Posted April 28, 2023

LGBTQ+ History and Culture In Portland, Oregon


Long regarded as a mecca of unabashed weirdness, Portland, Oregon, is a city that wears its Pride on its sleeve. It’s evident in the city’s eccentric, art-filled storefronts, in its oft-hilariously specific restaurant concepts, and in the population of artisans and creatives putting their stamp on a place as famously progressive as it is bucolic.

Welcome to Portland, Oregon. (Photo Credit: Everett McIntire)

The idyllic beauty of Portland. (Photo Credit: Sophia Silvester)

As one of the most famously liberal cities in the U.S., Portland is also a particular oasis for LGBTQ+ residents and visitors, history, and culture. And really, would you expect anything less from a place whose nickname is The Rose City?

The Blossoming of Pride

Portland’s queer roots run far deeper than modern-day Pride parades, though. From the earliest days of human inhabitance, Indigenous people were said to have celebrated the notion of sexual fluidity, breaking down tropes and stereotypes centuries before such things even existed. Per the First Nations Two-Spirit Collective, even early pioneers like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were said to have documented such androgyny.

As it turns out, Portland’s forward-thinking weirdness pre-dates The Oregon Trail. Today, that heritage lives on thanks to organizations like the Portland Two-Spirit Society, reminding us that Indigenous peoples were here first — and they were bravely queer first.

A nature-filled suburb of Portland. (Photo Credit: Jonni Lundy)

It wasn’t until a century and a half after The Oregon Trail’s establishment that The Rose City’s Pride really blossomed. As with many cities, reeling in the wake of the Stonewall Riots and emboldened to take a stand, the Portland Gay Liberation Front took shape in 1970, thanks largely to the efforts of local LGBTQ+ journalists Holly Hart and John Wilkinson. The duo published a discreet classified ad in an alt newspaper, the Willamette Bridge, that read “Gay, longhair, young, lonely, seeks meaningful relationship with same.”

It may sound commonplace — and downright demure — by today’s standards, but for 1970, even in a progressive haven like Portland, it teetered on taboo. The newspaper refused to publish it, but for an openly gay man like Wilkinson, it was an opportunity to address the need for inclusivity and acceptance on a grander public scale, especially since the word “lonely” spoke to the atmosphere of the time for gay men confined to the closets of society.

A popular restaurant in the Alphabet District. (Photo Credit: Randy Rizo)

Wilkinson published a response titled, “Dear Gay, Young and Lonely,” and used it as the opportunity to call for the formation of Portland’s very own Gay Liberation Front.

The Progressive State of Oregon

The first public Pride event took shape shortly thereafter, as The Second Foundation opened the city’s first gay community center, launched a gay newspaper called The Fountain, and held its first Pride celebration — all indoors, with frills-free dances and temporary beer permits — in 1971.

Things got bigger and bolder in 1975, with Portland’s first outdoor Pride festival marching past Waterfront Park downtown. Despite evangelical Christians decrying the parade with signs that read “Turn of Burn,” and the seemingly scant attendance of about 200, it was a joyous success that only got better and brighter year after year.

The Rose City marches ever onward. (Photo Credit: Randy Rizo)

Amidst it all, progress and inclusion was swift. Oregon became the fourth state to repeal its sodomy laws in 1972, and the following year, Representative Vera Katz introduced an envelope-pushing gay rights bill that lost by just two votes.

However, in 1974, the city passed a resolution that prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and in 1977, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt proclaimed Portland’s first Gay Pride Week. Ever at the forefront of progress, all of these symbolic actions were established long before many other U.S. cities entertained such ideas.

Celebrating Pride in Portland. (Photo Credit: Mercedes Mehling)

Portland Pride is an event to remember. (Photo Credit: Alex Jackman)

But even for a city as weird and inclusive as Portland, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 1988, a Christian group known as the Oregon Citizens Alliance sponsored a measure that would eventually repeal the order barring employment discrimination. It was overruled by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1992, but the group struck back with another measure that broadly targeted “special rights” for LGBTQ+ people. Ironically for the Oregon Citizens Alliance, this only laid the foundation for Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s premiere LGBTQ+ rights organization.

A Weird, Safe Haven

Despite the inevitable homophobic hiccups, Portland continued its progress with the establishment of the Q Center in 2006, and the 2007 passing of widespread bills prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in not just employment, but also housing and public accommodations. The following year, Sam Adams became the first openly gay mayor of any major U.S. city.

Portland is a weird, safe haven in the Pacific Northwest. (Photo Credit: Sarah Ardin)

Long before same-sex marriage was even a glimmer on any state’s radar, the county issued some of the country’s first same-sex marriages in 2004. While said marriages were voided by the Oregon Supreme Court the following year, the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2014, a year before Kate Brown became the country’s first openly bisexual governor.

Today, Portland Pride isn’t a picketed affair haunted by evangelicals. Rather, Pride is on display year-round — at gay bars aplenty (e.g. Eagle Portland and Crush Bar), at LGBTQ-friendly businesses like Gold and Grit Barber Co. and The Raven’s Wing Magical Co., and at events and festivals galore. In addition to the Portland Pride Festival, now up to 70,000 attendees in Waterfront Park every July, other LGBTQ+ events include the gender-bending Red Dress Party in June, the Gay Oregon Pageant, and designated festivals for Portland Black Pride and Portland Latinx Gay Pride.

Oregon is a state known for both its inclusiveness and its progressive spirit. (Photo Credit: Katie Musial)

From its earliest Indigenous tribes, explorers, and trail-blazers, Portland has a long history of pioneering progress — an impassioned sentiment that continues apace today in one of the country’s boldest, proudest, and weirdest cities.

Where to stay: Hotel Vintage Portland or Kimpton RiverPlace

Follow the tag below to learn more about how LGBTQ+ history and culture have shaped some of our favorite cities.


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