Family Portrait: Looking back on 10 years of Portraits

PGN published the first Family Portrait column in the Feb. 11-17, 2005 edition, so this week marked the column’s 10th anniversary.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve had the good fortune of showcasing the amazing members of our community for a full decade. I thought this would be a good time to answer some of the questions I’m frequently asked and reflect on some of my favorite moments.


First, a little history. The full name of the column as I proposed it was “Family Portrait,” as in, “Uh huh, you know he/she’s ‘family.’” I even had a corny clip-art frame I wanted to use for the accompanying pictures. Of course, one of the main questions I’m asked is how the column came to be. Well, blame Donald Carter.

If you don’t know him by name, you’ve probably seen him about town. Donald is a dashing man with salt-and-pepper hair who is at just about every function in the city. He’s a black Republican, which he says is because someone has to do it. He’s so much fun and so reasonable that I don’t hold it against him. Anyway, I think it was at a QFest event, then called PIGLFF (the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival), and I was standing with a group of people talking to Donald and a few others. As Mr. Carter walked away, my girlfriend at the time, Vicki, said, “He’s such an interesting guy, I see him everywhere. What does he do?” I scratched my head and replied that I didn’t know. She asked how long I’d known him and I sheepishly told her about 12 years.

To take some of the heat off me, I asked the others in the group if they knew. Sadly, they didn’t either, and as I looked around, I realized that I didn’t actually know much about some of the others in the group who I’d casually socialized with for years. I thought, What a shame. We see people regularly at LGBT functions and it’s “kiss, kiss, nice shoes, where’s the line for the bar” and other superfluous conversation. It would be nice to learn more about them. And so I decided that perhaps there was a need for a vehicle that enabled us to get to know the people we see out and about, in our stores, behind the bars and fighting for our causes. Thus Family Portrait was born.

For the record, here’s a little info excerpted from Donald’s column in 2005:

“Donald is a Philadelphian through and through. He is the proud product of the Philadelphia school system. He went to Masterman during its first year of accelerated programs, then to Central and then onto Temple. He got his master’s in ancient Roman history at the University of Cincinnati, where he taught for several years. As an activist in Cincinnati, he lectured in small towns at small schools — rather impressive in 1970s Ohio.

PGN: Contest or award you’ve won?

DC: I’ve been honored by the Log Cabin Republicans, but I think being a citizen panelist on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” would be considered my biggest reward. It gave me a national platform to say I’m gay and to represent Philadelphia.

PGN: The bartender knows I drink ….

DC: Tanqueray and tonic.

PGN: Favorite childhood book?

DC: A story about Greek myths and legends. I think that’s what got me interested in ancient history. That, and the Saturday-morning gladiator movies with the men in skirts with bulging biceps and lot’s of leather!

PGN: [When finally asked what he did, Donald replied]:

DC: I think “What does Donald do?” has been one of the touchstone questions in the LGBT arts community for years. The generic answer would be community activist, which means I’m active in the community. I’ve been a 15-year volunteer with Action AIDS and am on the board of the Jonathan Lax clinic. I’m also the founder and a board member of the Log Cabin Republicans in Philadelphia.

He told me that his best job description is “Be there, do that.”

I guess I’ll never know completely what he did, but it spawned this column and that’s good enough for me. I do know that he’s retired, living in the John C. Anderson Apartments and was once a “Jeopardy” contestant. And he’s still at every function in town …

For the record, Donald was not my first column. It actually took me until August of 2005 to pin him down. My first column was filmmaker and editor Brian Gannon. I guess fitting since the idea was hatched at a film event. To refresh my memory, I recently trekked down to the library to peruse that first column. I probably have a copy of it around somewhere but, having taken down all (most) of my Christmas decorations in time for Valentine’s Day, my basement at the moment looks like an episode of “Hoarders.”

Ready to walk down memory lane, I threaded the microfiche and cued up the first column. It was so short, I flashed past it without seeing it. The early columns just consisted of a short bio and then five or six random questions. What I found interesting, though, was all that was happening at the time, what has changed and what has stayed the same.

On the cover of the Feb. 11, 2005 issue was a story about the Nizah Morris investigation and another about state legislators using the arrest of antigay protester Michael Marcavage at OutFest to try to remove hate-crimes protections for gays and lesbians (they weren’t even mentioning trans folks). There was a story about a local lesbian songwriter, Jennifer Higdon, who was nominated for four Grammys and an ad for Margaret Cho who was coming to town (she’ll be here again next month!). In his State of the Union address, then-President George W. Bush reiterated his support of a proposal to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. PBS pulled an episode of “Buster the Bunny” because the cartoon character visited a child with two mommies. The U.S. Secretary of Education sent PBS a letter stating, “Many parents would not want their children exposed to the lifestyle portrayed” and asked them to return federal grant money used to make the show. Tower Records was still open. There were a lot of pages of personal and adult ads, complete with pictures. The section, called “The Playground,” was 14 pages long. I recall removing that section before showing my parents my column. I guess with the advent of home computers and social media, you can find your “friends” on your own. On a side note, years ago, PGN publisher Mark Segal used to do a radio show on the same station where my mother worked. I was single and he talked me into putting an ad in the classifieds. All I can say is that I got some interesting responses. There were some pictures sent to me that definitely could have used some help from Photoshop!

By about April of that first year — Earl Dax was the feature — the column was starting to get longer and more in-depth. Another question I’m asked often is where I get my subjects. My idea for the column was that everyone has a story to tell and oftentimes I’ll see someone who looks interesting and just walk up and ask them their story, which can lead to some funny moments.

In 2010, I was shopping in the Big Green Earth Store. It was a cool place, and I asked the man behind the counter if he was the owner. He replied yes so I asked him if I could profile him for PGN. He laughed and said, “How did you know I was a member of the community? I can’t believe you just read me like that.” Hey, it takes one to know one. If there’s a larger group or event I want to profile, say the zoo or the recent Home Show, I’ll call and ask for the PR person. Sometimes they don’t know if they have someone connected to the community and don’t know how to ask. I’ll tell them to just yell out, “Hey, are there any homos in the house?” Joking, of course! I usually just suggest they put out a call asking if there are any members of the LGBT community who would be interested in talking to me. That’s how I got my recent interview with the Fabulous Beekman Boys.

Often, column begets column. I’ll finish doing an interview with someone and they’ll say, “You know who you really ought to speak to …” In fact, it was former portrait, Jose Rodriguez who facilitated my interview with Chaz Bono. (By the way, I interviewed Coach Jose after receiving a letter from the straight members of his track team who wrote to me to share what a great guy he is.)

I have a running joke with Portrait Noel Zayas because he keeps suggesting profiles that are problematic. The first turned out to be straight, which I learned halfway through the interview when I asked her to tell me about coming out and she asked ,“From where?” The next was a fellow who was more effeminate then Cam on “Modern Family” but stopped me in the middle of the interview to ask, ‘You’re not going to print this interview, are you? My mother doesn’t know I’m gay.” I diplomatically refrained from telling him that Stevie Wonder knew he was gay and let him graciously bow out of the interview. And I won’t even mention the fellow Noel recommended who didn’t want his picture taken for the article or why. To be fair, Noel has suggested a number of great profile ideas and is one of my go-to people for suggestions.

I must pause here and thank Perry Monastero and Amber Hikes for being my contact hook-ups. Whenever I need to track someone down, I go to those two first; they know everyone!

Of course, our readers are another source. I’ve gotten some of my favorite profiles from you. At the end of each column is a place for you to send your suggestions, so keep them coming.

One of the best parts of doing the column is learning so much and meeting new people. I’ve become good friends with several of the people I’ve met through the interviews. I did Jose’s profile in 2011 and this summer I got to meet his mom when we went to see “West Side Story” with another former Portrait, Terri Cotto. I’ve been honored to write about people we’ve since lost and on occasion even seen the pictures that I took used in tributes. I learned from the late Desiree Hines cool things I would have never know about the pipe organ (did you know pipe-organ musicians wear special shoes?). I’ve heard affirming and heartbreaking coming-out stories. I’ve been introduced to new experiences and invited to all sorts of places, from the opera to roller derby. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and hopefully been able to brighten people’s lives just a little. I’ve received numerous calls and texts from people excited to have their story told.

A little secret: Though I’ve profiled a lot of the “movers and shakers” in this town, my original idea was and is to also give voice to the person who doesn’t usually get seen in the papers; I’ve done the UPS driver who covers the Gayborhood and the person behind the desk who greets you at your favorite charity, the massage therapist who helps knock out the kinks and the bartender who listens to you talk.

I’ve been asked which column had the most impact, and that would be hard to narrow down. But the one that has had the most response was probably Tenika Watson. Tenika was the mystery woman in the car crash that paralyzed the late Teddy Pendergrass. I did her profile in early 2011 and we’re still getting comments. A lovely and fascinating woman, she has a new book out and was recently profiled on Oprah Winfrey’s “Where are They Now?” She called me to tell me about it and said, “But yours was the best interview of all.” Ha! I beat Oprah!

One of the most difficult things is keeping my column down to 2,500 words. If it sometimes looks choppy, it’s because I took a sentence that read, “Tell me about your hopes and dreams and aspirations for the future?” and cut it to “Plans?” Then once I’ve chopped it, PGN editor Jen Colletta gets a turn. Thankfully, she has a good sense of my style and can keep the flow intact.

Sometimes people will ask me why I didn’t ask follow-up questions and the truth is a lot of times I have, but the person has asked me not to publish the answer. Oftentimes I anticipate the call. I had one guy who was speaking about a family member. He’d just gotten off the phone with them when we started our interview. I asked a question about siblings and he proceeded to tell me that his sibling was a loser who’d never really amount to anything. The next day he called me and said, “Please don’t write that, I was just upset at that moment.” I told him that I’d already taken it out. When he asked why, I explained that later in the interview he shared how the sibling was the only person who’d supported him when he came out. I figured that it was just an excited utterance. I’m never out to try to “catch” someone off guard or make them look bad; we get enough of that already.

Not only do I learn new things doing the column, but so do the people around my interviewees.

It’s funny how many times I’ll be doing an interview and the person’s partner will say, “What? I didn’t know that about you.” But the comment I hear most frequently is, “You really captured me.” One interview was with a figure who was very prominent in our community. I knew that he had been interviewed numerous times over the years and could be a little serious. I was concerned that he may not be familiar with or like the lighter aspect of the column. I was pleased and shocked when he called me and started the conversation by saying, “You nailed me. No one else has ever captured my essence the way you did.” I did another high-profile subject, who called me afterwards and said “I’ve done interviews with CNN and the Wall Street Journal and I’ve never had a response like I did when your column hit the stands.” Nice.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had a number of people tell me that they’ve used the column to come out to their families, friends and coworkers. It’s a privilege to be part of such a momentous occasion. People have received offers and recognition. Perry Monastero told me that it was after reading his profile that the folks at Philly Pride Presents offered to make him grand marshal of the Pride parade (maybe they’ll let me be a judge this year … hint).

But here’s my favorite story: A PGN reader saw my column about Charita Powell, owner of Amazulu in the Reading Terminal. She decided that Charita sounded interesting and went to the terminal to meet her. Last year, they sent me an invitation to the wedding. And they’ve lived happily ever after.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].