Preserving Queer Space — An Interview with Wendy Chapkis about the LGBTQ Oral History Project

While strides have been made for rights and visibility of LGBTQ+ people in American life overall, they’ve accompanied an unfortunate decline in bars and other designated queer spaces, which have been vital in fostering culture and community for generations. Portland witnessed this first hand last winter, when longtime Old Port dance club Styxx closed.

One person hoping to raise awareness to this alarming trend is Wendy Chapkis, USM Professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies. With filmmaker Betsy Carson, Chapkis is heading an LGBTQ Oral History Project, where individuals can share “stories about queer bar culture in Southern Maine in an effort to preserve our disappearing history.”

How long have you been planning the Oral History Project? Can you talk about what set the idea in motion?

About a year ago, I was named the Faculty Scholar for USM’s LGBTQ Collection at the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. My project over three years is to create an oral history component to the collection. Last fall, I started by identifying some key members of the local community with important stories to tell; I then matched those individuals with USM student researchers who I trained in how to conduct life history interviews. Those interviews will soon be available on the Sampson Center website for use by researchers and the public. We’ll be doing the same next fall and again in 2018-19.

But, in addition to those detailed comprehensive life history interviews, I also wanted to gather shorter accounts by a broader range of community members. So, this month (on June 4 and June 20 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., at Flask Lounge at 117 Spring St.) we’re filming short “bar stories” (5 minutes or less) by anyone from the queer community with a memory to share. We are looking for accounts of memorable incidents at a single bar on a single night or more expansive reflections on the existence and disappearance of gay bars. We welcome stories about pleasure, risk, sobriety, sex, heartbreak, love, and activism. The stories are being filmed by local filmmaker Betsy Carson (Gitgo Productions and the Blue Stockings Film Festival) and will become part of the permanent Sampson Center LGBTQ Collection and made available to the public.

As I see it, the mainstream narrative is that as LGBTQ+ culture has become more visible, it has become integrated and accepted in societies and at the legislative level. Therefore, cities and towns no longer "need" designated LGBTQ+ bars. Surely there's some good in this, but are there problems or dangers with this narrative? And does the thinking behind it change in a Trump administration?

During the first filming of bar stories on June 4, many of the accounts focused on the important role bars have played in our experiences of queer community and culture. A lot of people noted, for example, that walking into a gay bar was the first time they had ever been in a room filled with “people like them.” That is no small thing for a member of any minority community, and it’s something straight white folks probably can’t quite imagine. I don’t think that need disappears just because of greater “tolerance” of queer people by the heterosexual majority. Tolerance doesn’t build community; tolerance doesn’t provide a mirror in which you can see yourself as fierce and fabulous. Queer space does that — and we’re losing those spaces.  

Because bars are privately owned businesses, they have to turn a profit. And the way bars do that, of course, is by selling alcohol. Some members of the community talked about the role of moderation or sobriety in changing their relationship to bar culture; Not all of them have left the bar scene but they are now ordering non-alcoholic beverages or fewer drinks. This is a good thing on an individual level, of course, but it can be hard on the bottom line for bar owners. In addition, there’s been a shift, among gay men in particular, in cruising for sex from the bar scene to online apps. This too poses a challenge for bar owners and has contributed to the decline in the number of queer bars.

One response has been efforts to create queer community spaces that can operate outside of the pressure of turning a profit. Southern Maine has a growing number of options in that regard, including things like the Maine Gay Men's Chorus, MaineTransNet, Portland Outright (for LGBTQ youth), and SAGE Maine (services and advocacy for GLBT elders). In Portland, we finally have a kind of community center where these groups can meet sponsored by EqualityMaine (511 Congress St.). But I think joining a group may be a bigger step for many people than just being able to walk into a bar.

We absolutely still need queer space. Gay-bashing and anti-trans violence is a very real threat in the streets. Our bars and other community spaces can provide places for resistance as well as renewal in the face of homo- and transphobic rhetoric and policies embraced by the President, the Republican-controlled Congress, and a number of state governments.

Can you share a story in which your life was affected by having an accessible queer-friendly bar where you lived?

When I was 20, I was living in Amsterdam with my Dutch boyfriend. It was 1975, which was the UN International Year of Women and the height of the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement. I was fascinated by the fearless dykes I was encountering at international conferences and hoped I might be able to count myself among them. I somehow discovered a lesbian bar in the city and found the courage to ring their buzzer. A peep hole slid open and then, after I apparently passed the visual test, the door opened and I stepped into a world I was both thrilled and terrified by. “Tabu” was an old time butch-femme bar with red fringed lamps on the tables casting very dim light. I made my way into a booth, pulled out a book, and pretended to read in the low light while looking surreptitiously around myself at the women populating the bar. I never spoke with anyone during the half hour or so that I stayed, but I was fascinated by what I saw. It fed my fantasy life for months until I finally found my way into the queer community.

Two decades later, when I was interviewing for the faculty position at USM, I asked a waitress if there were any gay bars in town. She grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down the addresses of Blackstones, the Underground, and Sisters. The fact that there were multiple options, and that a heterosexual waitress knew about them, made me feel as if I could make a life for myself in this small coastal city. And I have.

Join the next edition of the Oral History Project at Flask Lounge, 117 Spring Street in Portland, on June 20, 5-6:30 p.m.

Last modified onWednesday, 07 June 2017 15:16