Dancers at Twerk PDX. (Emily Joan Greene)
Dancers at Twerk PDX. (Emily Joan Greene)

A slightly dumpy strip mall on Northeast Sandy Boulevard near Interstate 205 houses a convenience store and the closest thing Portland has to a lesbian bar.

Just don't call it that.

Six years ago, 40-year-old Jenn Davis and her partner, Armida Hanlon, opened Escape Bar & Grill.

Davis is a lesbian. Many of her customers are lesbians.

A neon sign in the bar advertising Southern Comfort has a minuscule rainbow underlining the whiskey's logo. On a Saturday night, groups of 30-something women belt karaoke tunes next to baby boomer trans women with blown-out hair and sparkling dresses.

But Davis refuses to call Escape a lesbian bar.

"I think when you put a label on the bar, it goes downhill," she says. "And the people who come in here love that we don't label it."

Davis' reluctance to leave anyone out is a clue to solving a mystery.

Why in Portland—one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in America, and home to the nation's first bisexual governor and its first lesbian House speaker—is there no lesbian nightlife?

(Christine Dong)
(Christine Dong)

"I've never felt comfortable with the term lesbian."

It's been six years since the Egyptian Club, better known as the E-Room, lowered its rainbow flag in Southeast Portland, and in that time no brick-and-mortar lesbian bar has emerged to fill its space. (By contrast, Portland has eight gay bars for men.)

Moreover, the city doesn't have a single dance night or recurring party that caters exclusively to women seeking women.

So what happened?

Did the lesbian bar disappear because people's identities splintered, leaving behind too few people to patronize women-only spaces? Or did it vanish because mainstream culture has evolved, turning every bar in Portland—from Sloan's Tavern to the Florida Room—into an unofficial lesbian bar?

The answer is a little of both.

The transgender rights movement that's gained steam in recent years has exploded the categories of gay and straight and male and female.

This fall, Portland State University allowed students to choose from nine genders and nine sexual orientations when filling out demographic paperwork.

In PSU's recent survey of students and their identities, more students identified as "pansexual" than lesbian (see glossary).

And PSU's students are typical of their generation.

"I've never felt comfortable with the term lesbian," says Llondyn Elliott, 19, who identifies as non-binary. "It's really restricting to me to say I'm a lesbian. That means I'm a girl who likes girls. But am I a girl? And do I only like girls? No."

DEFYING CATEGORIES: Llondyn Elliott, 19, identifies as non-binary. Elliott rejects masculine and feminine pronouns—as well as the label lesbian, calling it too specific. “We don’t limit ourselves to this,” Elliott says. (Thomas Teal)
DEFYING CATEGORIES: Llondyn Elliott, 19, identifies as non-binary. Elliott rejects masculine and feminine pronouns—as well as the label lesbian, calling it too specific. “We don’t limit ourselves to this,” Elliott says. (Thomas Teal)

The result? Announcing that a Portland party is intended exclusively for lesbians is stepping into a minefield of identity politics.

In the past two years, events catering to lesbians, like the monthly meet-up Fantasy Softball League, have been targeted online as unsafe spaces for trans women and others who don't identify with feminine pronouns. This past summer, semi-regular parties for lesbians, like Lesbian Night at Old Town's CC Slaughters, changed their names and focus to avoid controversy and be more inclusive. And lesbian-owned bars that draw lesbian customers, like Escape, shun the label so as not to offend.

The fights over language may seem academic and obscure if you're not part of them. But they are increasingly the battlegrounds over how people see themselves and how the world sees and treats them—and those views strain friendships, shutter events and start internet flame wars.

Trish Bendix, former editor of AfterEllen, an online publication about lesbian, queer and bisexual women in the media, lived in Portland from 2011 to 2014. She says she has never been around so many queer people in her life, but she was often among a minority who identified as lesbian.

"I often feel like lesbians are forgotten or left behind," she says, "and sometimes it feels lonely."

Changing language

Emily Stutzman, 31, tried to create a space for lesbians. It ended poorly.

A producer for a Portland ad agency, Stutzman says she couldn't find places in the city to hang out with other lesbians after moving here from Indiana in 2008.
In 2014, after ending a romantic relationship, an unsettling thought struck her: "How do I find somebody else?"

SPACE MAKER: Emily Stutzman, 31, tried to create a regular get-together in Portland for lesbians. It ended poorly. (Ellena Rosenthal)
SPACE MAKER: Emily Stutzman, 31, tried to create a regular get-together in Portland for lesbians. It ended poorly. (Ellena Rosenthal)

So that year she decided to create her own social gathering for lesbians, calling it Fantasy Softball League, a winking nod to stereotypes about lesbians. The "league" had nothing to do with softball, and instead was a monthly meet-up at Vendetta, a bar on North Williams Avenue.

"Hey ladies," an ad beckoned. "Cool girls, drinking cool drinks in a cool bar, talking about cool stuff."

But all was not cool.

In summer 2015, Stutzman, who has wavy red hair and wears an enameled "I Love Cats" pin on her jean jacket, recalls walking through Vendetta greeting people when someone she'd never met—someone who didn't identify with traditional female conventions like the pronoun "she"—confronted her.

"The person was hostile, and wanting to pick a fight," Stutzman recalls. "This person was offended and said they would tell their friends that we were a group of people that were non-inclusive and not respectful of their gender."

The person—Stutzman never got a name—left the event, and Stutzman was left feeling confused. As she looked around, she saw many people who fell between male and female. She thought her event was inclusive, even if the vernacular wasn't.

"What we wanted to say is, if you're a straight dude, don't come to this event," she says. "Everyone else was fine."

Stutzman adjusted her language, no longer calling Fantasy Softball League a lesbian event. Instead, she called it an event for queer women. But even with the change, Stutzman still worried.

"Everything I tried, someone was offended," she says. "It got weird and political, and I wanted it to be a fun thing."

That fall, Stutzman handed responsibility for the event to Alissa Young, who renamed the event Gal Pals, relocated it to the Florida Room on North Killingsworth Street, and ran into more trouble. Some people took offense at the event's new feminine name.

So Young folded the event. Now she mourns the loss: "Can't we have spaces that are just for lesbians?"

The uproar over Fantasy Softball League was repeated several times this past summer at other events.

After being accused of condoning "trans women exterminationism" in August, the organizers of Temporary Lesbian Bar apologized for imagery used to promote the inclusive monthly event at Mississippi Pizza.

GETTING DOWN: Dancers at Lez Do It. (Christine Dong)
GETTING DOWN: Dancers at Lez Do It. (Christine Dong)

The offense? Using the labrys—a double-sided ax often associated with Greek goddesses and a symbol of female strength—as the group's icon. "Hold this group accountable," wrote Viridian Sylvae, a transgender lesbian, on Facebook, noting the image's connection to Greek fascism and violence against trans women.

In September, a monthly party for queer women in Portland drew rebukes because it called itself a "dyke party" that catered to women and "female-identified folk."

"Everyone who is female-identified is a woman," wrote one critic on Facebook. "Are you saying that you believe there are people who identify as women who aren't women?"

CC Slaughters, an Old Town gay bar, used to host Lesbian Night. It now calls the weekly bash Queer Bait. "We're trying to be more inclusive, because that's the crowd that's coming in here—gay men, lesbians, transgender people and heterosexuals," says Nemo Haycock, CC Slaughters' manager.

At Crush, a queer bar on Southeast Morrison Street, manager Chris Stewart told an organizer of an event for queer and trans women that they couldn't use the word "exclusively" in their advertisements for the event. That would run afoul of anti-discrimination laws that allow, for example, ladies nights but draw the line at ladies-only nights. Stewart says it would have also gone against what Crush stands for as a bar—that everyone is welcome.

"We can't ask anyone to check in with their identity at the door," Stewart says.

Kim Davis, owner of the now-closed E-Room, cites a combination of factors that doomed her business after 15 years. The Great Recession, Oregon's smoking ban in bars, and her own health—not changes in people's identities—made carrying on a challenge. She says it was always harder to run a bar that catered to women than one that catered to men, who tend to have more money and motivation to go out to drink during the week.

But Davis also noticed shifts in how her clientele interacted with the outside world. If she opened a bar today, she says, she probably wouldn't call it a lesbian bar.

"It's hard to do anything today without hurting somebody's feelings," Davis says. "If you wanted to have a lesbian bar in Portland today, you would be free to do that. At the same time, people might think you're taking away their freedom by calling it that."

Lesbian bars in other cities also close

Portland is not an anomaly. Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York have all witnessed the decline of the lesbian bar, as former customers forge new identities—and new connections via the internet.

How did this shift happen?

It wasn't too long ago that identifying as lesbian (or gay, bisexual or trans) carried a huge stigma. On Election Day, Gov. Kate Brown told a crowd of supporters "what it felt like to live in fear" of losing her job as a young lawyer because she was in a relationship with a woman at the time.

Today, expectations have changed. Not only did voters elect Brown governor, Oregon lawmakers elected Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) to be their House speaker, the nation's first openly lesbian speaker. And she's hardly the only gay woman in power in Portland or Salem. From Portland Public Schools to Portland City Hall, lesbians have led the way.

But language has also changed.

Craig Leets, director of PSU's Queer Resource Center, says students don't feel limited to calling themselves "gay" or "straight." For some, it's too mainstream, too apolitical. It's lost the ability to jolt outsiders like the Midwestern grandmothers who've embraced Ellen DeGeneres. "It feels too comfortable," he says.

(Emma Browne)
(Emma Browne)

It would probably be unthinkable to PSU's non-straight students to go back to an earlier, more prescriptive era. In the university's 2016 survey of students and their identities, most students who didn't identify as straight identified as bisexual—some 30 percent.

State Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), one of the sponsors of the bill that expanded the definitions of gender and sexual orientation available to Oregon college students, is in awe of the changes. (The bill, signed into law in 2015, asks all Oregon public colleges and universities to offer students these choices. That's an unusual advance given that only a few other university systems, including in California and New York, do anything similar.)

"There's a lot more gender fluidity than when I was growing up in the 1980s," says Nosse, who is among several openly gay Oregon lawmakers. "We didn't even talk about bisexuality."

The debate over naming identities and creating spaces for them isn't limited to women. However, Byron Beck, WW's former Queer Window columnist, says the conversation is not as prevalent in gay male culture. "It's easy to find gay events for men in town," he says.

Among some women, the expansion of the LGBT community into the LGBTQQIAAP community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual) has produced splinters.

A NON QUESTION: Griffin Smith rejected the term lesbian after dating people who identified as transgender or non-binary. “Lesbian” no longer feels right to her. (Thomas Teal)
A NON QUESTION: Griffin Smith rejected the term lesbian after dating people who identified as transgender or non-binary. “Lesbian” no longer feels right to her. (Thomas Teal)

Griffin Smith, 23, used to call herself a lesbian. Two years ago, Smith started dating people who didn't identify as women but instead identified as transgender or non-binary. Today, she says women-only events and labels feel uncomfortable, almost archaic in their restrictions. She prefers to call herself queer.

"Someone told me once, who was a lesbian, that 'she didn't fuck with girls who fucked with boys,' and I found that really off-putting," Smith says. "I was surrounded by lesbians, and at the same time I was dating someone who was non-binary, and it was super, super uncomfortable for me to identify as a lesbian at that point."

Sally McWilliams, a professor of women and gender studies at PSU, echoes what the numbers show, saying more of her female students call themselves queer than lesbian, telling her the term lesbian feels too limiting. It got to the point that she questioned whether she should continue to offer her course in lesbian literature, believing it may no longer be relevant.

"Now that there are more options around sexuality and gender expression, it's been liberating for some," she says. "It's also problematic. This kind of micro-naming we have going on makes it hard then to say, how do you have an inclusive community if you have all these little subcategories?"

Jenn Davis, who owns Escape, knows about those divides.

She also runs weekly dance parties in Portland and Seattle called Inferno: A Hot Flash Production. She and her partner bought the event company in 2014.
Under different ownership, the events were geared toward older lesbians—mostly women over 40. The events are now open to women and the trans community.

RESPECT AND ADMIRATION: Inferno dance party hosts a “Femme Appreciation” night at Bossanova Ballroom. (Christine Dong)
RESPECT AND ADMIRATION: Inferno dance party hosts a “Femme Appreciation” night at Bossanova Ballroom. (Christine Dong)

But that change was controversial. Patrons complained because men were coming in. Other patrons complained when Davis started checking IDs at the door for gender markers. Still others complained when she stopped checking IDs. (Trans patrons can now call ahead, or simply tell door staff their identity.)

Davis has so far resisted the trend to expand Inferno's brand to a queer party.

"We will lose the women," she says. "There's been a lot of changes. I'm scared of how to speak with people sometimes because I don't want something wrong to come out of my mouth."

"A place where people can dance, let loose and not feel worried"

So what does the future look like?

It looks a lot like Psychic Techniques, a queer rave held monthly until recently in the Central Eastside Industrial District.

Vera Rubin, the event's planner, says she sees the value in queer-only and gender-specific spaces, but not when it comes to her parties.

"We don't want a party that's just all dykes or all gay men," Rubin says. "When we think of cities with really good vibrant nightlife, they're always mixed parities that are pushing the city forward."

Psychic Techniques disbanded last month partly for business reasons, but many other inclusive parties, such as Lez Do It, Judy on Duty and CAKE, will serve its role.

"Everyone is welcome," says Megan Holmes, who runs Judy on Duty at the High Water Mark on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "It's a place where people can dance, let loose and not feel worried."

On a recent Saturday night, a strong, continuous beat pulsated inside the District East warehouse at Psychic Techniques. Revelers in 7-inch stiletto boots wearing geisha-like costumes and press-on nails like daggers jostled next to dancers wearing everyday jeans with carabiners dangling from belt loops. A bartender wore nothing but a black leather thong. Drag queens wore headdresses with LED lights that looked like jellyfish.

"All the different pieces of us that don't fit into mainstream gay culture," says Jessica Starling, a drag queen who identifies as a high femme daddy. "This is just the place for that."

Under a disco ball that sparkled with flashing colored lights, a full rainbow of Portland's lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied community unfurled. Walking into Psychic Techniques, it was hard to identify the gender and sexual identities of the revelers.

And no one was even trying.

WW staff writer Beth Slovic contributed to this report.