LGBT issues have never been easy — marriage, military service, AIDS, you name it, no gain came without a fight. But if, as is commonly posited, trans rights lag a good 10 or more years behind gay and lesbian advances, perhaps the thorniest issue of all is fair competition for trans women and their cis women opponents, in both recreational and elite sport.
Imagine that women’s sports had never become “a thing” and all adults competed against each other. In figure skating, for example, only three women have landed quad jumps in competition, yet no male singles skater today can be remotely competitive without multiple quads in his arsenal (Nathan Chen landed six at the 2018 Olympics yet failed to medal).
Yes, Billie Jean King (a lesbian) famously beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” in tennis, but she was 29 and he was 55. What would happen if Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky (swimming) or Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams (tennis) were to face off in the pool or on the court?
Perhaps more realistically, what would happen if Chen, Phelps or Djokovic came out as trans, opted out of hormone replacement therapy and competed as women? Some LGBT advocates say even suggesting such a scenario is transphobic or, at best, displays a gross misunderstanding of the issue. But it’s a question being asked by many.
The International Olympic Committee changed its policy in early 2016 to allow trans women to compete provided they demonstrate their testosterone level has been below a certain level for at least one year prior to their first competition. It supplants the previous 2003 policy that required both gender reassignment surgery and two years of hormone therapy (trans men are allowed to compete without restriction).
Chris Mosier, a trans male athlete and creator of transathlete.com, a resource site for trans sports advocacy at all levels, says the debate has been unfair and overheated.
“We’ve had several Olympic games since the policy has been in place for trans athletes,” says the 38-year-old Mosier, who in 2015 became the first openly trans man to make a Men’s U.S. National Team when he qualified for the Spring Duathlon team. “We’re talking something like 50,000 Olympians have passed through and not a single trans athlete or single trans woman has participated. The fears people have and the stereotypes and misconceptions they’re putting out there about trans women dominating sports just simply haven’t happened.”
That’s also the argument of trans activist/author Brynn Tannehill whose book “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans” came out in 2018. She points out that there has not been a single trans athlete dominator since the Olympic policy change or since the NCAA changed its policy to allow trans people to compete sans surgery in 2011. She claims a year of testosterone removal is “sufficient to remove competitive advantage.”
But some cis athletes have balked at getting beaten by trans women competitors. And they’re not just complaining — some are taking legal action. Elsewhere, governing bodies in various sports at all levels are either facing or have faced challenges in how to keep their eligibility policies current and trans-inclusive. That collides with the widely held trans argument that what a trans person has done or not done by way of hormone replacement therapy or gender reassignment surgery is a personal matter that doesn’t make them more or less a woman or man than those at other stages of transition.
Others say trans bias is something impossible to ignore or downplay because it’s so rampant.
“There will always be people who will say a trans female athlete is cheating when she wins or when she doesn’t win, say, ‘She just didn’t try hard enough,’” says gay sports filmmaker David McFarland (“Alone in the Game”). “People are looking for a reason to discriminate against trans people in sport, that’s a given.”
Selina Soule, a 16-year-old runner at Glastonbury High School in Glastonbury, Conn., is frustrated. She says she’s suffered because trans competitors in her conference — Terry Miller of Bloomfield High and Andraya Yearwood of Cromwell High — have been allowed to compete no questions asked against she and her fellow cis women runners.
Miller won the State Open 200-meter title for the second straight year in 2019 and won the Class S titles in the 100 and 200, as well as the New England 200-meter championship. Yearwood, who is also transgender, finished third in the 100 meters in Class S and fourth in the 100 in the State Open.
Subsequently Soule wasn’t able to compete in the New England regional Championships where she would have been seen by college scouts. Miller and Yearwood have won 15 women’s state championships since the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CFAC) changed its policy to allow them to compete as women. Conference leaders say they’re simply following state law.
“The CIAC is committed to providing transgender student athletes with equal opportunities to participate in CIAC athletic programs consistent with their gender identity,” its guidebook reads. Connecticut is one of 19 states that has similar laws.
“I am very happy for these athletes and I fully support them for being true to themselves and having the courage to do what they believe in,” Soule said in a Fox News interview. “But in athletics, it’s an entirely different situation. It’s scientifically proven that males are built to be physically stronger than females. It’s unfair to put someone who is biologically a male who has not undergone anything in terms of hormone therapy against cisgender girls.”
Miller and Yearwood have declined to state publicly what, if any, hormone therapy or testosterone suppression — more on that later — they have undergone.
Soule told the Wall Street Journal the experience has been demoralizing.
“It’s just really frustrating and heartbreaking because we all train extremely hard to shave off just fractions of a second off of our time and these athletes can do half the amount of work that we do and it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have no chance of winning.”
“It’s definitely a complicated issue,” Soule’s mother Bianca, told the Blade in a brief phone interview. “You have to compete based on the physical abilities you were born with, if you want to call it that. That’s why we separate the two genders. If there were no differences, there would never have been a women’s sports. Unfortunately our trans girls are caught in the middle. The rule is the problem. I tried to contact our Connecticut association to try to look into it, even meet with one of the trans girls’ fathers to try to understand and come up with a solution but we were met with only shut doors. The frustrating part has been the refusal of the athletic bodies to even consider and listen to our side of it.”
Yearwood and Miller issued statements through the ACLU. “I will continue to fight for all trans people to compete and participate consistent with (whom) we are,” Miller wrote. “There is a long history of excluding black girls from sport and policing our bodies. I am a runner and I will keep running and keep fighting for my existence, my community and my rights.”
“I will never stop running,” Yearwood wrote. “I hope that the next generation of trans youth doesn’t have to fight the fights that I have. I hope they can be celebrated when they succeed, not demonized.”
“It is heartbreaking to see yet another attack on trans youth for simply participating in activities alongside their peers,” Chase Strangio, ACLU staff attorney added. “Discrimination on the basis of sex extends to trans people. Girls who are transgender are girls.”
A legal group called Alliance Defending Freedom (it calls itself a “conservative Christian nonprofit”) filed a complaint in June with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on behalf of Soule and two of her teammates claiming they have “been negatively impacted by the policy.”
“One of these male athletes now holds 10 records inside the state of Connecticut that were once held by 10 individual girls established over the course of about a 20-year period so it’s fundamentally unfair to allow biological males to step into women’s sports and frankly dominate them and take away opportunities not just to medal, but to be on the podium and advance to the next level of competition and even compete for scholarships for young women like Selena,” Christiana Holcomb, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, told Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
“It’s grotesque and insane and it hurts women and girls,” Carlson said on the broadcast.
The issue is especially acute among high school athletes because students are often just figuring out whom they are, how they identify and are less likely to have time logged living fully transitioned lives.
Dawn Stacey Ennis, managing editor of OutSports and a trans woman, says the trans-girls-bumping-cis-girls-off-the-medal-stand argument is misleading because college coaches recruiting look at time, not placement.
“They don’t care who placed first, second or third — all colleges look at and what every coach has told me is that the time is what matters because time is immutable, you can’t change that. It doesn’t matter if you ran against a trans person or not,” Ennis says.
She also says Soule and her representatives aren’t being totally forthcoming.
“I talked to her mother and watched the video and when she said (Selina) didn’t get to qualify for the event in Boston, she sort of fibbed a little bit. She didn’t qualify in that event, but she did qualify in another event. But, of course, that’s not a good headline. It’s much better to say, ‘I didn’t get to go because of these girls.’ … They have to make the trans girls out to be the boogyemen because somebody else has to be responsible for her losing. It has to be someone else’s fault, but that’s not what sports is about.”
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, a lesbian, was heavily criticized for a Sunday Times op-ed she wrote in February arguing trans women should not be allowed to compete against cis women.
“It’s insane and it’s cheating,” she wrote. “I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair. … To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires,” she wrote.
She was heavily criticized for her comments, removed from the advisory board of Athlete Ally (an LGBT athlete advocacy group) and called out by trans activists such as cyclist Rachel McKinnon (the first trans woman to win a world track cycling title in Oct., 2018), who called Navratilova’s concern a “wild fantasy worry that is an irrational fear of something that doesn’t happen … transphobia.”
Navratilova wrote of being frustrated with “what seems to be a growing tendency among transgender activists to denounce anyone who argues against them and to label them all as transphobes.”
She backpedaled somewhat, apologizing for using the word “cheating,” but called for a debate on the issue based “not on feeling or emotion but science,” BBC News reported.
How are other sports organizing bodies handling the issue?
Western states solution
One group that’s done about as well as anyone it appears is the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run whose board members this year adopted a trans-inclusive policy that accepts “a runner’s self-declared gender at registration … at face value,” the New York Times reports.
“If, however, a finisher in the top 10 or among the top three in their age group is challenged, race management may ask the runner for documentation that they have undergone medically supervised hormone treatment for gender transition for at least a year before the race,” the Times reports.
The issue arose last December when Grace Fisher, a trans runner who favors ultradistance competition, was selected through the race’s traditional lottery system for the 100-mile ultramarathon that takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California every June.
If a trans runner is challenged and it’s upheld by race management, their placement may be bumped but they would be allowed to keep their finisher’s buckle. It ended up not being an issue for Fisher (she came in 20th) but she says she appreciates the care organizers put into their policy.
“They were so concerned about me and wanted to ensure my safety,” says the 38-year-old Hancock, Md., resident, a federal employee with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. “They went out of their way to welcome me and wish me good luck. … It was quite amazing, but I don’t think the other runners really picked up on it. They just saw me as another female.”
Fisher acknowledges the issue is dicier on the high school level.
“I think we do need more research, but there are so few of us, it’s hard to get more,” she says. “I think personally, and this may not be popular in the trans community, but yeah, the high school situation needs to be looked at more. That’s such a tricky situation because one, they’re teenagers so their hormones are raging whether they’re cis or if they’ve started to transition, they may still have an advantage. I just haven’t seen any science on it so I’m hesitant to state any opinion at this point.”
There’s a bounty of information on the topic available from all kinds of sources, from thorough, balanced studies in popular magazines such as Men’s Health’s March piece “The Truth About Trans Athletes;” to folksy, readable blogs such as “On Transgender Athletes and Performance Advantages” earlier this year at sportsscientists.com; to scholarly research in medical journals such as “Sport and Transgender People: a Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies,” published online two years ago on the National Institute of Health website, which studied eight other articles and reviewed 31 sport policies.
The findings were — perhaps surprisingly for some — more trans validating than one might expect.
“In relation to sport-related physical activity, this review found the lack of inclusive and comfortable environments to be the primary barrier to participation for transgender people.” Also, the “lack of inclusive and comfortable environments (is) the primary barrier to participation for transgender people. … transgender people had a mostly negative experience in competitive sports because of the restrictions of the sport’s policy placed on them.”
Researchers also found “no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and therefore competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”
The ‘T’ word
A central — but not total — factor in this discussion is testosterone levels.
The hormone, an androgen is produced in both men and women, but not nearly as much in cis women. It affects the body in many ways.
In men, high levels of testosterone are made in the testes. The adrenal glands make much lower levels above the kidneys. Women produce testosterone in both their adrenal glands and ovaries, but testes in men produced much higher rates: in men, it’s 295 to 1,150 nanograms of testosterone per deciliter of blood while the levels in women are usually in the range of 12-61 nanograms per deciliter of blood, according to the New York Times and other medical sites consulted.
Testosterone also builds both skeletal and cardiac muscle and increases the number of red blood cells. The effects are present whether they’re there naturally or introduced. The effects are amplified further among elite athletes and make a huge difference in performance. Male champions in sports across the board are always faster and stronger than records set by women, although it’s not as simple as it may appear at first: researchers have found it has more of an effect in middle-distance races; it could have been less of a factor for Fischer in the Western States 100.
But the connection between testosterone and athletic performance isn’t always an exact science. When researchers measured the T levels of elite athletes from 15 Olympic sports, more than 25 percent of the men were below the level (10 nanomoles per liter) required of trans Olympic women, according to a study from “Clinical Diabetes and Endocrinology” cited in the aforementioned Men’s Health article. Nearly 7 percent had less than 5 nmol/L and there was significant overlap between male and female athletes. Cis male powerlifters had surprisingly low T levels while cis male track and field athletes were higher.
Further complicating matters is the fact that some cis women rarely but occasionally possess unusually high T levels. Caster Semenya, 28, an elite runner and Olympic champion from South Africa, for instance, has been banned from some races. In May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland ruled that women with unusually high T levels (far above the ranges normally seen) cannot compete against other women in some races unless they take drugs to suppress their levels, the New York Times reported.
Men also tend to be on average about 6 inches taller than women. The average U.S. adult male weighs 195 pounds vs. 168 pounds for women. A study from the Applied Physiology journal found that men had an average of 26 pounds more skeletal muscle mass than women and about 40 percent more upper-body and 33 percent more lower-body strength on average.
So what does fair look like?
Mosier chuckles when asked to ponder the issue with sexism, patriarchy and anti-trans bias taken out of the equation.
“I don’t know what that would look like and I wish I could predict the future,” he says. “But sport is inherently about advantage and that makes people uncomfortable. There are certain advantages a very tall basketball player has. We don’t ask him to chop off a few inches of their height to make a more level playing field. Some people burn lactic acid faster than their competitors. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Katie Ledecky, beat her competition by a full pool length but she’s thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime, exceptional athlete but her advantage may be that she is never questioned, but there really needs to be more studies done on what the impact is over time before anyone could start to talk about unfair advantage.”
Not disqualifying certain individuals with extraordinary physical gifts is also commonly used as a rationale for why trans women shouldn’t be punished for physical attributes beyond their control.
“What are they supposed to do, tell these people they can’t compete because their arms are too big or their torsos are too long,” Ennis says. “That’s not fair either. Trans girls may have physical gifts but I would hope those would be advantages that would make cis girls try harder. I don’t think it’s unfair because there are always going to be people who are better than you.”
“It’s an affront to every athlete to be penalized for one’s intrinsic biology,” he says. “Do we tell a really strong female shot putter or discus thrower she’s too strong to compete? Do we have a height cut-off in the NBA? Where would it end?”
But by that argument, why are women’s divisions needed in any sport?
Ennis says no women — cis or trans — want to compete against men. Asking the question, she says, implies skeptics don’t see trans women as true women.
“This idea that some guy’s gonna go put on a wig and a skirt, go dominate the sports world, then go back and start fathering babies, that’s just not what the trans experience is about,” Ennis says.
Mosier says any advantage trans women in theory may have, is negated by the social stigma they endure.
“It has a huge impact on their training and performance,” Mosier says. “People aren’t transitioning to gain a competitive advantage. What they encounter would never offset a gold medal or world championship. They just want to compete. … The footage of some of these track meets and what’s said to the competitors and their parents, its’ really toxic and vile and horrific in so many ways that a young person would have to deal with that lack of understanding.”
And while some argue that anyone who’s been through a male puberty will on average retain a physical advantage — testosterone doesn’t vastly impact one’s height or reach — Fisher says even that argument is suspect.
“It’s like having a Mustang with a small engine,” Fisher says. “You still have this big car but it just doesn’t have the engine. We lost a lot of muscle mass, probably more than a fit female, but also a lot more bone mass. The muscle-to-mass ratio is lower,” she says. “I don’t really know if trans women have any advantage. I think it’s questionable.”
As one would expect, there’s huge support for trans athletes — both men and women — among LGBT advocacy groups. But the story changes significantly when you loop other stakeholders into the discussion.
Fallon Fox was the first openly trans athlete in MMA history in a 2012-2014 career that included just a single loss. She encountered substantial transphobia in her groundbreaking career but also questions about the fairness of her bouts. During a 2014 fight against Tamikka Brents, Brents suffered a concussion, orbital bone fracture and required seven staples to her head after the first round, which ended the fight. Brents, a lesbian, said after the fight it wasn’t a fair match.
Brents declined a Blade interview request saying she’d put the issue behind her but said at the time that Fox was far stronger than any other women she’d ever fought in a long MMA career.
Fox dismissed the advantage claim in a guest editorial on an MMA news website saying, “I’m a transgender woman. I deserve equal treatment and respect to other types of women. I feel this is so ridiculously unnecessary and horribly mean spirited.”
While it’s understandable that consensus eludes the sports world among the Alliance Defending Freedom, Fox News and the like, it’s still thorny because there’s no consensus either among trans people.
Some believe trans athletes should be able to compete without any medical intervention at all, others believe in a physical barometer to gauge trans eligibility while others say there should be a separate league for trans athletes, not a widely held view because of their small numbers. They mostly agree, however, that participation is essential.
Ennis of OutSports says the fact that trans women haven’t emerged as a dominant force in elite sports and even in high school sports don’t win constantly helps support the general push toward trans inclusion.
“If a study were to come out and say conclusively that trans women are physically unbeatable by cisgender women and every cis woman lost every time, I would throw in my hat and say, ‘That’s it, we can’t do it.’ But the facts aren’t in. Cis women do beat trans women. Not every single time, but there’s not one sport in which trans women totally dominate. These two (Connecticut) high school girls are winning competitions, but they don’t win every single one they’re in.”
“No trans person is trying to participate for personal gain,” McFarland says. “They just want to do it in a healthy manner. This idea that people are transitioning just to dominate is something that critics continually get wrong and this ungrounded fear of trans people, that they’ll come in and take over, that’s really the dictionary definition of transphobia. … The current science and data reveals it’s a nonsense argument.”
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
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.
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.
New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program
Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant
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.”
Legalization trend continues as Nat’l Cannabis Festival kicks off
D.C.’s 420 Week runs April 16-24
The sixth annual National Cannabis Festival kicks off in D.C. on April 16 as the nation continues to see advances in legalizing cannabis, particularly for medical uses.
Just this week, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed HB 933 and SB 671, to provide numerous operational improvements to the state’s medical cannabis program, including eliminating the requirement that patients register with the Board of Pharmacy after receiving their written certification from a registered practitioner.
“These legislative improvements will bring great relief to the thousands of Virginians waiting to access the medical cannabis program,” said JM Pedini, NORML’s Development Director and the Executive Director of Virginia NORML. “We hear from dozens of Virginians each week who are struggling with the registration process and frustrated by the 60-day wait to receive their approval from the Board of Pharmacy,” Pedini added.
There are more than 47,000 program registrants, with an estimated 8,000 applicants still awaiting approval.
The new laws will take effect July 1. Until that time, patients will still be required to register with the Board of Pharmacy in order to shop at one of the state’s ten operational dispensaries. After July 1, patients who would like to receive a physical card will still have the option to request one by registering with the Board of Pharmacy.
The changes in Virginia law reflect growing support nationwide for reforming marijuana laws. Most Americans favor the enactment of a broad array of legal reforms specific to marijuana policy, according to new nationwide polling data provided by YouGov.com.
Specifically, six-in-10 Americans say that “marijuana should be made legal in the United States.” Majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and independents (60 percent) back legalization, while most Republicans (46 percent) do not.
Last week, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 220 to 204 in favor of The MORE Act, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act thereby allowing states to legalize cannabis markets free from federal interference. Most Democrats (217) voted for the bill while all but three Republicans voted against it.
A majority of Americans also support amending federal law so that banks and other financial institutions can explicitly partner with state-licensed marijuana businesses. Support for the policy change is strongest among Democrats (66 percent) and weakest among Republicans (38 percent).
Under existing federal law, financial institutions are discouraged from partnering with state-licensed cannabis businesses. According to the most recent financial information provided by the US Treasury Department, only about ten percent of all banks and only about four percent of all credit unions provide services to licensed cannabis-related businesses.
House members have voted on six separate occasions to pass federal legislation (The SAFE Banking Act) to reform this policy, but Senators have never taken any action to advance it in the Upper Chamber. Most recently, House members voted in February to include SAFE Banking provisions in HR 4521: the America COMPETES Act. Senators failed to include similar language in their version of the bill. (Courtesy NORML)
420 Week arrives in D.C.
D.C. is gearing up for a blazing 420 Week, featuring several days of exciting panels, art and community-building events and parties culminating in the National Cannabis Festival on April 23, featuring Wiz Khalifa, Lettuce, Ghostface Killah, Backyard Band, DuPont Brass, Shamans of Sound, Cramer, and more.
This year, the sixth annual National Cannabis Festival, which celebrates progress on cannabis legalization, is expanding to a full weekend of epic cannabis-related events, including the National Cannabis Policy Summit April 22 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and the National Cannabis Championship, presented by Gentleman Toker and slated for April 24 at Echostage with Slick Rick. The weekend is the capstone of 420 Week, hosted by the National Cannabis Festival organizers in partnership with the Eaton Hotel and DC Brau. The week kicks off on Saturday, April 16, with movie screenings, evening parties, a beer launch and more. Read on for the week’s highlights, courtesy of Festival organizers:
Saturday, April 16 – Sunday, April 24
Eaton Hotel + DC Brau
From the Hemp and Hops Panel and launch of NCF Legalize It! Lager at DC Brau (3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE) on April 16 to the 4/20 Kickback Party featuring Khalifa Kush and panel with artists discussing cannabis’s role in their practice at the Eaton Hotel (1201 K St, NW), 420 Week promises something for everyone with an interest in cannabis culture. Take a tour with Luckie Chucky tours, participate in a “Plantwave Soundbath” and more. Nearly all events are free; RSVP required. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com for details.
National Cannabis Policy Summit
Friday, April 22, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Join a who’s who of activists, industry pioneers, government leaders, journalists and more for an electric and illuminating day looking at the era’s most pressing cannabis policy challenges and opportunities. U.S. Senate candidate and Civil Rights activist Gary Chambers; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Portland Cannabis Program Manager Dasheeda Dawson; Aamra Ahmad, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and many others will be on hand to discuss environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, banking legislation, decriminalization and more. Afterward, stay for a reception sponsored by Weedmaps. All events are free; registration is strongly recommended. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/ncf-policy-summit for details.
National Cannabis Festival
Saturday, April 23, 12 p.m.
RFK Festival Grounds
2400 East Capitol St., NE, Lot 8
The highlight of 420 Week events is the East Coast’s largest ticketed cannabis gathering, which returns to Washington’s RFK Campus with performances from Wiz Khalifa Lettuce, Ghostface Killah and many others. Also on tap: a wide range of exhibitors, five pavilions on topics from wellness to agriculture to education, and a brand-new culinary pavilion featuring top chefs from Maydan, Maketto, Moon Rabbit, as well as the Munchies Zone, with 75 of the region’s most popular food trucks including Peruvian Brothers, Jerk at Nite, Reba’s Funnel Cakes and more. (Note: No THC infused foods are permitted to be sold or sampled at NCF; festival-goers must be 21 and up.) Tickets range from $75-$375 for one or two-day admission to the festival and National Cannabis Championship. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets.
National Cannabis Championship Presented by Gentleman Toker
Sunday, April 24, 12 p.m.
2135 Queens Chapel Rd., NE
Slick Rick and DJ Footwerk are giving festival-goers a sendoff to remember on the final day of 420 Week and the festival weekend, at the National Cannabis Championship at Echostage, new this year. Presented by Gentleman Toker, this awards show and bash celebrates the incredible cannabis cultivation taking place in the Washington area and across the Mid-Atlantic. Expect exhibitors, comedy, munchies, drinks and a chance to chill with some of the biggest names and brands in cannabis cultivation. Tickets are $55. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets.
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