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Sean Doolittle: The all-around All-Star

Nats pitcher, wife on life in D.C., their LGBT advocacy — and whether the team is ready for a gay player

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Sean Doolittle, gay news, Washington Blade

Sean Doolittle (Photo courtesy of MLB)

Ace relief pitcher Sean Doolittle was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Washington Nationals in July of 2017. He eloped with his then-girlfriend, Eireann Dolan one day after the regular baseball season ended last year. Doolittle was named a 2018 All-Star this week; he was a member of the 2014 MLB All-Star team and this season is rounding out to be one of the best of his career.

Doolittle and Dolan received national attention in 2015 when they purchased hundreds of tickets to the Oakland Athletics Pride Night after the event received backlash from fans. The tickets were donated to local LGBTQ groups and an additional $40,000 was raised.

Sean Doolittle on the field with members of SMYAL at Night Out at the Nationals. (Washington Blade photo by Kevin Majoros)

Local LGBTQ youth leadership and housing program, SMYAL, has caught the attention of Doolittle and Dolan and they donated 52 tickets to the organization for Night OUT at the Nationals last month. Going a step further, they stopped in personally to deliver the tickets at the SMYAL youth program’s headquarters and the SMYAL transitional housing program.

The Washington Blade sat down with the couple inside Nationals Park for a conversation about the LGBTQ community, life in D.C., baseball and music.

Eireann Dolan and Sean Doolittle (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Washington Blade: You’re both active with charitable causes including work with Syrian refugees and military veterans’ mental health and housing. How did you become interested in the LBGTQ community?

Eireann Dolan: I have two moms. But even if I didn’t, I think this is something that’s really important. It’s always been really important, at least in my family. And something that we’ve always valued is the idea of having an accepting place. Having a sense of home. It factors into all the charity work that we do, all of the community work. We work with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. We’re going to have about 30 refugees coming to the game tomorrow night.

Blade: That’s incredible.

Dolan: Yeah, so we’re going to have them on the field and they are veterans who are injured or widowed. We deal with housing for them. Our theme seems to be a sense of home. Making sure people feel welcome. Whether they’re a refugee, whether they’re a veteran returning or transitioning back into civilian life, or whether they’re somebody in the LGBTQ community who maybe hasn’t considered that sports would be a space for them. We want to make sure that they know it is a space for them. They do have a home here and we accept them as they are. It’s always been really important to us.

Blade: And then you stumbled upon SMYAL here in D.C.

Dolan: We did. Well, it kept getting name dropped to us so many times by so many people.

Doolittle: In advance of the Nationals Pride night, we wanted to get involved. We wanted to do something more than catch the first pitch or meet some people on the field before the game. And we love this community, we love being here, and we wanted to give back. And like she said, in some of the meetings we had with the folks here, with the Nats, SMYAL had been referenced several times. We were able to make a couple visits over there before Pride night.

Dolan: That was incredible.

Doolittle: It’s an incredible organization and the holistic approach that they take, helping with everything from housing to leadership to education to helping people become voices in their communities.

Dolan: That was the biggest thing, I think.

Doolittle: And then coming back. They go through the program and then they come back to SMYAL to give back and pay it forward. That was something that we found to be incredibly inspiring. And if, through this process, we can lift their voices up and help tell their stories, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Blade: Do either of you have any thoughts as to why Major League Baseball has never had an openly gay player? There seems to be upper management support, team player support and fan support.

Dolan: There’s a lot of hesitation for any athlete, and baseball particularly, to share a lot of their private life, just full stop. Baseball is a bit more buttoned-up. The players themselves are not marketed in such a way, or they don’t maybe market themselves in such a way that talks about their personal life. You look at basketball, you look at football, you look even at hockey. You know the spouses. You know the families. You know what they do. You know where they’re from. But in baseball, it’s a little bit different. I think that may contribute to it, but that, I don’t think is the answer entirely.

Doolittle: I do think there is growing support, like you talked about. I think Major League Baseball’s taken steps towards it. I still think there are steps that need to be made in educating more people. I think as we continue to make it a better space, a more accepting space, we can continue to get rid of all this toxic masculinity bullshit that happens in a locker room.

Blade: Does it happen here with the Nationals?

Doolittle: Of course it happens. It’s performative. Sometimes that’s a guy’s way of psyching themselves up to go play. But I think we’re seeing less and less of it, and it’s fallen by the wayside. We just need to be continuously focused on creating a space that’s accepting. When you’re with these guys in such close proximity over six, eight months over the course of the season, guys should be OK with being themselves. Whether it’s you’re gay or whether it’s a different religion, or you’re from a different country. We have guys in here from how many different countries? How many different religious backgrounds? So I think just continuing that evolution in the clubhouse.

Dolan: That sports era of the ’90s, early 2000s of hyper-masculine, almost borderline toxic masculine, alpha, humiliate your opponent, keep your head down, don’t look like you’re having fun. That’s waning because fans want fun. They like the back flips. They like the personality. And you’ve got guys out there, you’ve got little pockets of people showing their personality.

Blade: Do you think this team is ready for a gay player?

Doolittle: I don’t know. And that’s the thing, I don’t think we’re going to know until that happens. I wish I had a better answer.

Dolan: I think baseball is ready and I think clubhouses know if a guy can help your team, period, the end. Doesn’t matter.

Blade: What’s your take on the NFL’s anthem protest?

Dolan: It’s not an anthem protest, that’s my first thing. They’re not protesting the anthem, they’re protesting the violence against young African-American men, particularly.

Doolittle: I think the NFL’s response was incredibly dangerous and disgusting. You’re punishing guys by policing peaceful protesting. I think it sends a really bad message across the United States.

Dolan: And if you say no politics in sports, then how do you explain flyovers that you do before games? How do you explain all the active recruiting that they do for the military during games? Why are we picking and choosing? When you’re telling young African-American men, “We want to watch you, we want to watch you do this particular thing, but don’t talk,” that just smacks of something that I thought this country had moved past.

Doolittle: I think it could have been a relatively short-lived story with a much better ending if, initially, they had focused their energies on listening and trying to figure out a way to get guys to stand. So when Kaepernick starts kneeling, they start listening to his message. They help him get involved to focus that message into action in the community. And soon enough, we have guys that are proud to stand up for the anthem because they’re helping their communities and bettering people and remedying the situation. And I think, unfortunately, it’s been used as something in this culture war that we’ve seen. These guys have done a lot of incredible work in their communities. They’ve met with government officials, they’ve done a lot of outreach with law enforcement in their communities. They are backing it up with significant action. So I wish everybody felt good enough and proud enough to stand for the anthem without being told that they had to do so.

Blade: Would you go to the White House if the Nats win the World Series?

Doolittle: People have asked me that before, and you don’t get to answer that question unless you win the World Series

Dolan: We’ll talk to you in October.

Blade: As a relief pitcher, you’re either the hero or the goat. How do you deal with that on a daily basis?  Do you have stress techniques?

Doolittle: I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the last couple years. Early in my career, I pitched with a lot of emotion and I put a lot into, like you said, whether you’re the hero or the goat in that scenario. There’s no gray area in that line of work. There’s no, well I thought I executed my pitches really well, I just didn’t get the results I wanted. That’s not a great consolation prize for you or the other 24 guys on your team.

Dolan: And the fans don’t want to hear it.

Doolittle: Yeah, and it’s tough to explain that away. I was very attached to how I was pitching, and if I was getting the job done. If I didn’t get the job done, that was a blow to my self-esteem. Over the last few years, I worked a lot at processing the outings, mentally preparing for the outings, changing the way that I use that energy. I used to pitch with a ton of emotion. Now, I use the energy to hyper focus. I want to calm things down. I want things to be slow and smooth.

Dolan: You’re very Zen.

Doolittle: I think it’s helped me manage a lot of that stress. It’s not always easy, but it’s an occupational hazard.

Blade: Your stats this year are amazing and…..

Dolan: Don’t say them, don’t say them, don’t say them.

Blade: All right. Don’t say them out loud?

Dolan: No. We’re very superstitious.

Blade: Are the stats that shall not be named a result of your comfort level in D.C. or are you doing something different in training?

Doolittle: I feel very comfortable in D.C. We love it here. I changed some things. But a lot of it was behind the scenes. We changed a lot with the arm care program that I have. I dealt with some shoulder injuries in the past, when I was with Oakland, and I missed some time on the disabled list, and I think sometimes, just getting a fresh set of eyes or a new way of explaining things, really helps. And we added some things to that program, to the daily routine. I feel strong. I feel, at this point in the season, even with the work load I’ve had, I feel really good about where my body’s at, and I think when you don’t have to worry every day about, how’s my arm going to feel when you come to the field, you can throw yourself into focusing on your outing and who you might face rather than focusing on trying to get your body ready to pitch. So that’s been a load off my shoulders, pardon the pun.

Dolan: Did you catch the eye roll on the recording? Was it loud enough?

Blade: You had an unusual path to becoming an MLB relief pitcher. You pitched growing up and also played first base at University of Virginia. And then, you were drafted by the Oakland Athletics as an outfielder and a first baseman. Is this where you were supposed to be the whole time? There was a little side path.

Doolittle: I feel like it is. It’s a lot easier for me to say this now, but I’m glad I went through that transition process. There were some really dark times. I missed three full seasons on the disabled list in the minor leagues.

Dolan: So close to getting a call up, too. He was right on the cusp.

Doolittle: And before I got hurt the first time in 2009….

Blade: As a first baseman?

Doolittle: As a first baseman, yeah. It’s totally shifted my perspective on everything. This almost didn’t happen at all. In 2011, I had contacted my agent to go back and try and figure out the process of re-enrolling in college, because I was that far at the end of my rope. And the A’s came to me and said, “Hey, would you like to think about pitching?” I joke that I took the scenic route to the big leagues. It makes me appreciate every day that I get to wear that little logo on the back of my hat that says I’m in the big leagues. It came really close to never happening.

Dolan: There’s something to be said about having experienced adversity and failed. I don’t think I would be with him if he was this super successful player. I don’t think I would have been drawn to him.

Doolittle: Right, you learn a lot of humility, you learn a lot about yourself.

Dolan: Yeah. If you’d been that first round pick that you were, superstar first baseman….

Doolittle: I was the man.

Dolan: You were the man.

Blade: You prefer him damaged?

Dolan: That’s right up my alley. Who else is going to humble him, honestly?

Blade: What are you liking about living in D.C.?

Doolittle: It’s an awesome city. There’s a good energy, there’s a creative energy, it’s very diverse, it’s very accepting. The sense of community, the pride of being from D.C., that’s a thing that we found that I think was really cool. There’s a lot that we like about it.

Dolan: It’s amazing. We love the local bookstores and local record shops. We love just discovering new, cool spots that we can hit up every time we have a spare hour or so.

Blade: What about the excitement of MLB All-Star Week being in the town where you’re now pitching?

Doolittle: I think it’s awesome. I think us players, we’re starting to feel that buzz and that energy surrounding it. I’m excited for the Nationals fans and the organization, because they’ve done everything so first class. There’s a good energy surrounding D.C. sports now, and I think to bring the best players from around baseball here to D.C., that’s going to be really cool.

Blade: Has the Stanley Cup win by the Washington Capitals affected the team in any way?

Doolittle: We definitely followed it as a team. Before or after our games, whenever the Caps were playing, the TVs in the clubhouse were on. We were following it on our phones, or any chance we could, we were watching the game. We were all in, and I think it was great for us because they gave us the blueprint. They showed us how it’s done. They’ve had a similar storyline. They’ve had to answer a lot of the same questions we’ve had to answer after having really successful, regular seasons, but not making the deep run into the playoffs. They’ve had to answer the questions, is this the year you get over the hump? How are you guys going to break through?

So to see them do it, and to see them break through and not stop, and keep going. It was really fun. And when they came here, that was the biggest thing that they said. It was really cool to share that experience, just for a little bit, with the Cup, in the locker room and on the field.

Even though it’s a different sport, that energy, you can feel it. We’ve had Champagne celebrations before, and once you get a taste of that, you want more. And that’s really motivating, to have another team in your city bring in a trophy like that.

Dolan: And to see the parade and the reaction from the fan base. This is a sports city. And I don’t think people give it enough credit for being the sports city that it is. It was a nice taste.

Blade: Sean, you are a Star Wars fan and your Twitter handle is Obi-Sean Kenobi. Was the Solo movie a win or lose for you? Did you go in costume?

Doolittle: I loved it and we didn’t go in costume this time. We were in Miami, so we were on the road. But we did see it opening night.

Dolan: It was really hot there; a Chewbacca costume would have been difficult.

Doolittle: Yeah. And I don’t know if I can pull off a Princess Leia bikini.

Dolan: Not to say we haven’t tried. There’s your cover picture.

Blade: What’s on your music playlist right now?

Doolittle: I’m a metalhead. I was raised on the sounds of Black Sabbath and Ozzy, AC/DC and Metallica, and my love for it grew from there. When we were kids, we would be going to a Little League game. I’d be nine years old and we were rolling up in the minivan, blasting Black Sabbath.

Dolan: Oh, bad, bad. Love it.

Doolittle: There’s a band from Texas called Power Trip. They’re new but their sound is very ’80s thrash, which I really dig. There’s another band call Chemist. It’s called doom metal. It’s a lot slower and they have some good stuff. I really only listen to it when I’m at the field. When we’re at home, it’s a lot more mellow.

Dolan: We’re pretty eclectic at home. It’s not all metal for us. We like a lot of the new Nashville sound. I’m not a huge country fan, but Sturgill Simpson and….

Doolittle: Jason Isbell.

Dolan: And Colter Wall, yeah. A lot of that is really good. And I love hardcore gangster rap, honestly. I’m not going to lie, it’s my weakness. When he’s pitching, I put on noise canceling headphones and blast gangster rap. Tupac or Biggie, and it works. It calms my nerves because there’s something about it.

Blade: There are nerves for you while he’s pitching?

Dolan: I don’t watch, no. I haven’t watched him pitch live in years. I’m too superstitious.

Blade: Give me a quirk about the other person that makes you laugh.

Doolittle: Oh my god.

Dolan: He has a tactile thing about mesh.

Doolittle: It’s very soft.

Dolan: He likes to touch mesh.

Doolittle: Quirks that make me laugh….

Dolan: Careful, careful.

Doolittle: Well the aforementioned noise canceling headphones, she likes them so much that she’s taken to wearing them in the shower.

Dolan: They’re large speakers and I have three separate shower caps.

Doolittle: She took 45 minutes in the bathroom recently and I was like, what is going on? I was knocking on the door. She didn’t hear me.

Dolan: I bought a deep conditioner mask. Listen, this hair doesn’t get like this on its own.

Blade: Sean, we need to get you to practice. Let’s grab a photo first.

Dolan: Cool.

Doolittle: Oh, cool.

Dolan: All right. Don’t forget your dry cleaning, Sean. We want that front and center in frame.

Sean Doolittle and Eireann Dolan (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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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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