Sultana Khan

Sultana Khan

Are Portland Bars Safe for Everyone?

“Where are you guys???” The extra question marks at the end of the text are the first hint that something might be wrong.


A friend is waiting for us at a bar by himself, while his wife and I amble down Congress Street. We’re late (as usual) but when he meets us outside The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, his face is marked by a different sort of anxiety, not simple irritation.


“There’s a drunk guy who’s been harassing me ever since I got here. Let’s just go somewhere else.” It’s February. My friend has just officially begun using male pronouns, accompanied by a legal name change and a first dose of testosterone.


This is a suggestion that does not sit well with my friend’s wife. She is ready to hand me her earrings and teach the man in question a lesson. I am ready for a cocktail. We compromise and head back inside to ask the bartenders to eject him.


As we walk inside, my friend scans the crowded room to point out the culprit while a strange hand intimately caresses my buttocks. I turn around, and a man I don’t know is leering at me. A few seconds of disbelief pass before the rage I carry deep inside as a woman has me forcefully pushing him away and yelling at him not to touch me. I am in his face and furious, pounding his chest in an effort to make him understand the singular ownership I have over these fists and every other part of my body.


The man is asked to leave shortly thereafter, although the bartenders' initial hesitancy means I’m close to swinging at his smirking face by the time he walks out the door.


Throughout the entire ordeal, not a single bar patron intervenes. A week later, a different man calls my friend’s wife a “fucking dyke,” after she politely rejects his repeated advances. She and another female friend are both punched in the head during the ensuing bar fight, this time at Brian Boru.


So what is Portland, one of the most restaurant-dense cities in the country, doing to prevent sexual violence and harassment in bars?


Unfortunately, not enough.




Last month, at a privately booked fundraising event, an incident at Empire involving a patron and a bouncer made the rounds on social media. According to the patron, a bouncer wouldn't let her close the door to a single-stall bathroom, insisting it was strictly for men, and afterward physically removed her from another part of the bar.


The woman in question declined to be quoted when reached for comment, citing social media harassment after her initial post about the incident was widely shared. A manager at Empire requested anonymity, but disputed the sequence of events, claiming video footage cleared the bouncer of wrongdoing. The manager mentioned some possible shifts in policy following the incident, with a focus on improved de-escalation training and gender-balanced shift crews. (The manager also said the bouncer involved is no longer employed by Empire.)


In the course of chatting with folks about their experiences with sexual violence at establishments in Portland, I found this kind of discrepancy to be routine. Few people wanted to be quoted, and while rumors of bars where multiple women claimed to have been roofied were shared with me, no one was willing to go on record.


It’s hardly surprising, given the small community and competitive nature of Portland’s food scene. Furthermore, particularly when alcohol is involved, it's hard to separate truth and liability from whitewashed public relations strategies. Unfortunately, sexual violence prevention-training is so chronically underfunded that sometimes the best opportunities for change are reliant on corporate branding.


Andrew Volk of The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club claims he’s tried to create a culture in his establishment that supports both staff and patrons to intervene when situations arise. “It’s not just a social justice issue, it’s a business issue. Management has to be the one to cultivate this culture of intervention," he says. "If workers are afraid to intervene, for a customer, or themselves, that hurts a business’s ability to create a safe space.”


Volk and his wife, Briana, with whom he co-owns the bar, have been trying to bring Safe Bars, a D.C.-based organization dedicated to “training bar staff how to stand up to sexual violence,” to Portland. They are currently fundraising and seeking corporate sponsorship to defray costs for a Safe Bars training.


Cara Courchesne, Communications Director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), says this lack of prevention-based training is definitively linked to the funding structure that exists within the world of anti-sexual assault advocacy.


Many federal and state grants, including substantial funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, are intervention-oriented — specifically for victims of crime, and responding to their immediate needs. That leaves affordable prevention-based services in high demand, but with limited capacity.


In the meantime, one local organization is stepping up to the task. Shane Diamond, founder and Executive Director of Speak About It, a Portland-based nonprofit that partners with high schools and colleges to educate and empower students and their communities to create healthy relationship practices and prevent sexual violence, offered a bystander-intervention training to Volk’s staff and other members of the United States Bartenders Guild last month.  


Diamond says it was a no-brainer for Speak About It to facilitate this kind of training, given their focus on equipping students with the tools to talk about consent. A dozen service industry professionals attended the workshop. Both Volk and Diamond hope to offer more trainings.


Courchesne pointed out that bystander-intervention and prevention-based trainings are spiking nationally in the wake of the new administration, but they’re mostly for elementary and high school-age students. Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM), one of the most active advocacy organizations in the Portland area, is “booked months in advance” for the educational programs it offers schools.


This offers upcoming generations a powerful tool in fighting sexual violence, but it means that many who have aged out of those programs have never even heard about “bystander intervention.”




Late last year, the service industry at large was rocked by the allegations of more than a dozen female service industry workers who shared their stories of sexual violence at the hands of a well-known West Coast barman through a blog, “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community.” Although the man was never named, the blog became a national clarion call for women in the hospitality industry to expose the rampant sexual harassment and assault they face daily.


According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims. According to a report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, 80 percent of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from customers.


Of that 80 percent, more than a third reported it happened on a weekly basis. Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents had been harassed by managers. Transgender and minority workers reported substantially higher rates of sexual harassment and assault.




“Imagine the statistics of sexual violence are an upside-down triangle. At the top, the wide base, are all of the incidents surrounding sexual harassment and assault — street harassment, assault in bars, rape, attempted rape, flashing, groping, etc. The level below that, much smaller, are the incidents that are reported. Below that, the ones that find a prosecutor willing to take the case. Then the ones that actually make it to trial. And finally, the smallest piece of the triangle, at the bottom, are all the cases where a conviction is made, and an offender goes to prison.”


Courchesne is trying to answer my question about why statistics about sexual assault and harassment in Maine are so hard to find. Maine doesn’t even have a database for sexual assaults that have been prosecuted, much less data about incidents that never made it to trial.


Maine isn’t unique in this, but the lack of data is astonishing — according to a 2015 report from the University of Southern Maine, one in five Mainers will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. The same report claims “14,000 Mainers will experience sexual violence” per year. Yet a Maine Department of Public Safety Report from 2015 found only 373 rapes or attempted rapes were reported to Maine law enforcement that year.


Courchesne tells me, “sexual violence is the most underreported violent crime in the United States.” But in some ways, the cultural shifts needed to address the United States’ shockingly high rates of sexual assault are starting to gain traction. Unsurprisingly, however, the legal system continues to lag far behind.


Last June, BuzzFeed published a letter written by a sexual assault victim to her attacker, then-Stanford student Brock Turner. The woman’s powerful letter addressing both her own situation and campus rape culture instantly went viral. It was viewed more than 11 million times in four days. It remains the website’s most popular post of all time, outpacing former viral content about Disney princesses and exploding watermelons.


Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault but only received six months in prison, sparking outrage and a concentrated effort to remove presiding Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky from the bench. Persky was later cleared of misconduct by an independent commission. Turner served three months of his sentence before receiving an early release.




“I wanted my bar to be a safe space before I knew what that meant.” Nan’l Meiklejohn, owner of The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, is sitting across from me at Tandem on a sunny morning, slightly rumpled, but eager to share his thoughts about the work that needs to be done in Portland to address what he calls “the kind of aggressive behavior that’s common in bar culture.”


The day after I was assaulted, Meiklejohn contacted me via social media. I’d shared my story online, and he was sincerely, believably apologetic that I’d been unsafe in his bar. My experience had sparked a renewed discussion with his staff about intervention and personal safety.


I find myself in the odd position of reassuring him that I don’t hold him responsible for my experience. And I don’t — The Jewel Box continues to be one of my regular haunts. I can’t decide if that’s because I find Meiklejohn to be utterly trustworthy when he says he’s been actively looking for ways to actively improve his ability to provide a safe space, or because a few of his recent cocktails have featured lavender bitters, my version of cocktail kryptonite.


But he has proof. He forwards me an email from Mackenzie Morris, owner of Étaín Boutique, a Congress Street lingerie shop specializing in “encouraging body-positive attitudes and ... fostering personal empowerment.” It’s dated January 11, nearly a month before my incident at his bar, and the subject line reads “Small Business and Social Justice.” It’s an invitation to form a “network of local business owners who value the humanity, dignity, and safety of marginalized groups and individuals over perceived ‘commercial success’.”


The first bullet point on a list of proposed shared goals reads, “Fostering safer spaces and advocating for marginalized groups and individuals, including clientele, employees, and any other members of the community.” Meiklejohn praises Morris’s efforts, saying their letter better articulates the reasons he started The Jewel Box in the first place.

I go to Étaín to ask Morris what that means moving forward. "We've established what we're doing, but it's a work in progress," they say. Meiklejohn says he hopes Morris’s proposed coalition sparks a broader discussion among small businesses in Portland to answer his original question — what does it mean to be a safe space?




I sat down with Diamond to ask for some tips on how to empower bystanders and yourself to intervene in situations where they might be witnessing harassment. Here’s what he told me:


  1. Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable witnessing something, chances are someone else is uncomfortable too. Don’t discount the power of intuition.

  2. Intervention does not have to be confrontational. Offer to escort someone to the bathroom, or to accompany you to get a glass of water. By removing someone from a potentially hazardous situation without confrontation, the likelihood of a physical or verbal altercation immediately decreases.

  3. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening, find someone else with the necessary skill set. It’s perfectly okay to find someone with more experience or presence to help in a hostile situation. It’s not okay to do nothing.

  4. Don’t be afraid to remove yourself quickly from a dangerous or threatening situation. Diamond points out that a bar tab can always be paid the next day. Put your personal safety as a top priority.

  5. If you’re uncomfortable about a situation or environment, talk about it. It’s unlikely you’re alone in your feelings. Is there a bar you’ve heard is notorious for harassment or unsafe behavior? Tell people. It’s the first step towards community-wide change.

  6. Set clear expectations with your friends before going out. This allows everyone to operate within the same set of guidelines even after alcohol or drugs might have become involved.


It’s clear from these tips that much of the focus of prevention trainings revolve around clear, open communication. Accountability and change can only come from holding a culture that does little to prevent sexual harassment and violence up to the light. But, as Courchesne says, “There’s no panacea for this. It’s gradual cultural change, and it’s hard work.”


[April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For more information about sexual assault services in southern Maine, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), or Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM).]


Ed: An earlier version of this story stated that the Empire bouncer bodily removed the patron from the single-stall bathroom. It's been corrected to reflect that this happened elsewhere in the bar per clarification of the patron, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Stay on the Offensive

A week after the Women’s March on Washington, I self-published a piece that was largely critical of the event.

I’d attended with reservations, noting at its inception that the March was leaving women of color out of the narrative as well as the organizing hierarchy. That changed as the event grew and Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour assumed leadership roles on the March’s national committee, but I retained a healthy dose of skepticism. Unfortunately, my own experience at the March met my low expectations.

Admittedly, it was a staggering thing to witness the sheer mass of humanity roiling over the National Mall. There were certainly moments I felt buoyed by the anonymous camaraderie of the women surrounding me. But under the joy and the anger that brought half a million women to Trump’s new doorstep, there were problems.

Women of color reported micro-aggressions aplenty. Native women spoke of how fellow march attendees snapped photos of their ceremonial garb while refusing to take pamphlets about indigenous rights. Trans women found themselves in a sea of pink hats equating genitalia with womanhood. Intersectional feminism found itself floundering under the weight of 500,000 women’s differences. And I received hate mail for pointing it out. It’s not the first time an anonymous commenter has tried to put me in my place, and it certainly won’t be the last.

While working for a previous employer, I hosted an event that required security because someone threatened to kill me. And while death threats aren’t the norm for most writers, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment from readers. What surprised me, however, was not that I received hate mail, but rather who sent it. Self-identified liberals were absolutely furious with me. One reader implied that by criticizing the March, I’d aligned myself with Trump’s agenda.

Another told me there was a “special place in feminist hell” for me after undermining such an important event. Others called me names I simply can’t print here. Last week, following the death blow dealt to the American Health Care Act, I posted an offhand status about how the obsessive gloating being done by Democratic leaders conveniently ignored the fact that we’re in this mess to begin with because they failed to do their job. It felt horrifyingly detached for elected officials to be mocking Paul Ryan on Twitter while some schools are seeing meteoric rises in truancy because immigrant children are afraid they’ll be deported. The criticism poured in.

People messaged me privately to lambast me for raining on the Affordable Care Act’s victory parade. A casual acquaintance went so far as to tell me she was tired of reading my gloom-and-doom take on the politics and then blocked my account. (I’d like to point out I also posted a photo of my dog in honor of National Puppy Day, so I resent the implication that I’m doing nothing more than making snarky commentary about the current political climate. I make time for baby animals, too.)

It’s these moments that give me pause. Not because I’m offended by the criticism, but because they remind me that change does not come easily or with kind words. My solidarity cannot be assumed, it must be earned.

Over the course of the next few years, liberal communities will find plenty to disagree about —debate is healthy.

But if you find yourself being scolded for your tone, or for voicing an unpopular opinion, remind yourself that personal criticisms may mean you’re doing the work many others don’t have the heart to do. I wish you the best of luck in offending your compatriots.

Killer Mike and Chance David Baker

Last week, as I was leaving a lousy Tinder date at the Top of the East, I ran into Michael Render in an elevator at the Westin. Better known as Killer Mike, one-half of the critically acclaimed hip-hop duo Run the Jewels (RTJ), Mike became a familiar figure to less rap-inclined voters after endorsing Bernie Sanders in last year’s primaries. His enthusiastic support led to viral talk show appearances where he spoke passionately about racial justice, economic reform, and weed legalization while stumping for Sanders. One particularly charming interview with Stephen Colbert has been viewed more than two million times.

So it was with great enthusiasm I accepted Killer Mike’s offer for a ticket to the sold-out show at the State Theatre. His manager, Joe, kindly texted my name to someone ten minutes before show time and I managed to sneak in and find a spot in front of a very tall man with a beer in both hands.


I’ll start off by saying the show itself was dope. RTJ knows how to put on a performance. Mike and his RTJ collaborator, Jaime Meline — stage name El-P — were tight as hell and the energy was electric. But it’s not in my nature to attend a rap concert where an overwhelmingly caucasian audience is throwing up the fist and gun symbol for which the group are known, without asking some questions.

That’s how I found myself outside asking fellow smokers how they felt about the death of Chance David Baker, the 22-year-old man fatally shot by Portland police officer Sgt. Nicholas Goodman earlier this month after brandishing a pellet gun in a public plaza. I’m fun at parties.

After speaking with 15 or so people outside the venue, I went back inside, discouraged. Not a single person I spoke with had heard about the shooting. When I asked one couple how they felt about Police Chief Michael Sauschuck’s comments about the “politicization” of Baker’s death to fast-track body cameras, they replied that they were just there to enjoy the music.


Hip-hop is, and always has been, a powerful way to protest police brutality and the prison-industrial complex — N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton came out nearly 30 years ago. And RTJ’s latest album, Run the Jewels 3, doesn’t shy away from political rhetoric. On “Talk to Me,” Mike’s intro mentions the Devil who “wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” Later in the same verse he raps, “Born Black, that's dead on arrival / My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”

It’s hard to imagine a world in which one could be an RTJ fan and an #AllLivesMatter enthusiast, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few in the crowd, given my brief stint as a crowd pollster. But maybe it’s a better indication of the change white liberals are undergoing that RTJ could host a sold-out show in Portland, Maine. Would a hip-hop duo rapping about “white folk” have found an audience here 10 years ago? Unfortunately, I don’t think any of that matters. The current climate of violence and harassment won’t allow for another 10-year-long shift in perspective.

As a person of color, my impatience with white-centric liberalism feels particularly raw right now. Much of the despair and anguish felt by the white liberal community following President Trump’s election has been a daily part of life for disenfranchised communities for many years. I know this sentiment has been written about ad nauseam, although I don’t feel the least bit guilty repeating it, particularly after Chance David Baker’s death went unremarked by so many in Portland. Here’s hoping the next time RTJ comes to town, people will attend not just for the music, but the message.

Alternate Activism

If there were any remaining doubts about the veracity of President Trump’s campaign promises, they have been quickly dismissed by the past weeks’ events.

Executive orders targeting refugees, “sanctuary” cities, the Dakota Access and KeystonePipelines, the Affordable Care Act, the so-called Mexico City policy (also known as the Global Gag rule), and the border wall, among others, sparked global outrage. It was both heartening and incredibly depressing to see the scale of our indignation played out in airports and street corners across the country this weekend. It has finally become clear that we no longer have the luxury of our complacency; protest is now a necessity.

But protesting alone is not a sustainable long-term strategy. This administration did not come to fruition by chance. It capitalized on systemic oppression and the seeds of white middle-class discontent sown years ago. It is dangerous, frankly, to underestimate the level of strategy that has gone into harvesting the fear and anger that continue to plague middle America as major industries move to automate production and their way of life disappears. We must counteract accordingly.

At the Women’s March on Washington, the sheer number of people shouting, “This is what democracy looks like,” gave strength to the notion that we’re in this together — the earth shook a little on January 21, 2017. But speakers at both the Women’s March in D.C. earlier this month and the Portland Jetport last Sunday (as 1500 people protested Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban) voiced the same point — this is going to be a long fight. We’re not just preparing ourselves for four years of Donald Trump, we’re gearing up for a lifetime of fighting fascism. We must have a cohesive strategy to stamp out the bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and systemic oppression that destabilize this country.

That process has already begun in many ways. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported a record $24.1M in donations this weekend. A pivotal component of activism must be continued funding of organizations like the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR), Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), EarthJustice, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), and the Native American Rights Fund, among others. These national organizations ensure we are representing the interests of our most vulnerable populations facing immediate hardship by this administration. They are essential to our resistance.

We must also work locally. We must support Maine-based organizations like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, EqualityMaine, the Southern Maine Workers' Center, and the Maine Justice Foundation, among many others. There are Maine-based chapters of national organizations that require our time, money, and attention. Local advocacy is integral to substantive change.

We must hold local and state representatives accountable. We must support an ever-skeptical and robust media. We must recognize our own levels of privilege and champion those who do not possess the same status. We must engage in our civic duty by attending city council meetings. We must have uncomfortable conversations about race and oppression. We must educate ourselves about the role our nation plays in the global economy and the responsibilities that accompany our successes and our failures. We must focus our energy on sustainable action.

We must become citizens.

And perhaps most importantly, after a week of protesting assaults on our democracy, we must practice self-care. Physically and mentally, we must prepare ourselves for a test in endurance. After reading this column, take deep breaths and turn off your social media accounts. Make tea. Read a lighthearted novel. Go for a walk. Knit. Meditate. Do the hokey pokey.

Because tomorrow, and every day from here on out, we’ll be resisting, and we need allies who can fight.

The Rules of Engagement: Stand As An Ally

The coming year promises to be a tumultuous time for our country and our state. Few can remember a recent time when the gap between political parties, and the rhetoric that defines them, has ever felt so uncompromisingly divisive. Our collective pride as a nation seems to be crumbling under the weight of our differences and our lack of self-awareness. The future seems bleakly overshadowed by loud voices seeking to outshout one another.

In the coming months, I’ll be using this new column to both listen and speak on the importance of shared perspective. I hope to discuss the avenues through which we can enact change and find common ground. I’ll focus on the reality of what it means to be an effective ally, collaborator, or partner.

These roles, particularly for a population like Maine’s, where disenfranchised and minority communities represent such a small portion of the demographic, are going to be vital in the coming months and years — the ways in which we treat people without access to power are indicative of our society’s morality. Developing a frame of reference for our actions is no less important than actual activism.

Amidst the calls for unity and civility, for reaching across the aisle, are legitimate concerns regarding the normalization of bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. This space won’t seek to legitimize hate or intolerance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1000 bias-related harassment or intimidation incidents were reported in the month following the election.

As a writer, a woman, and a person of color, particularly one of Muslim heritage, I’m acutely aware of these incidents on both a local and national scale, especially as a relative newcomer to Maine.

After nearly a decade spent in bustling cities on both coasts, it’s a joyous thing to be greeted by the clean smell of pine and sea salt every morning. This return to New England has reminded me of the values of my childhood — there is comfort in listening to the familiar accents of my new neighbors. I find their fierce self-sufficiency incredibly soothing.

My slow discovery of this city during winter, when it is uncluttered by tourists, has been a pleasure. From the perspective-challenging panels hosted at SPACE Gallery to the gifted local musical talent showcased at Portland House of Music to the stellar reputation of Portland’s food and drink scene — it’s almost enough to make me consider becoming a food critic rather than the cultural and political blogger I’ve been for the last several years.


My love for New England has been tempered by the fact that in Portland, I don’t have the benefit of anonymity. Strangers stop to ask my ethnic background or try to speak to me in Spanish, while others offer sincere but truly offensive “compliments” on my unusual name.

Every sly mention that I must be “from away” has shuttered some of the camaraderie I have felt being back amongst my fellow New Englanders. In my home state of Vermont, "from away" is placed with "flatlander”—we take our green mountains seriously. My time spent in New Hampshire has mostly been hiking in the Whites, where people generally do you the favor of a simple, curt nod to conserve breath, but I’m sure there’s an equivalent phrase that fulfills the same purpose—to separate us from one another.

I’ve been mulling over that phrase, “from away”, ever since I moved here. It’s certainly taken on new context given the upcoming administration, but it’s also given me some perspective on the entrenched ideals that make New England such a unique place to call home. For so many of us, the phrase “from away” is nothing more than a cute term to differentiate ourselves from people who have never worn Muck boots. To others, it’s alienating and disheartening.

Perhaps it’s time to create a new language for how to identify our differences and our similarities.

I’m looking forward to having these conversations with Mainers, the ones who were born here and the ones who have adopted this state as their home.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I look forward to hearing from you and facilitating the frank discussions that will help us grow. I wish us all a happy New Year. 

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