In the DC LGBTQ community, it’s hard to miss Rayceen Pendarvis. Born and raised in the District, Rayceen is a product both of an accepting family and a city that nurtured this enormously charming persona. From hosting the monthly live entertainment show, The Ask Rayceen Show, to co-hosting events like Whitman-Walker’s 40th Anniversary Gala, Rayceen is booked and busy, and leaving a size able imprint. SOULE sat down for a conversation after Rayceen received a Community Cornerstone Award from DC At-Large Council member, Anita Bonds.
“My mother is my greatest champion.”
Soule (S): When I met you, you were this huge personality…
Rayceen Pendarvis (RP): You met Rayceen Pendarvis.
S: What were you like as a kid?
RP: My mother…is my greatest champion and she allowed me to be me. I was always very outgoing. My mother said I would walk into a room and introduce myself to everyone in the room. I would just gravitate to people, especially old people. I had a wonderful thirst for knowledge. My mother would take us to museums. She would expose us to music and books and that was her way of showing us that the world was [ours] and we could choose to do what we wanted with it. So I was always open and outgoing.
“Raymond is my given name, Rayceen is the name I evolved to…”
S: What’s one of your best childhood memories?
RP: I wanted a red wagon for Christmas, and told my mother how bad I wanted it. She searched and searched…and she could not find a red wagon that said “Raymond.”
RP: Raymond is my given name. Rayceen is the name I evolved to….My middle name is William. I remember running down Christmas morning to unwrap my presents and I was so happy. I got a blue wagon that said “Bill.” You know, Bill is short for William, but I said, who the hell is “Bill?!” My mother explained to me that they couldn’t find one that said Raymond and that this was my wagon. And I adored it. At the time, we lived off of 13th and U and we’d ride it down Cardozo hill and jump out the sides as soon as we turned the corner. Honey, I rode that wagon ’til the wheels fell off.
“I stopped counting at 2,500 friends that died.”
S: What was one of your most transformative moments? What changed you?
RP: Watching my friends die of HIV and AIDS was one of the most transforming periods in my life. To watch the AIDS epidemic wreak havoc in our community made me realize the importance of making a difference. It taught me the importance of honoring friendships, honoring life and celebrating life because you don’t know how quickly it can be taken.
RP: I tell people I stopped counting at two thousand five hundred friends that had died. I just stopped counting…When they brought the quilt here, to stand in the middle of that and know that each patch represented someone’s life …To walk with strangers and to cry with strangers was wonderful and showed why it was so important for us to come together.
In the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia metro area), there were only three funeral homes that would bury AIDS patients and what we as LGBTQIA people had to do before the organizations [such as] – Whitman-Walker, the Inner City AIDS Network, The Women’s Collective, before all of that came, we were doing stuff in basements, in living rooms, in people’s dining rooms. We were coming together; counting pennies, nickels, and dimes and burying people. And we did it with dignity, pride, hope, and a whole lot of determination.
“If I’d have stayed straight, I’d have been a mess.”
S: You mentioned that you grew up as one of “the kids.” Were you always one of the kids?
RP: I think I always was. Even when I was lying and doubting who I was. I think a lot of times we fear what is in us. If you talk to people that grew up with me, they always knew. Even when I was dating girls, I was a mess, honey. The girls loved me. If I’d have stayed straight, I’d have been a mess.
But I fought against being that light…that person who was authentic. Even as I walk in my two-spirit self today, I fought that for a long time because I was confused. I didn’t know why I was the way I was, and I was scared of it.
There was a young gay guy in my neighborhood, his name was Billy Matthews. We used to call him ‘Miss Billy Matthews.’ She was a hippie. Billy wore clogs and hot pants, and had body for days! We’d call her out. I’d say, ‘Oh, Miss Billy Matthews, that ol sissy…” I’d call him out but little did I know, I was seeing so much of myself in him. I figured if I call him out, people wouldn’t call me out.
“… you either had to fuck, read, or fight to get through.”
S: So “Rayceen” has always been in there.
RP: Always been there. I just learned to love myself. It’s so much joy to love who you are, to walk in your light and be brave in it.
I think about all these folks who came before me and knocked the door down … it wasn’t always easy. They’d chase you. With bricks and bottles, and you either had to fuck, read, or fight to get through. And I could do all three! Reading was a great defense mechanism. I could fight; I had five brothers. But I could read, I was quick on my feet. So I would read and keep you in laughter, and that way, it would keep you from fighting or keep you from chasing me.
“I love being a man, but I love being Miss Rayceen, too.”
S: You refer to yourself as a gender blender.
RP: I am the original gender blender.
S: I think about you in the feminine.
RP: Everybody does.
S: How do you feel about that?
RP: I’m not offended at all. Because I am so free and comfortable in my skin. I embrace my two-spirit person, the power that it takes to embody feminine and masculine energies. To be Raymond and to be Rayceen, and to merge it together.
I love being a man, but I love being Miss Rayceen, too. I can play football, I can play basketball, I can cheer. I’ve been in “Dreamgirls.” I’ve been Effie! And I’ve been her husband, so I embrace all of it. I just want people to find their level of being comfortable with who they are. Child, if you wanna put on your Timbs one day with your ball gown, then do it, honey. With your tiara? Then, do it. Do it with pride, and do it with dignity because this is part of who you are.
“…my work is being done.”
S: What drives you?
RP: My ancestors. The spirit of those who are not with me. Knowing that every time, I gotta push on because they ain’t here. So many people died so I can be here. So I push myself in honor of their memory. It’s my spirituality, my faith, and the God of my understanding that gets me through.
And also, I have a commitment to my community. I think about The Ask Rayceen Show and anything that I’m hosting, and I look in the audience – Black, White, straight, gay, young, old – it lets me know my work is being done. Because that’s the world I believe in.
“Money can’t buy love.”
S: What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?
RP: Love. That’s the gift. I feel like we don’t love people enough. Sometimes when I walk into a room bringing so much love, it tears down everything, even for folks who don’t like me. They’ll come to me after an event and say, you know, I ain’t never met nobody like you, Rayceen. You sho’ is something! I didn’t know what you was – a man or a woman. Shit, I don’t even fuck with too many gays. But I change their perception. I talk about God, I talk about life, about family, about children. They’ll say, you threw so much love that I couldn’t hate on you. So I just want us to love more. That’s the greatest gift.
I mean, money is cute. Money can’t buy love. If I have love, and love myself and love my people, and love my family, that’s all I really need.