Betsy Carson and Wendy Chapkis filming an interview at Flask for “Bar Stories From Queer Maine.” Photo courtesy of Wendy Chapkis

Everybody loves their neighborhood bar/tavern/watering hole/sketchy dive. But apart from the “Cheers” of it all (everyone knowing your name, and so forth), Maine’s gay bars have long fulfilled other, especially vital purposes for Maine’s LGBTQ+ community.

“Bar Stories From Queer Maine,” showing this weekend in Bangor and Camden, is the work of University of Southern Maine faculty member Wendy Chapkis and Portland filmmaker Betsy Carson, and it grew out of their shared realization that the gay bar as an institution is becoming rarer and rarer. Portland, for example, has one self-identified gay bar (Blackstones), along with a few notably gay-friendly others, a fact that Chapkis and Carson’s short film portrays as both good and bad.

“Bar Stories” started out as an oral history of a disappearing place.

Chapkis, chair of USM’s sociology department and a professor of sociology and women’s studies, says, “A few years ago on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, I decided to do some interviews with people about what queer bars meant to them and what that culture was like. Betsy, who is an actual filmmaker, was willing to do some filming, and we ended up talking to 15 or 20 people. We asked them what the gay bar meant to them, what their best/worst experience was like, and Betsy edited it to around 45 minutes. It played at local venues, before the pandemic, around town (One Longfellow Square, the PMA, the library), and then we decided to edit it down to 15 minutes and submit it as a short to film festivals.”

“Bar Stories,” like bar stories are in general, is uniquely interesting.

Chapkis says she was shocked by the positive response to “Bar Stories”; the Maine-centric short documentary wound up being accepted at some 11 film festivals in places as far-flung as the U.K., Spain and India, as well as the U.S. “There’s clearly something about this topic, I think,” said Chapkis, “that overcame the fact of it being a little film from a state most people don’t even know is in the U.S.” Chapkis credits Carson’s expert editing in both the film’s 45-minute and 15-minute iterations, plus the charisma and anecdotes of the interviewees as they share tales of extinct places like Roland’s Tavern, Sisters, Underground and other Maine gay hot spots. “The stories themselves are pretty compelling,” Chapkis said, “and Betsy did a great job of picking the best ones.”

With the help of filmmaker Betsy Carson, USM professor Wendy Chapkis set out to tell “Bar Stories from Queer Maine.” Photo courtesy of Wendy Chapkis

Is the gradual loss of the gay bar a problem or progress?

According to Chapkis, it’s both. “I was talking to one queer woman recently who views it as a positive, saying, ‘We got what we wanted – we can go anywhere.’ But in another sense, there’s not somewhere that’s intended for you. It’s unlikely now that I’ll get beaten up at, say, Three Dollar Deweys, but if I flirt at someone on the barstool next to me, it might not go well, or be confusing. At a gay bar, we’re not going to be confused for who we are.”

Apart from the comfort aspect, Chapkis also notes how “Bar Stories” underscores how the gay bar served many, deeply necessary functions for a marginalized community. “They were my generation’s way of socializing, creating community, and finding partners, certainly, “ said Chapkis. “It’s where we fomented revolution and organized. The gay bar wasn’t just a social space, it was a political space.”


There’s a generational aspect, too.

Chapkis notes with a chuckle that the Bangor event is sponsored by AARP, an organization familiar to many of the film’s now middle-aged subjects. “Just yesterday, I was at an event at Portland’s Equality Community Center, which drew around 40 people,” said Chapkis. “There are now venues where some of that work can be done, and that’s a great thing. Plus, in the film, we do get into the dark side of the gay bar experience in how it encouraged alcoholism – people discuss the challenge that your whole social world is based around alcohol. Young queer people today don’t need to go to bars, they use the internet.”

The gay bar may be due for a comeback, for better or worse.

Chapkis noted the coincidence that we were doing our interview on June 12, the anniversary of the 2016 massacre at Miami’s Pulse nightclub, where a bigoted man with a gun murdered 49 queer people and injured scores more in what they assumed was a safe space. With anti-gay hatred on the rise and the embracing of anti-LGBTQ+ fear-mongering with anti-gay laws in multiple states, the Washington Post recently reported that anti-LBGTQ+ hate crimes have quadrupled.

“The very fact that gay people come together is considered political and offensive and a problem for some,” said Chapkis. “And bars were always that, and continue to be that, especially in places that don’t have an Equality Community Center.” With the rise of bigotry and violent extremism, Chapkis notes that the gay bar’s function as a place of unity and social change may not be done yet. “There have been very violent attacks on gay bars, drag shows, and the like,” said Chapkis. “If you don’t have another space where you can go and meet – and organize – it’s important to have a gay bar.”

The 45-minute version of “Bar Stories From Queer Maine” screens Friday in Bangor, while Camden’s Queer Film Fest on Saturday includes the 15-minute short.

You can watch the full film (and much more fascinating stuff) at USM’s Wendy Chapkis-coordinated Querying the Past: Maine LGBTQ+ Oral History Project.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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