Next year marks the 50th anniversary of what’s become known as the Stonewall Riots. On June 26, 1969, a police raid on the Greenwich Village gay bar The Stonewall Inn was just another in a campaign of harassment of homosexuals and gay-friendly establishments. Only that night, the patrons of the bar – long a refuge from the hostility toward LGBTQ people in the outside world – refused to submit. (The Mafia owners of the Stonewall and the police had long partnered to blackmail closeted gay patrons, alongside the regular arrests and harassment.) The patrons fought back, supporters joined them, and, essentially, the modern gay rights movement was all born out of the incident in one nondescript gay bar.
In preparation for 2019’s planned celebration of Stonewall’s place in the history of gay rights in America, the University of Southern Maine’s Department of Women and Gender Studies is teaming with the USM Art Galleries and the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine to present a uniquely Maine-centered series of events as part of a program called “Querying the Past: LGBTQ Maine Oral History Project.” Intended to seek out and preserve the voices of Maine’s LGBTQ community, the upcoming events focus on the institution of the gay bar, a place where, historically, LGBTQ people could find safety, community and friendship in an often hostile world.
Kicking off the program is a new film from Maine filmmaker Betsy Carson called “Bar Stories,” which culls personal anecdotes from dozens of mostly Maine-based people whose experiences in Maine’s gay-centric establishments formed an important part of their lives. Alongside a 10-minute film profiling the upcoming (Nov. 15) art installation and storytelling event “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar” by New York artist Macon Reed, “Bar Stories” is a 45-minute documentary interviewing Mainers and former Mainers about how Maine’s gay bars provided a lot more than drinks.
“The gay bar served as a community center,” explained Carson. “It was more of a social club. I think back to when my mom, who was French, was growing up in San Francisco and belonged to a French social club there. It’s about finding your people, I guess – a safe place to find your people.” Carson, who chose and assembled the film from hours of interviews by USM professor and “Querying the Past” leader Wendy Chapkis, said that it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the fact that the gay bar as an institution is gradually fading from an American society where the acceptance of the LGBTQ community has – all too slowly – grown.
“There aren’t many of those places left,” Carson said. “Which I guess is great, since it means that the world has become more inclusive; we can get married if we choose to and go to a regular bar. But, at the same time, one of the stories in the film is from a guy from Maine who had his teeth knocked out by some (expletive).”
Looking for the appropriate ambiance for the interviews, the filmmakers sat down with people at three bars in Portland (Blackstones, Flask Lounge and Local 188). Of the three, Carson says, only Blackstones would be historically termed a gay bar – to her knowledge, the only one left in Portland. “There’s still hatred out there, especially considering the current administration, and while that’s true for everyone, I think the potential for violence exists more for gay men, since men are more threatened by gay men. Maybe that’s why Blackstones has hung in there. But all three places are very gay-friendly and were very kind to let us shoot.”
Carson, who’s been in Portland since 1991, said the interviews were eye-opening, even to her, about the changing nature of Maine’s gay community and the role of the gay bar in it. “People would be telling stories of bars that even I hadn’t heard of,” she says, explaining that, for many of the film’s subjects, the local gay bar served a variety of roles. “For one important thing, it was a place where you didn’t have to worry about being beaten up,” Carson said. “But the gay bar was also a place where, when people were just coming out, they could be around people without being afraid. The first time going into a gay bar can be really scary – everybody’s sort of afraid of the stigma of going to a gay bar. For them, it was a place to feel less alone.”
As to the need for gay bars, Carson, again, stressed how hatred and fear (and danger) exist still in the world for gay people, and how, outside of Portland, the gay bar still serves a vital function. “When you get out of Southern Maine, up in the country, I imagine it’s worse. Portand’s pretty liberal, pretty open to everyone, but there’s still a lot of hatred out there,” Carson said. “I only hope that the gay bars in those places are still open.”
“Bar Stories” screens at PMA Films on Thursday as part of USM’s “Querying the Past” project. The 45-minute film will be preceded by the short “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar,” and the program starts at 6 p.m. For tickets and info, check out the PMA website at portlandmuseum.org/movies.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “Kusama: Infinity.” Still working in her 90s, multi-discipline artist Yayoi Kusama has overcome a truly daunting series of obstacles to become, as this new documentary explains, “the top-selling female artist in the world.”
Friday: “Manhattan Short Film Festival.” Shorts from all over the world compete in this worldwide instantaneous film fest, where attendees on six continents get to vote on the winners as you see some of the most exciting new short films out there.