From Meals to Memories: Reflections of an Amateur Oral Historian Volunteering with the Rainbow History Project

March 9, 2024

From Meals to Memories: Reflections of an Amateur Oral Historian Volunteering with the Rainbow History Project

by Daniel Soucy, Rainbow History Project

D.C. was not my first ‘new’ city. As a Queer person who felt isolated growing up, I was drawn to travel and seek out new communities to call home. Recording oral histories for my undergraduate thesis taught me to ask questions. Throughout my career, I have used these skills to learn about the LGBTQ advocates who came before me. I was struck that I had never encountered their stories in my history books or during my college Netflix binges.

These memories motivated me to reach out to the Rainbow History Project (RHP) as I was resettling in the District. They again bounced around my head as I threw on a faux fur coat, stomped out into the chilly February air and started feeling nervous about meeting the Project’s volunteers at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse.

After a 10-minute walk from the green line to 17th Street, a passerby wearing flared zebra pants and bedazzled glasses smiled, complimented my coat and walked ahead. Looking up, I saw Annie’s logo. People hugged, smiled and laughed under rainbow flags as they hurried in and out of the cold into the restaurant. The location, which at first glance seemed like quite the journey from southwest D.C., started to make sense.

Within seconds, the host waved me over to a long table where people of all ages and genders excitedly shuffled their plates of eggs and pork chops to make room for the newcomer. For two hours, I alternated between asking naive questions about D.C., drinking bottomless coffee and excitedly nodding as I learned about the  Rainbow History Project’s upcoming work.


Among these conversations, I heard that the team was planning 2-3 minute interviews with Annie’s patrons for the steakhouse’s 75th anniversary celebration. I jumped at this opportunity, ignorantly asking the story of our host institution. I learned that for 75 years, Annie’s was a family-owned and operated restaurant that not only received an “American Classic Award” from the James Beard Foundation (2019) but also gained a reputation as an affirming space to LGBTQ people. This is particularly notable given that overt, government-sanctioned discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people and especially trans people of color, was the norm throughout the 20th century.

Needless to say, as a lover of LGBTQ history, activism and a self-proclaimed foodie, I could hardly wait to return to Annie’s. I sipped a martini while brainstorming questions for my first RHP interview and insisted that my sister and I take a break from the Cherry Blossoms to venture over for an Annie’s-style happy hour when she visited from Denver, Colorado.

A few months later, I helped record close to 100 on-the-spot interviews during the block party celebrating Annie’s impact on D.C’s LGBTQ community. I asked loyal, 30-year-strong patrons about their favorite meals and moments at the steakhouse. At first, 65 year-old Chris struggled to think back to the exact year that he first visited Annie’s but remembered that he was just 21-year at the time. He graciously thought of Fargo, his waiter from the 1970s who dealt with Annie’s 2am rush when the 17th street closed for the night. Tom laughed with embarrassment remembering a drunk 4-in-the-morning date that abruptly ended when he burnt the table with Annie’s signature ‘bull in the pan.’

As I listened to people share their memories, helping ensure they were not forgotten, I could not help but laugh along with the storytellers. I also learned that Annie’s was more than just a place for drunk food and good company. It was also a sanctuary rooted in acceptance. Just before naming the Rose Kennedy and the classic cosmopolitan as her two favorite drinks, Patsy had to think for a moment to put a finger on what made Annie’s special. “I don’t know what it is… it’s about love in this restaurant.”

Mike reflected a similar tone, speaking about Annie’s as if the restaurant was an old friend and noting with pride that they shared a 75th birth-week. But for Mike, it wasn’t just the overlapping birthdays. Similar to Patsy, Mike also described Annies as a place “where I could be myself and meet people who were successful and happy.” Annie’s taught Mike “that there was a place in the world for me.”

I left overwhelmed by decades of stories shared over ‘bulls in a pan’, Greek salads, and Bloody Marys. Dozens of stories ending with a description of Annie’s as an “establishment”, a “home” and a “refuge.” Through times of sadness like the AIDS crisis and Covid-19 pandemic as well as joyful reunions when people like Wendy ate pork chops and eggs with her family.

The past few years have been and continue to be fraught with a renewed wave of bigotry against LGBTQ people. But in that moment I laughed along with my new neighbors as they graciously told me about their happy mistakes, moments of hardship, struggle and love. I was reminded of the power of community and the way we can build physical sanctuaries (and make delicious food) with this community out of moments of isolation. As RHP volunteers, we do our best to document, preserve and think about the struggle and celebration that is D.C.’s LGBTQ history. As volunteers, we strive to document as much as possible, knowing that we likely will never capture every personality, place, advocate and nuance that has made DC’s LGBTQ community as vibrant as it is today. Nevertheless, together, we learn and grow. And we leave space to daydream about what we might say when a newcomer accepts the mic and asks for our favorite memories 25 years from now.