Portland's first openly gay bar opened for business 30 years ago. A lot has changed since then.
by Al Diamon
In 1967, Portland was on another planet. The city that today prides itself on being the first in the state to approve a gay rights law was, 30 years ago, unwilling to approve a dance license for a bar frequented by same-sex couples. The police department that now pays particular attention to hate crimes looked the other way three decades ago, when a gay bar's windows were repeatedly smashed and its patrons harassed. The politicians who carefully court the gay vote in 1997 were, with few exceptions, openly hostile to the idea of protecting civil rights based on sexual orientation.
From the time Roland's Tavern opened its doors on the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues in May 1967 until it burned down in May 1981, it provided Southern Maine's gay men and lesbians with their first fragile shelter from an angry straight world. Although the city had long had downtown businesses that tolerated gay cruising - the Falmouth Hotel, Cremo's and the State Café to name a few - none was openly supportive of its homosexual clientele. Roland's was something new: All the patrons might not have been out, but the bar itself certainly was.
"It was unbelievable what we had to do to keep the door open," owner Roland Labbe recalled during a June 12 discussion at the Matlovich Society, a Portland-based gay, lesbian and bisexual educational organization. "We had to fight the City Council, the police and the state just to get a license .... For the first four or five years, I was in court more than I was in the business. But I got courage from support in the gay community."
Labbe, 61, was a Lewiston native who moved to Portland in the early 1960s before venturing on to New York. He returned to Portland in 1966, intent on bringing the Stonewall spirit to Maine. He and his mother lived upstairs over the bar, and several of his family members helped run the operation. In many ways, Roland's wasn't very different from a lot of neighborhood watering holes, except it quickly became a common occurrence to have a brick come crashing through the bar's front window. "It was Saturday night entertainment for the straight crowd," Labbe said.
After repeatedly replacing the panes, only to have them smashed again the following week, he switched to Plexiglas. The bricks bounced off, leaving scrapes and scars that soon rendered the new windows dirty-looking and barely translucent.
"We had gangs coming in to beat up the faggots," Labbe said. "The one thing I can say about that is we never, ever, backed down from a fight."
From its opening weekend, Roland's drew large crowds. While some customers walked in openly, many waited across the street until they thought no one was watching before making the dash to the door. Inside, they found a long bar, walls covered with broken mirrors (souvenirs of fights with gay bashers), a jukebox, pool tables, pinball, shuffleboard and a dance floor with a prominent red light above it. The light was not for atmosphere. It was turned on whenever a stranger entered in order to warn couples to halt any unlicensed shaking of booties. "When the light flashed on," said Randy Scott, a longtime employee, "everybody ran for the corners like cockroaches."
Initially, the crowd was mostly male, but Roland's soon attracted a significant lesbian clientele. "It was heaven," recalled one woman attending the Matlovich meeting. "It was dark, loud music, danger. It was a dive, and I say that with the utmost respect."
Scott, 42, who moved on to open The Underground in 1981, was part of an early 1970s exodus of young Maine gays who found the promised land in Portland. "After high school, I got out of Phillips, Maine, as fast as I could," he said. "When I got to Portland, people told me to stay away from Roland's, so that was the first place I went.
"There was a gay community before Roland's," said Scott, who worked at the bar as a bouncer and bartender, "but no legitimate place where gay men and lesbians could go and be comfortable."
But there was more to Roland's than simply cruising, boozing and dancing. The bar gave the fledgling gay community a focus. In the early '70s, Roland's began holding fundraisers, one of them for the group trying to stop singer Anita Bryant and other Christian fundamentalists from repealing an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Fla. Although the law was overturned, Scott called the effort to save it "the single most solidifying campaign we'd had."
That led to some serious political discussions in the bar. Labbe often purchased copies of local gay political publications and handed them out to customers. Debates sprang up over the best course to follow in achieving equal rights. Older patrons, often prominent citizens with closeted sex lives, argued for a go-slow policy. Younger customers, who were increasingly out, wanted a faster schedule. When the first Maine Gay Symposium was held, nearly a quarter-century ago, Scott said it added weight to the arguments of those seeking rapid change. "It brought true activism to the bars," he said.
By the mid-1970s, the city's attitude toward its gay population showed some small signs of progress. A majority of the City Council no longer automatically voted against renewing Roland's liquor license. In 1975, when Labbe opened The Phoenix on Oak Street, a club that catered to both gays and straights, he had no trouble getting a dance license. The police were no longer openly hostile. When Labbe was attacked by a brick-wielding assailant, officers quickly tracked down the offender, but delayed arresting him for a few days. "They held off until he turned 18," said Scott, "so he could be prosecuted as an adult."
Nor was it just city government that was changing. Scott and some friends were walking home from a party early one morning, when they were spotted by some men driving around in a car with the name of a local beer distributor on the side. The group in the car followed the gay men and harassed them. The next day, Scott went to Labbe and asked him to stop carrying that distributor's beer. When the distributor found out, he brought the offending employee in to meet with Labbe and Scott. "I want you to apologize," the distributor told his worker. "It won't make any difference in whether you keep your job, because I'm going to fire you anyway. But if you apologize, you'll get unemployment."
Although virtually everyone in Portland knew what and where Roland's was, the bar remained officially invisible throughout most of its 15-year existence. The operation drew attention from the local media only twice, once when the city's first gay porn shop, Wayne's Country, opened in the basement, and again in 1981, when an arsonist burned the building to the ground. Ironically, it wasn't gay bashers who finally put an end to Roland's, but a drunken patron who'd been refused service. In a final twist, the arsonist had his conviction and five-year prison term overturned by the Maine Supreme Court because the judge at his trial neglected to ask potential jurors if they had a bias against homosexuals. The man eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison for three years.
By the time Roland's burned, Portland had several gay bars - some open about it, some not. Our Paper, a local newspaper for gay men and lesbians, was being published by a group centered around Our Books, a gay bookstore. Fred Berger, a gay man, would soon run (unsuccessfully) for the City Council. A couple of years later Barb Wood, a lesbian, would win a council seat, and begin laying the groundwork for passage of the city's civil rights ordinance.
All that would probably have happened even if Roland's had never existed, but it might have taken a lot longer. Roland's didn't create the gay community, but it did force straight Portlanders to accept that one existed. It forced local government to accept that homosexuals had to be treated equitably. It forced the business community to acknowledge the power of gay dollars. Not bad for a place that today is a vacant lot.
"The straight community finally began to accept that we weren't going to go away," said Labbe. "We were always going to be there."
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