How Portland’s Queer Culture Scene Got Through the Pandemic—and Where It Goes Now

Queerness, and queer culture, can’t simply be quarantined away.

You can’t cancel Pride.

Cancel the parties, cancel the parades, cancel the rainbow-splattered corporate pandering. But while June has been designated as the month for publicly celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and its history, affirming queer identity is not something that happens only when the clubs are open, and it doesn’t stop when the calendar turns over. Not in a pandemic, and certainly not when companies stuff their flags back into storage.

That said, losing those parties hurt.

It’s often said that Pride began with a riot. More specifically, it started with a riot at a gay bar. Queer spaces have always been crucial to queer liberation. It’s not just about ecstatic celebration, although that’s part of it. It’s about having somewhere to go to experience the visceral feeling of acceptance, to give support and feel supported. Not to have that for an entire year—particularly this year, a time of both radical social upheaval and a barrage of legislative attacks on trans rights—left a wide void.

But again: Queerness, and queer culture, can’t simply be quarantined away.

Arriving once again at Pride Month, with the pandemic fading but not yet gone, we asked eight fixtures of Portland’s LGBTQ arts and nightlife community—from drag producers and performers to bar owners, DJs, dancers and standup comics—how they stayed connected over the past year, and what happens after the reunion.

Darcelle

“World’s Oldest Drag Queen,” founder of Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town

WW: At the start of the pandemic, did you worry about the club’s survival?

Darcelle: That was very, very scary. I think it was, like, five months [closed] in the last year and this year together. That’s a lot of time with no income. I was certainly not ready to close Darcelle’s because it’s going to stay open forever, I hope. I just thought, “I should be working.” I made about 19 new costumes during that first shutdown.

When was the last time you went that long without performing?

Fifty-four years ago, before I had a club.

You ended up doing some outdoor drive-in shows at Zidell Yards this April. How was it?

That was wild and wonderful. We were approached by a producer, and we did five shows in three days. Most of the shows were sold out—I think 200 cars. It was fun, it was hard work, and it was also very, very cold. We were in tents. There were no dressing rooms. In between numbers, they brought me blankets, and I was all wrapped like I was in Alaska.

Darcelle’s was added to the National Registry of Historic Places last year. Could you have ever imagined that happening?

I would not have imagined that would ever happen. But I’m very humble about my success. I worked hard to get it there, and now that it’s there, we still work hard.

Now that you’re back performing in the club, do you have a sense of what it means for the audience to be able to see you up close again?

I can’t go down and talk to them like we used to, but I know from the reaction, without having to discuss it, that the reactions are wonderful. They’re so happy to have entertainment again. - MATTHEW SINGER.

MORE: darcellexv.com.

Megan Holmes, aka Troubled Youth

DJ

WW: First off, you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer earlier this year. How are you doing?

Meghan Holmes: I’m going through six chemo treatments and I’ve gone through four, so I have two left and they’ll probably end just around Pride time.

When things first shut down last year, can you recall what was going through your head?

I had been going to DJ at least five times a month, so for things to go quiet was super-different. Queer nightlife is so important. People go out there for community and to see other people, and it’s really a nice time in their week to let go of whatever’s going on. To not throw Pride was pretty significant, I think. People are just so used to being able to at least have a little party at their house. To not even be able to have. That was pretty wild.

Did you end up doing streaming gigs?

We did a couple events, but we’ve been going pretty hard for about five years and realized maybe this was the time just to take a step back. There was a lot going on, nationally, and even just within Portland, that it felt like those things were more important.

Do you feel like, in a cultural sense, the queer community got hit particularly hard by the pandemic in terms of losing the ability to congregate and meet in these spaces?

I’m sure everyone had a really hard time with it, but I do think that in the queer community, it’s so important to have each other, to have dinners with each other, to go out for drinks with each other, to just kind of party with each other. It’s such an integral part of who we are and how we create.

Will it be difficult to readjust to going out again?

I don’t think anything will slow us down. As soon as we get the green light, I’m sure that it’s going to be a pretty explosive summer. The only thing that would hold people back is finding the venue to throw parties at if their venue doesn’t exist anymore. But I think that a lot of people are pretty hungry to throw a party. And I think it’ll probably be more exciting. I think people are going to appreciate each other more, and the spaces that they’re able to do things in. MATTHEW SINGER.

MORE: nocontrolx.com

Dahlia Belle

Standup comic, producer of the Portland Queer Comedy Festival

WW: What was your 2020-21 lockdown life like?

Dahlia Belle: For the first part of the pandemic, I was still working retail. That was not a good feeling. We were all very much aware that we were essentially guinea pigs for herd immunity. Like someone was saying, “You’re poor, you’re expendable. Let’s see what happens.” At first, people were nice. Tips got more generous. But as the pandemic wore on—and people were just holding on for dear life—the civility started to wane.

How did you react to a year without live, in-person comedy?

I’ve never really been much of a club comic. This year ultimately turned out fairly positive for me. More alternative venues and comedy scenes, like the queer and trans comedy scenes, expanded into online shows. So I was able to work directly with peers who I had always admired from afar but had never been able to share a stage with, like Mary Jane French in L.A. or KJ Whitehead from Chicago. To trans people, these are celebrities.

If you’re not a club comedian, where does your work exist?

Gay bars.

Performing at gay bars? Online shows hosted by gay bars?

Both, but I don’t know that most of my online following knows I do comedy. On Instagram, people just think I’m a model. And on Facebook, people think I’m a political activist.

Do you think you gained anything from the pandemic year?

The good part was being able to focus on writing material that is truer to me and my life experiences. Because the only shows that were really available for me during the pandemic were online queer and trans showcases, I performed for a lot of activists and trans people. I didn’t have to qualify statements, justify them or disclose my medical status. Everyone was like, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” So that part was great. But now it’s a little more complicated because live shows are coming back, and I worry I don’t know how to relate to straight people. I haven’t seen any in the last year. - SUZETTE SMITH.

MORE: instagram.com/mx.dahliabelle


Daniel Girón

Dance instructor, founder of the Kiki House of Ada

WW: What were you doing prior to the pandemic?

Daniel Girón: When I first moved to Portland, I spent the first three or four years training under anyone who would take me under their wing. It wasn’t until 2015 that I shifted all that focus into finally putting my skills out there. I’d been networking a lot, and I knew I had a good grasp on what the Portland scene was missing: When it comes to studio dancing, there wasn’t a space carved out for queer people, which I thought was weird because dancing is gay as fuck. I wanted to create an outlet that was for queer people who wanted to dance and that didn’t involve nightlife and alcohol. My vogue classes really brought that and helped build community. I taught those weekly lessons for six years until the pandemic hit.

What did the loss of these queer physical spaces mean to the community?

Everyone just took [the shutdown] in a very different way. I think it was very clear that because the clubs are often the place they can be [themselves], and that’s taken away from them, there’s the sense of being lost. I think it also might be a situation where it forces people to face some realities that might be really harsh. It’s kind of bittersweet, because in a way, it’s important to face those things and grow.

Do you feel you’ve carved out a virtual space to continue teaching and being a leadership figure in Portland? How has it changed the nature of your work?

Before the pandemic, I had all these plans of really diving less into the studio world and more into the club scene and event planning and creating a space for the queer Latinx community. I was starting to do a lot of that work and shifting into a leadership position. So although the pandemic put a stop to that, when it comes to my social media presence, I make sure that’s what I focus on: being this representation of queer, unapologetic Latinx vibes and connecting people to resources when needed.

Are you beginning to start teaching in person again as the state opens up?

For the last few months I’ve been teaching private [lessons], and although I’m known for vogue, I’m a well-rounded dancer. The people who reached out to me have been coming in with the intention to just move their bodies, to feel that connection again. The students I did privates with are all different ages and races, but they always had that in common.

What are your top videos you’ve made since the pandemic?

I made a Cinco de Mayo post where I got together with Portland Latinx dancers of all styles: waacker, crumper, light feet. A lot of times, people think of Portland as a really white place. I wanted to showcase that, no, people live here who aren’t white, and we’re thriving. - SOPHIE PEEL.

MORE: instagram.com/dnlgiron


Veronique Lafont

Owner of Sante Bar in downtown Portland

WW: The queer community is built on shared spaces. How has the isolation of the past year affected queer nightlife culture?

Veronique Lafont: I think, throughout the pandemic, what we were seeing was people who were so isolated they couldn’t get into their communities, they couldn’t be around people who were like-minded, they couldn’t feel love and gather in a shared space. It was very hard. And a lot of places, because of the pandemic, closed. So by the time we started reopening again, I was hearing from a lot of people saying, “I just had to get out.”

Now that Multnomah County is entering the lower-risk category, what sort of changes have you seen as people come back to bars and restaurants?

Now that we are at 50% capacity, I feel as though people within our community are still wanting to keep that 6-foot distance. A lot of my friends don’t feel comfortable sitting indoors and prefer to be outside, so I think we are still going to be distanced when it comes to contact. People are still very uncomfortable with hugging, even when vaccinated. I think the pandemic has changed the culture as a whole because people also don’t want to come out unless it’s a special event. It’s no longer getting drinks on the weekend—there has to be a reason why we are going out. And that’s creating a divide because people aren’t gathering like we used to. We used to have our live music, drag shows and spoken-word performances, and the place would be packed and people would sit together and talk. But we can’t do that now. You have to be at another table, yelling, and that really changes the dynamic of the venue.

This summer offers a little bit more optimism than last. What are you anticipating for Pride this year?

I am feeling like a seesaw on both ends. I am super-excited to have our drag performance on the 18th and a four-piece band on the 19th. I want people to come back and appreciate being together. But I am so concerned that there are still going to be those individuals who forget we are still in COVID because they are having so much fun, and those who are still a little apprehensive about COVID but want to have fun. I think there’s going to be a lot of emotions. And I am also concerned about the turnout. I want the community to know that as long as we are practicing safe practices and doing our part, we can still get back to that inclusion and out of this loneliness. - MEIRA GEBEL.

MORE: twitter.com/pdxsant


Bobby Fouther

Artist and writer

WW: I noticed a lot of writing about you doesn’t focus on what I might call your “journey with queerness.” Is that intentional?

Bobby Fouther: I don’t focus on my journey with queerness, I just do the work. [laughs] I’ve had lots of different experiences with my life, so claiming one thing over another just never really serviced me. I’ve fallen in love with different people, but it didn’t serve any purpose other than claiming names or things like that. It’s not relevant to me. Now, just let me rephrase for what I’m getting ready to say. I don’t think that doesn’t mean people’s issues and public awareness and social change is not valuable, so I’ve worked on plenty of issues and things like that, like for Brother to Brother, which was a gay Black agency years ago that morphed into several different things for several different generations. But I don’t focus on all that. I just do the damn work.

Would you say you’ve always been at peace with your identity?

My mom trained my sister and I that our identities belong to us, so it has really nothing to do with anyone else on the planet. She always respected us like that, she always gave us advice like that. I know when I was really young, my mom said, “You can do and be anything you want to be. Just remember there’s consequences for everything you do.” And that was the lesson, so I carefully set out to try everything I could. She watched me climb up the tree again—that’s my little joke to myself. It’s like I know my mom, I’d look at her and say, “OK, Mom, I’m getting ready to jump off the branch!” She’d say, “OK, baby!” And I know she was looking at me, saying, “I wonder when this boy’s gonna realize he ain’t got no feathers.”

You’ve been part of so many artistic communities: dance, theater, visual art, fashion—

Because that’s how I grew up. I’m from that world, you know? I was talking to someone about going to drag shows on Sunday, and it was like, “Well, it’s not that I love drag queens or anything like that, it’s just that’s live theatre that happens on a weekly basis that’s completely improvisational.” But people don’t look at it like that. It’s not my job to convince anyone of anything. I would die trying to go down that road. Anyway, was that what you asked me? [laughs]

A lot of what I want to talk about involves community, especially within the lens of the past year. How have you maintained your sense of community, within all your communities, and how have you grown them in the past year?

Contrary to some of my senior friends, I am on top of social media, like Facebook and Instagram. I have a little following, and that’s how I stay in community, particularly since I’ve ended up in this wheelchair and I can’t get out and about the way I used to. Like, I couldn’t protest, because if people fall down, I’m trapped. And I’m 70, I’m not running out of nothing, OK? So it became my online protest, where I do my little political posts and pieces and artwork. I get in where I can fit in, and usually I’m the person people call when everything else is messed up. If the person didn’t get the job done, they call Mr. Bobby. If they spent the money or don’t know where it went, they call Mr. Bobby. It’s just been like that forever. I’m the person with the safety pins. - ANDREW JANKOWSKI.

MORE: mrbobbydance.weebly.com.


Justin Buckles

Drag brunch producer

WW: In my mind, Portland Drag Brunch was the main, long-standing drag brunch in Portland. How long had it actually been running?

Justin Buckles: You know, I thought it ran for three years, but it turns out I only started producing it in April 2018, which was about a month into the show. We sold out 90% of those two years, though!

What happened when the shutdown hit?

Obviously, everything stopped immediately. Our last show was March 16 of last year. Financially, I was OK. I rode the wave a little easier than most people because I’m a homeowner. I was able to get a forbearance on my mortgage. So I am very privileged when it comes to that, and I recognize that immensely.

When did you decide to revitalize the show?

Well, I don’t own Portland Drag Queen Brunch. That was the owner of the Night Light. He owned the lounge and had a separate company for the brunch. But during the pandemic, all my performers and I stayed in touch. I started reaching out to venues, and Bit House was like, “Oh my gosh, we’d love to host this year.” We’re excited for that space. It’s bigger. It’s open. We’re at 50% capacity, and at 100%, the energy is going to be wild.

Those ceilings seem like a good idea, considering all the gymnastic moves we used to see at Night Light.

Oh yeah, that’s Jayla Rose. She tumbles. She does back handsprings and flips. My performers are slowly getting back into the groove of things. It feels so good. I actually just booked another show in Sun Valley, Idaho. They’re kicking off Pride in little, tiny Sun Valley, Idaho, and we’re going to be there.

What kind of precautions will be in place for Diva Drag Brunch?

All the performers will be wearing the face shields for the time being. The clear plastic ones. We’re going to ask everyone to throw tips on the ground.

I can only imagine a drag outfit planned around a face shield.

Yes. A lot of my performers have already bedazzled and put jewels on them. They’re going to be over the top, as all my performers are. - SUZETTE SMITH.

MORE: justinbucklesproductions.com.


Daniel Quasar

Graphic designer, creatorof the Progress Pride Flag

WW: Tell us about the inspiration for the Progress Pride Flag.

Daniel Quasar: It was a couple of days after Seattle had unveiled their version of the Pride flag, which basically took Amber Hikes’ “More Color, More Pride” Philadelphia flag and added the trans flag with three stripes on top of it. I felt compelled and had a big creative spark where I was like, “I want to see if I can do something with this and emphasize the message they’re going for and put my own spin on it that furthers what it’s trying to do.”

One article called the flag “a triumph for inclusiveness—a design disaster.” How did you handle the early criticism, and how have your own reactions changed as the flag’s become more famous?

I was overwhelmed by everything, so it was really hard for me to respond to just about any [feedback], just because I wasn’t prepared for that and I’m also a hugely anxious person. To go viral and realize “Oh, I can’t handle this mentally, at all.” [laughs] But I would say a good 95 to 99% of the comments are all super-positive.

Do you now get enough seasonal emails and checks to keep you comfortable the rest of the year?

[Laughs] The way the American copyright system works, you can’t copyright a flag. I have creator’s copyright because I made the thing, but I can’t file a copyright claim for it. At the same time, at least with the people I’ve spoken to, everyone understands the level of respect involved. They want to respect the work and respect the originator of that work, and I take it from that perspective. Regardless of whether or not I have copyright, it’s my thing and not in a way where I own it. I don’t want someone to think my deal is, “This is my thing and I’m greedy about it!” No! My thing is, I protect it. I’m protecting its message and its integrity as a symbol and what I created it for.

How did you maintain your communities over the past year?

I already was a hermit who stayed at home, took care of their cats, and worked from home. When the pandemic came around, nothing really changed for me, except for more of a reason not to go out and see people. [laughs] The first four months of 2020 were really rough for business. When Pride came around and everything was canceled, I think something happened in people where they were like, “I can’t go out to Pride, so I’m going to take Pride home.” My business blew up because people wanted to have stuff to have with them since they couldn’t go out and experience Pride at festivals. - ANDREW JANKOWSKI.

MORE: quasar.digital.


Bruce Edward Rice

Owner of CC Slaughters, one of Portland’s oldest gay bars

WW: CC Slaughters closed in October, then reopened a few months later. What happened there?

Bruce Edward Rice: I was looking at the winter going, “There’s no way that I can make it through the winter.” With my rent and all my bills, with the restrictions, we just couldn’t do it. So I negotiated with my landlord and said, “Can I close down and not pay rent? If you want to rent it, and you can find someone, they can rent it. But in the spring, if no one’s renting it, I want to come back.” And they were OK with that.

What’s the energy like in there now?

I mean, we’re a dance club and we’re not able to dance yet. Until this pandemic is over, we can’t have a dance floor or anything like that. Pretty much, right now, we’re just a neighborhood bar.

Even before the pandemic, it felt like Portland’s queer spaces were disappearing. What’s your perception?

We’re not in the ’80s and ’90s anymore where, if you were gay, you really kind of needed to go to a gay club to feel inclusion. Portland has progressed so much. You can be gay holding your boyfriend’s hand in pretty much any club and it’s fine.

So what do you feel is the role of CC Slaughters in 2021?

I don’t think it’s changed much at all over the years. I’ve owned it for 18 years. But there’s just more inclusion. We’ve seen a lot more straight people in here, and I see a lot more gay people who just go to other clubs that aren’t necessarily gay. But other than that, nothing really has changed. We still have drag queens and we still dance.

How hopeful are you for the future coming out of the pandemic?

Right now, it’s going to take a while for downtown to come back. But I am definitely seeing a lot more cars, a lot more people walking around. So I’m really encouraged. I look back on the 1918 pandemic. What happened after that was the Roaring ’20s. I’m hoping everyone is just going to get crazy and have a whole bunch of fun after this is all done. - MATTHEW SINGER.

MORE: ccslaughterspdx.com.