I want to thank Mayor Muriel Bowser for stepping up to the plate and guaranteeing the High Heel Race on 17th Street in D.C. continues to be the great community and citywide event is has grown into since it was first run nearly three decades ago.
The first race saw a few men in heels and some beautiful drag queens run from JR.’s on the corner of 17th and Church up the block to Annie’s Steak House. They ran up the stairs (trying not to kill themselves in those heels) grabbed a shot at the bar and ran back to JR.’s. It was a small, fun event with Dupont regulars in attendance.
Today it’s an event with thousands of attendees lining the streets and hundreds donning their high heels and costumes. Today the race begins at 17th and R streets and finishes at JR.’s.
For 20 years the person most responsible for seeing the High Heel Race take place was David Perruzza, formerly manager of JR.’s. He would do everything — get neighbors’ approval signatures, arrange for street permits, post no parking signs, meet with the MPD, Sanitation Department and even deal with bills from DDOT claiming lost parking meter income because the street was closed for the race. Each year the city made it more and more difficult to work with them. There were debates over who would pay the costs with past mayors trying to compare the High Heel Race to the Pride Parade, H Street and Adams Morgan Festivals. What they always refused to concede until the last minute, when we would threaten to publicize it was their fault if the race was cancelled, was this was different. No one paid to be in this race and no booths were sold or floats paying a fee to roll down the street. There was no formal non-profit set up for the High Heel Race with a board of directors as there is for the other events.
The city continued to benefit from the great publicity the event produced as it grew each year. People came from Maryland and Virginia and from much farther away to be part of the fun. One year, early on, there was near riot caused by the police. They came down 17th Street on their motorcycles trying to clear the street minutes after the race was run. Those were the days the High Heel Race was still run on Halloween.
Today the race is always on the Tuesday before Halloween. There are 100 volunteers, which David always recruited to keep attendees on the sidewalks and off the street.
Many years I would get a call from David the week before the event asking for help to get the mayor’s office to approve a permit or the funds to pay the MPD and other agencies reminding them this was a citywide event they needed to support. Each year after the race David and I would talk to the mayor’s office and suggest we plan earlier and not leave this till the last minute and ask that they assume responsibility for the event.
Then this year, David left JR.’s and opened Pitchers. He was no longer able to spend the time he did on the race. So I arranged for David to meet with the mayor’s office and he explained the problem and all the issues that had to be dealt with and why they should finally take over running the event. This time Mayor Bowser agreed and the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs worked with David to make it a smooth transition. I attended some meetings with David, Sheila Alexander-Reid and Ben DeGuzman of that office. They began to take over the planning with David’s help and the mayor promised the necessary funding from the city. For the first time, a mayor had come forward well in advance and committed the city would ensure the event would happen.
So anyone complaining about the rainbow signs on 17th Street announcing the event and saying it is being presented by Mayor Muriel Bowser should instead be thanking her for being the first mayor to fully support this great LGBTQ+ event. Previous mayors came and walked down the center of the street greeting attendees each year. They got listed as Grand Marshals, but none of them wanted their office to take responsibility for the event. As someone who was often the conduit to their offices fighting for them to fund it and urging them to finally take over this event, I know what a big step this was for the mayor. So I urge everyone to let the Mayor know, “We appreciate what you have done and THANK YOU!”
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.