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Blade’s 50-year history reflects struggles, advances of LGBT community

‘Paper of record’ chronicled police entrapment and blackmail, AIDS epidemic, marriage

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Blade staff, gay news, Washington Blade
Reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. (second from Left) in a meeting with fellow Blade staff, including editor Lisa Keen (third from left).

In its 50-year history, the Washington Blade has covered news for the LGBT community that has reflected dramatic advances as well as struggles ranging from workplace discrimination and attempts at blackmail to the AIDS epidemic and the achievement of marriage equality, establishing the Blade’s reputation as the LGBT newspaper of record.

In its very first issue in October of 1969 as a one-page monthly newsletter called “The Gay Blade,” the paper reported on the 1960s era fear of blackmail and the possibility of being fired from a government job because of one’s sexual orientation.

“Warning to Dupont Circle people,” the first issue states in its third story. “Cars seen too frequently in the Circle area are having their license numbers taken down; their owners later are being harassed and blackmailed.”

That same first issue included articles on pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny being available to provide help for gays or lesbians subjected to a security check by their employer, the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City, and the launching by the Gay Blade of a gay roommate referral service.

The very first issue of the Blade, dated October 1969.

Fifty years later, the now weekly Washington Blade has a correspondent accredited to cover the White House and presidential news conferences and an editor-reporter who frequently travels abroad to cover international LGBT news.

Since September 1995, the Blade has been available online through its website, enabling it to publish breaking LGBT news on a daily and even an hourly basis.

The Blade’s founding editors in October 1969 were Nancy Tucker, a lesbian, and Bart Wenger, a gay man who at the time went by the name Art Stone. Both had been members of the Mattachine Society of Washington, the first D.C. gay rights organization of note co-founded by Kameny.

Nancy Tucker (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Tucker and Wenger have said in subsequent years that although they supported the work of the Mattachine Society, they wanted to launch, four months after the Stonewall riots in New York, an independent news publication to provide needed information for D.C.’s then fledgling gay rights movement.

It was Kameny, Tucker told the Blade years later, who convinced her to help produce the new publication.

“It filled a clear need right from the get-go – and it has been that way ever since,” Kameny recalled in an October 2009 interview with the Washington Blade, two years before his passing in 2011.

Tucker, who later moved to Albuquerque, N.M., has said several people were involved in producing the Blade’s first issue, including Martha Taylor, her partner at the time, who operated a mimeograph machine that printed the first 500 copies of the paper.

But she said many of the people that helped produce and distribute the first issue and the next few issues withdrew from participation a short time later, leaving only a small “staff,” all of whom were volunteers.

“It eventually came down to my doing all of the writing, most of the news work, some of the distribution, all of the advertising selling – and Bart did some of the distribution and let me know what news tips that he came up with,” Tucker said.

She said she knew the Blade was becoming influential because LGBT people were using the Blade to publicize the activities of their organizations or businesses.

“I have a profound belief that it contributed to really the creation of the gay community in Washington,” Tucker said. “It helped publicize various bars and businesses and stuff as they opened.”

(Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

In July 1973, Tucker announced she was stepping down from her role as editor and publisher of the Blade and issued a call for interested parties to assume control of the then newsletter. Lesbian activist Pat Price, who used the pseudonym Pat Kolar, answered that call and became the new editor and publisher.

Although she and others who began to write for the Blade used pseudonyms, their names appearing in the paper marked the first time stories contained bylines. A little over one year later in November 1974 the Blade ended its newsletter size page and began publishing as a standard tabloid format on newsprint paper. Also in November 1974 the paper moved into its first offices at 1724 20th St., N.W. in Dupont Circle.

In December 1974, Joseph Crislip, who began writing for the Blade one month earlier under the pseudonym Christian Deforrest, assumed the position of Blade editor and “coordinator” of its business operations. In November 1975, under Crislip’s leadership, the Gay Blade officially changed its name to the Blade and incorporated as a nonprofit corporation called Blade Communications, Inc.

In early 1977, shortly after the Blade had moved to a two-room suite on the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W, a gay activist who had recently moved to D.C. from Buffalo, N.Y. named Don Michaels showed up at a Blade volunteer meeting. It was the start of Michaels’ 24-year association with the Blade in which he would eventually become publisher and oversee the Blade’s growth in size and status to become one of the nation’s major LGBT publications.

According to a detailed account of the Blade’s history by D.C.’s Rainbow History Project, in 1978 Michaels became managing editor while Crislip retained the position of publisher. That same year, in November, the Blade changed from operating as a monthly to a bi-weekly newspaper in response to the growth in its readership and advertising.

Don Michaels in 1981 (Washington Blade archive photo)

In October 1980, the Blade reincorporated into a for-profit, employee-owned business and changed its name to the Washington Blade. By early 1982 Michaels assumed the position of publisher succeeding Crislip, and as the paper continued to grow, the decision was made to become a weekly. Steve Martz, who joined the Blade a few years earlier in the advertising department, became managing editor and Lisa Keen, who started at the Blade in 1979 as a freelance reporter, became assistant editor.

From several years prior to that time up until 2001, the Blade had moved to several different locations, including 930 F St., N.W., an office building that became home on its first floor to the 9:30 Club; and later to a small office building at 724 9th St., N.W. It was during that time, around 1984 that Martz left the Blade and Keen assumed the role as top editor, which eventually was given the title of executive editor while Michaels continued as publisher.

In 1992, the Blade moved to 1408 U St., N.W., in the city’s newly developing “U Street corridor” that quickly evolved into an entertainment district. One year later, in April 1993, coinciding with the 1993 LGBT March on Washington that brought tens of thousands to the nation’s capital, the Blade published its largest issue to date, containing 216 pages.

In 1995, the Blade launched its website, WashingtonBlade.com, further expanding its ability to cover breaking LGBT news on a daily basis.

In May 2001, a gay-owned media company named Window Media that also owned the Southern Voice LGBT newspaper in Atlanta, purchased the Blade. William Waybourn, one of its principal owners, became the Blade’s new publisher and Chris Crain, another Window Media owner, became the Blade’s executive editor.

Michaels, Keen, and others on the Blade’s editorial and management leadership team left the Blade at the time of the sale. In 2006, Waybourn and Crain left the Blade to pursue other endeavors.

Blade staffer Rick Harding moving the Blade archives in 1987. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Crain was succeeded as executive editor by Kevin Naff, who remains the Blade’s editor today. In December 2007, Lynne Brown, who had worked for many years on the Blade’s advertising team, was named Blade publisher.

“It’s been a privilege to edit the Blade and help preserve its legacy of quality journalism as we’ve navigated the challenges facing the entire newspaper industry,” said Naff. 

The Blade relocated from U Street to the National Press Building at 14th and F Street, N.W. in February 2008, bringing it to a location where many of the nation’s most prestigious news media outlets had their Washington news bureaus.

Window Media Blade staff. (Washington Blade file photo)

But less than two years later, in November 2009, Window Media’s parent company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, resulting in the shutdown of the Blade and the other LGBT publications owned by Window Media. However, just four days later, the Blade’s staff, which banded together as volunteers, took the extraordinary step of creating a temporary replacement for the Blade called the D.C. Agenda and published its first issue.

Through financial support from loyal advertisers and readers, the former Blade staffers continued to publish the D.C. Agenda as a weekly placeholder until former publisher Brown, former editor Naff, and the Blade’s former advertising executive, Brian Pitts, formed a business partnership that purchased the Blade’s assets from the bankruptcy court.

Blade Editor Kevin Naff, Publisher Lynne Brown and Co-Owner Brian Pitts in 2009. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The three partners created a new parent company, Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia, and relaunched the Washington Blade brand in April 2010. The new company opened its offices at 1712 14th St., N.W., the Blade’s current headquarters.

The D.C. Agenda staff relaunches the Washington Blade. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In October 2010, the Washington Blade Foundation, a new 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was formed to raise money to digitize the full Blade archives. In January 2011, Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia launched a new business unit, Azer Creative as a boutique marketing firm. And in March 2017, BNPO launched the Los Angeles Blade, a sister LGBT newspaper headed by publisher Troy Masters and veteran journalist Karen Ocamb as news editor.

Recollections by former Blade leaders

Don Michaels and John M. Yanson (Washington Blade archive photo)

“I still live in D.C. and treasure a 45+ year relationship with John Yanson, who in the early days of the Blade was the staff photographer,” Michaels said when asked what he’s been doing since leaving the Blade. He and Yanson also spend time in San Diego, Calif., where they own a condo, he said.

Michaels was quick to reply to the question of what he most remembers about the Blade during his years working there.

“How eager our community was for a publication that focused on news and features rather than sexually oriented content,” he said. “Our approach attracted many really dedicated staffers who worked hard and tirelessly to make the paper grow from those 24-page monthly editions way back when into a well-regarded weekly newspaper of record.”

Keen, who had worked on the Blade staff for 20 years before leaving in 2001 as executive editor, said her years at the paper left a lasting impression.

“I remember a team of really dedicated colleagues and intensely loyal readers,” she said. “Don Michaels articulated a vision of the paper as one that would strive to meet professional standards and serve the LGBT community,” said Keen.

“People who joined the staff shared that vision and commitment at a time when working at a ‘gay paper’ was very likely to diminish one’s future employment prospects,” she said. “They were courageous and tough as nails, fun and funny, talented and reliable.”

Keen said she and her spouse, Sheilah McCarthy, currently live in Wellesley, Mass., where Keen has been covering national legal and political news for several LGBT news outlets around the country, including her own KeenNewsService.com. The couple is raising a 15-year-old son, Sam Keen.

Former publisher Waybourn said he and his partner maintain a D.C. residence but spend most of their time in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They own several businesses, including the Long View Gallery in D.C.

“It was a great time to be involved in D.C. media,” Waybourn said in discussing his tenure at the Blade. “I loved working with the staff and individuals I met through community groups and organizations, and still maintain friendships with the individuals I met through the Blade.”

Crain, the former executive editor, said he and Waybourn “look back with great pride” on the years the two worked at the Blade. He said their acquisition of the Blade in 2001 through Window Media took place “at the height of prominence in LGBTQ media” and enabled them to work with “a wonderful and talented staff to expand the paper’s local coverage, improve its production quality, grow its advertising base and dramatically increase its presence on the internet.”

Crain said by the mid-2000s the Blade was “facing the same challenge as print publications everywhere” such as the loss of classified advertising to the internet. But he said the Blade nevertheless remained profitable, even at the time after he and Waybourn left and the Window Media parent company declared bankruptcy.

“We were greatly pleased that the staff took up the mantle to carry on the Blade’s rich history, and we join in celebrating this terrific milestone,” Crain said.

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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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