COTTON BRIEFS, neon drinks, and green balloons: It's a recent Friday night at the Silverado, Portland's only dedicated gay strip club, and the scene is decidedly festive. But when two women—among just seven in the club—dance over to a wandering performer and douse him with compliments, he smiles politely before quickly interjecting: "I shouldn't be talking to you. My boss is watching."
The Silverado is the only gay bar in Portland that openly dissuades women from casually visiting, made clear by a prominent sign on the entrance: "Guys $3, Dolls $5." While this difference may seem petty, there's one problem: It's illegal.
"As a gay man, I find it insidious and embarrassing," says attorney Lake Perriguey, known for his local work on gay rights cases and who now hopes to shame the club into changing its ways. "It's like asking blacks or Jews to pay more, really."
According to the Oregon Public Accommodations Act, AKA the "Equality Act," it's "illegal to discriminate in places of public accommodation on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, or age." While the occasional ladies' night at a straight bar may slip by unnoticed, demanding that women routinely pay more to get inside a gay club has begun catching some visitors' attention.
But this issue also isn't all that new to Portland. In the 1970s, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon sued the Portland City Club for not including women in their organization. More recently, in 2002, Portland's Fraternal Order of the Eagles was required by court to offer women membership.
Perriguey was shocked when he brought some female friends to the club one weekend. He says it's ironic that Silverado appears to be violating the same law that gay advocates across the state fought to include themselves in, back in 2007.
Silverado manager Imer Rodriguez didn't return several requests seeking comment and an explanation of the policy's origins. But Silverado staffers who didn't want to give their names clearly weren't troubled. "That's just the way it is," said one employee. "We're a gay bar."
Bob Estabrook, of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), says that while he hasn't heard any complaints about Silverado, it doesn't mean it's in the clear. But because BOLI's investigations are complaint-driven, he says, someone would need to file a formal complaint first.
"A lot of people complain about these kind of things but never follow up," says Estabrook. "Unless we have that document, we can't do much."
There is an argument for trying to discourage women from coming to gay bars. Perriguey says he's heard of straight men preying on women who feel they're in a "safe" environment. These encounters, especially when the guys get a little pushy, can sometimes lead to fights with bouncers. "But is it fair to put the burden on women because of asshole men?" Perriguey asks.
Darcelle, legendary drag queen and owner of the theater Darcelle XV, says she's never heard of predatory straight men in her club. Darcelle charges all customers $15 to see her nightly drag shows. "We're an entertainment bar, so we charge," she says. "But there would be no reason for charging anyone else more than the others."
Some of Silverado's female patrons seem okay with the price difference. "It's a place for gay men to have fun and feel safe, so it makes sense that I'd pay more," said one woman, surrounded by gay male friends, who didn't want to be identified. Another said the pricing reminded her of a straight strip club, where, she says, men often have to pay more than women.
That, however, might apply more to swingers clubs that charge more for male membership than female, like Portland's Club Sesso. But, Perriguey says, members likely join the club agreeing to bylaws that include this price difference, making it a choice rather than a requirement.
A quick survey of Portland strip clubs catering to straight guys show that most charge a flat entry fee, if any. And if they did charge men more, it would be equally illegal.
"I've never heard of such a stupid thing," says Vicki Keller, owner of Mary's Club, which charges $2 for all customers past 9 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. "It's discouraging that it's come to that."
Some local gay club owners also find the discrepancy troublesome. Local Lounge's Randy Faber says he'd rather charge gay patrons to enter and let any curious straight visitors show up for free, all to promote diversity (although that, too, would be illegal).
"It's terrible to discriminate within our own subculture," says Faber. "Portland is such a diverse community, we have to do our best to include everyone."
Read Silverado's response to the discrimination accusations HERE.