The Wash
Thousands participated in the 2021 17th Street High Heel Race. (McKenzie Beard/The Wash)

Safety top of mind ahead of 17th Street High Heel Race

The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and Metropolitan Police have created safety plans to prepare for the unexpected at the race.

The 17th Street High Heel Race is an annual tradition for Vincent Slatt. 

“It’s meant different things to me every year, but having that kind of calendar date of something’s coming up, it’s part of the holiday season is a lot of fun,” Slatt said.

Slatt has attended the race for the past two decades. Every year participants run down 17th Street adorned in jewels, bright colors and wearing heels. However, Slatt said this year’s race holds even more significance for the LGBTQ+ community. 

“As drag has really become a contentious issue on the national level and a lot of vitriol towards drag storytime and people in drag and calling us recruiters and groomers and all of these really homophobic tropes that have been used to hurt my people for a very long time, I hope that at this year’s race, we can highlight some good stories of drag,” Slatt said. 

A scene from the 2016 17th Street High Heel Race. (Courtesy of Vincent Slatt)

Slatt, a Dupont Circle ANC commissioner, said because of the attacks on the drag community this year, ensuring everyone stays safe at the 2023 race is paramount. 

“The number one fear is the personal safety of our community,” Slatt said. 

An Institute for Strategic Dialogue report found more than 200 instances of anti-drag mobilizations from June 2022 to May 2023 in the United States. The report noted the threats in the U.S. came from multiple groups, including far-right groups and politicians, parents rights activists, and Christian nationalists. 

The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs puts on the race. The office provided multiple statements to The Wash on its safety concerns this year. 

“It is the unfortunate truth that crime targeting the LGBTQIA+ Community has increased. However, we have established a close collaborative partnership with MPD and FEMS to implement and uphold effective safety protocols. This collaborative effort includes our work with the LGBTQ Liaison Unit within MPD. Our strong rapport with the businesses along the 17th Street Corridor enables us to address any unexpected situations promptly,” the office wrote. 

Specifically, the office plans to use barricades to separate runners and spectators at the event. 

“Additionally, we have stationed approximately 2 to 3 emergency vehicles at different points throughout the event to provide coverage and swift response in case of any unforeseen incidents,” the office wrote. 

Shirley Naytch, a drag artist who has performed in D.C. for six years, has experienced safety concerns firsthand this year. Naytch said the Imagination Stage, a youth theater organization, planned drag storytimes for January and February. However, Naytch said the drag storytimes were pushed back because of anti-drag sentiments and anti-drag legislation circulating around the country.

Drag artist Shirley Naytch holding a storytime book.
(Mama Shirley Naytch/Instagram)

The ACLU is tracking 496 anti-LGBTQ laws during the 2023 legislative session, according to its website. 

“We didn’t know if the Proud Boys were gonna just show up at Imagination Stage and bring holy hell on to these kids that moms and dads and caregivers are bringing their children to these events wanting to celebrate love and pride,” Naytch said. 

However, Naytch said the postponed story times gave them more time to prepare and allowed the organizers to be on the lookout for any possible detractors. 

“We were ready to stand up to the hatred and allow kids to be kids and experience a sense of their own wonder and joy and just learning about who people are,” Naytch said. 

Naytch said the 17th Street High Heel Race is a fun, organized event and is confident people will look out for one another. 

“You have to work with each other to keep everyone safe and that’s a two-way street,” Naytch said.

Jeff Donahoe, a board member of the Rainbow History Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of LGBTQ+ people, said 17th Street, where the race takes place, continues to be a special place for the queer community and a place where people should feel safe and accepted. 

“It has like a major, major role to play for our community in terms of commerce being welcoming spaces, and hangout spaces and spaces that have given a ton of back to the community in different ways,” Donahoe said. “So it’s a really significant four or five blocks.”

Slatt said as the race draws near, he wants to ensure the safety aspect of the preparation remains at the forefront for the event organizers and those coming out to the event.  

“We never know what’s going to happen, but that’s why we’re hoping to have a broad perimeter of safety around the area so that people know they can come and feel safe and feel supported,” Slatt said. 

The Metropolitan Police Department said it does not share specifics of its safety operations at events like the High Heel Race. 

“We will continue to monitor and plan accordingly with our law enforcement partners, and other city services, to ensure the safety of the community,” wrote Officer Hugh Carew. “The public is also reminded that if you see something, say something.”

17th Street
17th Street will be filled with thousands of people for the race on October 24. (Alex Angle/The Wash)

The Dupont Circle ANC also approved a resolution in September, sent to the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and the District Department of Transportation, showing the neighborhood’s support for the race and asking the government to create a safe space for participants and spectators. 

“My number one concern is making sure that people can come and celebrate the community, have the drag queens and feel safe from any threats of violence,” Slatt said.

The 17th Street High Heel Race will take place on Tuesday, October 24.

Alex Angle

Alex Angle is a multimedia journalist covering Dupont Circle for the Wash. She is currently pursuing her master's in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University. She previously was a TV reporter in Northwest Arkansas.

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