It’s Sunday night at the Southside Speakeasy and the place is packed. It’s a larger crowd than owners Troy Jackson and David Such would normally see on a Sunday, and that’s because it’s a blow-out birthday bash for the club. Southside Speakeasy has been in business at its Industrial Drive SE location for five years and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual community and their supporters have come to celebrate. The straight to gay ratio in the bar is about 20 to 80.
Founder of The Capitol Forum Chuck Simpson said that a healthy proportion of club and organization members are straight. But it’s not just with the support of Southside Speakeasy and the non-profit organization where Salem shows its rainbow colored stripes.
Flipside Bar has played host to God-Des and She, a hip-hop duo that was featured in “Hip Hop Homos” and Showtime’s “The L Word.” The city’s recent Capitol Pride festival found a sizable audience and big named sponsors like Capitol Subaru, Wells Fargo, and Monster Energy Drinks. The Willamette Valley LGBT Confluence Choir has expanded from 16 singers to up to 45 singers. And Enigma, an adult sex-positive store that sells products that “avoid sexist, racist, homophobic, or other offensive packaging and content when possible” opened this year.
Parades and parties also are ways that the GLBT community can create a focal point that fulfills multiple necessities. At these events, and there are numerous such events, gays can gather in a welcoming society of straights and gays, raise money for charity, and create a higher profile. The upcoming crowning of Ms., Miss and Mr. Gay Salem by the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Willamette Empire, to be held on consecutive nights, Sept. 24-25 at Southside Speakeasy is one such way to celebrate the lifestyle. Support from the greater community is usually evident at these events.
The list goes on and on. There’s a lot to celebrate today in the Cherry City, because it wasn’t always such an accepting community.
Salem has seen a lot of changes since the mid-seventies when, according to ‘old timers’ like Bonnie Walbran, men from the Museum Tavern Sports Bar used to come and tear up the only gay club, Tara’s Pub on Front and Pine, and throw pool balls at gay clientele.
“It started to get better in the 90s,” Walbren said. “We were out there and saying, ‘We’re here to stay.’”
That message was widely received by communities across Oregon and, according to Gayle Allen of Salem, the “No on 9” vote was a catalyst for change across the state.
Measure 9 was intended to set a “standard for Oregon’s youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse, and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.” The measure was defeated by voters with 56 percent opposing. Various watered down versions of the bill continued to be defeated as recently as 2000.
“I really saw things change then,” Allen said. “Straight people who had sons, daughters, friends, sisters and brothers in the gay community said, ‘I’ve got to speak up!’ People began discussing the issue openly.”
“Openly” seems to be the operative word when discussing what it takes for GLBT people to become fully accepted members of the Salem society. Being ‘open’ still requires a very tricky balancing act. Gays in Salem are caught in a catch-22 – they want to be accepted as a normal part of society – folded into the many other lifestyles that make up a vibrant culture. But in order to reach that longed-for normality, they must first be “out” and make something of being out. They must stand out in a crowd they hope to someday blend into.
If the 90s were the years when straight relatives and friends began to more openly take their stand, the late 70s were the years in which the GLBT community extended the invitation for that support. The GLBT community in Salem became much more visible and viable with the creation of The Capitol Forum in 1977. The nonprofit social organization has since worked hard to increase the visibility of the gay community, provide networking for gays, and support charitable programs sponsored by various GLBT groups.
Before the advent of The Capitol Forum, the dating scene was limited to sequestered bars, according to Walbren; nowadays, social opportunities abound. A visit to The Capitol Forum’s website (capitolforum.org) can put community members on the track of more than a dozen social groups, from accepting churches to vegetarian potluck groups to youth groups such as Salem Rainbow Youth.
“Now people don’t have to step into a bar to meet other gay people,” Walbren said.
At a recent picnic benefit for the Humane Society, picnic hosts Oren Swanson and his partner, “Miss Simply Divine” Rich Coe recalled their early days in Salem and how they balanced normality with difference. According to Swanson, he and Coe lived their lives as a gay couple openly in their small suburban community and the neighbors were fine.
“If anything, they were curious,” Swanson said. “They would say, ‘Divine is dressing up for a drag show; let’s go see what she looks like.’”
When Swanson and Coe moved across town to their current home in the Hawthorne Estates area they experienced the same welcome – though it was a bit guarded at first. It took five years, Swanson recalled, but a disappointing showing of just 10 trick-or-treaters on Halloween their first year eventually blossomed to a flood of 227 trick-or-treaters in 2009.
That’s the sort of normal to which most in the community aspire.
Swanson has nothing but good to say about his neighbors. A near neighbor is like a second mother, other neighbors are like brothers, and everyone is a true neighbor – someone who helps out in neighborhood projects, he said. He’s relieved. After decades of living openly as a gay man and a contributing member of society, Swanson finds the continued fascination with his way of life… tiring.
He and his partner have walked this tightrope of outrageously out/normal neighbors more than long enough and he believes most people have now faced the reality that there are homosexuals in their own families, that there probably always have been, and that they are just as lovable when you know they are gay as they were before you knew.
That said, Swanson does have to warn that “professionally, you have to be careful.” He knows this from personal experience.
Simpson pointed out that a lot of his friends work in schools and have to keep it hidden. “It shouldn’t be that way, there are several that are open but some just feel more secure,” he said.
According to the GLBT people Salem Weekly interviewed, many of the gays who are not openly out are not out because they have government jobs. Several old-timer gays asked that their names or photos not be published for precisely this reason. This is of particular interest, because many of the people interviewed live and work in the state government, where basic civil rights are defined and defended.
In 2007, Governor Kulongoski signed the Oregon Family Fairness Act that extends most of the same benefits that a married heterosexual couple would have to same-sex domestic partners. In February 2008, domestic partnerships were able to be made.
“It’s changed a lot in 30 years but it’s not where it should be,” said one individual who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re still in the bastion of conservatism here in Salem.”
Michael Sharp, who has lived in Salem for 15 years, recalls “culture shock” coming from Portland to Salem. Remarking on the number of gays still in the closet in Salem, he recalls, “I said to myself, I know there’s a community somewhere!”
It can be difficult for those identifying as GLBT to move away from more open cities who then feel as if they’ve stepped back into the dark ages of prejudice. Sharp’s partner, Ron Shelley, recalls being able to walk down the streets in Asheville, North Carolina, holding hands with his partner. Some say the innocent gestures in Salem are still noteworthy.
Reverend Don Eck of Salem Spirit of Life Church said he knows perfectly well that the 15 openly gay members of his church represent a fraction of the gay community. “There are a lot more gay people in Salem than are visible,” he said.
The idea that one “ought to” hold hands in public for the good of the order naturally ruins the simple beauty of an affectionate moment. Salem is moving forward with acceptance, but just like the rest of the country, there’s room for improvement.
Swanson believes that the prejudice gays face in the city is perpetrated by just a few radicals. “For the most part, people accept,” he said. “But there are those radicals who wouldn’t accept you if you were black, white, or whatever.”
Editor’s Note: Our printed version incorrectly refers to Southside Speakeasy celebrating its fourth anniversary. The business is celebrating its fifth year in Salem.