Originally published August 15 in PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
North Portland bar P Club (formerly the Portsmouth Pizza Pub) is facing accusations of illegal discrimination and an investigation by the Bureau of Labor and Industries following a tip from members of the Rose City T-Girls, a local social group for transgender women.
“We had been going to the P Club about two years on Friday nights, and in that time we never had a complaint or had an issue with any of the regular customers that we knew of,” says RCTG member Susan Miller, who identifies as a cross-dresser. “We are not out to cause problems or draw attention to ourselves; we just wanted a place to go on a night with friends and have an enjoyable evening out just like anyone else.”
Cassandra Lynn, a founding member of the group, says P Club owner Chris Penner called and left her two voicemails stating that he did not want the group to return. The messages, which Lynn recorded on a YouTube video and sent out to attorneys, suggest that the group’s presence is giving the bar a reputation that is hurting business.
“I’m going to have to ask for you, Cass, and your group not to come back on Friday nights. I really don’t like having to do that but unfortunately it’s the area we’re in and its hurting business a lot,” the June 18 message left on Lynn’s cell phone says.
A second message, left on June 21, reinforces the idea that the group’s presence was bad for business: “I’ve done some investigating why my sales are declining and there’s two things I keep hearing: People think that a) we’re a tranny bar or b) we’re a gay bar. We are neither. People are not coming in because they just don’t want to be there on a Friday night now.”
Penner insists that he does not discriminate and adds that the bar has had held functions for the LGBTQ community in the past, including same-sex wedding receptions and a (now defunct) weekly gay night on Wednesdays called “Fame” (aka Gay Pizza).
“The only response I have is — how do I want to put it? — we’re not an anti-gay bar,” he told PQ. “I have had gay, lesbian and transgender employees [including the current bar and kitchen managers].”
But one former employee says he sees the group’s ejection as part of a larger, ongoing effort to turn over the bar’s clientele.
A local booking agent who asked to be identified only as “J.R.” says he worked at P Club from 2003 to 2006 and for a short time in 2010. (He has also worked at the Twilight Room, which is owned by Penner’s family.) According to his account, Penner persuaded J.R. to return to the recently renovated club in 2010 despite past disagreements.
“I decide the room looked really nice, maybe I should give it a shot,” J.R. says. “So I go over and talk with Chris [and] he tells me he wants to change up the ‘crowd coming in,’ i.e. the LBGT community, by booking live music and bringing in my crowd of friends and music fans, as opposed to the DJs they had coming in.”
Three months into a six-month contract with Penner, J.R. says the owner tried to pull the plug on it via text message. When J.R. called back, he says Penner claims he hasn’t “made an impact on ‘changing the crowd.’”
The voicemails Lynn received, if left by Penner, support J.R.’s version of events. In one, the speaker talks about wanting to ask the group to leave 18 months ago, but changing his mind after being dissuaded by the bar manager.
“I believe that is in reference to the time period in which he hired me to ‘change up the crowd’ at the P Club,” J.R. says. “He’s always trying to switch things up over there, and his bottom line isn’t happy customers, it’s money.”
Lynn says that while the voicemails came as a surprise, there had been rumors over the past year that the owner wanted to talk to her about the group’s presence.
“All we heard was rumor,” Lynn says. “We didn’t know whether to believe it or not believe it. I asked a waitress how serious it was two weeks before we got asked to leave [and] she said [Penner] was thinking about. When I heard it on the voicemail I knew for sure it was true.”
Lynn says her group had been spending Friday nights at the bar for two years and that she had spent as much as $10,000 there. Though she says the group received a cold shoulder at the now-closed Candlelight Room, this is the first time they have taken action.
Penner, who declined to comment on anything pertaining to the BOLI investigation, must file a response to the complaint by Aug. 23. The RCTG are being represented by attorney Beth Allen. PQ will continue to follow this case as it develops.