Carlene Cheatam Roast

a fundraiser for Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, Inc.
remarks by Rick Rosendall
November 7, 1997

[On Friday evening, November 7, 1997, a roast was held in honor of longtime DC Activist Carlene Cheatam, as a fundraiser for Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, Inc., from which she recently stepped down after two years at its helm. She had been involved with BLGPD in various capacities for five years, since its founding. DC activists Philip Pannell and Willette Griffin served as master of ceremonies for the evening. Besides GLAA President Rick Rosendall, the roasters included BLGPD Treasurer Darren Buckner and Mayor Marion Barry, who read a proclamation declaring the day to be Carlene Cheatam Day in the District of Columbia. A proclamation from the DC Council honoring Cheatam was brought by Councilmember Arrington Dixon.]

I'm having trouble reading this, but I'll do my best. My boyfriend was in town last week, and he sat on my glasses and broke them. Fortunately, my nose wasn't injured.

I have a message. Is someone here from Whitman-Walker? Jim Graham and Frank Smith decided to carpool here this evening, and Frank offered to drive because he could get better parking with his councilmember plates. Jim said that he would be working late, so Frank could just pick him up at the clinic. Well, Frank just called; he says he's been waiting for the past hour outside Abundant Life, and Jim is nowhere in sight.

Doesn't Carlene look regal tonight? I mentioned at last year's roast that it was Carlene who inspired me to join the DC Coalition. When she first came to town, Carlene joined everything. In fact, we met fifteen years ago when both of us were singing in the Gay Men's Chorus. Wait, that can't be right. But Carlene did join Black and White Men Together, and I decided that if she was man enough to be a member of BWMT, I was black enough to be a member of the DC Coalition.

Some people are intimidated by Carlene. This is when she pulls her big black earth mother routine and shakes her dreads and cowrie shells at them, and they're afraid to mess with her because she might be a voodoo priestess and turn them into a lizard. This is true. She's turned me into several things already, and she can make entire roomfuls of people disappear.

Carlene recently returned from the Million Woman March, which by all accounts was a great success. Carlene's explanation of her participation was noteworthy. Remember that two years ago, after the Million Man March, Philip Pannell said, "A million black men all in one place? Did I die and go to heaven?"

After the Million Woman March, on the other hand, Carlene — referring to the local march organizing group Sisters Organizing Sisters — said, "I didn't go to the group as a lesbian, but as a black woman." My first reaction on reading this was, Now let me get this picture clear in my mind: There she is in Philadelphia, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of African-American women, and she left her lesbian self back in Washington? Carlene, speaking as a caring friend, that was either the dumbest thing you ever did or the biggest lie you ever told.

But then I kept reading, and I was relieved to read that Carlene had also said, "I always got excited when I saw women from Washington, especially women in the life." In the life? I love these pre-Stonewall code words. Excuse me, but aren't you a friend of Dorothy? It's encouraging to know that Carlene was there with her gaydar — I'm sorry, her intragender affection radar — on alert for sisters "in the life." Carlene, get a life. They're called lesbians.

In one of his books, Minister Farrakhan suggests that all a lesbian needs is for the influence of a strong male figure to come into her life, and that will set her back on the course of submissive heterosexual womanhood that God intended for her life. I would love to see him test this idea on Carlene. Now there's a conversion just waiting to happen. Can you imagine Sister Carlene X?

I'm sure you all remember the warm reception that Umoja Party chairman Mark Thompson received at our roast for Phil last year. Since then, he and I have been working together on a local NAACP task force. Talk about an odd couple. I'm sure that it messes with some folks' minds to see us coming down the hall together. As Mark says, be very afraid.

Mark is always in a frenzy of activity, organizing something: Let's go to Faircloth's office. Let's go to the Control Board. Let's talk to Eleanor. Let's meet with Judge Hamilton. And Mark is the sort of person who needs an entourage. When I'm with Mark I feel like a member of the theme music ensemble that follows Keenen Ivory Wayans around in I'm Gonna Get You Sucka.

One of Mark's more brilliant political moves was when he and Rev. Willie Wilson — that great voice of racial harmony — took several busloads of protesters down to Lauch Faircloth's home town in North Carolina. Think of it: hundreds of angry Washingtonians show up on this guy's home turf to complain that he's been tough on the District. I wouldn't have been surprised if Faircloth had offered to pay for the buses himself.

One of the more noteworthy pieces of legal reform by Councilmember Jack Evans is juryless trials in misdemeanor cases. The most famous "beneficiary" of this is Mary Anigbo. She, of course, is principal of the Marcus Garvey School, named after the famous integrationist. That was a joke. Actually, I sympathize with Ms. Anigbo because I too have been misquoted in the press, and I know from personal experience how easy it is to get provoked by white folks. But I'm sorry. Mary Anigbo is a helpless victim about as much as Henry Lyons of the National Baptist Convention deserves the Husband of the Year Award. Did you see that story? His wife finds out that he bought a house for his mistress — using church funds, no less — so she goes to the house, finds his clothing there, and piles it up and sets it on fire. Just like in the movie! But now Mrs. Lyons is standing by her man — or at least her husband. Isn't it inspiring to see traditional family values in action?

Then there's Oklahoma congressman and former quarterback J.C. Watts Jr., who last week condemned what he called celebrations of homosexuality on television. Demonstrating a keen grasp of the First Amendment, he said, "I don't think America is going to be able to shake her fist in the face of a holy God and get away with it." Don't you think it strange that a man who made his name sticking his hands between other guys' legs in public should be scandalized by a kiss?

Occasionally, I make the mistake of trying to talk politics with Carlene. Once I started to fill her in on what we were doing in the NAACP Task Force, and she cut me off by saying, "You know I'm not interested in that shit." Of course, there is a clear political dimension to what she does — for example, back in the early 1980s when she personally challenged the racist carding policies of several local bars. As Craig Howell said, it took a disgracefully long time for the bar owners to give in on that fight, and it's left a sour taste in our mouths ever since. But it got changed. Imagine the impact of a fierce Queen Mother Cheatam standing in the doorway of the Eagle. That is something I could not hope to equal. It's like that scene in Rosewood, when Ving Rhames stops in the woods, turns around, plants himself firmly on the spot, pulls out both his guns and lets the lynch mob have it. That's my image of Carlene, our two-fisted warrior. I can hear her saying, "Who wants to die?"

Of course, to change our society, we have to do more than defeat bigots — we have to touch people. Young people in particular need to see positive reflections of what it means to be gay or lesbian, just as the African American experience is being reflected on the screen by black filmmakers like John Singleton. In this regard, the value of Carlene's work in making Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day the largest celebration of its kind anywhere is beyond price. So I say to you, sister, Namaste.