“Come over here, you sexy bitch.”
The bartender’s voice seeped slowly into my awareness as I stood staring hang-jawed at my surroundings: the dark wood sheathing the club from floor to ceiling, the fish tanks embedded into the face of the long bar, and, especially the person sitting on the barstool. Was that the same person featured in the drag show I’d been at a few weeks earlier? Finally, I heard the words.
I turned my head toward the bartender and the space between me and the bar, which had only seconds ago been filled by other customers but was now empty, and realized he was talking to me.
“Oh! I’m the sexy bitch,” I said. “Thanks for that. I was worried that I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess.”
“Why do women always do that?” the bartender asked, pouring my drinks. “They’re always talking about how they look fat, when women are supposed to be curvy!”
I gaped again, not sure what the hell he was going on about, as if we were reading from two different scripts. Then I realized what he meant.
“No,” I said. “I meant the belt. Is it too Xena: Warrior Princess?”
“Oh,” he replied, considering. “Well, it’s a little rustic, but it breaks up the shininess of the dress.”
I carried the drinks over to my table, where my cousin Erica sat with her two friends, Traci and Miguel, and my friend S. Erica, Miguel, and Traci**, all a decade younger, had been visiting me from southern New Mexico for the last week. Finally free from parenting responsibilities, I was able to join them for a night out on the town.
The day they all arrived at my house, Miguel found my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on my book shelf and held it in his hands like it was a holy text. “Oh my god!” he squealed. “It exists! This is really it! I’ve only read about this book!”
A few days later, Miguel said, “I’ve been walking around gay all week and no one cares!”
Traci teared up one afternoon as she, Erica, and I sat talking about what women supporting women should truly look like. “You know, an easy place to start,” I said, “is to – whenever you see a woman, of any age, walking down the street or in a store or whatever, and you think something negative about the way she dresses or the way she looks – override the negative thought by sending her positive psychic energy. Say in your head, ‘I hope she’s well. I hope she’s happy. I hope life is kind to her.’”
“Yes. Yes!” Traci said, slamming her hand down on the table, choking back tears a little. “That’s what I’m saying! It’s just so nice to be around people who get it.”
I understood what she meant. I’d also been raised in southern New Mexico, with its rigid gender role expectations – where not shaving my legs meant I was a dyke. Where domestic violence is taboo “family business” that you don’t intercede on. I, like all three of my visitors, grew up watching women – sometimes our own mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmas – beaten until they surrendered to man after man. I’d heard them called whores for the way they dressed, even as they were sexualized and exploited by men whose sense of superiority convinced them they had a right. People had tried to teach me, too, to think less of myself and to fear other women as threats. As enemies. As competition.
Fortunately for me, I had Erica’s mom, Aunt Sunny, my first hero. Aunt Sunny, through action alone, showed me what a strong woman looked and thought like. “If not for your mom, Erica,” I said, “I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.”
“You know what? You helped show me all that. You’re my hero.” Erica shouted, pointing at me. Inside, I swelled.
It was while riding high on this cloud of the mythos of me that had been built up over the week of my cousin’s visit that I concocted our night out. I wanted to show everyone a sex-positive good time. I wanted all of them – these two young women and this one young man from the repressive, small southern locale I’d extricated myself from twelve years earlier – to see the possibilities, freedom, and excitement Somewhere Else offered. To see how open-minded Portland is. To see how open minded I am.
I looked around the bar. “Sorry guys. This is pretty dead.”
“I told you the queers don’t come out until late,” S said.
“Well, we’ll be going to Slaughter’s after Night of Kink,” I said. “Things will’ve picked up by then.”
Just before 10:00, we wound our way over to the Fez. We stood in line amongst men and women, young and old, dressed in leather and fishnet, nurse’s outfits and street clothes. Heads were adorned with fedoras and horns. Inside, there were two rooms, one upper and one lower. We went upstairs first, to the room that hosted the latex section, the foot fetish section, and the BDSM arena. There were two large screens with a video of a naked woman with perfect breasts and hips dancing in silhouette to loud house music. The event was just getting going, so there were only a few people milling about, the most notable being the couple dressed from toe to head in black and white checkerboard body suits. The woman had on a gigantic antique black hat with feathers. They reminded me of a Tom Petty video. I left my party and went downstairs to find some friends I was meeting up with.
The room below was much smaller. There was a mustache fetish section that displayed a video of famous mustachioed men – naked Burt Reynolds, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Selleck. A picture of Farah Fawcett with a mustache faded in and out. Near there, half a dozen naked women painted each other with body paint. Two people kissed passionately on a bench under a window. I located my friends.
By the time I got upstairs again, the room had begun to fill. Men in drag mingled with women in drag, who all mingled with a man on stilts dancing with a midget, the checkerboard people, plain Janes, people in leather… I looked around for everyone I’d come with and finally located them sitting on a series of couches arranged atop a wooden platform overlooking the BDSM arena.
For the next twenty minutes, I sat and watched, mesmerized, while an incredibly attractive naked woman, save for her thong, which hugged her perfect ass, was slowly, teasingly whipped by a man who could’ve been anyone. She leaned stomach-down against an A-framed post, arms above her head, and trembled in anticipation between each strike. Miguel sat, mouth agape, and watched as a young man was lashed by an adorable young woman, who looked very much like a librarian straight out of the 1950s.
“I see you’ve found your fetish,” I told him.
“Oh, I already knew,” he said. “Mmmhmmm.”
I turned back toward the young woman being whipped.
Eventually, Traci got down off the platform and wandered out into the arena, to the section in the corner, next to the stocks, where a chair with stirrups sat abandoned and a man in a lab coat and mad scientist wig busied himself with tools. Erica and I – and about a dozen other people – turned to watch as Miguel joined them. Traci and the man in the wig had a brief conversation in which the man presented a tool – a long, handheld wand with blue electrodes on the end. He turned the tool on and ran it over Traci’s arms and chest as she giggled. Then, she was in the chair, feet in the stirrups. We all watched as first the man in the lab coat and then eventually Miguel ran the electrocution wand over Traci’s writhing body. She was absolutely enraptured, completely unaware that anything existed except the experience she was having.
Erica nervously expressed her discomfort. Traci had a boyfriend. She’d been drinking.
“Will she regret this tomorrow?” I asked.
“She might,” Erica said.
I went down to the arena and whispered into Miguel’s ear, “She needs to be done now. Let’s move on.”
Not long after, Miguel ran up with an ecstatic look on his face. “I want to walk around in boxers!” he said and proceeded to remove his pants for the remainder of our time at Night of Kink.
Later, just before we left the Fez, as I stood by the bar, I heard someone shout my name. I turned to Erica, “Did you hear my name?”
I turned around and started toward the latex section, where people stripped naked and laid underneath a large vinyl sheet, into which they were vacuum packed. I was stopped by a man guarding the area, protecting the privacy of the person under the sheet.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I heard someone say my name,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
“No, you heard glory-hole.”
Misunderstanding a second time, I touched my chest and said loudly, but slowly, “Yes. Gloria.”
The man looked at me, exasperated. He pointed behind him and said slowly, but loudly, “No. You heard glory-hole.”
I looked where the man was pointing to a large, black wooden box with different sized circles cut into it. While I was still trying to make out what this glory hole thing was, a man walked up next to me and looked at the box. “It’s upside down,” he said, then wandered off.
Erica, Miguel, Traci, and I left the Fez and walked to our final stop, CC Slaughter’s, the premier gay dance club in Portland. While standing in line for drinks, an LCD screen displayed text messages from people on the dance floor. Miguel sent a message that said, “It’s my first time in Portland, and I learned that I love electrocution! <3.”
By pure force of will and after more than twenty minutes of waiting for our drinks, we dragged our tired feet to the dance floor. A thumping club remix of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” came on and for the first time all night I let myself go. For one song, I danced like no one was watching me (because they weren’t) and fell in crazy love with the music. Around 1:30 in the morning, sweaty, beat, and high on our night, the four of us left the club and moved onward to find drunchies.
Erica, Miguel, Traci, and I sat in our booth at the Hot Cake House surrounded by dozens of other people, all of whom also had melted hairdos and runny mascara. While I scarffed down my biscuits and gravy, Miguel and Traci recounted their experience with the electricity. They were wide-eyed and spoke in a tone that said, “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?”
“I’m moving here,” Miguel said. “I fucking love Portland.”
Sometimes I still feel like that young, naïve girl who doesn’t know what a glory hole is and who can’t even begin to live up to her own myth, but I do feel blessed to live in a place where how I look, whether I shave my legs, what kind of sex I like to have, and which gender I identify with are the least of my concerns. I fucking love Portland, too.
I hope this experience sticks with my three young visitors for the rest of their lives, even if they never do come back to Portland; even if they spend the rest of their days avoiding suffocation in closed-minded southern New Mexico. I hope to one day be the woman Erica thinks I am – the one who not only can overwrite negative messages about other women with positive thoughts, but who can also overwrite negative messages about her own body (like when a bartender insinuates she’s fat) with positive ones as well. More than anything, though, I hope for all us to be well and happy, and for life to be kind.
**no names have been changed because everyone is innocent