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Danger ahead?

Signorile on victory blindness, Aaron Schock and the path forward

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Michelangelo Signorile, gay news, Washington Blade
Michelangelo Signorile, gay news, Washington Blade

Michelangelo Signorile says LGBT advances are at a dangerous place. (Photo by Jayne Wexler; courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Michelangelo Signorile

 

‘It’s Not Over’ book tour

 

Wednesday, April 22

 

Politics and Prose

 

5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

 

7 p.m.

 

free

 

signorile.com

 

With even anti-LGBT forces conceding a turning tide against them in the marriage wars, gay rights activists are in a place they like with same-sex marriage support polling higher than ever (only 33 percent oppose according to last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) and marriage equality in 37 states plus D.C.

But marriage, of course, isn’t the only issue and radio host and author Michelangelo Signorile says the movement is in danger of succumbing to “victory blindness,” a phenomenon wherein “we’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur.” In his new book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia & Winning True Equality,” a wide-ranging book culled from years of activism and insight gleaned from his long-running eponymous show on Sirius XM radio, Signorile warns of potential dangers ahead.

Dubbed both “a wake-up call” and “a battle plan for the fights to come,” Signorile, who’ll be in Washington to promote it and sign copies at Politics & Prose next week, says there’s much work to do. Though he makes a compelling case, we played devil’s advocate with him by phone for an hour last week. His comments have been edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: The book is so timely and full of up-to-the-minute developments. Aren’t you concerned it will be outdated very quickly?

MICHELANGELO SIGNORILE: It’s the nature of our entire communications industry that everything moves so quickly and books occupy a different place than they used to. They have to do something different. What had continued to strike me over the last few years is that although we kept having these victories, the facts on the ground weren’t matching the celebrations and there was still a lot of discrimination. That was something that was remaining true regardless of what the latest victory was …. so it was really an issue of which examples to use. Some of the older ones, I just decided not to use. There were newer ones that would carry the basic idea through.

BLADE: In the last chapter you outline what you feel is the best way to proceed from here. Nobody has a crystal ball, but with the information you have, how likely do you feel that scenario is?

SIGNORILE: It’s hard to know because if you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago, how soon we would have full marriage equality, I would have said 25 or 50 years, something like that, so I think it could happen a lot quicker but a lot of it really is related to how kids are taught about gender and sexual orientation, that really is key. … In terms of getting full civil rights, who knows when Democrats will have full control again. I almost see that as taking longer, maybe 10 years or more.

BLADE: You write about the dangers of “victory blindness.” Do you see any parallels or mistakes at comparable points in the African-American civil rights movement or the women’s movement that we can avoid? Do any of the rumblings that still bubble up in society on those issues stems from issues of victory blindness their respective leaders might have succumbed to at comparable points to where we are now?

SIGNORILE: Yeah, we’ve seen victory blindness with every group and every civil rights movement. There’s a point where there’s a major win and a lot of people become complacent and apathetic and pull back and it’s really the worst time for that to happen because that’s really when the opponents really begin to organize in a fierce way and take advantage of that apathy and we have certainly seen that with women’s rights. If you go back to the ‘70s, … there was a real cultural shift and the sexual revolution and then people kind of thought it was over, we’d arrived. People don’t anticipate the backlash, often in the form of a religious revival, which we saw in the ‘80s with the Christian evangelical revival, which has happened at various times all throughout history. … Now we’re seeing the Voting Rights Act stripped away, another clear example where people don’t anticipate the backlash. You can change the laws, but it doesn’t change the attitudes and you can’t just say it’s over.

BLADE: But couldn’t that be construed as an argument in favor of the incrementalist approach you argue against in the book? If you don’t come in like such a barnstormer, wouldn’t it stave off some of the fervor of the backlash?

SIGNORILE: I think you do have to come in like a barnstormer and demand full equality and then stick with it. The problem is people get a part of it and may even get much of it, but then don’t stick with it for further change. Whether you do it incrementally or not, your enemies will still organize against you. I don’t think you’re taken seriously when you just ask for a little bit or crumbs and I don’t think it really energizes and captivates your own people and the larger public when you do it that way. You have to really demand that full equality and whatever you get you get, but then you have to stick with it and keep fighting for it. … The lesson for a minority is that you’re always going to be fighting. The roots of bigotry go very deep.

BLADE: So is it a mistake for groups like Freedom to Marry to say they’ll close if the Supreme Court rules in our favor?

SIGNORILE: I think it depends how they’re talking about it. Evan Wolfson has been very clear that the fight is far from over. … The bigger problems are the groups that only like to focus on winning and see it as a downer or not good fundraising to focus on losing. That’s the real problem because then you look like you’re not taking up a fight, like you’re in denial. None of us can still figure out why HRC was silent through the entire period when Arkansas passed that law that rescinded all the civil rights ordinances. Yes, the local HRC chapter said a few things but we heard nothing at all from Chad Griffin, no national press release, nothing. I don’t know what to conclude from that but it seems they gave up and thought, “Well, it’s a loser.” Then a couple weeks later, they were focused on the religious liberty law in that state which they were able to beat back. It just seems they were picking what they could win … but I don’t think it does us any good when it looks like we’re running away from battle. (HRC declined to comment.)

BLADE: You’re gay and include some biographical passages in the book. Might it be more compelling to the moveable middle if there was somebody out there who was making these points who didn’t have a proverbial dog in the fight? Is anyone doing that?

SIGNORILE: I don’t really see this idea of more objectivity in journalism as something that really furthers discussion because you can’t really claim to be objective but you can be fair and open and you can entertain the thinking of those who disagree with you. … There are people like Rush Limbaugh who have their own point of view and just shut everybody else out and then you have the New York Times that claims it’s objective but that’s really impossible because even what you omit from a story requires subjectivity. I would prefer outlets that say, “This is our opinion, but let’s entertain their thoughts and see what they think.” That’s what I try to do on my show. I always try to talk to people who are oppositional. I may have arguments and it may get passionate, but I don’t shut them out. Actually people who call my show who are on the opposite side are more likely to get on because I think we need to have a discussion.

BLADE: You never hear anybody arguing against our issues that it’s not one step removed from some sort of religious argument. You never hear of an atheist arguing against gay rights but nobody really seems to point that out. Why?

SIGNORILE: I’ve made that point sometimes. Somebody always comes forth and mentions some obscure historical figure who was an atheist but was supposedly still anti-Semitic or anti-gay but I do believe whether someone is religious or not, the ideology all stems from religion. I don’t think there’s any natural aversion to homosexuality. What religion has done to modern society is really demonize homosexuality and in that sense it really is all religion-based. A lot of the media have a hard time having any kind of discussion about it without bringing some religion person on and I think they need to stop doing that because if that’s your religious belief, that’s the end of that but if you want to argue with two people coming at it from a scientific point of view, they can’t seem to find anybody because it’s all religion-based.

BLADE: Why don’t we have more Republican allies? With Republican ideals of less regulation, freer trade, fewer embargoes, why doesn’t some of that brand of thinking trickle down to more personal freedom on our issues?

SIGNORILE: There are some free market fiscal Republicans who are not anti-gay themselves and do not agree with those who want to ban marriage or throw gays out of a restaurant or whatever, but the short answer is that it’s because the religious right still has such a stranglehold on the party it has to contend with so I still hold those other people accountable if they’re still comfortable being in that party and still vote with those who have an anti-gay point of view. It becomes a bit more difficult for the party because they can’t stomach any more blatant ugly homophobic language so they have to adapt the language a bit. It still slips out every now and then, like with women’s issues when somebody says “legitimate rape” and it ruins everything again. But instead of trying to shun those people, they try to rephrase and rebrand those arguments so others will be more comfortable being in the party. Now they’re going with the religious liberty argument hoping that will stick.

BLADE: You write about the spillover into pop culture and the ramifications of that. We have strong representation on hit shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But invariably shows like “Duck Dynasty” and the Duggers’ show “19 Kids and Counting” come along and go through the roof becoming a mega cultural phenomenon. Are we going to look back in 20 years and see them as cultural anachronisms a la “Amos ’n’ Andy”? When attitudes are clearly changing in our favor, how do these kinds of shows get such traction?

SIGNORILE: These shows are a reflection of where the culture is and it’s quite clear there are millions of people out there who connect with these shows. Don’t forget that even though the people who run the industry might themselves be described as liberal, they know where the money is and where it isn’t and where it isn’t is in portraying LGBT people in a more realistic way. I think we’ll look back on “Modern Family” and say, “OK, why did these people never have any real connection.” There isn’t any discernible sexual energy between them. It’s been sanitized … to be more palatable to a mainstream audience in a way that won’t scare them.

BLADE: You say Aaron Schock should have been grilled and investigated a lot harder on possibly being a closet case. Lots of people argued there was no smoking gun and that everybody was just speculating based on tired stereotypes like the way he dressed and decorated his office. Short of some gay sex tape leaking, which is highly unlikely, these kinds of things become very hard to prove and any discussions end up being based on innuendo and stereotype. Is that unfair? How acute or fair do you feel the public’s overall gaydar is?

SIGNORILE: Well, what’s been forgotten in all this is the Itay Hod story …

BLADE: Well that sounded really wobbly — a second-hand thing where he didn’t even say for sure whom he was talking about.

SIGNORILE: He now has confirmed that’s who he was talking about and so while yes, it’s a second-hand source, it’s not something based on how he dresses or looks, but a second-hand account based on a sexual interaction. All of these issues are troublesome because they’re treated differently than they would be with any other story about a public figure. All of a sudden if it’s a gay rumor, we have a much higher burden of proof than we have with anybody else. Why didn’t anybody go investigate this? Why didn’t anybody go to Iowa? Why didn’t anybody go to Dupont Circle and start asking around? We have no problem going through Ted Cruz’s records. Why was this treated differently?

BLADE: How do you know that didn’t happen? Perhaps nothing was found.

SIGNORILE: I don’t think it happened. I asked specifically if people were looking into it and it seemed reporters were just not interested. They saw it as some sort of prying. What’s wrong with us talking about it? People go digging into Rand Paul’s background and he was maybe using a bong in college or whatever. Nobody attacks them as invading his privacy but with Schock, it’s a case of unless you have the proof, you can’t even talk about it. We take tips from visual cues all the time. The whole story of his downfall came from a visual cue, the way he had his office decorated which looked like excess and like maybe he was spending public money. Nobody had any proof, but they started looking into it and they found that he was doing lots of things that were very lavish and getting them paid for in all kinds of creative ways. … On this issue, they treat it differently and it’s not something they want to look into or talk about and I think what shows is that they’re still very uncomfortable talking about the issue of homosexuality.

BLADE: Have we ever really dismantled the slippery slope argument against marriage? We tend to laugh it off and say we’re not marrying our daughter or an animal, yet it still seems to play so well in the heartland and in the South. What’s our best response to that and what does it mean for the poly-inclined among us?

SIGNORILE: I think it really is kind of a ludicrous argument because we’ve changed marriage probably a thousand times over the last several hundred years and we always change it in the way society comes to believe it should be changed, at least in a democratic society. We’ve shown before how it was unfair to women, unfair to children, that women should have more rights and rights to divorce as well to make it easier to get out of abusive marriages. Now we’ve made the argument of why gay people should be included. The polygamy argument was made a long time ago by the Mormons and it didn’t take off and the Supreme Court didn’t go with that. When they keep saying, it’s going to lead to polygamy and all that, well, the Bible has that. That’s what it was and you know, it just seems to me they keep grasping at straws every time they argue that. There is no movement of people in this country who want to marry animals, there’s no organizing around that that has tried to capture the public imagination. They say, “Well, once the door is open …,” but the door is always open on every institution for rational change and marriage has changed too. We’ve made it better.

BLADE: How did you feel about John Aravosis ending AMERICAblog?

SIGNORILE: I think it’s a tough time for blogs as social media has become the real force. John was at the forefront of so much activism, particularly in the early years of blogging … in the way people now do on social media. I think he and others used that forum for activism in the best possible way you could at the time and I think the forum shifted and it has become more difficult to do that and to sustain it, so hats off to him for the work he did in those years. I’m glad he was able to transition.

BLADE: What would happen in our worst-case scenario? Say we get a Republican president elected to two terms who gets to appoint several Supreme Court justices who really bring out the guns. Do we have enough groundswell support to combat that in any substantive way and if so, what does that even look like? Would everything just get pushed back a generation or could some extreme scenario play out where the whole movement has to go underground?

SIGNORILE: It’s so hard to tell and I think any of those things are possible. We talked about how I think the arguments made to the general public are weak, but what the general public thinks often doesn’t matter because it becomes about who’s on the court and who’s lobbying and who’s in Congress and where the money is. The majority of the public believes we should have tougher gun laws but we don’t because of the NRA. And most people think Citizens United was a terrible decision and we could make the argument in the court of public opinion, but what most people don’t realize is that we’re likely going to get marriage equality because one man on the court (Justice Kennedy) thinks gay people should have some protection. He may now get another man on the court to agree with him, but he’s thought that for a while. Not in the same way legal progressives have, but he’s thought that. He’s made terrible decisions on women’s rights and terrible decisions about voting rights. It’s all so precarious and arbitrary and that’s what people don’t get. They think there’s some sort of natural thing going on, some sort of natural evolution toward justice that’s happening but what we’re dealing with is a Supreme Court that by the luck of the draw on this issues, has the five votes and may convert a sixth but we all know that could change at any time. If there’s a Republican president to replace Justice Kennedy and more gay rights issues come up, who knows what could happen. I think a lot people aren’t really thinking about how precarious this all really is.

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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