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The business of performing at Pride

Show me the money: Crowds expect big names but most events are non-profits

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Icona Pop, gay news, Washington Blade
Icona Pop, gay news, Washington Blade

Icona Pop perform at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Tyler Grigsby)

When asked why she made Pittsburgh the site of her first Pride appearance in 2012 as opposed to a trendier city, out rocker Melissa Etheridge was matter of fact: “Pittsburgh showed me the money,” she told the crowd to a huge round of applause.

In retrospect, though, it wasn’t the stretch it might have seemed at first glance. Despite her industry cred as a Grammy-winning soul rocker with enough pop sensibility to have secured an impressive run of radio hits in the ‘90s, Etheridge has always projected a rootsy, blue-collar vibe much the same way Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have straddled the heartland/A-lister fence for decades on end. And yet, for Pittsburgh Pride, it was a huge moment.

“She really was up there just preaching and having fun,” says Gary Van Horn, president of the board of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, the agency that produces Pittsburgh Pride. “She used the pulpit and she was speaking to her people.”

Van Horn says Etheridge was contracted to do a 75-minute set but ended up playing for about two-and-a-half hours. And although details of her contract are protected, as is the industry norm, by a confidentiality clause, Van Horn says he didn’t find her fee outrageous considering she travels with 11 people counting band members and manager, whose travel and hotel expenses have to be paid. After deciding in 2006 to move Pittsburgh Pride downtown and have a big-name headliner give a full concert-length set for which patrons would have to purchase tickets, Van Horn says he and his team couldn’t have been more pleased with Etheridge’s set.

“At the end of the day, I would be very, very shocked if she cleared more than thousands of dollars just knowing she had to pay everybody,” he says. “There is a thought process out there that they should be doing this for free since it’s a non-profit Pride event, but this is their job. This is how they pay their bills, they go and perform. Obviously it’s important to do charity work sometimes, but there are over 120 Pride events in the U.S. that I know of and we’re only talking about a handful of artists that are even remotely available to that group and the same handful of folks at every Pride organization wants them, so to just expect them to do it for free is just not feasible. We showed her the money because she needed to have that.”

The behind-the-scenes business of bringing celebrity entertainers in to perform at Pride events — historically seen as a stage for either up-and-comers or past-their-prime acts that haven’t had hits in years but to whom gay men have been traditionally loyal — is a dicey discussion. Obviously everybody wants to dream big and hope for a legend, but there are many factors involved: tour schedules, riders, appearance fees, whether the show is free or requires a ticket and more. Because the Capital Pride Festival is a free event, few would expect somebody of Beyonce’s caliber would be willing to give a free two-hour show. That hasn’t, however, stopped organizers — many of whom, like Van Horn, are volunteers — from exploring how many branches up the higher-hanging fruit sits.

“Of course I would always aim high and then get shot back down,” says Steve Henderson, a Capital Pride volunteer who worked for 17 years (his last year was 2013) on the entertainment planning committee. “Unless they were going for a pro bono show, we would never be able to get a Gaga, Britney or Madonna-like act. Not while it’s a free festival. Gaga is a minimum $1 million plus more riders than Pride could ever handle. She also required a 10-truck load in and performance rehearsals weeks in advance, which we cannot do since the stage is installed the evening of the festival. That has been the problem with the ‘A grade’ headliners.”

Henderson says he worked for years on a shoestring budget of about $15,000-20,000 at most for the day, a figure that had to include traveling expenses, lodging and everything. As you might imagine, most of the entertainers who play throughout the day on the Capital Pride main stage — the Gay Men’s Chorus, the drag cast at Ziegfeld’s, emcees such as Destiny Childs, etc. — donate their time. Corporate sponsorships and partnerships have given current organizers bigger budgets, he says. Ryan Bos, Capital Pride executive director, says he’s not allowed to disclose the budget for headliners.

Despite the challenges, Henderson, who now lives in Chicago, has many good memories and says he’s proud of the many acts they brought in over the years — RuPaul in 2009, Chely Wright in 2010, Deborah Cox in 2012 and Cher Lloyd, Emeli Sande and Icona Pop in 2013 and more.

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Cher Lloyd performs at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Tyler Grigsby)

He says only two acts ever cancelled — Mya gave about three weeks’ notice citing a skiing accident in 2010. Chely Wright had just come out and was happy to fill in. The biggest nail biter, Henderson says, was Kelly Rowland’s 2011 cancellation about a week before the event. His years of working as a DJ with various record labels was always a help, but especially then, he says. Broadway belter Jennifer Holliday, who’d just sung with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington the week before, saved the day.

“I didn’t really have time to freak out, I just had to figure out who we were gonna get,” Henderson says. “Thankfully I knew Jennifer from past work and I literally called her within a minute of it happening. She was somebody we had discussed about being a headliner or a co-headliner but we didn’t have the budget to do both. We had landed Kelly, which was pretty huge since her song was so big at the time, we really felt we had a winner.”

Henderson says her camp gave no reason for the abrupt cancellation.

“It was just a real quick e-mail. ‘Sorry, not-gonna-be-able-to-make-it’-type thing. No reason.”

Bos says three years ago the team that now plans main stage entertainment opted for a different approach and now bring in three co-headliners who each perform 25-35-minute sets to give the event more of a festival concert-type feel.

“We did it to diversify, to set ourselves apart a little and to not throw all the eggs in one basket,” he says.

This year’s concert, co-presented with radio station Hot 99.5, will feature En Vogue, Wilson Phillips, Amber and Carly Rae Jepsen. He says ‘90s acts like the former two were purposefully chosen to dovetail with this year’s Flashback theme as it’s the 40th anniversary of Capital Pride. Last year’s lineup was Karmin, Bonnie McKee, DJ Cassidy and Betty Who.

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who performs at the 2014 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

And while there will always be a spot for yesterday’s hit makers at various Pride events — one recalls Inaya Day (“Nasty Girl”) who played Capital Pride in 2010 or Taylor Dayne (“Tell it to My Heart”) who’s found new life headlining Prides all over the Eastern Seaboard — Bos says the notion that Pride is a place for washed-up divas of yesteryear is an anachronism.

“I think that’s an old perception,” he says. “For artists who are trying to launch an album, Pride provides an opportunity to get in front of a huge community. For those who have been around a while, they know the support from the gay community so they see it as a way to give back, but that perception has been shifting for a while now and you see it at other Prides as well.”

Michael Musto, gay author and Musto! the Musical! columnist at out.com, agrees.

“It used to be unfairly thought of as a dubious career move to do Pride-related events, but as LGBT became more accepted, so did Pride,” he told the Blade. “Once big names started performing at the Pier dance after the parade here in New York City (for big money of course), there was no stigma at all. They can also work the parade itself or do any number of things around the country for Pride and it’s considered a good move for all involved.”

Van Horn says the caliber of talent at Pittsburgh Pride started an uptick after they brought in Tiffany in 2006 and Kimberley Locke in 2007. In recent years, besides Etheridge, they’ve brought in top acts like Adam Lambert and Patti LaBelle. This year’s headliner is Iggy Azalea.

He says overall the community understands and established acts like Etheridge and LaBelle bring in their own fan bases, people who ordinarily wouldn’t attend Pride.

“Of course, yeah, everybody wants Cher or Cyndi Lauper or J. Lo or Beyonce but they have to be realistic,” Van Horn says. “They’re in high demand and they get paid a lot. We have a list that continually gets updated via committee and we get suggestions from the community and then we start putting feelers out there with agents and management companies.”

He also says there are a bounty of expenses involved in bringing in household names that the general public would never think of such as the logistics of building a downtown stage for a one-off, lights, power, security, portable toilets, fencing, clean-up services — all in addition to the event itself. The Delta Foundation has one paid staff member and a host of volunteers.

“You’re a victim of your own success in a way,” he says. “You continue to attract more and more people and yet it’s also up to you to make sure they’re all safe and provided for as well. Our Sunday event attracts about 90,000 people so you have to make sure they’re all safe, have food to eat and drink throughout the day, the tents, tables and chairs — you have to provide all that.”

So what’s it like from the other side? Are there any unwritten industry rules for playing Pride events among artists and managers?

Howard Bragman, a gay PR veteran of Fifteen Minutes who’s worked with many LGBT acts, says not really. Several acts in his stable will be at various Prides this year including Chaz Bono who will appear at Toronto Pride with Lauper and Pussy Riot, and Ty Herndon who’s slated for Chicago Pride.

“I think it depends on the person and the moment,” Bragman says. “Somebody ends up in the news and comes out and suddenly all the Prides come after you. It’s a great honor. Even when they have to say no, it’s a great honor because you’re representing a community. … Nobody is offended. It’s a totally flattering moment.”

He says in New York and Los Angeles, where celebrities often live, it’s not uncommon for them to donate their time but if travel is involved, most Pride organizers know they’ll have to pay.

“It just depends,” he says. “But inevitably, yeah, it’s a family rate, it’s not their top-dollar corporate rate and for these people who have speaking engagements, generally it’s not just come in and ride in the parade for two hours. You come in the Friday before, there’s a reception, there are many interviews, sometimes on Saturday you cut the ribbon at the festival and then there’s the parade on Sunday. It’s a lot of work, but the best ones are the ones that are well organized and have been doing it a long time. Those are the ones they’re the happiest to do.”

Van Horn says it’s practically impossible to gauge how close Pride fees jell with rates the same artist would require for a regular appearance. Pride sets are typically much shorter than a normal show.

“There isn’t much data available on how much people pay for an artist because it’s all confidential,” he says. “Like at New York City Pride when Cher came out and sang four songs (in 2013), I know what Cher gets paid and I know New York City Pride wasn’t paying her typical fee.”

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Cher performs at New York Pride’s ‘Dance on the Pier’ in 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Out singer-songwriter Eric Himan has played many Pride events since his first in South Florida in 2002. Now based in Tulsa, Okla., happily married and promoting his new album “Playing Cards,” he says Pride events have changed radically over the last decade or so.

“The thing about Pride is that Pride means something different to everybody and so every organizer has a different approach,” he says. “For some, it’s a rally. For others, it’s a day to get away from politics and just enjoy being out. The trajectory of how much Pride has changed from being something in the park that only gay people go to, to moving downtown and incorporating a lot of businesses and corporate sponsorships so it’s not just the gay bars sponsoring it, I’ve definitely noticed that change. So when you go in, you have to find out from the organizer what their idea of Pride is. I always viewed it as an opportunity to go be in my community and voice my ideas and concerns about how gay people fit into the world however you might go and everybody just wants a big dance party so you have to think about how you’re going to fit into that as the acoustic, live musician.”

He says there have been times the mid-tier musicians get shafted when various Pride committees spend the bulk of their budget to bring in a name act.

“Sometimes I’m glad to donate things, like CDs for a raffle or something like that,” he says. “My only concern is when I find out, ‘Oh hey, we just spent 80 grand on yada yada but will you play for free?,’ that’s kind of when I’m like, ‘That doesn’t seem correct.’ … When you go spend all your money on one person you wanted to bring, that’s when I get nervous about being a part of it.”

Playing for the exposure is a common bone some organizers toss, he says.

“Sometimes that’s OK but exposure is something you can’t really promise. What if it gets rained out that day? Well, there goes your exposure. Or what if the main act is at 12 that night, but they stick you on a stage next to it at 11 a.m.? Early on when you’re starting out as a musician, you don’t play for much money so the exposure works, but I’ve always found the times I’ve really gotten the best exposure have always been at paid gigs. I can’t recall one gig where they promised exposure and it was like, ‘Oh god, it worked out.’”

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Eric Himan performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Henderson gets that but says over his 17-year tenure at Capital Pride, he guesses 70-80 percent of the acts, especially the community groups, donated their time.

“I had long-running relationships with a lot of these labels, so I was able to negotiate a lot of pro bono stuff,” he says. “Icona Pop was pro bono. So was Consuelo Costin and obviously all the local people like the Gay Men’s Chorus, the D.C. Cowboys and all the local favorites. They all came in to donate their time and production and give up half of their afternoon on a steaming hot Sunday.”

He also says the role of the Pride entertainment committee volunteer chair is a thankless job. He got involved as a “way to give back” but says it can easily ramp up into a second full-time job in the months leading up to Pride. He also says working by committee has a downside as well.

“We lost out on some really big ones over the years waiting for the board to make a decision,” Henderson says. “I wasn’t the one making the final decision and a couple times they waited too long and we lost out. Foster the People, Imagine Dragons and Diana Ross to name a few.”

Van Horn says all the artists he’s worked with have been easy and he has “no horror stories.”

“They always have safety and security concerns but that’s understandable,” he says. “There are crazies in the world. But no, there have never been any requests for M&Ms but take out all the blue ones or anything like that.”

Henderson says the hardest part of the job was always keeping things running smoothly backstage where there are only three cooled dressing room/trailers. Making sure they’re clean and free for who needs them at any given time is tough, he says.

“There’s always something going on like (local drag legend) Ella (Fitzgerald) shows up early and there’s no dressing room ready so her whole face melts off in the 100-degree heat,” he says with a laugh. “Getting the headliners from the hotel to the backstage area to making sure they had a dressing room ready and clean especially when you have 40-50 entertainers throughout the day, those logistics were always the hardest part.”

But on the occasions where it worked, there were magical moments. Henderson says when Pepper MaShay sang the “Dive in the Pool” song from “Queer as Folk” at the 2012 event with its famous line “Let’s get soaking wet,” the fire department’s decision to spray the crowd was not planned.

“It was probably 105 degrees that day and they were there to have some water stations so people could cool off because it was just so hot,” he says. “Ironically they had put this big main hose on a ladder truck maybe about 10 minutes before Pepper went on so we ran over to the fire chief and said it would be kind of neat if you could spray the crowd when she sang that line. When it happened, everybody thought it was pre-planned but we just decided that minutes before. People were dancing and going crazy. It was fantastic.”

Bragman says he always encourages his celebrity clients to do Prides anytime they can and says the payoff isn’t always in dollars.

“Pride is always a big deal,” he says. “It’s really powerful. I always say go with the right attitude, go and have fun and you will be changed. You always go home with so much more than you gave, that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s such an emotional high.”

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Chely Wright performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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Tagg turns 10

D.C. magazine thriving post-pandemic with focus on queer women

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‘Tagg is a form of resistance,’ says editor Eboné Bell. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a 10-year-old YouTube video, owner and editor of Tagg magazine, Eboné Bell, — clad in a white cotton T-shirt, gray vest and matching gray fedora — smiled with all her pearly whites as a correspondent for the magazine interviewed her outside now-closed Cobalt, a gay club in downtown D.C. that hosted the magazine’s official launch in the fall of 2012. 

“I want to make sure that people know that this is a community publication,” Bell said in the video. “It’s about the women in this community and we wanted to make sure that they knew that ‘This is your magazine.’”

As one of just two queer womxn’s magazines in the country, Tagg has established itself as one of the nation’s leading and forthright LGBTQ publications that focuses on lesbian and queer culture, news, and events. The magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

Among the many beats Tagg covers, it has recently produced work on wide-ranging political issues such as the introduction of the LGBTQ+ History Education Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court’s assault on reproductive rights through a reversal of its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling; and also attracted the attention of international queer celebrities, including Emmy-nominated actress Dominique Jackson through fundraisers.

“Tagg is a form of resistance,” Bell said in a Zoom interview with the Washington Blade. “I always say the best form of activism is visibility and we’re out there authentically us.”

Although the magazine was created to focus on lifestyle, pressing political issues that affect LGBTQ individuals pushed it to dive deeper into political coverage in efforts to bring visibility to LGBTQ issues that specifically affect queer femme individuals. 

“We know the majority of our readers are queer women,’ said Bell. “[So] we always ask ourselves, ‘How does this affect our community?’ We are intentional and deliberate about it.”

Rebecca Damante, a contributing writer to the magazine echoed Bell’s sentiments. 

“The movement can sometimes err toward gay white men and it’s good that we get to represent other groups,” said Damante. “I feel really lucky that a magazine like Tagg exists because it’s given me the chance to polish my writing skills and talk about queer representation in media and politics.”

Tagg’s coverage has attracted younger readers who visit the magazine’s website in search of community and belonging. Most readers range between the ages of 25 and 30, Bell said. 

“[The magazine] honestly just took on a life of its own,” said Bell. “It’s like they came to us [and] it makes perfect sense.”

Prior to the magazine becoming subscription-based and completely online, it was a free publication that readers could pick up in coffee shops and distribution boxes around D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. 

Battling the pandemic 

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, newsrooms across the world were forced to function virtually. Additionally, economic strife forced many publications to downsize staffs and — in some cases — cancel entire beats as ad revenue decreased, forcing them to find alternative ways to self-sustain financially. Tagg was no exception. 

“We didn’t fly unscathed,” said Bell. “[The pandemic] took a huge emotional toll on me because I thought we were going to close. I thought we were going to fail.”

However, the magazine was able to stand firm after a fundraiser titled “Save Tagg Magazine” yielded about $30,000 in donations from the community. 

The fundraiser involved a storefront on Tagg’s website where donations of LGBTQ merchandise were sold, including a book donated by soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. 

There was also a virtual “Queerantine Con” — an event that was the brainchild of Dana Piccoli, editor of News Is Out— where prominent LGBTQ celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Lea DeLaria and Kate Burrell, gave appearances to help raise money that eventually sustained the publication. 

“There was a time where I was ready to be like ‘I have to be OK that [Tagg] might not happen anymore,” said Bell. “But because of love and support, I’m here.” 

While the outpouring of love from community members who donated to the magazine helped keep the magazine alive, it was also a stark reminder that smaller publications, led by women of color, have access to fewer resources than mainstream outlets. 

“It’s statistically known that Black women-owned businesses get significantly less support, venture capital investments, things like that,” said Bell. “I saw similar outlets such as Tagg with white people making $100,000 a month.”

Bell added that Tagg had to work “10 times harder” to survive, and although the magazine didn’t cut back on the people who worked for it, it ended free access to the magazine in the DMV especially as the places that housed the magazine were no longer in business. The publication also moved to a subscription-based model that allowed it to ameliorate printing costs. 

Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Tagg remains steadfast in its service to the LGBTQ community. The magazine hired an assistant editor in 2021 and has maintained a team of graphic designers, photographers, writers and an ad sales team who work to ensure fresh content is delivered to readers on a regular basis. 

For Bell, Tagg mirrors an important life experience — the moment she discovered Ladders, a lesbian magazine published throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. 

“To that young person coming up, I want you to see all the things that happened before them, all the people that came before them, all the stories that were being told” she said.

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs]

BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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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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