The coronavirus pandemic has left many local bar owners without a path forward, and reality set in for Blackstones manager Carl Currie last month.
Currie had just come out of a staff meeting with bar owner Matt Pekins where they decided they would have to ask the community for money to stay afloat until spring.
He said the decision was a difficult one that he and Pekins tried to avoid, and that it made him uncomfortable. But less than two weeks after he created a GoFundMe page asking neighbors to help save Portland’s last gay bar, they had raised enough in pledges to survive the winter.
“We hoped to get $10,000 and the fact that we hit $25,000 in 10 days, I’m kind of not shocked – and shocked,” Currie said recently. “I’m genuinely humbled by it and I don’t quite know how to thank people yet.”
Although the money underscores the affinity many people have for Blackstones, others have criticized the bar in recent weeks, claiming management has not done enough to prevent racism and other problems at the 6 Pine St. establishment.
Blackstones has been a West End fixture since 1987; Pekins bought it in 2014. The city once had other popular gay establishments, most recently Styxx (formerly the Underground) night club, which was open on Spring Street for 30 years before closing in 2016. Lesbian bars also existed, including the Danforth Street spot Sisters Bar, which closed in 2005.
The late 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of Portland’s gay bar scene, which featured talented pianists like Charlie Grindle playing at the Underground, the Phoenix, and Blackstones in its early days.
Blackstones is also one of Maine’s only remaining gay bars at a time when the establishments are dwindling nationwide. According to a 2019 study, the United States had 1,500 gay bars in 1980 and fewer than 1,000 at the end of the last decade.
Some have attributed the decline to the boom of the Internet, where LGBTQ+ young people are more easily able to find a community than in decades past, or more widespread acceptance of gay people in mainstream society.
Even 15 years ago when Sisters Bar closed, Audrey Luce, who had then been a bartender at Sisters since its opening in 1995, told the Phoenix she attributed its declining numbers to the changing community.
Former patrons of the bar at that time, she said, were buying houses and having kids, and the younger generation was having a different experience than their older counterparts.
“The younger crowd that’s going out can really go anywhere and feel accepted,” Luce said.
COVID-19 could have a further impact on gay bars.
Gov. Janet Mills indefinitely delayed the reopening of indoor bar service in November because of rising coronavirus cases statewide, which have continued to climb to unprecedented levels in December and January.
Some local bars have changed their license classification to allow them to expand their menus and reopen as restaurants. Even then, however, the National Restaurant Association reported in December that 110,000, or 17 percent, of U.S. eateries closed permanently or long term in 2020.
Currie said last month that he and Pekins are still “investigating the option” of relicensing Blackstones to allow them to serve more food, since the bar has a full kitchen.
But with a small indoor space and virtually no room for outdoor dining, that could also prove futile. The crowdsourced funds will give Blackstones a chance to make it to the warmer months, and by then Currie hopes COVID-19 in Maine will be more under control.
“We’ll be closed all of April and some of May. We need to set an exact date, (but) now we’re covered for that,” he said. “It will get warm, vaccines are coming out, our space (will then be) viable again.”
At first, like many Portland bars, Blackstones was planning to reopen Nov. 2, when the state was originally set to resume indoor service at bars and tasting rooms.
Currie said Blackstones was left with “basically no money” after getting caught up on bills throughout the summer, and that the bar was ineligible for state coronavirus aid because it was still on a 2019 tax extension when the pandemic hit.
In October everything seemed “very optimistic,” in terms of reopening the bar, he said, but he still had reservations about its small size and social-distancing requirements.
As a result, when the state indefinitely delayed the reopening, he said he felt “a little relieved,” but still hoped an option would appear for the bar to stay afloat without community help.
When it became clear that would not happen, Currie created the GoFundMe page.
“As we are about to enter the ninth month of self-finance, we have come to the end of our means. The last month has shown that this crisis is far from over,” the page said. “This space is in danger. We need to make sure we are financially stable through April 1st.”
The page raised nearly a thousand dollars more than its $25,000 goal in less than two weeks, from 405 donors.
Supportive comments accompanied several of the donations, including one from William Whalen, who said the bar had been a part of his life since moving to Portland in 1996.
“Queer spaces are important,” Whalen wrote. “It was a pleasure to donate.”
After reaching the donation goal last month, Currie posted on the Blackstones Portland Facebook group saying it had cost just over $40,000 to keep the bar “on stasis” since closing March 16. The funds raised through GoFundMe will go towards paying utilities, city and state requirements, and to pay contractors who did electrical and other repairs to the bar in the spring.
The post also affirmed the bar’s dedication to charity.
“We hurt now, like many others, but when we come back strong it will be our turn to help,” it said.
But financial concerns aren’t the only obstacles Blackstones faces.
‘A stigma to the bar’
When Currie came on board as manager three years ago, one of his goals was to try to make the bar more inclusive. Some feel it hasn’t been enough.
After years of bartending at Ruski’s Tavern on Danforth Street, Currie said he got used to serving an older clientele and asking them to stop speaking in a prejudiced way.
“There are the guys you like but they’re still sitting there drinking their coffee and they’re saying racist things and homophobic things and transphobic things and xenophobic things,” he said. “And it’s all casual conversation.”
When he started working at Blackstones in 2015 he said it “blew his mind” to find out that some of the regular patrons, who he described as “white cis (gender) men,” spoke the same way.
He acknowledged that the issue is “complicated,” since he is “a straight man managing a gay bar,” but he decided to institute new policies at the bar against racist speech and non-consensual touching.
“(I said) we have to start looking at why Styxx is closed and the kids that came up from Styxx are incredibly separated from the older crowd that’s always been here,” he said.
He also said there was a “stigma to the bar” with its West End neighbors when he came on board, and after he spoke to them they asked for lights to be installed on the outside of the building and for noise to be reduced.
Not everyone has been a fan of his management style, he added, saying many patrons were “shell shocked” that Currie took away what he called the “playground aspect” of the bar.
But with a more diverse clientele that includes more transgender and gender-fluid people than in decades past, Currie said a shift in culture was necessary.
A November CNN report on the decline of gay bars during the pandemic said the reason for the closures of hundreds of American gay bars is complicated. The popularity of gay dating apps and influencers on platforms like TikTok, it noted, have changed the way members of the community interact.
In a 2016 story in the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender News about the closure of Styxx, owner Joshua Moody said LGBT nightclubs were “going extinct” because younger members of the community were more accepted “in mainstream nightspots.”
Portland resident Jake Boyce made a public Facebook post that garnered nearly 100 likes and comments in December calling out racism and other prejudice within Portland’s LGBTQ+ community.
“I will not be donating any money to Blackstones, because I don’t see their problems of racism going anywhere anytime soon,” Boyce wrote.
Currie last month acknowledged there were a “handful of community members” who shared the same sentiments about the bar and posted publicly about it. He called their concerns about whether Blackstones is a safe space for transgender people and people of color “valid.”
“We’re asking the community for money, we’ve made some missteps along the way, we’re trying very hard,” he said.
Boyce, 26, performs around Portland and New England as his drag queen alter ego Chartreuse Money. He said in a Jan. 10 interview he is not “anti-Blackstones,” but is speaking out against “a lack of accountability” for actions that have happened there.
He acknowledged what he called the “great divide between the young gays and the old gays” and would like to advocate for a more inclusive environment for everyone. Boyce is of Mexican and Italian descent, and said he experienced racist comments at the bar, among other issues.
He said he would like to see Currie resign as manager of the establishment because he is a straight man managing the city’s “only LGBTQ bar” and that “allyship can only go so far.”
He added he would like to see “a team of diverse queer people who aren’t directly affiliated with Blackstones” form an advisory board to keep the culture “alive, welcoming and transparent,” although he admitted he is not sure how the new idea should be implemented.
“I’m still a family member of Blackstones just by being a queer person,” Boyce said. “Blackstones is the only LGBTQ+ bar in Portland and because of that I do hold it to a high expectation, because we have to make sure that there’s a spot in the room for everybody, and that’s a hard job.”