By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
In a city like ours, where one can stake out a handful of queer nights at venues all over town—week in and week out, one might pose the argument that Portland doesn’t really need an all-queer, all-the-time watering hole or club. The wilting of the legendary gay triangle has been lamented (and written about) ad nauseum; its demise remains a rather stark blight on our landscape, one that comes up in chats with out-of-towners and old friends but is largely the furthest thing from our collective queer minds. The community has been too busy getting Bent, finding our Homomentum, and — up until recently — dining at the Cafeteria to wallow or stay static. Out of sight, out of mind.
As new retail, restaurant, and hotel spaces spring up in spots once only frequented after dark, a few venerable haunts remain. While it’s not too hard to argue queer traffic on Stark has waned, one bar has set out to buck the trend. Red Cap is breathing new life into Portland’s nightlife — as well as revitalizing a brand that had been largely abandoned. Helmed by Samuel Thomas, promotions manager at Red Cap and Boxxes, these two landmarks have again found their stride — and relevancy.
While Peep Show, the brainchild of Artemis Chase, drew big crowds and big names (like Joey Arias and Sherry Vine — along with plenty of local talent) before the Thomas era, Portland’s Queer Music Festival (a Thomas invention) seemed to serve as an impetus for the venue’s rather subtle overhaul and rebirth. Drawing crowds that rivaled Pride in terms of size, the festival helped widen Red Cap’s scope and reach, reminding a very diverse community the bona fide gem that was at their disposal.
Last summer, post-Music Fest and during negotiations to tackle promotions, Thomas was brainstorming.
“We went through a couple of months of negotiation before they finally hired me on as promotions manager at the end of October,” he explained. “So those months between the festival and getting hired I was brainstorming and thinking of ways to really bring life back to these two clubs.”
From there came rather popular nights like SALON (last Tuesdays, Serendipity Jones), EASY (first Saturdays, DJs Lustache and Jezabelle), Never Enough (80s night, second Tuesdays, DJ Ray Gun), and the enduring Peep Show (third Fridays). Whew.
“It’s funny,” Thomas said, outlining the talent recruitment process. “Being so heavily invested in Portland’s nightlife — from live music to dance nights — I just started calling up friends and asking them if they wanted to come deejay for Red Cap or Boxxes. I let people have free reign — mostly — on deciding their own styles and really making their own parties the way they want. Because of that, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
And the bar’s renewed success seems to rebuke any calls or questions that so-called gay bars have come to an end in Portland. “As much as the LGBTQ community can go out to practically any bar or club and feel comfortable, we still need a place to call our own, a safe haven where we are guaranteed non-discrimination and protection,” Thomas pointed out. “Some people may not feel the need to ever set foot inside a LGBTQ bar or club, but I think for most of us, the knowledge and availability of a safe and friendly space is incredibly important.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt matters if that safe place also doubles as one of the most exciting places to go on any given night. In addition to the already-stellar nights and lineups, Thomas plans to add more components to the equation, including two coups: the addition of Queerlandia and San Francisco-based Bearracuda — the biggest rotating bear party in the country. With plans to utilize both spaces simultaneously, creating a sprawling party atmosphere, Thomas’ maneuvers evoke memories of Stark Street’s glory days.
And although those days were glorious, it’s common knowledge that in its heyday, Stark catered to a mostly gay, mostly male crowd.
“I am a huge fan of using downtown for what it used to be — the center of a community,” Thomas said. “Portland is blessed to be so diverse and have so many awesome venues, clubs, bars, and parties all over town; I’m hoping we can all work together toward a bright future. Stark Street has changed drastically the last 10 years or so, from ‘Vaseline Alley’ to a much more gentrified area. With those changes I see the bars adjusting accordingly, so yes — we are not a ‘primarily gay boy’ neighborhood anymore.”
And, in the midst of all the diversity, Thomas often uses one of the more clever taglines we’ve seen of late: “Bringing Vaseline Alley back to Stark Street.”
With all this revitalization, it’s important to note the descriptive moniker coined by Thomas: alternative. “I deliberately started using the term ‘alternative club’ shortly after being hired at Red Cap,” Thomas explained. “I identify as queer, and fully embrace the LGBTQ community, but [in] watching our clientele and reaching out to a new audience, I wanted to find a word that would not only appeal to our own community, but to the straight people who have also started coming in. Because of recruiting so many DJs and performers outside the ‘normal’ club scene, I felt it was only fitting. We are embracing everyone. We want to be a safe haven for bears, trans, gays, queers, lesbians, straights, those unidentified — for everyone. So to me, personally, the term just works better.”
Whatever the technical label, it’s pretty clear whatever philosophy Thomas is applying to Red Cap and Boxxes is working — and crowds are responding. Now, instead of an empty patio and vacant chairs, passers-by are apt to see crammed sidewalks and queers aplenty. Vaseline or no, it’s rather empowering and refreshing to see Portland queers reclaiming and reinventing old territory.
Stay tuned to PQ for news on Bearracuda’s Red Cap arrival — slated for April—and for Queerlandia’s Stark Street launch (March 17). Stay abreast of everything at Facebook.com/redcappdx.