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‘Boys Don’t Cry’ at 20: rethinking trans actors

Cis actress Hilary Swank won the Oscar playing a trans man but would it happen today?

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Boys Don't Cry, gay news, Washington Blade, transgender actors, transgender characters
Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her work in the 1999 movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ (Photo by Bill Matlock; courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures via Blade archives) 

It’s been 20 years ago this month since the release of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the Fox Searchlight movie that depicted the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man played by Hilary Swank, who adopts a male identity in Nebraska but is murdered in a hate crime.

Directed by Kimberly Peirce, whose interest was piqued by a 1994 Village Voice article about Teena, the film was made for $2 million and made $20 million at the box office. It premiered Oct. 8, 1999 at the New York Film Festival and went into wider release later in the month. 

Swank won a bounty of awards for the role including prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Award, the Golden Globe and the Oscar. It was both widely praised in reviews at the time and holds an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

It’s unlikely, though, that Swank would get cast in the role were it made today. With trans actresses Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross having been cast on the Ryan Murphy FX drama “Pose,” and Scarlett Johansson all but forced to withdraw last year from her planned movie “Rub & Tug” (she was to play a trans character based on Dante Gill, who ran massage parlors in the ‘70s and ‘80s that were brothel fronts) after a backlash ensued, many say it’s a new day for trans actors. Of Johansson, trans actress Trace Lysette (Shea on “Transparent”) wrote on Twitter, “Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived.”

Cisgender backlash

Cis, straight actor Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing trans in the 2013 movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ (Photo courtesy Focus Features via Blade archives)

Elle Fanning drew ire the year before for being cast in “3 Generations” as Ray, a female-to-male trans teen. A groundswell had been building with actors like Matt Bomer in “Anything” (2017), Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” (2015) and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) drawing muted but present backlash. 

Conversely, on TV, trans actress Candis Cayne earned the distinction of being the first trans actress to play a recurring trans character on a primetime show when she played Carmelita on ABC’s short-lived “Dirty Sexy Money” (2007-2009). Trans actress Nicole Maines plays the first trans superhero as Dreamer/NiaNal on The CW’s “Supergirl.” In its latest report, GLAAD says there are 26 trans characters currently on TV, vs. 17 in its previous report. 

Leto ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role. Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his and back in 2005, Felicity Huffman was nominated for playing trans in “Transamerica.” A trend was clearly at play — playing trans is Oscar catnip for cisgender actors. 

That’s a problem, working trans actors today say.

“The Academy seems to see it as some heroic transformation, but is it any more a feat of acting than what, say, Daniel Day-Lewis did as Lincoln, or any number of great performances you could name,” says Samy Nour Younes, a trans male stage and screen actor in New York. “Beyond the fact that they’re playing another gender identity, the roles are usually not that good. If you watch ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Transamerica’ or ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ which is the worst among them, they’re not particularly well written characters period, not because they assumed a marginalized identity, but we think there’s something inherently taboo or exotic, but in a stigmatized kind of way, about it. Like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave, you deserve an Oscar,’ when it actually wasn’t that great.”

Younes says “Transparent,” the hit 2014-2019 (it just wrapped with a musical finale on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 27) show on which he guested twice in its fourth season, was a game changer just before “Pose” hit big. Although cis actor Jeffrey Tambor played Maura, a retired college professor who comes out as trans, creator Jill Soloway enacted a “transfirmative action program” for the show (cast and crew) where trans applicants were hired in preference to cis applicants. Tambor (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Arrested Development”) left the show in late 2017 amid sexual misconduct allegations. 

“Just letting trans people in the room — directors, writers, consultants — makes a huge difference,” Younes says. “That’s when we start getting layered and nuanced characters that tell stories beyond their transitions, with interesting people. We’re seeing less and less of a need for the Eddie Redmaynes of the world who say, ‘Oh, I did so much research,’ which I call bullshit on that because if you’d really done so much research, you’d have an understanding that we’re not just some costume you can slip on which just helps solidify the Academy’s thinking that that’s all it is and playing trans becomes a farce.” 

The casting conundrum

Tammara Billik, a veteran Hollywood casting director known for her work on “Married … with Children” and the famous coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997, says things have come a long way since the “Boys Don’t Cry” era.

For one, she says, TV has come into a “golden age” that has “provided a lot more opportunities for all kinds of inclusive roles.”

“Not just with ‘Pose’ and ‘Transparent,’ but now there are a number of trans actors,” Billik, a lesbian, says. “I just read something about their being a trans actor in a series regular role on ‘The Politician’ with Ben Platt. I didn’t know anything about that. It’s happening without a big splash, it’s happening on weekly shows, so I think there is tremendous progress in terms of the trans actor community, particularly on TV.”

Film, she says, is different.

“When ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ came out, gosh, I don’t think I knew a trans actor at the time. … It certainly wouldn’t have been a time when a trans actor would have been cast. Now you would be hard pressed to cast that role with a cis actor,” Billik says. “You just wouldn’t do it, right?”

She says the Johansson episode was “a giant shift.”

“In both a good and bad way,” Billik says. “It’s good for the actors and a good way to show more diversity on television but we’ve also seen a backlash against particularly trans women of color. I’m not saying ‘Pose’ is responsible for it, but people get angry when you show them the truth. We’re all wondering why so many trans women of color are being targeted for violence. Is it because we’re seeing their images more on TV, is it because people have been emboldened by Trump? I don’t know the answer to that.” 

It’s an issue GLAAD has been working on for years. Nick Adams and Alex Schmider, GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program team, work with TV networks, production companies, showrunners, script writers, casting directors and agencies as well as PR firms to help bring what it calls “fair and accurate representations for transgender people to the screen.”

They say things are improving dramatically.

“Hollywood is beginning to tell more accurate and well-rounded stories about transgender people and casting trans characters more authentically,” Schmider said in an e-mail comment to the Blade. “Not only are trans characters starting to be written with more nuance, complexity and humanity in the worlds in which they exist, but casting has also begun to evolve in positive ways.”

By their count, there’s only one cis actor still playing a trans role on TV. 

The issue is a bit more complex, casting vets say, than “casting more authentically.” Alexa L. Fogel, casting director for “Pose” and a slew of HBO shows such as “Oz,” “The Wire,” and others, says it’s “a really complicated issue” that has multiple angles.

“TV is easier in that you’re creating characters, you’re creating roles, you’re creating stars,” she says. “In the case of ‘Pose,’ none of these people were known before. A lot of them hadn’t really acted before. These roles could be crafted around these people’s strengths to some degree, not so much in the character of Elektra, with her we had to find someone who could deliver what was on the page, and that was challenging for sure, but I think the other side of it is that certainly with films, there are certainly situations in which you need to sell tickets to things. Certain things might not get made without movie stars. These are complicated questions and I don’t know that anyone knows the answers to them all yet, but it’s a conversation.”

The decision to cast trans actors on “Pose” was made prior to Fogel’s involvement with the show. She says that added a layer to the casting process, but she didn’t see it as an extra burden.

“It’s part of the joy of the job,” says Fogel, who declined to state her own sexual orientation or gender identity. “It’s about rising to the challenge. I never considered that it couldn’t be done. It was just about, you know, doing the research, getting ambassadors to the community, making sure I had enough time to meet enough people. Anytime you do something that’s less visible, it’s more time consuming.”

How deep was the talent pool?

“I wouldn’t say it was a huge talent pool, but I’ve done a lot of projects where you just have to really put your head down and do extra research and this was one of them,” she says. “It was challenging but it never felt that it was going to be impossible. It just meant we had to do extra work.”

She’s not aware if the Screen Actors Guild tracks its members’ gender identity (SAG did not respond to requests for clarification on that). Fogel says membership is easy to secure once she casts a lead role.

Could ‘Pose’ be a fluke?

Indya Moore as Angel on ‘Pose.’ Moore is one of several trans actors in the cast, which has been a game changer for trans representation on TV. (Photo by JoJo Whilden for FX)

Is “Pose” a one-off or a game changer? 

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think yeah, the ground is certainly shifting in terms of the conversation,” Fogel says. “I think it’s ultimately about the writing, about the culture and what people feel like they want to see. People want real representation and that seems to be happening across the board.” 

Billik agrees.

“‘Pose’ is telling a story that’s really spectacular and a lot of people are really responding to it, so I don’t think it will be a one-off,” she says. “I think we’ll see a whole slew of trans actors cast because of it.”

Aneesh Seth, a trans actress on the Netflix show “Jessica Jones,” says there’s still “a long way to go.”

“Athough trans folks have gained some control over the types of trans narratives out there, they can still tend to be reductive and focused on our trauma,” she said in an e-mail. “Where are the stories of trans folks winning? Falling in love? Having successful marriages and careers?”

Is this the end, at least, of the big stars taking home Oscars and nominations for all the major trans movie roles? And how realistic is it — theoretically — for a trans actor to have given the caliber of performance Swank gave in “Boys Don’t Cry”? 

Some say it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument. If trans actors had been given time to build up their resumes on equal footing with a Swank or a Jared Leto, who knows what they might have achieved? That’s not to say they had easy rides — Swank and her mother, for a time, lived out of a car upon moving to Los Angeles as Swank pursued her dream. But inarguably, upon starting her acting career, she got cast in varied roles far faster and more regularly than any trans actor would have fared, especially in the ‘90s.

Fogel, especially, says it’s hard to account realistically for “what ifs.”

“You can’t really know the answer to that without doing the work,” she says. “I couldn’t have answered any of these questions about ‘Pose’ before I’d done it. The process is so important when it comes to casting. You really have to do the work to find the people, it’s all about the process.” 

Looking ahead

The path ahead, many agree, is bright. 

“I actually think Time magazine jumped the gun a little bit when they put Laverne Cox on the cover for ‘Orange is the New Black’ and said it was ‘The Transgender Tipping Point,’” Younes says. “Not to take anything away from her, but I think the tipping point is actually now because it’s not just one, it’s multiple roles. There’s a brand new pool of talent and we’re more open to the fact that it could come from anywhere.” 

Several folks interviewed for this piece mentioned bit parts they’d seen trans actors cast in of late. Billik just saw “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway and said one of four ladies in the opening number was trans. Younes knows a trans colleague in the ensemble in “Tina: the Tina Turner Musical,” which opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway next month (previews are in October). He also cites two trans actors with brief speaking parts in this summer’s “Spider Man: Far From Home.”

GLAAD reps helped cast Zoey Luna, a trans Latina actress, in “The Craft” reboot from Sony as Lourdes, one of the lead girls in the coven who happens to be trans. In 2018, not one of the 110 major studio films released included a trans character, according to GLAAD.

“So this casting and character are game changers in the film landscape,” Schmider says.

Non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon on Showtimes “Billions,” is another positive step, many agree. And Daniela Vega made history in “Fantastic Woman,” a 2017 Chilean drama that won an Oscar. Vega was the first trans presenter in the history of the Academy Awards when she presented in 2018. 

“This isn’t a trend, this isn’t just the topic du jour,” Younes says. “For decades, all we could get were playing the dead hooker on ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ … I hope it’s a continuing trend for trans people making inroads in entertainment.”

SIDEBAR: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: problematic in retrospect?

Although it was seen as fairly groundbreaking in its day, the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” hasn’t aged particularly well, some argue. 

Donna Minkowitz, the writer of the original Village Voice story that inspired the movie, apologized last year in a piece she wrote (also for the Voice) called “How I broke, and botched, the Brandon Teena Story.”

“For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing,” Minkowitz wrote. “Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated ‘her’ body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. … At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead ‘easier,’ more conventional heterosexual lives.”

The trope of the butch lesbian who takes things “just a little too far” and comes out as trans, is a recurring one, trans actor Samy Nour Younes says. He, too, found the film adaptation “problematic.” 

“There was a similar storyline on ‘The L Word,’ when Max Sweeney starts taking hormones and becomes this raging monster, a really awful storyline. Seeing some of those things and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ were the first representations I saw of a trans masculine storyline and stopped me from coming out sooner.”

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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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Legalization trend continues as Nat’l Cannabis Festival kicks off

D.C.’s 420 Week runs April 16-24

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National Cannabis Festival (Photo by Doug Van Sant; courtesy NCF)

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:
 

420 Week

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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