Come Out, Then Branch Out

Two Washington-area entrepreneurs are working to offer the region's gays new types of social options.
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

One is a former drag king, the other is a laid-off newspaper reporter-turned blogger, and each, in their own way, is trying to transform Washington's gay scene. Eboné Bell, 27, and Zack Rosen, 25, friends and entrepreneurs, have a politically subtle mission: to integrate the region's gay scene, which they say caters to crowds that are typically older, white, wealthier and male.

The two 20-somethings are working to create a more inclusive atmosphere for their peers, geared to different races and sexual orientations, including lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, as well as straight people.

Bell, an event promoter, spends her days crisscrossing the city or holed up in her sparse basement bedroom in Silver Spring, planning parties -- ladies nights at straight bars or a gay prom -- that offer gay women social outlets that she says are difficult to find in the Washington region. Rosen co-founded an online publication, the New Gay, which he describes as a rare forum for gay people that focuses more on pop culture and politics and less on sex and personal ads.

Their separate enterprises have led them to an unsettling conclusion about what it's like to be young and gay in Washington: Despite the liberating effects of embracing one's sexual orientation, being young and gay in the nation's capital can feel constricting.

"You come out into this culture that you had no hand in creating, and you're expected to conform to it if you want to have friends or sexual partners," Rosen said. "One of the greatest tragedies in gay life is that you spend the first 18 or 20 or however many years of your life feeling as an outsider -- and then you come out, and still . . . you may not want to come into this fabulous world of big, mega dance club music with all these guys in Hollister T-shirts. It's one way people live, but it's not you. One of the tag lines of [the New Gay] is: 'Be gay and be yourself,' and here, it's often very hard to do both."

Rosen, who came to Washington in 2006 and worked at the Washington Blade, a weekly LGBT newspaper, said his editors weren't always game for his story pitches about indie music or gay cartoon characters -- stories he said would appeal to his age group. He checked out J.R.'s. and Cobalt, well known D.C. gay clubs, but felt the atmosphere centered on hooking up. So he started, where he and others write about music, television and politics, and promote parties including Homo/Sonic at the Black Cat, a gay-friendly straight bar on 14th Street NW.

Their quest to alter Washington's gay landscape also reveals the tensions between Millennials and Generation Y-ers in their 20s, and Generation X-ers in their mid- to upper 30s and 40s. Some establishment Washingtonians view Rosen's efforts as cliche, a cycle that every so often churns out a batch of strivers who feel entitled to a brand.

"I think every young person thinks they're the new gay," said Kevin Naff, 38, editor of the Blade, where Rosen worked until he was laid off last year. "When I was that age, I thought I listened to all the cool music and knew all the cool places to go -- that's what your 20s are for. I think every new generation wants to have their own music, their own language."

One night late last month, scores of young men and women -- guys in skinny jeans and V-neck T-shirts and women in blocky designer glasses -- filed upstairs to the Black Cat's large, dark concert room for Homo/Sonic. The place throbbed. Rosen and his boyfriend stood on stage, tapping away on their white Apple laptops, propped up on plastic crates, playing bands whose experimental and alternative music was heavy on electronic keyboards, drums and guitar.

Ben Carver, 33, a co-founder of the New Gay, sat in the back, taking a break from the dance floor, where the French duo Daft Punk was booming. He talked about why the night was special. "Most gay culture is defined by narrow stereotypes -- it's highly sexualized," said Carver, a communications coordinator at a nonprofit organization. "Most people I know in this area come out and look for a gay community but don't relate . . . we're outside the gay mainstream, the oonch oonch/thump thump music."

About five blocks away, in Dupont Circle, lesbians from across the region poured into the Fab Lounge, one of the city's few regular spots for gay women. On Wednesday, the club hosts "Ladies First" parties, sponsored by Bell and her business, B.O.I. Productions. (B.O.I. stands for Bringing Our Ideas, but in the lesbian community, "boi" signifies a woman who is boyish.) Here, in a building shared with a strip club on the first floor, young lesbians said they are more inclusive and open-minded within their demographic than older generations have been.

"I had a huge crush on a transman in college -- that was interesting," said Elizabeth Prescott, 23, an associate at a nonprofit health care organization, adding that she identifies as queer to encompass her preferences for women, transmen (biological women who identify as men), or, in rare cases, very effeminate men. "The meaning of the word 'queer' has been reclaimed. The way we now look at gender is a lot different from a generation ago."

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