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Thriving outside the bars
Looking for the gay-and-lesbian social scene? Try the STD clinic or the tea dance
BY TONY GIAMPETRUZZI


Almost two months ago, Sisters, the only lesbian bar north of Providence, closed its doors for good. It was a sad day for many women because the watering hole was, supposedly, their only outlet for social interaction. Audrey Luce, a bartender at the 10-year-old establishment, told the Phoenix that numbers had fallen off, that women no longer sought lesbian bars.

"Itís really just because times have changed," she says. "I think that after 10 years, the women who would come into the bar are buying houses and having kids. And the younger crowd thatís going out can really go anywhere and feel accepted. [But] itís not just the club, and I can understand that women want to have children and be home, but they need to get involved, too. I really see our community changing, and in some ways, not for the better."

For some, the fall of Sisters was just the last gasp for a scene that has been slowly expiring. The same could be said of dance clubs that primarily attract men ó they come and go in Portland like snake oil salesmen, young guys get bent out of shape because there is nowhere to go, and the city that rates on lots of top-10 lists when it comes to the number of gays and lesbians in the phone book is deemed a social wasteland for queers. It is, right?

Wrong. In fact, bubbling under the surface of queer culture in Maine are fairly well-organized social groups that eschew bars and nightclubs for social interaction that members and organizers say is much more conducive to meeting like-minded people.

"It was bittersweet," says Susan Hopkins, a local attorney, of the Sisters closing. She says she used to enjoy her nights out at Sisters, and other bars, but she now prefers a more low-key venue. "Some of us who used to go there suspect that those who were drinking too much, creating drama, preying on each otherís girlfriends, and getting into fist fights spoiled it for the rest of us. I hang out with adults now."

"I went to a Seacoast Sapphos dance last March [2004] for the first time," Hopkins says by way of example. "There were over 160 women there. Last weekendís dance had about that many but I donít know the final count. I joined the group last spring, got involved in some of their planning and activities and greatly admire many of the women."

Seacoast Sapphos, ostensibly based in Ogunquit, has been meeting for a couple of years now. Although organizers declined an interview with the Phoenix, the groupís e-newsletter suggests that it is well-organized, with member elections being held in June.

"With the June elections coming, I wanted to share with all of you why this election is important. On September 21, 2002, there were about 16 women who gathered in Ogunquit to find out if there was a need to form a womanís group on the seacoast. Over the next few months, these 16 women, along with others who heard about this idea, started to come to the meetings. Many of you wanted to have events like dances, picnics, kayaking, dining out, as well as other activities," wrote the unidentified scribe. "You expressed interest in giving back to the community through donations and volunteering. After reflecting on the groupís wants and needs, a core group of women took the responsibility to volunteer for one year organizing and supporting Seacoast Sapphos mission."

That mission seems to include some fun because the newsletter goes on to list a number of social events, from tea dances held at community halls and locals bars to movie nights to other various outings (www.seacoastsapphos.org for more information).

Hopkins observes: "Most of the planners range in age from their late thirties to early seventies, but their events are consistently attended by young women as well. Many were ground-breaking women in their professions, identify as feminists, and have backgrounds in activism of one sort or another.

"Another Seacoast Sapphos member and I went to a Sage dance in New York City over Martin Luther King weekend and there were over 300 women there. I thought that was amazing and couldnít imagine that weíd get numbers like that in Maine, but last weekend there were about 290 women at the tea dance at Maine Street in Ogunquit. And it was a really positive vibe, too. So, the lesbian social scene is still kinda happening."

Phew!

Womenís social groups arenít particularly unusual. The Saco-based Sister Space was active for a number of years, and more groups exist in the midcoast region.

For one reason or another, though, menís social groups are a bit more difficult to sustain. Sure, you have your Harbor Masters, a leather group based in Portland that is also known for its philanthropy and your Rubber Masters (this Portland fetish group seems relatively new), but neither is exactly a draw for the coed prep. Neither was the Matlovich Society, a gay menís group that folded a few years ago: Its mission was to examine gay history through lectures and guest speakers. Yawn.

Other than that, most organizations that attract gay men seem rigidly structured, whether they are based on planning Pride events (Southern Maine Pride), or dressing up as women (the Imperial Court phenomenon, which, by the way, has never really rooted itself in Maine).

 

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Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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