PORTLAND, Maine — After more than 30 years of serving the city’s LGBTQ community, the last last call at Portland’s only gay nightclub will come on New Year’s Day.
The closure of Styxx, the cavernous Spring Street nightclub, is tied in part to the remarkable rise in Americans’ acceptance of gay men and lesbians in recent decades, according to owner Josh Moody, who said that business has slowed as costs have risen.
The news was bittersweet for some gay Portlanders, who saw triumph in the changed attitudes that have made the city’s nightlife more welcoming but who also mourned the closing of an institution that provided community and acceptance when many in the country and city regarded being gay as transgressive.
As recently as 10 years ago, gay Portlanders would primarily stick to the city’s handful of LGBTQ bars, said Moody, who’s worked at Styxx since 2004 and owned it since 2009. But as heterosexual Americans have become more comfortable with their gay counterparts, LGBT Portlanders have increasingly frequented other downtown bars and clubs.
“There’s just a lot more bar hopping now than there used to be in the gay community,” Moody said. “It’s the acceptance. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the gay community, it’s just bad for gay bars.”
Portland still has a self-declared gay bar in Blackstones on Pine Street, and many in the LGBTQ community said Flask Lounge is another prefered spot. The challenge of meeting people with the same sexual orientation has also been eased by the rise of dating apps. But the closure of the city’s only gay nightclub, which was first reported by Dispatch magazine, comes as a blow to many.
“Having identified gay bars is essential to the community, and the loss of Styxx is a real loss,” said Tommy Walz, a member of the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, who added that even in liberal Portland he feels “hints of fear” as a gay man.
Walz only goes to Styxx occasionally but said he’s sad to see the club close — a sentiment shared by several other gay men interviewed for this story.
Moody said Portland still needs a gay club.
“I still get people in here quite often who say they only feel comfortable here, people from away, people from up north, people visiting … who wouldn’t necessarily go to a gay bar in their own town,” he said.
Bars and clubs have long served as centers for people whose sexuality was rejected by society at large and contending with anti-gay violence and police raids was a regular part of owning or patronizing a gay bar just a few decades ago.
But public opinion has dramatically shifted in the last 20 years. In 1996, only 27 percent of Americans said same-sex marriages should be legal, according to Gallup. A year after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed same-sex couples’ right to marry, that number is 68 percent.
In Portland, Styxx’s history and name has tracked this sea change. The club was known as The Underground starting in the 1980s — the decade when Charlie Howard was thrown off a bridge and killed by three Bangor teens, who later told police they’d been looking to beat up a “faggot.” Before that, it had been called Rumors and earlier The Limelight, Moody said.
Mary Bonauto, the Portland lawyer who successfully argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, applauded the fact that more young gay people are comfortable going elsewhere, but said the club’s closure is a real loss.
“There’s a lot of value of gay spaces where non-gay people come in and participate,” Bonauto said. “We need gay spaces because there still is a problem of safety and acceptance in many parts of the state.”
In 2009, a Bangor memorial to Howard was vandalized with vulgar graffiti. Moody said he still gets men jeering outside the club: “‘I dare you to go in there, man. I dare you to go in.’”
And in a public apology this summer for calling a member of the state legislature a “c—-sucker,” Gov. Paul LePage explained that, angered by charges of racism, he’d called the lawmaker “the worst word I could think of.”