Go back in time

By PORTLAND PHOENIX STAFF  |  June 24, 2009


10 Years ago
 

Culture change

For gay men in Portland, the late '90s were like the final days of a dying star, bigger than it had ever been, shining brighter and stronger than its little core could handle, on the edge of imploding to a scatter of celestial dust.

It was kinda cosmic — but the gay community was simply too small to handle all the bars and clubs that opened seemingly just for them. For a moment, though, it made sense because the entire world was smitten with everything gay. Ellen had come out in Time, Will & Grace were tearing up the TV ratings, Bill Clinton was saying the word "gay" in speeches from the White House, and Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass a civil-unions law.

It was all cause for celebration, and celebrate is what Portlanders did. It seemed that anyplace with a capacity of 100 or more was gobbled up or co-opted by a former club kid with a Peter Pan complex and, voilà, a gay bar was born.

The mainstays were already pulling crowds: The Underground, Somewhere, Blackstones, and Sisters. And, like any great city with cred, each bar still attracted its own exclusive crowd.

Blackstones had its leather-and-Levi set and was still dark and mysterious. Somewhere was claustrophobic and asphyxiating during karaoke on Tuesdays and Thursdays (if only we had Simon, Paula, and Randy to pan Portlanders — there were no Adam Lamberts in this town back then). Sisters, amazingly, stayed afloat after the horrendous choice to turn the mezzanine into owners' quarters (that ridiculous decision has been reversed, and the former Danforth Street haunt is slated for re-opening sometime this summer under new ownership). The Underground, dank and a little stinky, was what it was — a windowless throwback to an era of, well, hiding underground.

When you threw Zootz, a/k/a club androgyny and certainly the best of the lot, into the mix, you had a week-long liver-and-leg workout.

For those with brain cells still functioning, however, you'll recall that a whole host of clubs spread the scene just a little thin. Kaos had one of the better layouts when it launched in Portland in the mid-'90s. Its Bayside locale was uninviting, though. Soon after, Millennium, likely named as an homage to the approaching decade marker, pushed gay life toward the East End with its India Street digs and gave the UG a run for its money with its circular bar, billiards room, and outdoor patio. Then there was Universe, with the capacity of what seemed to be 10,000, but, on a good night, drew about 10 — likely because of its outer Forest Avenue location. Its inability to draw a critical mass killed it.

When even the grande dame Roxy at the Pavilion folded five or six years ago, it was probably a harbinger of things to come.

Portland then, as now, tended toward more intimate settings, and, now, not even gay-specific ones. Perhaps it's the assimilation we all strove for in our stop-and-start efforts toward equal rights in Maine. Or, maybe it was the Internet, and the advent of hundreds of virtual clubs that hit their zenith at the start of the new decade and continue to go strong.

Did we get what we asked for? It's debatable. Either way, like most cities, gay nightlife is quickly becoming an oxymoron that now feels like a relic of a bygone era.

_Tony Giampetruzzi

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Related: Benign neglect?, Letters to the Portland Editor: July 10, 2009, After the Question 1 vote, More more >
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