On Saturday, June 23rd the Dill Pickle Club led “The Oh So (Queer History of Portland),” a walking tour of Portland’s past and present LGBTQ community. The following report back is by writer Eric Gold; photos by Hilary Amnah.
A group of about fifty gathered at PICA, and then followed David Kohl, of Gay and Lesbian Pacific Northwest Archives, around the corner to Al’s Den, in the basement of McMenamins’ Crystal Hotel. In the dark, subterranean bar, Kohl explained that Portland’s Gay Triangle (approximately the blocks bordered by Burnside and Stark between SW 10th and 13th Avenues) began in about 1969 with Riptide, the first gay-identified bar in the area.
“There was nothing liberal between San Francisco and Seattle,” Kohl said. “Portland became the de facto place for people who wanted to get out of Dodge, or Boise, and see what the other world was like.” What is now the Crystal Hotel was then a four-level bath house. The basement, where’s Al’s Den is today, was a “play room” with leather slings and even a jeep for those who enjoyed a military theme.
Read the full report (and see more pics) after the jump…
The tour continued outside and down the block, passing Scandals, which Kohl noted had once been in the current location of Kenny & Zuke’s restaurant and was the first gay bar in town to eschew blacked-out windows, signaling a new openness. Continuing east on Oak Street, Kohl paused at Park Avenue. A parking lot there, he said, had been the location of a bar called the Tell & Tell, “not because of any secrets, but because it was across the street from the telephone building.” The place was later known as the Family Zoo.
While gay bashing became prevalent in the mid-1980s, Kohl said, “the police were pretty decent to the gay community. We didn’t create a social problem.” Any enforcement issues, he said, were likely to come under the aegis of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The Harbor, he recalled, was the only gay bar closed down by the OLCC — for not serving enough food.
At the Board of Trade Building on SW 4th between Oak and Stark, the group met Sasha Buchert, media manager for Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) advocacy group. Oregon, Buchert said, has had more anti-gay ballot measures than any other state, but was also the first to try to pass a homosexuals’ equal rights law in the state legislature (in 1973; it failed by one vote). The bill finally did pass in 2008.
Basic Rights Oregon, Buchert said, is the culmination of grassroots organizing efforts dating from 1996. It has played a role in passing the Oregon Family Fairness Act (establishing domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians) in 2007 and in making Oregon, with the Oregon Equality Act, the 26th state to pass protections for gays and lesbians and the 13th state to protect identity and gender expression. Much of BRO’s current work, Buchert said, focuses on “freedom to marry. Domestic partnerships are not enough. We want full equality.”
The group then crossed the street to Pivot, a subsidiary of the Cascade AIDS Project. Kyle Ashby, community engagement specialist, explained that the facility is a “community space for men into men.” The name, Ashby said, comes from the notion that “men should play a pivotal role in each others’ lives.” Besides free testing for sexually transmitted diseases, Pivot seeks to provide “a voice for the emotional experiences men go through in the community,” and has the goal of helping “people protect their bodies and hearts through information and communication.”
Across Burnside in Old Town, the group stopped outside Magic Gardens, which was once a lesbian bar called Club Northwest. Ann Mussey, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Portland State University, spoke about the history of lesbians in Portland. When Club Northwest became Magic Gardens, Mussey said, lesbians congregated at the Rising Moon on Burnside. “The lesbian community could never support more than one bar at a time,” she said. Because of persistent income inequality, she said, “men have more money to spend on entertainment. There’s also a history of public culture for men that only recently developed for women.” The lesbian scene, she said, had multiple centers, with house parties, book stores, and sports fields playing a role. “If you want to talk about lesbian history,” Mussey said, “it’s not in a location.”
One location outside the Gay Triangle that has been a part of Portland’s gay community for decades is Darcelle XV on NW 3rd Ave, named for the drag alter ego of owner Walter Cole. “I’ve had that wonderful name for forty-five years,” Cole said in the red velvet-lined club. “I was thirty-seven years old when I put on my first dress for entertainment,” said Cole, who is now eighty-one. He dismissed the notion that female impersonators want to be women. “I’m very happy with what plumbing I have,” he said, noting that he enjoys the fact that he can be relatively anonymous out of drag. “I’m not recognized except for my voice,” he said.
When he bought the bar (for $5,000) and set up a 4’ x 8’ banquet table (“it wriggled a little”) and record player for the performers, his rent (from landlord Bill Naito) was just $200 a month—with no increases for the first fifteen years. Darcelle’s has since become a Portland institution, helping many straight people become more comfortable with gay culture along the way. “Gay boys and women would bring their parents in,” Cole said, “and say, isn’t this fun. There’s other parents over there. The performers don’t have two heads, and they aren’t masturbating on stage.”
Kevin Cook, who has performed at Darcelle’s as Poison Waters since 1991, recalls growing up in Parkrose, never having been to downtown Portland until friends brought him to the City, an underage gay nightclub. When he saw his first drag queen, at the age of 17, Cook says, “I could not comprehend it.” By the late 80s, Cook was a newbie drag queen, just before films like Mrs. Doubtfire and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert made it a bit more socially acceptable. “I’ve had day jobs,” he said, “but this is my home.”
AIDS, he said, hit the community of female impersonators hard, as it did the gay community at large. “We just stopped going to services,” he recalled, “I could not go to one more.” The losses of so many friends, he says, spurred him and others to activism and fundraising, like the annual AIDS walk. “I always have my friends with me that aren’t here,” Cook said. He enjoys the opportunity to interact with people from smaller towns like Scappoose or Estacada. “Just by doing a show,” he said, “we’re educating. They never would have had an interaction with someone like me. They see that they don’t have to be afraid. They’ll go home and say, ‘I met that guy—he was black, he was gay, and he was gorgeous!’”
When it came time for questions, Ann Mussey raised a hand. “I owe you a debt of gratitude,” she said to Cole. “I had a second date here. We played pool, I beat her, and we’ve been together for twenty-nine years.”