in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was common for members of the LGBTQ community to attend an AIDS-related funeral each week. Friends watched friends wither away, and fear of HIV was so great that often hospital employees, fearing infection, would not take food into the rooms of AIDS patients. Instead, they would deposit meals in doorways, to be carried bedside by visiting friends.
Today’s LGBTQ youth are distanced from that fear and horror since many have access to Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP), drugs taken to prevent HIV infection. With more resources to combat AIDS, the stigma surrounding the disease is not as great as it once was. Answering the Callemphasizes, however, that the lack of support for HIV research funding from the Trump administration and general restrictions on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are cause for concern. Not all LGBTQ people will have access to health care services to fight HIV if they become infected.
The Reel Affirmations screening of DC Black Pride: Answering the Call on Nov. 4 concluded with a brief Q&A, which emphasized where the documentary succeeded and where it could be improved. Many younger viewers appreciated the contextualization of Black Pride that Bowser’s film provided, and spoke of the disconnect between younger and older generations regarding the AIDS epidemic and the purpose of Pride.
One older woman expressed appreciation but said she would have liked to see better explanation of the role African-American lesbians played in the organization and success of 1991’s Black Pride. More trans inclusion was also suggested, and one older gentleman described the TV special as “only the beginning” of the story, saying he hoped Bowser would follow up on the subject with another documentary.
Conceding that 50 minutes wasn’t enough time to provide a comprehensive history of DC Black Pride, Bowser asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if they either attended or helped organize the first DC Black Pride. Many hands went up. Bowser encouraged everyone to give him their contact information, saying an extension of the project was possible.
DC Black Pride: Answering the Call aired for the first time over the Memorial Day weekend in conjunction with Black Pride 2018. One hopes it will air again during DC Black Pride 2019, or perhaps be featured as part of Reel Affirmation’s monthly film series Reel Affirmations XTRA. Bowser says the special can be streamed online and also will air periodically on Channel 16 of the DC Cable Network. The feedback and reaction to the Nov. 4 screening demonstrates the continued relevance of DC Black Pride and the value of sharing its history — both to celebrate DC’s black LGBTQ community and to encourage a continuing dialogue about its past, present and future.