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On a humid Saturday morning, dozens of musicians gather in an empty parking lot in Alexandria. After a quick stretch to warm up, they break off into groups: one for the percussionists, one for brass players and one for the color guard. Together they make up D.C.’s Different Drummers (commonly called DCDD), D.C.’s only LGBT marching band.
“The band was founded in 1980 as D.C.’s Different Drummers, to provide kind of a safe space for members of the LGBT community,” said Zachary Parker, the director of the band.
Parker said that group used to only play at Capitol Pride, but in recent years, DCDD has performed at Independence Day Parades, festivals and corporate events.
As he stood off to the side, Parker kept making excuses. He said it had been an exhausting week and the band was not able to get a lot of practice in because of bad weather, but the group looks and sounds great, especially as they dive into popular hits.
“We really try to focus on stuff that the audience will know. We really like it when people sing along with us. So our music this year is really tailored to the popular music. We're playing stuff like “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” “Pompei” by Bastille. We are an LGBT group so we've got some Lady Gaga and Katy Perry thrown in,” Parker said.
The energy at rehearsal is infectious, and much of the credit for that goes to DCDD’s drum major and president Derrick Johnson.
“I was at dinner with some friends, just moved into town, and they were saying ‘Oh you were drum major at Florida, you should join our band.’ And so I was like ‘What band is this?!’ So I went to one of their rehearsals and I sat down in the front and just kind of listened to the group and I said, ‘Oh they really need me,’” he said.
As drum major, Johnson leads the band through marching formations all around the parking lot, calling commands and keeping time with the music. His enthusiasm is contagious as he skillfully weaves in and out of the marching musicians, making his way from front to back. It’s hard to believe anyone can have that much energy on a sweltering summer day.
A lot has changed in the realm of gay rights since the band was created. The group was formed around the same time as the 1979 National March on Washington for gay rights. Johnson said that the group is changing along with society as views on gay marriage and equality evolve.
“It’s changing along with society and I think our organization is a mirror to that, which is actually really nice and comforting,” said Johnson. “Well, when you look at society as a whole and the leadership within, it’s ever-changing and I think our organization is doing the same thing; it’s changing along with the times. We have a lot of not only LGBT folks within the group, but some straight allies, which is great.”
Johnson is right, society has changed. In 2011, Gallup reported that for the first time in history, a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Right now, 19 states and D.C. allow gay and lesbian couples to get married. Johnson says the band has changed from a group of marginalized people to something open to everyone.
“The organization started, it was founded on an LGBT basis, almost as a safe haven for the LGBT community but now it’s more of an equality group," he says.
Aimee Kelley, the vice president of DCDD, says the group is united not by sexual orientation, but by a general support of LGBT rights.
“I think it’s really great for everyone to have their group of people to be around that are like them. But it’s really great to not always separate yourself. And DCDD is definitely about making sure that everyone can be together and that we share a common concern about LGBT issues and that we share a common care of LGBT people and have people in our lives. But you don't have to be, you don't have to identify as LGBT. Whether you are or not and that’s great,” she said.
And some band members say they don't need as much of a safe haven as people did back in the early days of DCDD. Many say it’s friendship among fellow musicians that makes getting up early for rehearsal or a performance easy, that, of course, and the music itself.
“I mean, this is the most fun thing I could be doing. I love playing music and I love this group of people. It’s just an all-around happy place to be,” said Jessica Reno, a recent college graduate who joined the band this year.
Music: "Snap Crackle" by Roy Haynes from Out of the Afternoon