The Gay Bar is Dead, Long Live the Gay Bar!

Daniel Borgen. The Lady Chronicles

By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly

In the old days, gays would saunter up and down Stark Street any given night—especially on a Thursday or a Saturday—finding everything their tipsy little hearts desired within a few small-ish city blocks. Perhaps you’d go from Red Cap to the then-infant Blow Pony at the Eagle and you’d end up at Silverado or maybe face down in a greasy platter of fried goodness at the Roxy, shoveling fries in your mouth while you gazed at the guy across the restaurant doing the same. On Stark, you were always within shouting distance of any part of your cohort that may have wandered off; it feels like we didn’t even need cell phones then, we’d simply holler at friends on the street or magically end up at the same place on the same night. Though we probably had phones; who knows—my memory.

During Pride season, there was really no question where you’d go; everyone went to the block party on Stark. That gathering of hundreds that felt like thousands was an amalgamation of every shade of queer; though Stark, in general, was a gay man’s game for most of its history, Pride was always the exception. There was something really special about having a de facto, default gathering place during high season; there you saw people you saw once a year, perhaps many others you wish you forgot, but it was no matter. The sun was out (except for the year that poured and washed off all of Poison’s makeup) and the gays were carefree and happy. You didn’t need Facebook to stalk your exes; they were all right there! Now Red Cap is a shopping mall, the old Eagle sells high end skin care, and your ex blocked you on Grindr.

This column is not an angry letter from a cranky old man wishing the kids would get off his lawn; this column is part nostalgia, a moment to address the wistful affection my aging friends and I have for simpler days gone by. Because as much as I loved those days and remember them fondly, I am not sure I’d trade Panty Raid at Vendetta or Coco Peru and Heklina at Rotture for anything back then. Change is good for the soul, this old Taurus is learning—begrudgingly.

Enter Stag, the upstart gay bar that opened just down the street from Embers on Broadway; billed as “Portland’s premiere” (a word the whole city should consider retiring) “gentlemen’s club, catering to gay men and women, a place for dancers to perform and patrons to enjoy fine Oregon spirits and microbrews.” Ever the skeptic, I resisted going the first weekend it opened; but I heard the buzz and I watched social media kick into overdrive as gays from all corners of our fair city descended upon it. Then, post CAP art auction, my friend Komo and I decided it was time to see Stag with our own eyes—I tore myself away from Netflix and wine for a night; and oh, did we behold the glory.

First, let’s get serious about our lives: it is thoroughly refreshing to walk into a gay bar and immediately notice that ownership has invested some money in furnishings. It is also nice to not see a thousand Absolut signs plastered on every wall—not that there is anything wrong with an Absolut sign, per se, but the dearth of typical bar paraphernalia set Stag apart from the outset. Perhaps I was just mesmerized by the dancers holding themselves upside down on the gymnastic rings on stage; such strength! Regardless, Stag has a rustic sophistication that suits it quite well; sure, the décor is sometimes a literal translation of the bar’s name, but the folks at Christopher David did a fine job; it feels new and exciting and comfortable and familiar all at once.

While there, my friend and I saw a few dozen faces we hadn’t seen in a while—old friends and new ones, some texting from the long line outside, others hollering from across the street. Gays were everywhere, and they filled the bar to the brim. Drinks were a little slow—they often are in a fledgling establishment; not everyone can be Trevor at Silverado—but the bartenders are kind and easy on the eyes. Aside from logistics, it is very clear Stag hit a nerve; gays are clamoring for another place to socialize. In a time when our bars are closing left and right, Stag opened and is thriving. Long lines, big crowds, return visits (I went 3 times in a four day stretch), gays from near, gays from far; build it and they will come. Does Stag have staying power? Will it be as busy in August as it is now? At the moment, it feels like those questions are moot.

For now, I am enjoying the fact that we have a sort of makeshift gay district again. I can go watch my favorite drag show starring Bolivia Carmichaels and then watch beautiful dancing men at Stag (where Godiva DeVyne is probably hosting); and walking from place to place satisfies that nostalgic itch that we all get now and then. It doesn’t mean I won’t venture over to Vendetta or Lumbertwink or whatever is happening at Killingsworth Dynasty; it means I am a complicated creature who craves comfort and newness at once. It means I can love gay yesteryear while embracing queer today. It means sometimes I want a room filled with sweaty men, and other times I want every queer I know on a patio. Please just work on getting me my drink a little more quickly; Nana needs her juice.

Though it is lovely, this lady recommends always traveling through Old Town in groups—especially on weekend nights or during Pride season. Be safe, queers.