Rebel Rebel, the downtown Portland queer bar named for the iconic David Bowie song, has come, gone and laid belief on a city full of flowers, a city full of rain. It temporarily closed the weekend of Jan. 13, but the bar’s Instagram account announced its permanent closure Jan. 30, weeks shy of Rebel Rebel’s first anniversary.
Rebel Rebel’s owner, J Buck, tells WW that numerous factors led to the bar’s closure, including security costs, slow weeknight sales, and other struggles that come with doing business in Old Town.
“It’s a small space in an area of town that’s already hit pretty hard, so that’s just the way everything crumbled and unfolded,” Buck says. “There wasn’t a specific catalyst or anything like that. We navigated the slow season as best as we could, and that’s just the nature of the game for a lot of small businesses in Portland right now.”
Rebel Rebel was a popular watering hole among Portland’s LGBTQ+ community, serving craft cocktails to customers under the gleam of a disco ball. The intimate venue once known as Black Book, Maxwell, and Yes and No hosted dance nights and drag shows over the past 11 months and fostered a loyal sapphic following before the lesbian bar Doc Marie’s opened (and briefly closed) across the Willamette River last summer.
Also, Rebel Rebel was one of three Old Town queer bars that opened in Portland in the wake of the pandemic, but closed before its first anniversary.
The Queen’s Head, which opened in Ankeny Alley in November 2021, was sold the next summer. The rebranded business, P!nq, opened in September and closed in November 2022. Meanwhile, the Parkrose neighborhood’s gay strip club Fuzzy Navels has weathered the unfortunately timed onset of the global mpox outbreak after opening in July 2022. It now hosts strip bingo (plus, Sissy Bar is still going strong).
Some within Portland’s LGBTQ+ community think more could have been done to keep three Old Town queer bars from shutting down before their first anniversary.
Veroniqué Lafont is the owner of Santé Bar, a queer piano bar on the Pearl District’s side of the North Park Blocks bordering Old Town. Santé Bar will celebrate its eighth anniversary in April, but Lafont will soon have metal detectors installed to deter potential threats against her clients. Lafont is installing the metal detectors both in response to violence in Old Town, and a national rise in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.
“Crime has no address. It goes in any which way. It finds its way.” Lafont says. “When you know you have no support, it really changes the approaches and directions for the safety of people who come down here.”
Lafont feels Queens Head, Pinq and Rebel Rebel would have stood better chances of survival if local leadership did more to support Old Town’s small businesses. Lafont said if local politicians visited Old Town to support small businesses instead of feeding into the Trump-era gloom and doom narrative of downtown Portland, people would feel safer visiting during the day and at night.
“I don’t feel I’m ever unsafe in my district,” Lafont said. “I feel like there are challenges, but if I had my politicians behind me, supporting [people who] come to downtown Portland, then the establishments that have closed would be open.”
”As Bowie sang, “Stars are never sleeping. Dead ones and the living.” Buck says plans are already underway for the next era of Rebel Rebel’s former home but does not know if the next iteration will still belong to the LGBTQ+ community.
“We built a great community, we had fantastic regulars, we had fantastic talent,” Buck says. “My staff was literally the best.”