Radical Risings: LGBTQIA+ Voices Amplified

BY Ashley N. Littles

As society evolves, certain environments have emerged as sanctuaries, fostering a sense of belonging, safety, and self-expression. Notably, nightlife and creative scenes have become indispensable platforms for the LGBTQIA+ community.

To delve deeper into this development, we invited the following special people to share their perspectives:

  • Marcelle Afram, a two-time finalist (2020 and 2023) for the RAMMYs Rising Culinary Star Award and the owner and chef of Palestinian Rotisserie Chicken in Washington D.C.
  • D.J. Heat, an on-air personality who also serves as the official D.J. for the WNBA Champion Washington Mystics and the NBA’s Washington Wizards
  • Pia Carusone, a highly successful political consultant and founder and CEO of Republic Restoratives, a woman-owned, small-batch distillery based in D.C.
  • Ed Bailey, a D.J. and hospitality entrepreneur known for his extensive contributions to D.C. nightlife, including the iconic (now closed) Town Dance Boutique, the former Halo, Trade, Number Nine, among others.

This dynamic group of trailblazers participated in a panel discussion hosted at our Shinola DC retail store during PRIDE month, shedding invaluable insight and sparking a much-needed conversation.

Our conversation began with Ed, a seasoned bar and club owner who has intricately understood the unifying power of LGBTQ+ nightspots. His vision is not just to run a business but to create a haven where individuals can safely express their true selves.


“For decades, since 1989, my business partner and I have operated within the nightlife industry. We’ve networked with countless bar and club owners, many from a different world than ours. The traditional or straight establishments often do not fully comprehend the distinct ethos behind our LGBTQ+ spaces. It’s not a fault but a difference in perspective shaped by the experiences we cater to.

LGBTQ+ bars serve a unique role. They’re not just drinking establishments but meeting places, rallying points, networking hubs, fundraising centers, and spaces for celebration and solace. We provide a safe haven for those who may have to hide parts of their identity daily, whether at work, home, or school. Our bars provide an environment where everyone can truly be themselves, a rare luxury even in progressive cities like Washington.

Sure, many venues across the city might welcome LGBTQ+ dates, but the level of comfort and acceptance varies.

“Our bars aim to foster an environment where every patron can fully embrace their identity.”

Our establishments differ from traditional bars, not just in clientele but in intention. We focus on the business aspect and building warm, welcoming spaces that nurture community and individuality. This adds a layer of responsibility, as we’re not just creating a business but a refuge for our patrons, a space that, in many ways, belongs more to them than us.

Over the years, our approach has been one of growth and adaptation, guided by the needs and insights of our community. This attentiveness to our clientele is perhaps unique to LGBTQ+ spaces within the broader bar business landscape. We’d never allow our bars to become stale and unresponsive to our community’s evolving needs.

They play a crucial role in defining our establishments. The community’s expectations and needs often shape the character of our bars. This sometimes leads us into unexpected directions and challenges, requiring us to adapt and rise to the occasion. Our success so far is a testament to our community’s guidance and support in shaping our establishments.

It’s a testament to the power of creativity, adaptability, and community involvement in moving the needle forward in the LGBTQ+ hospitality scene.”


“In the current climate, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, especially being transgender, has never been more perilous. The alarming news we continually witness reinforces this troubling reality.

When we launched our company, we faced the traditional business wisdom: leave politics out of business operations. This advice, however, felt disingenuous. The founders of our company – myself and my two co-founders – are queer women who live and experience the world with that lens. Ignoring the issues we passionately care about would feel like betraying a part of ourselves.

Our company’s journey started in the spring of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump. I vividly recall an instance during election week in 2016 when we were crafting an Instagram post. We initially wrote, ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just vote.’ But as the cursor blinked, we realized the insincerity of that message. Of course, it matters who one votes for. It matters to us as individuals, as members of the queer community, as parents, and in many more roles, we occupy.

At that moment, we resolved to be more than a faceless company. We articulated that one electoral choice could lead to disastrous consequences while the other had the potential for progress. Despite being a small, locally-focused distillery actively involved in the bar and restaurant community, we understood that political decisions impacted us profoundly.

Discarding the conventional wisdom of separating politics from business, we decided to take a stand, much like renowned brands like Chanel, who have started expressing their values openly. Today’s consumers seem to appreciate this authenticity, placing value in brands that embody and champion their beliefs more than ever.”

Addressing the issue of representation and inclusion, Pia brings up the power of conscious consumerism and political support for queer representation in government—and emphasizes the importance of investing not just through social media posts but also by voting with your dollars and offering financial backing to queer candidates across the country.


D.J. Heat, who began spinning records at 13, shares the evolution of the creative process. Over the years, Heat learned the importance of authenticity, goal setting, and embracing failures on her path to success. Heat’s creative journey has been witnessed by thousands and has undoubtedly evolved over time as she’s navigated the waves of feedback and criticism and handled self-doubt during the creative process.

DJ HEAT: “My journey as a D.J. began 30 years ago when I was just a child. Needless to say, the evolution of music consumption since then has been nothing short of phenomenal. My initial approach to my career was to dabble in everything, explore all avenues, and see what resonated with me. However, with time and the taste of success, I realized the importance of mastering a specific niche instead of being a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

“The key takeaway from my journey is that your belief in yourself should be stronger than anyone else’s doubt.”

Now, I approach my brand, career, and art, focusing on goal setting and strategic planning. Some might think it’s too methodical, but I believe in vision boards and self-written notes. The saying goes, “Proper planning prevents poor performance,” I hold that truth close. Daily, I remind myself of my objectives and the paths I’ve charted to reach them.

In this journey, authenticity and genuineness have been my guiding principles. I share my struggles because life isn’t just about constant wins. Failure precedes success, and it’s a cycle we all experience. One important mantra I abide by and share with others is: never set a time limit on your success. While I’ve been DJing for three decades, my breakthrough came only in the last five years. Proof of the essence of persistence is believing in yourself.

Handling doubt, criticism, and naysayers is part of this journey. Luckily, I’m blessed with a strong support network. However, even when others doubted my ambitions, my self-belief was unwavering. When I started DJing at 13 and dreamed of working at a radio station, few believed in me. The same skepticism followed me through college and into my professional life. Yet, each time, I proved them wrong. The key takeaway from my journey is that your belief in yourself should be stronger than anyone else’s doubt. Overcome external pressures by focusing on your path and maintaining your self-belief.

In essence, my journey has been shaped by tenacity and authenticity, which are fundamental to any meaningful and successful creative pursuit.


Our dialogue deepened as we navigated the story of Marcelle, a transgender Palestinian and Assyrian who recently realized identity intersectionality that propels the narrative of a public transition, an experience many consider transformative and empowering.

Marcelle: “Reflecting on the most significant development in my life as of 2020, I’m led to a profound personal revelation. Until that year, I was an executive chef in D.C. restaurants, achieving considerable public success working for others. Despite the outward triumphs, I felt lost and disoriented in my personal life. My understanding of myself was vague, blurry, and confusing.

My life took a dramatic turn in 2020 when, at the age of 35, I finally discovered and embraced my transgender identity. Until that point, I had struggled to find the right words to articulate the feelings I had been grappling with. The realization was a profound awakening, like filling in a missing piece of a complex puzzle. While overwhelming, this discovery was liberating and fundamentally changed my life.

Once I embraced my truth, I yearned for complete honesty and transparency in my life. No more hidden aspects, no more pretending.

This newfound self-awareness opened my eyes to aspects of my life I had been ignoring, parts of my identity that were unattended. As a transgender individual of Palestinian and Assyrian descent, I embody multiple marginalized identities. I represent communities that some choose to deny or ignore. This intersectionality led me to a profound urge to share my narrative, particularly my Palestinian heritage.

My decision to leave my previous roles and take charge of my life and career was daunting but necessary. It was a quest for autonomy and self-determination, a search for my authentic self. This journey towards selfhood might have taken much longer had I not had the enlightening experience of realizing and accepting my transgender identity.”

Marcelle also empathizes with the fear many LGBTQ+ individuals experience when coming out.

Best advice? Be there. Show compassion, be an ally, lend a hand, be a friend. Understand that everyone’s journey is unique and offers a reassuring message: let your energy flow, create, and move toward your aspirations, regardless of doubts or fears.

In a world often criticized for its increasing impersonality, it’s crucial to remember the individuals, dreamers, and change-makers shaping our communities through their authentic narratives. From Ed’s efforts to build safe spaces for self-expression in the nightlife scene to Pia’s dedication to utilizing her enterprise as a vehicle for change, D.J. Heat’s resilient embrace of evolution through music, and Marcelle’s journey of embracing being a Palestinian-Assyrian transgender and translating it into the culinary world. Their stories remind us of the power that lies within authenticity, creativity, and personal evolution. These narratives define who they are and carve out spaces for others to be themselves.

As we move forward, let’s take these lessons to heart, fostering inclusivity, authenticity, and creativity in our own unique ways.

After all, it’s these myriad hues of individuality that paint the vibrant canvas of our society.

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