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Letting it all hang out at Pride — did it help us in the long run?

We asked a veteran bike dyke, drag queen, leather daddy and go-go dancer to share their first-hand experiences

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The images LGBT people project at Pride gatherings vs. marriage cases has historically been vastly different. (Washington Blade file photos by Michael Key)

Capital Pride and all Pride events have always been — historically and to this day — a place to let one’s hair down and for LGBT folks to be unabashedly themselves. 

Washington, widely seen as a more “buttoned-up” town than, say, New York or Los Angeles, was perhaps not as freewheeling as other cities, especially in the early years of Pride here when it was a one-day block party just off Dupont Circle beginning in 1975, but it’s grown hugely over the decades and for many years we’ve had all the revelers one would expect — scantily clad dancers gyrating around on parade floats, drag queens, leather daddies (sometimes in ass-less chaps), dykes on bikes (some topless) and more. 

Conversely, the image the movement presented in the marriage wars and with LGBT people seeking elected office, was much different. Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin dressed as conservatively as their counterparts on Capitol Hill, there was never anything outré about plaintiffs like Edith Windsor and Jim Obergefell and not-so-surprisingly, current “it” boy wonder, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, is a young, heteronormative-type white gay guy who’s from the Midwest and goes to church. 

The dichotomy has always existed as far back as the late Frank Kameny and the late Barbara Gittings demonstrating (pre-Stonewall) at the White House in skirts (for women) and suits (for men) while the gay masses — practically none out pre-’69 — tended to glom on more to the hippies than the Ozzie and Harriets. One of the organizers of the 1993 Gay March on Washington drew criticism from within LGBT circles for wearing leather to the White House to meet Bill Clinton. 

But given the mainstream media’s penchant for televising more flamboyant factions in its Pride coverage and political enemies on the right painting Pride gatherings as dens of debauchery, what kind of tension existed between the two extremes? And now 50-some years down the road, did any of it matter? Might we have gotten further faster if we’d somehow reined in our Pride season excesses?

Many folks say either no, it’s a self-hating query or it’s irrelevant. 

Or perhaps we needed both? 

That’s what Cathy Renna, a long-time PR and media LGBT expert formerly of GLAAD, says. 

“We need all of it. Why? Because we are all of it,” Renna says. “Our community is all of it and I think it’s disingenuous to even try to divide people over this. Why are we always trying to divide each other all the time? There are always gonna be folks out there going to Pride because they just want for that one day or one week out of the year, to let their hair down and celebrate, and when I say celebrate, I don’t mean just have a party and get drunk. I mean celebrate our community, celebrate our diversity, celebrate our resilience for goodness sake, celebrate the progress that, in some ways, we’re still hanging on to by a thread in the time we live in. Then get back to work the next day.”

Renna, GLAAD’s national news media director from ’95-’02 and a volunteer for several years prior, says the issue has ramifications in how it plays out among LGBT people and outside that sphere. 

As for the latter, Renna says historically it wasn’t so much about the media playing up “debauchery,” so much as it was looking for the most visual, arresting images.

“It was as much about their need to take a photo or shoot video of something different and interesting and highly visual than it was about homophobia or transphobia or wanting to find the more quote-unquote — and please include that because I don’t consider this to be true — but extreme parts of our community. Yes, drag queens and leather people are far more interesting than me and … what we fought for and I think eventually successfully achieved was a diversity of representation without diminishing, demeaning, minimizing or criticizing the parts of our community that are, to use the word of the day, flamboyant.” 

Renna says drag queens and leather daddies at Pride deserve respect.

1993 Gay Pride Day in D.C. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

“They were the ones who were brave enough to be themselves and who were raising money for VD clinics before AIDS was even an issue,” she says. “People used to say, ‘But that doesn’t represent me.’ Well guess what — you don’t represent them. We’re a diverse community and this is really about two things — the media’s role and how the media works, which a lot of people don’t understand, and how we within our own community have our own isms — our own internalized homophobia, racism, sexism and transphobia and how it plays out.”

But look at the plaintiffs in the marriage cases and various successful LGBT elected officials, the images they project and it’s not a huge leap to imagine there was some vetting and grooming going on behind the scenes. Sure, those arenas are much different than a Pride event, but even so, one imagines movement gatekeepers would have only been doing their due diligence in monitoring plaintiff or candidate deportment at critical times.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, Ind.) speaks at a campaign rally at City Winery in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Chuck Wolfe, former president/CEO of the Victory Fund from 2003-2015, says not really.

“I never participated in any conversation like that,” he says. “We had kind of an operating opinion at Victory when I was there that all is fair and it takes every part of our community moving the ball forward and one of the reasons we were successful as fast as we were is because there was no one controlling entity saying, ‘You have to do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do that.’ Everybody was doing their part whether it was at a Pride event, testifying on Capitol Hill — all of it mattered, every bit of it.”

Patrick Wojahn, out mayor of College Park, Md., who with his partner Dave Kolesar was one of the couples in the 2006 ACLU/Equality Maryland state marriage case, says it was made clear to him and other plaintiffs to be mindful of their status as representatives.

“One thing we were cognizant of and they made sure we understood was that we were representing the entire LGBT community and we were kind of the face of that,” Wojahn says. “We weren’t supposed to stand in for every single LGBT person out there, but when people saw us, it was understood that how LGBT act, for better or worse, and the political success or failure of what we were doing had a lot to do with how people perceived the LGBT community. It’s true in politics as well. It’s great to have places like Pride where people can act like freaks and do whatever comes upon them to do, but that’s a very different world than say politics where you have to come across as relatable to the people you’re trying to advocate for. It’s best in political situations if you don’t have to overcome that barrier of relatability. If you’re trying to sell people on the idea that we’re entitled to respect, it’s first helpful if they can relate to you on a personal level.”   

Dave Kolesar, Patrick Wojahn, gay news, Washington Blade, marriage equality, Maryland, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, gay news, Washington Blade
Patrick Wojahn, on right, with his husband, Dave Kolesar in Annapolis, Md. at a celebration for marriage equality being signed into Maryland state law on March 1, 2012. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Wojahn says he doubts there was ever much hand-wringing behind the scenes about Pride behavior, but says it’s become less and less of an issue over the years if it ever was one.

“Maybe this is just my skewed perspective of living in the D.C. metro area, but I think there’s been a growing recognition that not all gay people who live next to you are necessarily like the ones out dancing on the floats,” he says. “We’re just as diverse as straight and cisgender people. We have a lot of different things we’re interested in and do a lot of different things. Not all straight people do crazy things. … It’s important to have all different types of people out there being visible.” 

Not everyone sees it that way, however. Lloyd Shipley, a longtime 17th Street, N.W. resident, is 70, speaks with a deliciously gravelly voice and prides himself on being a sort of D.C. gay resident curmudgeon type. He’s been attending Capital Pride for 21 years since coming out of straight life (he was married twice to women) and says both Pride and LGBT people in general have gone increasingly downhill over the years. 

“This is just my opinion — I believe in opinions and we can have different ones — but I’m so tired of everything being so sexualized in the gay community,” Shipley says. “I feel like Pride has forgotten what Pride is about. You ask nine out of 10 people on Sunday what the theme is this year, they won’t know. But ask them what the best party was, they’ll all know that. I remember my first Pride, I was in Dupont Circle by myself because I didn’t know anybody and I saw float after float and I just cried because they were so meaningful. We should be proud of our accomplishments. Can we knock off the sex shit? Make the floats something to remember. Honor Frank Kameny. Honor Stonewall — not a bunch of guys walking around with their asses hanging out with squirt guns.”

Shipley says it’s not just a Pride problem, but overarching issues he considers rampant among D.C. gays just end up getting writ large there because of the size of the gathering. He says friends in his age bracket are equally fed up.

“I know a lot of older people who say, ‘You know what? I’m done with it. We haven’t been in 15 years.’”

He used to open his home to friends to watch the parade but got tired of ending up with a houseful of 50 people half of whom he says he didn’t know. It took the cake the year he says he found two guys he didn’t know having sex in his bed. This year he’s just inviting a few friends over. They may or may not watch the parade.

“It’s so disorganized,” he says. “It goes on and on, there are huge gaps in the flow, you’ll see float after float after float and none of them reflect the theme whatsoever. It’s gotta mean something. It can’t just be a bunch of half-naked guys throwing beads and squirting people. … I’m gonna write a book someday called ‘Thine Own Worst Enemy.’ We moan and groan about how things are but how much of it is our own damn fault?”

Renna says sensationalizing or using Pride footage as a scare tactic for Middle America may have worked in the short term here and there, but ultimately wasn’t successful.

“I think it did us a favor in that it pushed our visibility,” Renna says. “We pushed through it and it taught us that we need to be better at showing the full diversity of our community. It’s not about don’t show drag queens and leather people, it’s about don’t just show drag queens and leather people.”

Renna says the issue came up constantly in her years of media training. LGBT activists, especially, she says, in smaller markets, lamented the attention the drag queens and go-go boys would get.

“It’s because they’re interesting,” she says. “Be creative, do something interesting. I used to tell GLSEN chapters, rent a school bus, fill it with people, get creative, dress as crossing guards, be fun, be visible. People walking down the street in khakis and T-shirts? Not interesting!”

Wojahn says the whole thing can be touchy.

“If you’re trying to sell people on the idea that we’re entitled to respect, it’s first helpful to relate to them on a personal level,” he says. “You may be taking on a bit more than you can chew when you say, ‘I want you to accept that I’m LGBT, am in a committed relationship and want legal representation with this person, but I also want you to deal with the fact that I’m standing here topless with piercings.” 

We asked some early Capital Pride participants for their thoughts. 

Ella Fitzgerald, drag queen

Ella Fitzgerald at Gay Pride Day in 2003. (Washington Blade file photo)

Being a drag queen decade after decade ain’t easy. Just ask Ella Fitzgerald (aka Donnell Robinson), arguably Washington’s most veteran and highly regarded queen.

She remembers her first Capital Pride in 1986 and says it was a much different experience than it is today. Riding with a contingent of Academy of Washington queens in a convertible through Adams Morgan, she remembers being harassed.

“There were straight Latinos giving us the sign language of death signs,” she says. “They harassed the girls on the bikes with their tits out and all that. We’ve definitely come a long way since ’86. It’s much more accepted now. People understand the whole drag thing, the leather community. It’s very diverse now and I remember back in the ‘80s, even in our own community, there was so much discrimination between the drag, the leather and the lesbians. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but we have become much more accommodating of each other’s differences.”

Fitzgerald, 64 and a hairdresser by day, says she was never concerned about being filmed in an early Pride parade or festival. She says she was the first drag queen featured in Washingtonian magazine in 1984 and was happy for the coverage. 

She says things have, in her opinion, gotten a bit unnecessarily wild at times over the years.

“The gays who are more flamboyant and make it very obvious, I feel at times that has put a damper on everything we’re trying to achieve,” Fitzgerald says. “How do I say this? There are gays out there on a different level. More class, more sophistication and the younger kids, they’re like wild kids that have been let of a cage and they just act like, ‘I’m gonna do and say whatever I feel at the moment,’ going around in shorts and a T-shirt, ‘cause I want to be seen and I don’t care, this is me and if I want to marry a woman or a man — it’s a lot.”

On the other hand, she doesn’t believe in reining anything in just to be more palatable to straight people.

“Of course not,” she says. “We absolutely need all aspects of the rainbow. I grew up in the ‘70s and it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come in 40-some years. It makes me wonder what the future’s gonna be.”

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

Margaret McCarthy, Outriders

Margaret McCarthy says she was never shy about being seen at Pride parades even 30 years ago. (Photo courtesy McCarthy)

Margaret McCarthy’s Capital Pride experience has evolved over the years.

She came out in the mid-‘80s and has been going to Capital Pride since about ’86 or ’87. She was a member of Open Door Metropolitan Community Church, a sister parish of sorts to MCC-D.C., and participated for years with other parishioners in the Pride parade. 

She got into motorcycles around 2009 through a former girlfriend and started riding in Pride with Dykes on Bikes around 2013. A break-off group called Outriders kind of took over a year or so later and eventually McCarthy joined their contingent. They usually have between 40-60 riders each year. Most are members but some join them just for the day. 

She agrees with Cathy Renna that a diversity of representation is needed at Pride and in the world in general.

“There are all kinds of people that are part of the gay community — the fairies, the drag queens and all that and that’s part of my community,” says the 54-year-old Montgomery County Police service aide for the 6th District Station in Gaithersburg. “I don’t have to necessarily get it or understand it. I love them and they are part of my community.”

McCarthy says sometimes PDAs get a bit much but it’s not really an LGBT thing.

“I’ve done it. I’ve been walking at Pride and grabbed my girlfriend for a kiss or whatever,” she says. “If you see a couple making out on the Metro or Pride or wherever, I don’t care if they’re gay or straight, I don’t think that’s appropriate. But at a Pride festival, absolutely, it’s about letting go. It’s the one day you can really let your hair down and be totally who you are.”

As for Pride images getting manipulated by political enemies, McCarthy agrees it happens but says LGBT revelers shouldn’t let it dampen their spirits.

“They make it look like it’s all about depravity and sex and stuff and yeah, it makes me mad because that’s not who we are and unfortunately, there are people who may not know gay people and think that’s the whole spectrum. They see that and say, ‘Well look at those faggots and dykes, they’re scum,’ so yeah, it makes me mad. But it’s just one part of our community, it’s not the whole community.” 

How has it changed?

McCarthy says she remembers getting harassed at early D.C. Pride events. 

“They would see we were with a church and they’d say, ‘How can you be Christian and gay, you’re totally violating the Bible.’ I don’t know if it was Westboro Baptist or who it was, but yeah, there was some of that in the early years.”

McCarthy had protections in writing at her job so she was never worried about being recognized at Pride. She was fully out by her mid-20s.

She says a few Outriders go topless or cover just their nipples.

“I just kind of shake my head and go, ‘Whatever.’ It doesn’t offend me. I don’t really get it — they must get horrible sunburn, but yeah, not many of us do it.” 

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

Kenneth, go-go dancer

Our scantily clad dancer of yore, Kenneth, declined to give his last name. He danced nude at Secrets starting at age 18 from 1996-1999 but is in business now and says he prefers his clients today not know of his past work. 

He participated in several Pride parades on the Ziegfeld’s/Secrets float with Ella. The dancers would typically wear matching short shorts and Secrets tank tops.

“I don’t know what the rules are now, I think it’s relaxed a little, but we weren’t ever in thongs or bikinis or things like that,” he says. “We kept it a little more covered back then.”

He was fully out at the time and not fearful of being seen. He says most of the dancers then who were gay were out and not fearful of being seen. A few dancers were straight, he says, but “didn’t seem concerned about” being in a Pride parade.

Now 40, he remembers those years fondly.

“It was a very interesting thing to do when I was 19 or 20. I got to sew my wild oats and it was good experience overall. I learned a lot.”

Kenneth says it’s probably a non-issue today but he suspects more scandalous Pride behavior probably did work against LGBT rights in years past.

“There was a lack of exposure then so if all you saw through the ‘70s to the ‘90s was how they televised it, then you only knew part of the story. I think once there was more exposure, people understood that was only one aspect of the community.” 

He says Pride was a much different experience for everyone 20-30 years ago.

“For a lot of people, that was the only time they could be gay,” he says. “They weren’t able to dress and behave the way they wanted to the other 364 days of the year, it was back to their normal attire and behavior, so I would say it’s died down some because we can be ourselves more year round now. If you could only do that during Pride, people tended to go more over the top.” 

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

John Watson, leather enthusiast

John Watson (Photo courtesy of Watson)

Gay leather enthusiast John Watson says he first got into the D.C. leather scene at age 16 when he and two male friends his age, who lived in Arlington, began going to the D.C. Eagle, the city’s only leather bar, around 1974.

It was a time when the city’s bars and nightclubs, both gay and straight, didn’t consistently require ID checks for young-looking customers, Watson says.

About one year later, in June 1975, shortly after he turned 17, Watson and his two gay friends attended D.C.’s first Gay Pride event, which consisted of a block party on 20th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle.

Although the three were getting more and more into the leather scene and drove into D.C. nearly every weekend to go to the Eagle, neither of them wore leather at that first Pride block party, Watson says.

“We had on shorts and tank tops, which of course we took off and were shirtless,” he says. “But with the leather scene back then, people didn’t want to appear out in public in it. And thinking back, I don’t remember seeing anybody that first time in leather. There may have been, but I don’t remember seeing anybody in leather.”

It wasn’t until around 1980, Watson thinks, when the D.C. Pride festival had moved from 20th Street to the grounds of Francis School next to P Street Beach Park, that leather enthusiasts began attending Pride wearing leather clothes and gear.

“As it progressed more and more you saw more leather,” he says. “It was when people got to the point where they really weren’t scared, more or less around 1980. People got tired of being in the closet.”

Watson recalls that in the earlier years he and his friends, along with many others in the leather scene, were fearful of the possible repercussions of being publicly identified as leather guys. Being so identified would automatically out you as being gay, he says, as well as out you — even among gays — as being weird or odd.

“It was what you would call an underground community,” he says. “A lot of people felt it was not only strange but perverted, to be honest. If you were into that, you kept your mouth shut most of the time because you didn’t want anyone to know. Even the regular gay people were, ‘Oh, wow, that’s perverted.’ It wasn’t until the 1990s that I began to wear leather in public. Before that I would take it with me and put it on inside the clubs.”

Thankfully, Watson said, attitudes began to change as the LGBT rights movement became more visible and assertive in the 1980s and 1990s. He recalls seeing far more leather folks at D.C. Pride events in those years, possibly even more than what is seen in more recent years as the Pride events have become more “corporatized.”

Watson, who works in insurance, says he managed to keep his interest in leather separate from his work other than times he has worked at the Eagle. Among his most interesting “day work” jobs, he said was a stint from 1983-1988 as an assistant clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among other things, he gave private tours at the court to gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny and then-Washington Blade News Editor Lisa Keen.

LOU CHIBBARO, Jr.

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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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