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Kelly McDonnell

LGBTQ Black History: Activist and Actress Josephine Baker

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 3, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Actress and activist Josephine Baker found the stage when she was barely a teenager, struggling with homelessness and poverty in St. Louis, but her enchanting presence on stages across the world would make her a memorable queer and Black icon.

In 1922, Baker performed in Shuffle Along, one of the first popular American Broadway musicals written and composed and performed by Black artists and Black actors. After this debut, she quickly became a star on stages both in the theatrical and political worlds.

Baker was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, a time of artistic and personal growth that championed Black identity and creativity in America. She eventually moved to Paris and performed on iconic stages and became one of the first popular Black silver screen stars in 1930.

During World War II, she assisted French operations to resist Nazi’s occupation of France. She reported Nazi secrets she overheard when performing for French rebels.

Baker returned to the United States in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement began taking hold of politics and society. In 1963, she was one of the only women who spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She toured with the NAACP and raised funds for France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Baker was forthright about her sensuality and beauty as a Black woman. She did many photoshoots dressed in revealing clothing as well as in men’s tuxedos. Baker had four marriages throughout her lifetime and intimate relationships with women like Maude Russell, Clara Smith and Colette.

Baker died in 1975 in Paris, a few days after her final, sold-out performance.

When she spoke at the March on Washington, she expressed her power and resilience as a Black woman: “When I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

PBS Spotlights Local Black Artists in New Documentary, Kindred Spirits

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 4, 2021 in The DC Line here.

When documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib was showcasing two films at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s 2014 conference on local history, she spotted an intriguing painting of the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 3rd Street NW while perusing a small brochure. The modernist, geometric red hues of homes lining the LeDroit Park street and a gleaming, leafless tree bisecting the frame compelled Cabib to explore the work of the artist, Hilda Wilkinson Brown.

Years of research culminated in a new documentary produced and directed by Cabib called Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell. The short film is being broadcast locally by PBS stations WHUT and MPT on Feb. 4 and by WETA’s World Channel on Feb. 10. PBS stations around the country have scheduled airings of the film for Black History Month programming.

The film rediscovers Brown, a mid-20th-century artist who painted DC’s neighborhoods and scenery; was a professor at Miner Teachers College in DC at a time when schools were segregated; and influenced her niece, Lilian Thomas Burwell, to become an artist as well.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown’s “Third and Rhode Island,” oil on canvas, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a gift of Lilian Thomas Burwell. (Image courtesy of Lilian Thomas Burwell)

In the film, Burwell, now 93 years old, recalls the life and artistry of her aunt and talks about growing up in DC — struggling against segregation and discrimination as she pursued her own abstract expressionist art career.

Cabib said her goal with this film was to bring both women’s art into public view. Brown has pieces in collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her piece Third and Rhode Island, which initially caught Cabib’s eye, is part of a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian. Burwell is opening a new exhibit of her abstract pieces in the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York City in April.

Cabib believes both women deserve more credit, especially during Black History Month.

“I hope [the film] makes people think about other Black artists,” Cabib said. “Who else has been unrecognized? Who else is out there?”

The influence that Brown and Burwell had in nurturing Black artists still resonates in DC’s artistic space. As an educator, Brown encouraged many Black women to pursue careers despite discriminatory and segregationist barriers. Burwell also taught art for years, building on the legacy of her aunt. Alongside its exploration of these women’s histories, Cabib’s film also details the stories of the historic Black institutions and neighborhoods that shaped their artwork.

The documentary shows that Brown’s work was celebrated in the Barnett Aden Gallery, the nation’s first Black, privately owned gallery. It opened in LeDroit Park as an integrated art space and after World War II became primarily an exhibitor for Black artists who were rejected from white-owned galleries. Cabib said she wanted to feature the history of the LeDroit Park neighborhood, which was bursting with Black creatives like Brown, scientists, civil rights activists and more.

Documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib interviews Lilian Thomas Burwell at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland. (Photo by John Z. Wetmore courtesy of Cintia Cabib)

Brown’s artwork was featured during her lifetime in The Crisis, the official NAACP publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine for Black children.

“It’s important to recognize the opportunities Black people made for themselves and each other after they’d been denied,” Cabib said.

The documentary was an official selection of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and has been shown locally at events like the DC Black Film Festival and Alexandria Film Festival

Cabib was able to host one in-person screening of Kindred Spirits at the Avalon Theatre in March 2020, just before DC declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was shown to high school students, and Cabib said she was encouraged by the attendees’ questions and engagements with the film and history. At subsequent virtual screenings, Cabib said Lilian was able to join discussions and share more of her story with audiences. 

Cabib’s story came full circle in November when she showcased her film virtually at the 2020 DC History Conference, bringing Brown’s and Burwell’s stories into focus — not just in a brochure, but on screen.

Breaking Gender Norms: Mainstream Invisibility of Black LGBTQ Fashion

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 28, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

When Harry Styles graced Vogue’s pages in a floor-length, faded blue gown in early November, social media and pop culture discourse erupted. Most fans were elated and praised Styles for his consistent disregard for gendered, masculinized fashion. In the interview, Styles says, “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means.”

On the other side were people like Candace Owens, a politically conservative author, who ridiculed the end of “manly men” in a tweet that targeted Styles’ cover. Owens later went on to say during an Instagram livestream that she loved the dress, but that Harry didn’t look feminine, but just “stupid.”

Does breaking gender fashion norms contribute to a liberation of gender identities? When we ask questions like these, we seem to be focusing on white, cis-gendered celebrities, bestowing them praise and recognition for their one-night-only red carpet designs that bend fashion rules. It’s just enough to capture attention, but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable.

During the 2019 Golden Globes, actor Timothee Chalamet wore a glittering harness and received much love for embracing a feminine silhouette. At the same event, Julia Roberts wore pants (with a golden train skirt) and was met with equal attention for going after a masculine-type style.

Someone who consistently raises eyebrows for gender-breaking fashion is actor Billy Porter. He’s graced red carpets in dresses, skirts, feathers, sequins, and glitter. His outfits mix fabrics, colors, and shapes, and people always commend his style. However, the same praise for breaking norms isn’t always applied. No Twitter trends are amplified or debates started over his fashion, like what happened with Harry Styles.

Do we only give praise to straight celebrities who break from the binary of fashion when it’s unexpected? What about those who make it their mission to disregard gender when it comes to fashion?

We expect queer people to dress exuberantly, flamboyantly, outrageously, because the identities of LGBTQ people are also often viewed as “other.” When straight people adopt the fashion standards LGBTQ people created, they receive praise while Black, queer people are overlooked. They are not seen as the revolutionary icons that they truly are.

Paris Is Burning, the amazing documentary that glimpses briefly into the lives of many Black drag queens and queer men in the 1970s New York ballroom scene, showcases that gender bending fashion is not the product or brainchild of influential white celebrities but of less fortunate yet imaginatively creative and resourceful young Black people competing for recognition and self-identification.

One notable figure in Black queer history and in fashion was Dorian Corey who stars in Paris Is Burning.

When talking about fashion in the film, Corey says, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that, ‘I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one,’ and that is like a fulfillment.”

Over decades, Black women have been the ones altering fashion trends. Starting in the 1930s, Josephine Baker embraced feminine glamour while also trending towards clothes that emphasized her boyish facial features. In the 1940s, blues icon Gladys Bentley, who openly shared her queer identity, dressed often in pantsuits and top hats for performances, though she rarely received the red carpet credit for breaking the rules that white celebrities constantly get today. Androgynous style is still empowered by Black stars like Janet Jackson and Rihanna.

When Rihanna began her own fashion lingerie company, Fenty, she became the first Black woman in charge of a major luxury fashion house. In an interview with the New York Times, she catalogued her simplistic view of fashion: “It’s sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset. I feel like we live in a world where people are embracing every bit of who they are.”

That idea, of embracing yourself, despite racial discrimination or gender boundaries, is why so many Black LGBTQ people use fashion to rebuke gender binary ideologies in culture. It’s not about being reviewed on a red carpet look but about finding an authentic self.

Black gay designer Willi Smith is constantly overlooked for his Philadelphia-based fashion that introduced the concept of streetwear in the late 70s. His styles embraced varied body types, average fabrics, and mixed patterns to encourage the everyday lay person to break gender binaries in fashion.

Today, a Los Angeles brand named No Sesso, which translates from Italian to “No Sex,” embraces agender fashion styles. Designed by Pierre Davis, who is a Black trans woman, these styles upcycle fabric that can fit any body, as long as it makes them happy.

Black LGBTQ designers have been and continue to be critical in expanding the fashion industry into one that allows white men like Harry Styles to wear dresses and receive praise. It’s encouraging that celebrities across race or gender identities are expanding their closets and bending gender norms, but the constant recognition of their images rather than the hard work and legacies of LGBTQ individuals, primarily Black people, jeopardizes any actuality of allowing fashion to be truly non-binary or racially conscious.

Children’s Book Under Our Roof uplifts LGBTQ families

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 8, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Indiana-based author Rebecca Stanton wants children to know that love is love.

Stanton self-published her first illustrated children’s poetry book, Under Our Roof, in September 2019. She said she’d always wanted to write a children’s book, but she never thought that it would be so personal.

When Stanton’s oldest daughter was planning her birthday party and a sleepover, another parent refused to let their child sleep over because of Stanton’s same-sex marriage. Stanton saw her daughter endure hurt and confusion, and she said she had to “step up as a parent” to do something to heal that pain and counter that discrimination.

Colorful, two-dimensional illustrations by Kristy Gaunt, a Florida elementary school art teacher, depict happy moments between two mothers and their two children. The family flies a kite, plays a board game, catches fireflies and holds each other when they cry.

“Everything you see in this book, you see any other family doing,” Stanton says.

Stanton said the images were inspired by her own favorite memories with her three children and wife. When Gaunt would share sketches with Stanton, she always showed them to her children for their approval. When writing, Stanton asked her kids to help her come up with rhymes for the book.

“I wanted them to see themselves in this book,” Stanton says. That’s the reason she decided to self-publish, even though it was difficult and expensive. Self-publishing kept her writing and editing process “personal” and “authentic.”

Without a publisher, Stanton has been primarily promoting her book through social media and in freelance articles with Gay Parent Magazine, but she’s struggled making a profit on her book.

Despite this, she’s been reminded how important books like these are for representation of the LGBTQ community. Stanton said she was worried how her local community would react to her book, since she tends to lead a private life. She said she also knows that some people believe that children are too young to talk about LGBTQ topics.

In her small town, she doesn’t know many other LGBTQ people. While her two-year-old daughter is comfortably expressive about having two moms, teachers and other adults don’t know how to address same-sex families.

“They kind of stumble,” explains Stanton. “I struggle finding words for it, but they just need to know it’s okay to talk about it. … [The book is] not about sex, it’s just about family.”

One powerful quote in the book is, “Love is what you do and not what you say.” It accompanies an illustration of the family huddled inside having a picnic on a rainy day.

“We teach the kids, no matter what we do, we make sure we’re here, present,” Stanton says. “They know we mean it. Instead of saying it, just show it.”

I Hate New Year’s Elevates the classic Holiday Rom-Com

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 16, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

The holiday season is going to be different this year. It might not feel as festive with loved ones at a distance or favorite businesses closed down. But a joyful, musical remedy during this time is the new holiday film, I Hate New Year’s, directed by Christin Baker of Tello Films.

When up-and-coming pop singer, Layne Price (Dia Frampton), hits a writer’s blocker for songwriting, a psychic named Zelena (Candis Cayne) advises her to travel back home to Nashville. Layne stays with her oldest and best friend Cassie, played by the charming Ashley Argota, most known for her roles on Disney Channel. Zelena advises Layne to go back to “a place where you need to learn to love again.” And these days, we could all use a reminder on how to love.

The conflict isn’t just Layne’s simple writer’s block. Cassie wants to tell Layne that she’s in love with her, even though they’re best friends. Layne is completely one-track-minded about fixing her writer’s block and doesn’t see the love she needs standing right beside her.

The film’s antics unfold throughout Nashville, with bubbly, if not typical rom-com scenes including a karaoke scene, a shopping montage and an impromptu musical number. The music in the film, which was written by Billy Steinberg and Josh Alexander, is heartfelt and perfectly bedroom pop. Steinberg’s repertoire features #1 hits for Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, explaining the film’s upbeat and pining soundtrack.

Argota is a force throughout this film. Not only does her voice enchant as she sings a melodic piano tune called “Hours of the Night,” she’s also the film’s emotional crutch. From the beginning of the film, we know her one desire: to express her love for her friend, no matter the cost. It’s a daring feat, and we want her to succeed. Argota’s eyes show the most emotion, and they’re glittering and enthralling to watch.

We watch Cassie struggle, loyally and dotingly following Layne through Nashville as she chases after an ex-girfriend. We see how painful it is for Cassie, but her persistence to be the best friend that Layne needs is heart-warming. It’s the perfect remedy for any cold feelings during this winter season.

The film’s other success is its familiarity. Unlike many other mainstream LGBTQ romances, there’s no coming-out drama. The characters’ sexuality just exists. It needs no explanation to any other character or to the audience, it has its history and its own realism. The normalized emotional connections between all the characters—many of whom are LGBTQ themselves—is refreshing to see on screen.

Like any cheesy holiday rom-com, there’s the opposition between the cheery friend, Cassie, and the Scrooge, Layne. These two characters clearly have a history, and though it’s not fully established or emoted just how well the two know each other, Frampton’s and Argota’s connection on screen feels authentic.

It’s joyful to watch these two friends do what we hopefully will be able to do again soon: go out without masks on, grab drinks in a crowded bar, sing karaoke into a shared microphone, and wander the streets with our hands intertwined.

WETA highlights local singers in Special holiday premiere

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 14, 2020 in The DC Line here.

The pandemic halted live performances in March, but there’s still music and holiday cheer on tap this week.

This Tuesday at 9 p.m., WETA Arts will premiere Washington Voices: Songs of the Season, a medley of pre-recorded holiday choral performances by 12 area choirs.

The special is mainly showcasing archival footage from the choirs’ previous holiday performances since 2006. One new performance by the Children’s Chorus of Washington will also be presented, despite the difficulties of gathering and singing due to the pandemic. The group’s members individually recorded themselves singing, and the recordings were then edited together for a full ensemble performance. And while the group ceased in-person vocal rehearsals and performances in March, the members recently filmed a socially distanced American Sign Language performance in front of the Washington National Cathedral, to accompany the recorded music. 

WETA Arts producer Judy Meschel and Children’s Chorus of Washington artistic director Margaret Nomura Clark collaborated to broadcast the sounds of the season even in a year where that’s technically difficult.

“Holidays are not complete without the choral concerts throughout our region,” Nomura Clark told The DC Line.

Washingtonians looking to attend a seasonal show normally have as many as seven or eight options every night throughout December, said Gretchen Kuhrmann, artistic director for Choralis, a Falls Church choir with two performances being showcased during the television event. Washington Voices will let viewers watch their favorite choirs and discover new choirs all on one night, Kuhrmann said.

The Washington area is truly the nation’s capital for choirs: for every town in the DMV, there’s one to six choirs, according to a 2003 study by Chorus America. This special includes more than 1,000 local chorus singers, the organizers said.

Kuhrmann, Nomura Clark and Thea Kano, artistic director for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, all said the holiday special shows that despite the pandemic’s devastation, the arts are still thriving in the region.

From the comfort of their couches, area residents can watch their neighbors performing beloved holiday music, including Christian hymns, Jewish songs, classical arrangements and pop radio classics. Kano said GMCW chose to perform the comedic “Hanukkah Rhapsody” to represent the Jewish community and to provide variety in the type of holiday music being featured.

Meschel and Nomura Clark both said they wanted the program to reflect the diverse DMV community. An independent committee from WETA Arts reviewed more than 30 submissions from local choirs and chose groups that were representative and visually interesting for the program.

The program includes children’s choirs, senior choirs, symphonic groups like Choralis, and massive ones like GMCW, which has 200 members. 

In addition to GMCW, 11 choirs will be featured in the one-hour program: 

  • Alfred Street Baptist Church Music Ministry Choir
  • The Thirteen
  • Washington Performing Arts’ Men and Women of the Gospel Choir and Children of the Gospel Choir
  • Alexandria Harmonizers
  • Zemer Chai
  • Cathedral Choral Society
  • Children’s Chorus of Washington’s Bel Canto Chorus and Concert Chorus
  • Choral Arts Society of Washington
  • Choralis
  • Encore Chorale
  • Fairfax Choral Society Vocal Arts Ensemble

The different groups represent talent from throughout the DMV and “as diverse as they are… it brings us all together,” Nomura Clark said. “We are presenting ourselves to us,” Meschel added.

A special like this seemed impossible months ago. When the pandemic began, singing became one of the most dangerous activities possible, Kano said. Taking deep breaths in and releasing aerosols while vocalizing made singers both spreaders and vulnerable catchers of the novel coronavirus. Choral singing, in the traditional sense, was quickly abandoned for safety.

But Choralis’ Kuhrmann wanted to keep the choir community connected. She contacted a few local choir directors for weekly virtual meetings to discuss tips for online rehearsals and programming. The group expanded to include directors, conductors and composers across the region.

The group was a “brain dump” for sharing ideas on how to adjust to choir directing over Zoom, Kuhrmann said. “We all needed each other.”

Some groups with the same rehearsal times teamed up to host guest speakers who lectured on vocalization, music theory and composing. Nomura Clark said that one benefit of this virtual space was her ability to invite a composer from London to talk with her group.

Artistic directors began sharing arrangements that were created to accommodate the audio shortcomings of Zoom, which has presented challenges for group singing, Kuhrmann said. Zoom only highlights the single loudest sound, so when Choralis rehearses over the online platform, members have to remain muted and learn on their own, Kuhrmann said.

The Gay Men’s Chorus has had similar challenges. Kano said she doesn’t know what the entire choir sounds like until members’ individual recordings are edited together. Kano said that her group provides safety for LGBTQ+ people who are marginalized, so while virtual rehearsals may not be musically fulfilling, it still unites members with their “chosen family.”

Meschel and Nomura Clark said they hope the WETA special will encourage viewers to support local choruses and attend in-person concerts when choirs perform live again.

Kuhrmann said the artistic directors have already discussed plans for when live performances resume. Ideas include a summer festival to showcase choruses or a massive, multi-group performance at an arena where everyone can finally meet face-to-face after months of virtual bonding.

“We all have a lot of energy and passion, and none of us want to sit on our hands and go back to business as usual once this is all over,” Kuhrmann said.

But I’m A Cheerleader Re-release Sparks New Critique of Ongoing anti-LGBTQ policies

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 1, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

But I’m A Cheerleader is a perfect satirical film. Its explicit and ironic criticism of conservative and religious ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity in the 1990s shines a light on contradictions of the time.

Between liberal government policies that banned sexual orientation discrimination and the continued social brutality against LGBTQ people, like Matthew Shephard who was murdered in 1998 for being gay, Jamie Babbit’s 1999 feature film was an over-the-top critique of inequality. The film’s re-release on December 8 with new scenes and interviews with creators and cast will hopefully add to the film’s successful campy narrative that reminds audiences of resilience.

Netflix’s Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, who is 17 years old when her parents send her to a conversion therapy home called “True Directions.” But Megan can’t be a lesbian! Doesn’t everyone fantasize about their teammates in short skirts? Well, Babbit wants you to, as the camera close-ups focus on a girl’s short skirt or on her breasts. These glimpses into Megan’s imagination shows what she wants and what she denies herself.

There are five steps to convert back to straightness at True Directions. Step one is admitting your homosexuality. To get to step five, Megan and the other women campers learn how to wash dishes and change diapers while the men campers play football and fix cars. This is a re-learning process of the natural order dictated by True Directions, despite how mundane and inconsequential all of these tasks are. By step five, the campers should be cured to heterosexuality.

When she first admits she’s a lesbian, Megan’s face twists into an indiscernible mixture of fear and relief. Her eyes crinkle and fill with tears, but her lips fill into an almost smile, stiff but on the verge of shining. The other campers hug her. Admittance is the first step, but does it guide Megan down the straight, and narrow path?

The film has coded campy coloring, with girls dressed in Barbie pink outfits and the boys in button-up blue suits. The house is always being cleaned and the furniture is wrapped in clear guards, a nod to the discriminatory idea that gayness is contagious and to the lingering 90s AIDS fear.

Babbit is re-releasing But I’m A Cheerleader as a director’s cut in 4K HD on December 8 with never-before released scenes and a reunion interview with the film’s cast, which also includes RuPaul and Michelle Williams.

The film’s resurgence is especially pertinent as politicians have revamped their support for anti-LGBTQ policies. Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the United States Supreme Court was a loss for the LGBTQ community, particularly because of Barrett’s history as a trustee at private Christian schools with anti-gay policies.

The Trump administration has also taken legal action that would restrict LGBTQ access to support shelters and schools based on gender identity assigned at birth. Attacks against LGBTQ individuals are still making national news, especially this year with several Black and Brown trans women and men being murdered at record numbers.

The conservative and religious-based ideologies that targeted homosexuality in the ’90s and prompted Babbit to create this campy satire haven’t gone anywhere.

The re-release of But I’m A Cheerleader is exciting for a queer cult-classic getting some fresh air, yet it’s evergreen applicability is disheartening. But as Megan confronts crushing conversion attempts from clueless hypocrites, we can, too.