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Why do so many gay couples open up their relationships?

Many of us are on autopilot, but we can build more meaningful connections

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open relationships, gay news, Washington Blade

As gay men, we’ve been through a lot.

For so many years we were deep in the closet, fearful of being arrested, and threatened with pseudo-medical cures.

Then came the Stonewall uprising, the declassification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, and the defeat of sodomy laws. And finally, the legalization of gay marriage.

Now—at least in some parts of the world — we’re free to live our lives exactly like everyone else. No one gets to tell us how to live, whom to love, or what we can or can’t do in the bedroom. We alone call the shots.

Then again, maybe we’re not as free as we think. Ever wonder why so many of us open our relationships? Are we always really deciding for ourselves how we want to live?

Or are we sometimes on autopilot, blithely following expectations and norms of which we aren’t even aware, oblivious to the possible consequences?

Spring, 1987: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my own introduction to the world of gay relationships was following a script that countless gay men have lived.

Growing up in that era, there were no visible gay relationships, no role models. Astoundingly, a gay porn theater/bathhouse did advertise in the Washington Post, my hometown paper, when I was a kid. While this was titillating, I dreamed of something more traditional and soulful for my future than the anonymous encounters and orgies at which those ads hinted.

So when hunky, adorable Justin* asked me out after a meeting of the campus gay group and we started dating, I was over the moon. That is, until my friends Ben and Tom, an older gay couple, shot me right back down to earth when, one evening over dinner, they asked if Justin and I were “exclusive.”

Huh? What a question!

“Just wait,” Tom said knowingly,  “Gay men never stay monogamous for long.”

More than 30 years have passed, and the world of gay male relationships remains pretty much the same. Working as a psychologist for the past 25 years, I’ve listened to hundreds of gay clients share their own versions of my long-ago dinner with Ben and Tom. “We just assumed we’d be monogamous, but then this older gay couple told us, ‘yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.’ So we decided to open up our relationship and start playing around.”

New generations have the possibility of proudly visible relationships and recently, marriage. And still, for many of us, open relationships are seen as the default choice in one form or another: “Monogamish.” Only when one partner is out-of-town. Never the same person twice. Only when both partners are present. No kissing. No intercourse. No falling in love. Never in the couple’s home. Never in the couple’s bed. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Disclose everything. Anything goes.

Examining our affinity for non-monogamy can be seen as judgmental or anti-gay, “sex-negative,” tantamount to suggesting that gay men should mimic a heterosexual model that is patriarchal, misogynist, oppressive — and maybe not even really workable for straight people. Questioning our penchant for casual sex while we are coupled is also seen as a challenge to the inspirational (to some) narrative that gay men, free of the constraints of history and tradition, are constructing a fresh, vibrant model of relationships that decouples the unnecessary, pesky, and troublesome bond between emotional fidelity and sexual exclusivity.

But we do not honor our diversity if we expect that any of us should choose (or not choose) any particular role or path. After all, gay men are just as multidimensional, complex, and unique as other men.

And while an open relationship may be the best relationship for some couples to have, successfully being in one requires capabilities that many of us do not possess. Simply being a gay man certainly does not automatically provide skills such as:

The solidity of self to be trusting and generous

The ability to sense how far boundaries can be pushed without doing too much damage

The capacity to transcend feelings of jealousy and pain

The strength of character not to objectify or idealize outside sex partners.

Yes, open relationships can be as close, loving, and committed as monogamous relationships, which of course have their own difficulties. But even when conducted with thought, caution, and care, they can easily result in hurt and feelings of betrayal.

Moreover, open relationships are often designed to keep important experiences secret or unspoken between partners. Clients will tell me they do not want to know exactly what their partner is doing with other men, preferring to maintain a fantasy (or delusion) that certain lines will not be crossed. As a result, the ways in which we structure our open relationships can easily interfere with intimacy—knowing, and being known by our partners.

Consequently, we gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. Might any of these scenarios be familiar to you?

Jim and Rob came in to see me after a disastrous cruise with eight of their friends. Although it had not been their plan, between them they had ended up separately having sex with all eight. This had broken several of their “rules,” although as Jim pointed out, the rules were unclear because they often made them up to suit whatever they wanted to do, or not allow each other to do. Each partner’s ongoing anger over how his partner was hurting him by ignoring admittedly ad-hoc sexual boundaries meant that Jim and Rob hadn’t had sex with each other in two years.

Another couple I work with, Frank and Scott, have had an open relationship from the start. When they met, Frank felt strongly that monogamy had no relevance to him as a gay man. Though Scott wanted a sexually exclusive relationship, he somewhat reluctantly went along with Frank’s wishes because he wanted to be with Frank. In recent years the two have become near-constant users of hookup apps, and recently Scott met a younger man on Scruff with whom he has “great chemistry.” Now, to Frank’s dismay, Scott is dating Todd.

Carlos and Greg came to see me after Carlos discovered that Greg was hooking up numerous times a month. Although they had a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” agreement and both assumed the other was occasionally having sex with other men, Greg’s behavior was far more frequent than Carlos had imagined or wanted to accept in his marriage. Greg was steadfast in his conviction that because he was following their rules, his hookups could not be negatively impacting his relationship with Carlos.

Beyond the hurt, enmity, reduced commitment, lack of connection, and distance they experience, men in these situations often tell me that their relationships and their lives have become overwhelmed by their pursuit of sex.

Another potential drawback to an open relationship: Yes, multiple partners are an easy (and fun) fix for sexual boredom. But when hot times can be easily found with others, we may feel little incentive to put sustained energy into keeping sex with our partners interesting. My educated guess: This is why many gay couples in open relationships have little or no sex with each other, just as a twosome.

Finally, it is troubling how easily, in our open relationship/hookup culture, we objectify those we have sex with and see other men as disposable, replaceable bodies. Treating others and being treated in this manner does not advance our respectfully relating to each other, nor does it benefit our self-esteem as men and as gay men.

What is influencing these behaviors?

Gay men lean toward non-monogamy for many interconnected reasons.

Men (stereotype acknowledged) often enjoy pursuing and having no-strings sex, so gay men readily find willing partners. Open relationships, seemingly fun and unconstrained, offering a stream of new partners to reduce the monotony of an ongoing relationship, can be intrinsically alluring. Gay men’s sexual connections have historically not been governed by societal rules, so we’ve been able to do pretty much whatever we want, as long as we’ve flown way under the radar.

And, open relationships are what we predominantly see around us as the relationship model for gay men, for the reasons noted above and also in large part due to the influence of gay history and gay culture.

For a deeper understanding of this last point, let’s take a whirlwind tour though gay male history in the Western world (much of which overlaps with lesbian herstory). Ancient, recent, forgotten, familiar, all of it is impacting our lives today.

Since at least the fourth century C.E., as Christianity gained influence, homosexual behavior was illegal in Europe, often punishable by death, and European settlers brought these laws with them to what became the United States. Some periods were relatively more tolerant, others less so. France became the first Western nation to decriminalize homosexuality after the 1791 Revolution, but harsh laws remained and were enforced throughout the Western world well into the 20th century. (And at present, 78 countries still have laws prohibiting homosexual behavior; punishments in some include the death penalty.)

Following World War II, America’s McCarthy “Red Scare” of the 1950s was accompanied by a campaign against the “Lavender Menace,” resulting in hundreds of homosexual government employees being fired. The anti-gay environment in the United States, similar to that in other Western countries, included FBI tracking of suspected homosexuals; the postal service monitoring mail for “obscene” materials including mailings from early gay rights organizations; prison terms for homosexual acts between consenting adults; and nightmarish “treatments” for homosexuality including chemical castration.  Obviously, under conditions such as these, gay men had a difficult time congregating openly, meeting each other, or forming relationships. Many gay men lived fearful lives of isolation and furtive sexual encounters. 

To get a chilling sense of what it was like to live as a gay man in this era, view William E. Jones’s “Tearoom” on the Internet. The film presents actual surveillance footage from a police sting operation of men meeting for sex in an Ohio restroom in 1962. The men’s fear is palpable, and the absence of affection or connection between them is heartbreaking.

While in 1967 parts of the United Kingdom decriminalized homosexuality, 1969 is known as the start of the modern gay rights movement because in June of that year, patrons of the Stonewall Bar in New York City fiercely fought back against a routine police raid. Following Stonewall, we began to congregate and organize openly, to throw off the cloak of shame, and to fight against third-class status. (In 29 of the United States it remained legal to fire someone simply for being gay until the June Supreme Court ruling in the Bostock case. The scope of that ruling is still being debated.)

During the 1970s, with sexual liberation coming on the heels of the civil rights era, the gay rights movement gained momentum. The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. We became more visible, and gay culture—bookstores, bars, political organizations, and sex clubs—flourished as gay men rejected living in fear and openly celebrated their sexuality.

But by the late 1970s, HIV was silently making its way into the gay community.  As men began to fall sick and die in staggering numbers early in the 1980s, anti-gay sentiment again exploded, and we began to equate our own sexuality with death. Yet the AIDS epidemic ultimately led our community to coalesce and strengthen, organizing to care for our ill and to fight for effective treatment, leading to greater visibility and acceptance, and providing some of the organizational groundwork for the equal rights battles that continue today.

History influences culture, and both our history and culture influence who we become, and how we lead our erotic and intimate lives. Modern gay culture developed in an environment of justified fear. 

Often, the only possibility for us to meet for any sort of intimate encounter was through hookups and anonymous encounters. When connecting, we had to keep one eye over our shoulders, scanning for danger (this can literally be seen in Tearoom). Can such connections really be termed intimate?

For most of us, the days of outright surveillance are over. But the patterns of interacting that developed over many years have been passed down through the generations and still influence us in the present, even those of us who don’t face losing our jobs, family support, freedom, or lives if our sexual orientation is discovered. The longstanding need to hide, scan, and be vigilant has helped shape a culture of gay male interaction that— even when we are partnered — often centers on brief encounters, putting greater emphasis on sexual connection than on knowing and being known as multidimensional physical and emotional beings.

At the opposite end of the spectrum: The era of exuberant sexual liberation that followed Stonewall. In part as a reaction to our identity having been badly stigmatized and gay sex having been literally forbidden, both pre-Stonewall and to some degree in the era of AIDS and safer-sex campaigns, gay male culture has leaned toward placing strong emphasis on sex and hooking up. As a result, we often get the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests.

Other related factors that can contribute to our so easily leaning away from monogamy and toward multiple partners include:

The stigma around being gay denies many of us opportunities to date and romance early in life. Instead, the experiences of growing up gay, having to hide, and having difficulty discerning who might be a willing partner often lead us to have our first experiences in anonymity and shame, learning how to be sexual apart from and before we learn how to be close.  As a result, we’re likely to have a hard time connecting sex and emotional intimacy.  Moreover, our early experiences can set our arousal templates to be most aroused by secrecy, risk, anonymity, and being a sexual outlaw.
Internalized homo-negativity from growing up in a culture that has stigmatized homosexuality and gay relationships may lead us to absorb the idea that our relationships, and gay men generally, are “less than.” Consequently, we may think that we, our significant others, our relationships, and our sex partners are unworthy of honor and respect; and we may easily behave in ways that reflect these beliefs, pursuing pleasure without considering the possible costs to what we say we hold dear. And we may not even realize we hold these beliefs.

As gay men, we are likely to have grown up feeling defective and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get a sense that they are loved for whom they really are, and instead grow up seeing themselves as damaged, it’s difficult to develop a positive sense of self-worth. Many of us are still seeking to heal this wound through our ongoing pursuit of sex and the companion feeling of being desired by another man, unaware of what is driving this pursuit.

Alcohol and other substance abuse are entrenched in gay culture, in great part as a means of soothing the isolation, distress, anxiety, and depression that many of us experience from living in an often-hostile world. Clients routinely tell me they are in a chemically altered state when they make decisions to engage in extracurricular sexual interactions that threaten or damage their primary relationships.

One more key factor, true for all relationships: While closeness can feel good, being close also means being vulnerable, which is scary. Open relationships can be a way for us to keep some distance from each other in an attempt to keep ourselves safer.

I became a psychologist at a time when gay relationships weren’t getting much societal support, with the goal of helping gay couples thrive despite a deck stacked heavily against us. Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most important work I can do with gay male clients is to help them be more thoughtful about their choices, so that they can better develop stronger, more nurturing, more loving relationships.

We gay men often keep our eyes closed to the ways that we may be damaging our relationships through some of our most commonplace, accepted, and ingrained behaviors. Obviously, it can be painful to acknowledge that we may be harming ourselves through seemingly fun, innocuous choices, or to acknowledge the possible downsides of our ubiquitous open relationships.

Nevertheless, there is great value for each of us in figuring out, as individuals, what it means to live in a way that we respect; in holding our behavior up to our own standards, and only our own standards; and in clarifying how we want to live life even when there is pressure, from the outside world and from other gay men, to live differently.

Pressure from other gay men? That’s right.

On first thought one might think that we gay men would have no trouble standing up to others’ expectations. Certainly it’s true that openly acknowledging we are gay despite societal judgment and pressure to “be” heterosexual demonstrates a strong ability to be true to ourselves, and to manage our anxiety in the face of tough challenges.

But beyond the expectations of society-at-large are the expectations of gay culture about what it means to be a successful gay man. Here is where many of us can get wobbly.

Not finding complete acceptance in the larger world, we have the hope that by coming out, we will finally feel a sense of really belonging somewhere. If this means behaving in the ways that peers do, taking on what we perceive to be the values of our community in order to fit in, many of us are willing to ignore our own feelings, and possibly our souls, so as to not feel excluded yet again.

Jim and Rob, the couple who had sex with all their friends on their cruise, are sitting in my office, with my dog Aviv snoozing at their feet. After some consideration, they had decided to stop having sex with other men for a while, to see if this would help them to feel closer and re-start their sex life with each other. The rancor had decreased and they reported enjoying having sex together again.

Their news: Jim has decided to enroll in a graduate program on the other side of the country, and they are discussing how this will affect their sex life.

“Of course we’re going to have to make some allowances for this,” Jim says.
I look at him quizzically.

“I mean, we might not see each other for a month or two at a time. So we need to have an agreement that we’ll have sex with other guys.”

Rob nods in agreement.

I ask them how they each anticipate the impact of both again having sex with others. They respond with shrugs.

“You know, our friends Bill and Dave—Bill has been working in Argentina for the last two years and they only see each other every three or four months. They’re definitely hooking up with other guys,” Jim notes.

“I mean, what else would we do?” adds Rob. “Not have sex for eight weeks?”

If I didn’t regularly have similar conversations with other coupled gay clients, I would be stunned that neither man is stopping to consider his own feelings about what it would mean to resume an open relationship. Both are focusing solely on their perceived need to have sex regularly, and on the notion that this is simply how gay couples should operate.

So much of gay history, culture, and relational development are shaping this moment.

When working with a couple like Jim and Rob, I do my best not to accept much as “simply a given.” Here are the questions that I wonder about with them: What have your hopes been for couplehood, and how is reality lining up with those hopes? How have you made your choices? How is your relationship working for you? What is most important to you?

As with Jim and Rob, I often find that clients haven’t considered these questions much. “It’s what our friends do” is the most frequent answer for how they have made the choice to have an open relationship. Many times it seems to me as if there’s a fog around these men’s thinking about their relationships.

I don’t want to contribute to the fog by colluding with them to believe that the particular heartbreaks that can come with carelessly conducted open relationships are unavoidable; that our relationships are not in fact fragile; or that we gay men must establish our relationships along certain lines simply because that is how it is “usually done.”

And when I challenge these clients to go deeper than stating that they are just doing what everyone else does? “Yes, it’s a struggle” is the answer I usually get. “It is painful when my husband doesn’t come home till the next morning.” And then: “But isn’t this how gay men have relationships? It’s what everyone around me is doing.”

These are the poignant and troubling words I hear again and again, echoing what I was told by my friends back in 1987.

Given the numerous interrelated factors that shape our choices in the realm of sex, it is difficult to envision gay men making significant changes in how we operate, especially as committed relationships are—at present—becoming less popular among younger people of all sexual orientations.
But when we look at the arc of gay existence over the past 50 years, from the shadows to the margins of tolerance to marriage equality, it is clear that surprising and dramatic shifts are possible.

So I am hopeful that we gay men can get off autopilot and become more aware of the factors contributing to how we construct and manage our relationships. And I am hopeful that this awareness can go a long way toward our making ever more thoughtful choices, respectful of ourselves and our partners, that help us to build stronger, closer, and more rewarding relationships.

(All names and identifying information changed in this article.)

Many gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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