From Oregon with Pride

Queer life has long been linked with big, coastal cities like Portland. But entrepreneurs and organizers have worked to carve out LGBTQ+ spaces in smaller cities and towns across the state.

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Xanadu is one of Oregon’s newest LGBTQ+ bars. It also might be haunted. 

Per an Instagram post shared last fall, Astoria legend holds that Xanadu stands at the former location of an ice cream shop and, more recently, the Voodoo Room. Former employees of the latter say they’ve seen a male figure dressed like the ice cream shop’s owner. 

Now it’s a popular haunt for residents and visitors to the bustling coastal town, who enjoy cocktails named after queer historical figures like Harvey Milk and Rock Hudson, as well as LeRoy Adolphson, a longtime resident who served as the grand marshal of the second Astoria Pride festival. Xanadu opened on March 9 next to the Columbian Theater on Marine Drive and takes its name from the cult-favorite 1980 roller-disco fantasy film starring Olivia Newton-John. 

Pop culture and queer historical references are important to owner Scott Justus, who serves on the board of the Lower Columbia Q Center and as membership director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“[H]aving that conversation with younger people is important and fun. It’s a fun way to make [education] happen. We don’t make people feel bad for not knowing,” Justus says. “That’s how you learn. That’s why we’re asking for LGBTQ+ education in classes, because if no one teaches it, how would you know?”

Scott Justus, Co-Owner of Xanadu in Astoria. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Justus said that visitors have quickly warmed to Xanadu. It offers something for people settling into the coastal town, and for younger patrons who need a safe space to have fun and figure themselves out. 

Gay bars have served as crucial meeting spaces for decades. The reason most Pride celebrations take place in June, after all, is to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which were precipitated by the 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. 

And while queer life has long been associated with large, urban centers, including Portland — where more than a dozen bars service the metro area’s LGBTQ+ community full-time, and at least twice as many bars give at least once a month to queer programs like drag shows and dance parties — LGBTQ+ nightlife, businesses and activism thrive  across Oregon, from the state capital to wilderness retreats. Oregon Business spoke to owners of queer bars — and other businesses — about how they thrive year-round, how they support their customers and communities, and how they’ve responded to a backlash that has their businesses and events in the crosshairs of a culture war. 

Trapdoor Bar and Grill opened in 2020 in the heart of Ashland, near Lithia Park. It’s situated at the site of the Vinyl Club, which hosted queer-focused events but also had a reputation for violence, including a 2018 incident where a bouncer inflicted serious injuries on a patron and ultimately cost the former venue its liquor license. The new space is an upscale cocktail bar; the new owners have continued to host queer-friendly events while working to make sure Trapdoor is a space where everyone feels welcome and safe.

“We wanted to eventually be a tradition where more or less everyone feels included or we are more of an all-inclusive location. We thought that it was extremely important to keep that Pride event going on because it was such a big part of the venue, and what Ashland is as a town,” says co-owner Ron Morairty. 

Trapdoor hosts drag and burlesque shows as well as standup comedy and live music, with the goal of creating a space where members of the LGBTQ+ community and straight people can feel comfortable every night of the week. 

Morairty says he doesn’t have any direct connection to the LGBTQ+ community. But he views Ashland — where he has lived for most of the last 14 years, save a stint in the military — as a place uniquely positioned for the kind of inclusive environment he has been working to create.

“Ashland is kind of this weird bubble that isn’t like the rest of the towns around it and isn’t like the rest of Southern Oregon in general,” Morairty says. “It’s a big mixing pot of a bunch of different ways of thinking, cultures, mindsets and ways of life. In my opinion, that’s what we want in America: a giant melting pot of mixed ideas, action and thought that creates this wonderful location where everyone feels included, as if it’s a place that you’ve been before or wanted to be, and you couldn’t find it.”

He says Trapdoor’s staff are trained to lead with respect, and on how to assist if queer patrons feel uncomfortable or worse. “Thankfully, we’ve never had to use our [safety] procedures, and I hope that day never comes,” Morairty says. 

The safety of customers and staff isn’t a new issue for bars in general, nor for queer bars in particular. In the 1980s, groups of skinheads in Portland and elsewhere reportedly lurked outside gay bars, attacking patrons as they left. But in 2023, LGBTQ+ people — as well as events and businesses that affirm them — are at targets in an intensifying culture war. This year alone, the big-box retailer Target pulled some Pride Month merchandise in response to harassment of staff, and conservatives announced plans to boycott Budweiser after the company made a sponsored-content deal with a transgender influencer. And events like drag queen story hours — the first of which was organized in the Bay Area in 2015 as a way to include more queer parents — are increasingly the focus of protests and violent threats, as well as legislation to ban such events, or ban drag altogether. 

While more Oregon communities are holding Pride events and host queer spaces than ever before, the state is not immune to the rising backlash. As this issue went into production, for example, two people were arrested after a sidewalk fight broke out between two groups protesting Oregon City’s first-ever Pride festival.

Jason Wood is a voice coach in Florence, a town on Oregon’s Central Coast with a population of 9,475. He also performs in drag as Fanny Rugburn, regularly hosting all-ages events like storytime readings since 2017. 

Jason Wood

Wood says neo-Nazis heckled and harassed his show at the Florence Golf Links on April 29, during his second campaign for Siuslaw County’s school board. 

“Many of the people who came to protest my show had out-of-state license plates on their cars,” Wood says. “I’m not naive enough to think there were zero community members involved, but many of them were not from our community, so it points to something being organized on a larger scale. I have way more support — and Fanny Rugburn has way more support — in the community than there are people speaking out against her.”

Wood says he told his fans online not to engage with the harassers in any way. Police kept the neo-Nazis and their counterprotesters separated, and the event ended with no physical violence. 

It was also a great show, Wood says; he describes that performance as Fanny Rugburn’s best production to date, entirely unrelated to his harassment, but that he still has mixed feelings about the day. 

“The fire is a lot hotter, and someone turned it up, and the fact that I [was] also running for school board probably also added to the heat, especially since the banner at the bottom of the hill said, ‘Keep pedophiles out of our schools,’” Wood says. 

“And let’s not [dance] around it: That is the worst thing you can say to someone. That’s the worst thing you can call someone. I’m not bothered personally, because I know I’m not a pedophile or a groomer, but it’s upsetting that people have the audacity to say that about someone they’ve had very little, if any, contact or experience with,” Wood says. 

Wood is not alone. In October about 50 protesters — some of them armed — showed up to protest a Drag Queen Storytime event at Old Nick’s Pub in Eugene. They were outnumbered by counterprotesters, about 200 of whom showed up to circle the pub during the event, which took place early on a Sunday. 

Pub staff told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the pub has hosted drag story hours for years — with organizer Jammie Roberts saying they also help organize similar events in Southern Oregon — but such events have recently come under the scrutiny of far-right commentators and protesters, who accuse the performers and organizers of using the events to groom children. (The logic is, apparently, that all drag performance is inherently sexual, though that idea is difficult to square with an honest definition of drag.) 

Just a month after the Eugene event, a man who ran a neo-Nazi website shot and killed five people — and wounded 25 others — at the Colorado Springs’ Club Q before patrons stopped him. 

Colorado Springs has a population of half a million people, making it the second-most populous city in the state and comparable in size to Portland. But the city is probably better known as the site of Focus on the Family’s headquarters as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy, and some national media coverage of the Club Q shooting was couched in surprise that any queer spaces existed in Colorado Springs to begin with.

Entrepreneurs and organizers in smaller Oregon cities — including Eugene as well as Salem and Bend — have worked in recent years to carve out queer-friendly spaces, more often in the form of event nights than dedicated gay bars. 

Daniel Young is not the father of Bend’s queer nightlife, but he is D’Auntie Carol, host of drag bingos and brunches at Bend’s Campfire Hotel & Pool Club, which holds Bend’s Winter Pride celebrations — a snowy spin on the traditional summer event. He also hosts the pop-up party Hey Honey, which takes place at the queer-owned restaurant Spork.

Young moved to Bend in 2011 and wanted to bring with him a vision for queer nightlife that was beginning to blossom in Portland at that time, when producers were just starting to host queer parties — like Blow Pony, Gaycation and Booty — outside the safety net of gay bars. That not only brought newfound freedom for creatives to mold venues to their vision but also brought LGBTQ+ people together to socialize in new settings.

Young says people often tell him that he should open Bend’s first full-time gay bar, but Young counters that he will give all the advice he can to anyone else with the funds and resources to make it happen. Same goes for young queens who want to host their own drag brunch, bingo or pop-up party in the meantime. 

“There’s been a lot of ‘You should do this,’ and for me, it should be ‘You should do this,’” Young tells OB. “I’ll sit down to coffee and show you how I do things, and you can throw another drag brunch or do this sort of thing, and the more people that do it, the more visible we are as a community,” Young says.

Campfire is not a gay bar but does advertise itself as an explicitly queer-friendly space. So far, general manager Daniel Elder says, that seems to have been enough to deter homophobic and transphobic people from visiting. 

Salem’s sole gay bar, the Southside Speakeasy, is situated in a secluded corporate park south of the city’s municipal airport. That relative isolation has also kept patrons safe, says co-owner David Such. 

David Such, right, with his partner and Southside Speakeasy co-founder, Troy. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

“We don’t really have problems with people because we’re in an area where you know you’re going to a gay bar if you’re going there,” Such says. “We’re not downtown, but we’re seeing people being more open in public and holding hands, and you never saw that 18 years ago.”

And like many gay bars, Southside Speakeasy gets its share of straight-identified patrons, all of whom seem to enjoy themselves. 

Such says parents visit on weekends, taking a break during their kids’ basketball games at the neighboring court. A swingers club and a fetish group also started holding dinner parties at the bar after they met with less accepting spaces in town, Such adds.

 “They went to another bar and were asked to leave because people there didn’t agree with the choices they were making, even if they weren’t performing any of those choices in their space,” Such says. “There are people all over the board who come in, like straight people with gay best friends, or our parents and relatives, so people feel welcome and not uneasy being here.”

Drag story events are relatively new, and the right-wing focus on them even newer. The recent backlash has prompted legislative attempts to ban drag performance altogether: Idaho legislators tried to ban drag performances in public facilities during this year’s session, but the bill failed to advance. Tennessee’s Legislature successfully passed a bill limiting drag performance to age-restricted venues, though at the beginning of June that bill was struck down by a federal judge who said it violates First Amendment protections. (Laws against masquerading, or costumed dress, were used to arrest queer-presenting and gender-nonconforming people for much of the 20th century, and such laws were often a pretense for bar raids like the one that sparked the Stonewall riots.) 

Even the conflation of queer identity with pedophilia, and rhetoric about indoctrination of children, have a familiar ring. In 1977 singer Anita Bryant argued that homosexuals should not be protected from discrimination because they used school teaching positions to “recruit” children into their lifestyle. And in 1992 Oregon voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure that would have amended the Oregon constitution to define “ homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism” as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” 

Jill Nelson, treasurer of Oregon Pride in Business. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

In those days, businesses that welcomed queer people were far more difficult to find, says Jill Nelson, treasurer of Oregon Pride in Business, an LGBTQ+ business alliance connecting queer business owners across industries in Oregon and Washington. 

“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to find people like us, your two choices were gay-
affirming churches and the bar. That was it,” Nelson tells OB.

Nelson remembers being an out lesbian in the 1990s, and she says the current backlash doesn’t scare her. She is confident that the LGBTQ+ community is better organized and equipped to fight together against the current backlash. She also thinks the business community is more committed to equality than people may realize. 

“I think that the business community is leading LGBTQ+ acceptance nationally and culturally. You can see that with Disney,” Nelson says, referring to an ongoing dispute between the Walt Disney Company and the state of Florida, which has culminated in legal action by the latter against Gov. Ron DeSantis. Disney’s suit says Florida’s government has retaliated politically after company officials publicly criticized Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “Politically, we are divided as a country, but in the business world, we are not as divided.

“There are fiscal conservatives who run businesses who are definitely going to look for conservative financial strategies, and that’s going to be important to them. But they realize they have to create environments for their employees and the people they do business with to succeed, and they‘re becoming less biased in who they want to do good business with,” she adds.

Nelson acknowledges homophobic and transphobic discrimination against business owners still happens in the United States but believes it to be an overall rare occurrence in the Pacific Northwest, pointing to more than a decade of positive business interactions across three separate financial institutions her business has used. She believes that the work of LGBTQ+ activists and business owners, supported by the overall accepting spirit of the Pacific Northwest, will make legislation against the community difficult to implement. 

“I’ve seen the LGBTQ+ news that comes out of Florida, and I’ve seen 300-plus drag protesters in heels, and it makes me think ‘Yeah, they don’t know what’s coming at them if they keep this up,’” Nelson says. “I think we are better prepared to fight this bigotry and negativity as a community than ever before.And especially in this area, I don’t think we will see it rear its ugly head as much, and if we do, there will be pushback.”

Wood says allies from urban cities can support rural LGBTQ+ communities by visiting, even if they don’t have boldly out and proud destinations like gays bars or coffee shops. He recommends Southern Oregon Pride and Yachats Pride. 

“It is difficult to get something like a Pride celebration going in a rural area, so even though it looks like it might not have a lot to it, it always does. There’s a lot of heart and thought that went into it,” Wood says. 

Justus says rural populations especially need people who are both trained for the jobs people like him hire to fill, but also people who can afford to live in the area without scraping by to make ends meet. Justus says Xanadu proudly pays employees more than minimum wage. He works with Clatsop County Community College’s Small Business Development Center to develop training opportunities for future employees, and to help other queer business owners in Astoria thrive. 

Even for his immersion in Astoria’s broader community, Justus can’t help but find comfort in seeing a rainbow flag at businesses like Xanadu. 

“It’s like when I moved to town and I asked where my people were. I mean, ‘Where are my gay people?’ Because they’re going to understand my life and experiences a lot differently than people from the straight community because of the issues that we deal with,’” Justus says. “It’s not that we don’t want to be part of that community, it’s that we want to be able to relate to someone on that level so we can go out and be ourselves in the broader community.”

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Editor’s Note: The version of this story that ran in the July/August 2023 print edition of Oregon Business incorrectly identified the co-owner of Trapdoor Bar & Grill as Todd Morairty, not Ron Morairty. Oregon Business regrets the error.