Rayceen Pendarvis

Pendarvis, Rayceen 2017

Rayceen Pendarvis was born on January 11. Known affectionately as the High Priestess of Love, the Queen of the Shameless Plug, and the Goddess of DC, the self-described “gender-blender” is the host of “The Ask Rayceen Show,” an emcee, entertainer, social media personality, activist, and “SWERV” magazine columnist.

Rayceen Pendarvis was born one of six siblings in Washington, DC, to a military father, Robert, and a social worker mother, Mary. Pendarvis attended McKinley High School, and was active in the drama club and pep squad, and served on the school’s yearbook staff.

Pendarvis became an activist at an early age after recognizing the call to fight against social injustice. Foremost in Pendarvis’s activism is being a voice for those who feel they are not being heard. As a native Washingtonian and a product of the DC public school system during a time when the expectation to excel was commonplace, Pendarvis has a desire to ensure that future generations will have the same opportunities.

In 1985, after witnessing an astonishing number of friends and family fall victim to HIV/AIDS, Pendarvis began to shift focus onto the need to address gay men’s concerns. What followed was the dedication of many years of time and talent to the raising of awareness and funds. The organizations with which Pendarvis collaborated include ICAN, Whitman-Walker, Us Helping Us, Transgender Health Empowerment, and the Wanda Alston House.

In 1991, Pendarvis received the honor of being selected to host the inaugural DC Black Pride. This role would be repeated in subsequent celebrations, as would many years as an active board member of the organization. In addition to serving as a board member for the Inner City AIDS Network, and as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, DC, Pendarvis has mentored in an LGBTQ foster care program, and has worked with MD Fashion Week, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the Red Cross, and DC Children’s Hospital.

As one of the founding members of the DC chapter of The Legendary House of Pendavis, Rayceen Pendarvis has combined an expertise in the field of cosmology with the flair of ballroom culture to become a sought-after commentator, moderator, emcee, and host. Pendarvis also had the honor of working with and being a child of the legendary Avis Pendavis. Another blessing which Pendarvis holds dearly is being a “father of five and mother to many!”

Pendarvis’s love of performing has led to participation in theatrical productions of “Dreamgirls,” “The Wiz,” and “Cats,” just to name a few. Further involvement in the entertainment industry has included working with music divas such as Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Martha Wash, Ledisi, Fantasia, and Faith Evans.

In 2014, Pendarvis was recognized as one of the “205 Heroes in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS in the Last 30 Years” exhibit at the National Library. That same year, Pendarvis appeared on the cover of “Metro Weekly,” hosted the DC Black Pride festival, moderated a panel at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was a double nominee (for Most Committed Activist and Local Hero) in the Washington Blade Best of Gay DC Readers’ Poll, and received the Angel Award at the Latex Ball in NYC.

In 2015, Pendarvis was profiled by “Tagg” magazine and the “Washington Blade,” was honored by both The DC Center for the LGBT Community and the Community Church of Washington, DC. Milestones that year included hosting Black Transcendence: A Black Queer & Trans Art Experience; moderating the panel discussion at the Smithsonian’s “Paris Is Burning” screening; co-hosting the 25th Annual DC Black Pride Cultural Arts and Wellness Festival with another frequent host of the event, ButtaFlySoul; hosting “Quick and Dirty” at The DC Center’s Fifth Annual OutWrite LGBT Book Festival; moderating a panel and hosting the mini-ball at Reel Affirmations and Team Rayceen Present “Paris is Burning! Celebrating 25 Years: The Book…The Film…The Ball”; co-hosting SongMaster’s 18th Annual BGL Cruise; hosting the annual DC Queer Theatre Festival; and co-hosting a talent showcase with Curt Mariah on the final three Saturdays of the semi-annual arts event, Artomatic.

The following year, Pendarvis was honored by both Casa Ruby and the Empowerment Liberation Cathedral Church. Capital Pride selected Pendarvis to be a recipient of the 2016 Heroes Award, and appear in the annual Capital Pride Parade. Despite not being ordained or ministering in a traditional capacity, Pendarvis was voted as Best Clergy in the Washington Blade Best of Gay DC Readers’ Poll.

In 2017, Pendarvis headlined numerous events, including Capital Trans Pride, The Artomatic 2017 Finale, and a series of programs for the DC Office on Aging at each of the city’s six senior wellness centers. In addition to articles for “TUV (The Unleashed Voice)” and “Q Virginia” (formerly “Unite Virginia”), Pendarvis wrote articles for EFNIKS.com, a website focusing on LGBTQ people of color. There were a number of honors bestowed upon Pendarvis, including being a finalist for Excellence in the Humanities for the 32nd Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards.

After many years of activism, Pendarvis has received awards from multiple organizations, including the Triumph Award, Spirit of Light, Us Helping Us Lifetime Award, the Wilmore Cooke Award, the Gillard-Alston Award, and the Red-Era Ballroom Legendary Award for outstanding community service.

Pendarvis can be seen regularly as the host of “The Ask Rayceen Show,” a free, monthly, live event on first Wednesdays (March-November) in DC. Show segments include panel discussions, interviews, live music performances, improv comedy, and audience participation games. All are welcome, and admission is always free. For more on the show, and to find Rayceen Pendarvis, Team Rayceen, and “The Ask Rayceen Show” on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, visit www.askrayceen.com.

Currently single and “open to being in love again,” Pendarvis says, “I had the privilege of being with David Davis, the love of my life.” They were together for almost twenty years, until his death in 2008. Pendarvis enjoys concerts, listening to music, traveling, reading, tweeting, and remaining committed to activism and advocacy.

“Our community is important to me because it is the essence of my identity, and Black LGBTQ people were the first to support me and remain my core audience,” Pendarvis told the Ubuntu Biography Project. “Black LGBTQ people should be proud of who they are because too many died for us to free, so we must celebrate and honor their spirits.”

We thank Rayceen Pendarvis for being the hostess with the mostess, and for contributing in so many ways to our community.



Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus

Brown, Addie 2017

Addie Brown was born on December 21, 1841 (to January 11, 1870). The close relationship of Brown and Rebecca Primus—two free Black women during the Civil War era—and the many letters they exchanged have attracted the interest of scholars.

Brown was born free at a time when slavery was legal in 13 states and territories. Little is known about her early life, except that she was orphaned and denied a formal education. Brown was a domestic worker who lived and worked in Hartford, Farmington, and Waterbury in Connecticut, as well as in New York City.

Rebecca Primus was born in 1836, the daughter of a prominent Black Connecticut family who was sent south by the Hartford Freedmen’s Aid Society to teach newly freed slaves during Reconstruction. The Primus household, which would have been considered middle class by today’s standards, consisted of Rebecca, her father, Holdridge, who was a grocery store clerk, and her mother, Mehitable, a self-employed dressmaker.

Brown may have done work in the Primus household, but how she met Rebecca remains a mystery. Both resided at one time in Hartford, Connecticut; from there, Brown was on the move, taking low-paying jobs as a domestic or horse driver wherever she could find them. In contrast, Primus was a determined, spirited, and intelligent Christian woman who became a schoolteacher. She risked her life by leaving Hartford for the South after the Civil War to establish a school for newly freed slaves in Royal Oak, Maryland.

Brown and Primus were best friends and romantic companions who wrote letters back and forth to one another over a span of sixteen years beginning in 1854, and ending in 1870 with Addie Brown’s death. These included Primus’s letters to her family, and Brown’s letters to Primus, but no correspondence from Primus to Brown has been discovered. The existence of Civil War-era exchanges of letters between two free African American women is quite remarkable by itself, but that the women were believed to be same-gender loving—and their exchanges can be studied more than a century later—is astounding.

Many scholars believed that no such records existed, but since their discovery in 1994, they have ignited a scholarly dialogue over the relationship shared by these two lively and opinionated women. Their published correspondence is stirring interest among scholars who contend the 19th century documents make a significant addition to the literature about African American women who carved out lives for themselves during this turbulent period of racial upheaval and conflict.

Any documentation of the lives of same-gender loving women from this era in American history is exceedingly rare. At the time, intimacy was simply never discussed, regardless of sexual orientation (the terms heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality would not be created until the 1890s), and romance was often couched in terminology designed to save the confessor from embarrassment. Black or white, free or enslaved, rich or poor, no one divulged their intimate liaisons in mid-nineteenth century America.

Lovers did write fairly explicitly, for their time, of lust and longing, and the horrors of war. The photograph became accessible to Americans around the time of the Civil War, and this led to the advent of pornography, although not in today’s explicit usage. Photos of young ladies in corsets and undergarments were considered erotic, and therefore taboo. We might scoff at their tameness today, but they were considered risqué—and even scandalous—for their time.

Same-gender loving liaisons among enslaved Africans, and free Black men and women are even less understood by historians and scholars. We can speculate that there were gay and lesbian slaves, but what became of them is a source of much speculation. Slave captains sometimes wrote of men in holds, segregated from women on the long trans-Atlantic passage, engaging in sexual acts as proof of their uncivilized and savage nature.

It is widely believed that enslaved adults who were discovered to be same-gender attracted may have been co-opted as sexual “playmates” by those who held power over their lives. It is also surmised that discovery of gay or lesbian attraction may have also led to punishment or even death. Punishment for far lesser infractions was often harsh, and given the strict prohibitions of the times, it is reasonable to assume that homosexuality would have been punished severely.

Researchers know that the feisty Addie Brown and charismatic Rebecca Primus both worked hard, battled racism, spoke their minds—and loved each other passionately. But the letters between Primus and Brown had not been intensely scrutinized and interpreted by a scholar until Dr. Karen V. Hansen, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, started researching and reading between the lines. Hansen stumbled on the letters while doing research for her 1994 book, “A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England.”

In a 29-page article published in the academic journal “Gender & History,” Hansen boldly suggested that Brown and Primus were more than friends. Their relationship, she believed, was erotic and romantic. Since discovering the letters housed in the Primus collection at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Hansen became captivated by the personalities of the women, and convinced of the romantic and erotic nature of their relationship.

In a letter written in 1860, Brown expressed her longing for Primus: “O my Dear Dear Rebecca when you press me to your dear bosom O how happy I was. Last night I gave anything if I could only layed my poor aching head on your bosom. O Dear how soon will it be I can be able to do so?”

“It was romantic, erotic, sensual, a kinship, a friendship,” said Hansen. “There’s no label to capture it and they struggled with the language, too. Their relationship was very challenging for me to interpret. It’s partly the complexity of the relationship that makes it so interesting.”

Hansen described Brown’s writing as combining passion, earnestness, and sensuality but lacking Rebecca’s polish and sophistication. While some of Brown’s letters are riddled with variations in spelling and grammatical errors, Hansen said the “writing was very representative of 19th-century writing.” In transcribing the letters, Hansen’s goal was to “keep them as close to the original as possible.”

The letters were compiled into the 1999 book “Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends” by Farah Jasmine Griffin. The publication reveals much about the opinions and ideas of these two young women.

On one occasion, Brown wrote, “I am no advocate for white churches they have seats expressly for colored people.” On another, Primus once wrote to her parents, “I trust something like justice will be given to the black man one of these days, for some are persecuted almost as badly now as in the days of slavery.” In another letter excerpt, Primus wrote, “I hope there will be justice, impartial justice given to the colored people one of these days. I was reading the Civil Rights Bill for colored and all people in the ‘Communicator’…as it has passed both houses of Congress with amendments i’m very anxious to know whether president Johnson has signed it or not.”

In one of her letters, Brown wrote of her employer: “I don’t like her. You know how I am with any one l don’t like.” In another correspondence, Brown made this pronouncement: “Rebecca I had been working for nothing comparatively speaking. Now I have come to a decided stand that people shall pay me for my work.”

On October 20, 1867, Brown, a domestic at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, wrote Primus about a female coworker: “sometime just one of them wants to sleep with me. Perhaps I will give my consent some of these nights. I am not very fond of White I can assure you.” Brown’s flirtation with her female coworker evidently caused Primus to express some concern. On November 17, Brown responded, “If you think that is my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me she got sorely disappointed enjoying [it] for I had my back towards her all night and my night dress was button up so she could not get to my bosom. I shall try to keep you favorite one always for you. Should in my excitement forget you will pardon me I know.”

Other than that, what does anyone write about? The weather (“The day is a clear, sunshine one & not very cold although ’tis quite blustering,” Primus reported), work (“When it time for me to go to bed my limbs ache like the tooth ache,” Brown wrote), books (“Oh I am reading the ‘Life of Frederick Douglass,’ Brown revealed. “I never had the pleasure before”) and, of course, matters of the heart (“My Dear & Adopted Sister,” Brown began one letter. “I truly wish that I could exchange pen and paper for a seat by your side and my head reclining on your soft bosom and having a pleasured chit chat with thee”).

In April 1868, in her late twenties, Addie Brown married Joseph Tines, seemingly for economic security. Brown’s letters suggest that Rebecca Primus remained the love of her life. Sometime between 1872 and 1874, when she was in her thirties, Primus married Charles Thomas.

On the back of an envelope of a letter to Brown, Primus wrote, “Addie died at home, January 11, 1870.” Brown was 28 years old. Primus died in 1932 at age 95.

We remember Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, and thank them for their pioneering spirit, their determined advocacy, and their groundbreaking contributions to our history.