On the rocks or blended: The future of the gay bar

Ross Milam mixes it up at Red Cap. Photo by Izzy Ventura, PQ Monthly.
Ross Milam mixes it up at Red Cap. Photo by Izzy Ventura, PQ Monthly.

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Chances are, you’ve heard the rumor. The gay bar is dead, dying, going the way of the dodo. Some blame assimilation, others, diversification.

It’s hard not to believe. Four Portland-area LGBTQ bars have gone out of business in the last two years. The Egyptian Club/E-Room/Weird Bar and Vancouver’s North Bank in 2011, Red Cap Garage in 2012, and Hamburger Mary’s in 2013.

But for every bar lost, something new has emerged. There’s SHINY Music Hall (an all-inclusive venue run by promoter Samuel Thomas), Vancouver’s Tiger Lily Restaurant and Bar (started by NW Gender Alliance President Jackie Stone), and, more recently, Temporary Lesbian Bar, an occasional women-focused space at Mississippi Pizza Pub dreamed up by Katy Davidson (read more here).

Meanwhile, some of the city’s most popular dance nights are being held at mainstream venues like Holocene, the Foggy Notion, White Owl Social Club, Mississippi Studios, Jones Bar, Branx/Rotture, and The Know. But despite the recent losses, Portland still boasts a significant number of gay (if not lesbian) bars, including Boxxes, CC Slaughters, Hobo’s, Crush, Local Lounge, the Eagle, Casey’s, and Joq’s.

So why all the anxiety and hype about the death of the gay bar? Times are changing, it’s true — just not in the ways people fear.

What makes a gay bar?


Justin Leon Johnson catches some rays on Scandals’ patio. Photo by Jules Garza, PQ Monthly.
Justin Leon Johnson catches some rays on Scandals’ patio. Photo by Jules Garza, PQ Monthly.

As more and more queer events crop up outside of traditional gay establishments, it begs the question — how many gays does it take to turn a bar? How important are ownership, programming, and intent?

“To me, a gay bar is a designated space for homosexual individuals to meet, feel comfortable about themselves, not have to ‘explain’ themselves, have drinks — obviously — and hopefully flirt a little bit if that’s important,” says Craig Olson, co-owner of North Portland neighborhood bar :vendetta.

Olson doesn’t think a gay bar needs to be gay-owned, though it helps to have some familiarity with the community. On the flip side, just because a bar has a gay owner (like his does), doesn’t mean it’s a gay bar.

“I guess I would define a gay bar as a place where people feel safe. It doesn’t have to be boys or girls or leather or whatever,” says Scandals owner David Fones. Regardless of ownership, he adds, it should feel like the opposite of a straight bar — with gays in the majority and heterosexuals as outsiders.

While queer nights at mainstream establishments increasingly offer that security and, at least temporarily, that dynamic — neither is guaranteed.

Wesley Walton (aka DJ Ill Camino), the promoter behind the popular dance night Maricón, says he’s not likely to bring any more events to straight venues after a challenging experience hosting his night at Northwest Portland’s Matador Bar.

“There were issues that occurred with the Matador being a ‘straight’ bar,” Walton says. “The regular clientele didn’t always jive super well with our crowd. Nothing like physical violence ever happened, but there were occasional verbal insults exchanged. The staff was super awesome about ejecting unruly people — gay and straight — but I wouldn’t wanna deal with those headaches again.”

Yet gay bars aren’t always a safe space for the entire LGBTQ community, either. Norma Ballhorn, a Vancouver trans woman who has filed discrimination complaints against a number of local bars, says she chooses bars based on where she feels most comfortable.

“Sometimes straight bars are just as comfortable as gay bars,” Ballhorn says. “Some gay bars I have had issues [at] as some don’t understand transgender.”

Why do we need our own spaces?

If straight bars are increasingly safe spaces for queer people and often host popular parties, why bother with gay bars?

Fones acknowledges that the community doesn’t need gay bars in the same ways it once did. His bar, Scandal’s, recently celebrated its 34th anniversary and is one of only two remaining gay bars in Portland’s Pink Triangle. At its peak, the gayborhood boasted more than 10 gay bars, Fones says, and a bathhouse. Since then, a number of socio-economic factors have pushed them out of the neighborhood and out of business.

“When the gay bars all sort of clumped [together] here, it was low rent and I think there was more of a need to travel in packs for safety,” Fones says. “You could hop from bar to bar with relatively minor exposure to bashings and whatever else was going on. I think there was a more significant need for that insular kind of community.”

The other function traditionally served by gay bars — cruising — has moved largely online, Fones says. Now, bars are largely social spaces, and ones where non-gay friends and family are often welcomed.

But outside of Portland, there is a greater need for the safety and camaraderie that gay and lesbian have historically provided. Take Vancouver, for example.

“The Tiger Lily is more of a community center than anything else — a place where Vancouver’s LGBT community socialize with the straight community,” says owner Jackie Stone. “Any given Friday you can find a dozen T-girls having lunch and a few feet away a group of Vancouver’s best known attorneys.”

What does it mean when gay bars fail?

Tiger Lily’s bar serves PQ Press Party guests. Photo by Jules Garza, PQ Monthly.
Tiger Lily’s bar serves PQ Press Party guests. Photo by Jules Garza, PQ Monthly.

If “three is a trend,” as the saying goes, then Portland-area gay bars are officially failing. But do business closures really have greater meaning beyond their own circumstances?

“I do not believe it is a personal shift any more than the recent string of ‘straight’ bars closing would mark a shift for them,” says SHINY Music Hall owner Samuel Thomas. “Bars come and go all the time, it’s the very nature of the beast.”

Erin Ellis worked for the E-Room from 2006 to 2010. She started as a security guard, moved to cooking, then bartending, and eventually wound up managing the kitchen. In that time, she saw attendance take a nosedive.

“We used to be so busy that we needed two security people every Friday and Saturday night, then that went to one, then none,” Ellis says. “I used to make a ton of money bartending a day shift, and by the time I quit, I would be lucky to make $20 in tips during the day.”

She attributes the decline to the one-two punch of economic downturn and more options closer to home. When the bar down the block is hosting its own queer night, the lesbian bar across town has to do something special to motivate customers to make the trip. Gay bars can no longer rely on drawing customers solely based on the queer factor.

“I think it’s an inevitable change. People love their normal hangouts that are close to home, and it is in the bars’ best interest — unless they are bigots — to cater to the queer community,” Ellis says. “Going to a new club or bar every weekend is exciting, especially when it’s a comfortable environment where all your friends are going to be.”

So how do you keep your favorite gay bar from closing? It’s simple, says Robby Bricker’Voyles, who’s been going to gay bars since he was 17. Show up and spend money.

“I choose to support the places I like. Most of those places are LGBTQ-run. However I also go to straight bars,” Bricker’Voyles says. “So I would say support the bars you like, but don’t bitch if your favorite place closes its doors because you never went.”

This is the first in a series of three articles examining how we can maintain a sense of LGBTQ community in changing — and sometimes distancing — times. Check out the June and July issues of PQ Monthly for the rest of the series.

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