The gay bar is dying. In Portland, with only one explicitly LGBTQ+ bar left in town (and many folks in the queer community getting sober), some may say it's already dead. Whether it's a temporary generational lull or permanent trend, one thing is for sure: queer space in Portland looks much different than it did 20 years ago.
At least, that's according to Wendy Chapkis. Chapkis is a USM Professor of Women & Gender Studies and faculty scholar at the Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. As part of her work with the Center, she has been working with filmmaker Betsy Carson for the last two years on a series of oral histories from the LGBTQ+ community titled "Querying the Past."
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Chapkis decided to focus on the role that the queer bar has played in the lives of its community. The result of this decision, a 45-minute film titled “Bar Stories,” screened during Pride week, and will be receive a re-screening at the Portland Museum of Art on September 27.
The Phoenix talked with Chapkis over the phone to talk a bit about the project.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of making this film?
WC: As I'm sure you're aware, the Underground (Styxx) closed a few years ago, and Sisters (a local lesbian bar) closed a few years before that, so now our only gay bar is Blackstones (Flask Lounge on Spring Street is very queer-friendly, but not explicitly queer). So we were gathering these oral histories as part of a larger project, Querying the Past, and people had a lot to say about these spaces and the closure of them. To honor that, we decided to make a series of topical films; this is the first of those but will hopefully not be the last. We set up a camera outside of Flask during Pride 2016, and then a year later at Blackstones and at Local 188, and we just invited people to sit down and tell us their stories about queer bars.
Without spoiling too much, can you tell us about some of the stories?
You get to see a lot of local people talking about their experiences in these spaces that are, for a lot of us, the first places where we see ourselves mirrored in others, and reflecting on what it means to see these spaces closing. We tried to get a variety of voices and perspectives. One woman of color talks about coming out in Portland and how hard it was to find girlfriends because of racism in the local community.
Are there some stories that you're still looking for?
Some more diversity of age. I would love to hear from some much older people, and some younger folks.
Who do you really want to see this film?
It would be great if people who are younger, who haven't had the opportunity to go to queer bars because these spaces have been dying for most of [their lives], would come see the film and hear why it matters. I think there's this assumption that we don't really need gay bars because we can go anywhere now, and I think it's important to hear people talk about how that's not true. One person we interviewed talks about his bar closing and still wanting to play pool, so he went to a straight bar and got queer bashed really badly, he was hospitalized, had a brain injury, lost teeth — and that was just a year ago. It's not safe everywhere for queer people to go to bars. And then there's something really important about going to a place where it's not just that you're tolerated, but where it's your space. That's something that I think many young people haven't experienced as much.
What do you think the future of the gay bar looks like? Do we have a future for it? Are we coming to a point where a similar culture might be able to be reborn in another space?
I think it really depends on the community response. At this point, Portland just has Blackstones — people will choose to frequent it and keep it open or not.
The other thing is that those bars have to become even more inclusive. I think Blackstones is trying to do that; they've been known as a bar for gay men but recently I was walking by and they had 8 or 10 flags out front, a trans flag and a lesbian flag and so on, and that's a gesture to say we're welcoming to all queer people. So I think whether we continue to have gay bars will depend on whether people patronize them.
I think there are other institutions that every community needs that are not alcohol-driven, like community centers. That's a kind of social space that maybe could serve some of the roles the gay bar used to play. But I think it's different to go to a community center unless it has a coffee shop in it — somewhere to come in with no agenda, where you're not going to a meeting or picking up literature or organizing but you just want to hang out, be comfortable and meet other queers. That's what gay bars provided.
If you had to pinpoint one catalyst for wanting to tell these stories, what would you say that was?
One of the things that concerns me is that the voices of marginalized people are often not recorded history. We disappear. So unless we gather the stories of our people, queer history will disappear as we die. I've known that most of my adult life, I lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic, I lost lots of friends from my generation, and over the years nobody recorded their stories, nobody preserved that piece of history, and now as I'm getting into my sixties, I'm seeing another generation of people my age and older dying, and I'm concerned that our history will disappear if we don't actively work to preserve it.
BAR STORIES | a film by Wendy Chapkis and Betsy Carson | September 27 | Thu 6 pm | Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq., Portland | FREE