Eugene’s Historical Stride for Pride

The city of Eugene has consistently been a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQIA+ community

Pride might look like red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. It might be signs stating “Love is Love,” or “It’s a Great Day to be Gay.” It might be fun, colorful outfits — with feathers and flowers and boa scarves — paired with sparkly makeup and a rainbow cowboy hat. Pride might be celebrated in Eugene during August, Eugene’s own Pride Month. But Pride in Eugene is also serious with a rich history. 

Currently, Eugene-Springfield has one LGBTQIA+ queer event space, bar and restaurant — Spectrum on West Broadway — but the area has a long record of queer-friendly locations.

The gay rights movement took off in the late 1960s, and according to city documents Eugene was a leading community in its acceptance and inclusion of gay people. In 1969, the University of Oregon started the Gay People’s Alliance. It is now the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Alliance (LGBTQA), and it is the oldest organization for gay people at a West Coast university, according to the UO Libraries exhibit “Creating Change: Creating Change: Forty Years of LGBTQ Activism at the University Of Oregon.” 

From the late 1960s to the 1980s a large number of lesbians moved to Eugene. The city was considered a “lesbian mecca,” according to the the UO’s Eugene Lesbian History Project.

In 1975, the Wallflower Order Dance Collective emerged in Eugene. This group, made up of University of Oregon women, held practices on campus in Gerlinger Hall before touring nationally. The group used dance as a way to showcase political activism and social justice. Krissy Keefer, a co-founder of the group, says Eugene was a prime location to start something like this. 

“It’s a university town, and it’s small and it’s liberal,” Keefer says. “There was a strong sense of what collectives were and social justice.”

Through touring, Wallflower Order was able to share its progressive, inclusive ideas to other towns across the country. Keefer says that that in each city they traveled to, there would be a women’s production company producing feminist lesbian culture. 

“We put Eugene on the map in terms of lesbian culture,” Keefer says. “We made a big deal about being from Eugene.” 

Eugene had many other organizations and establishments that backed up a strong lesbian culture. An August 2021 report on LGBTQIA+ history in Eugene by the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History and the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology lays out some of the gay-friendly groups and businesses, going back to the opening of the 19th century. 

The report says Mother Kali’s Bookstore, first on Blair Boulevard and later on 13th Avenue near the UO campus, was a pioneer in lesbian and feminist bookstores. 

In 1975, Gertrude’s Cafe, first on 370 W. 6th Avenue, then 1161 Lincoln Street, was one of many restaurants in Eugene opened by women’s collectives; this cafe was a space for lesbians to gather. The food was purposefully priced inexpensively, and the establishment was run without a designated manager, the report says. Mama’s Homefried Truck Stop, 790 E. 14 Avenue, opened shortly after, and offered housing and employment in the restaurant. 

The Metropolitan Community Church was one of Eugene’s first LGBTQIA+ religious institutions. Cassaday’s, 222 E. Broadway, which then became Cassady’s Tavern, 539 E 13th Avenue, was a gay dance club; it became a popular nightlife spot. 

Eugene was home to several independent newspapers that reported on the city’s LGBTQIA+ community, such as The Women’s Press, which was a monthly lesbian news magazine. 

Performance groups that formed out of Eugene’s gay culture include Soromundi Lesbian Chorus and, more recently, the Eugene Gay Men’s Chorus.

Soromundi was founded in Eugene in 1989. What was once a small group of women practicing in the founder’s living room has become a choir with around 90 members, and a group that provides members with friendships, a chance to sing, and an outlet for social justice advocacy. 

Kate Barry, a member of the choir since 1993, says “Ninety women, diverse women, singing together under the banner of a lesbian chorus has an impact on the community. We can be a force for change through our music and through our performance.”

Barry notes that some of the outwardly LGBTQIA+ spaces that were once in Eugene have closed, so having the choir active is important. “I feel that’s a special thing that we lived and thrived and provided that space and that impact,” Barry says. 

The Eugene Gay Men’s Chorus started in 2018 with around 10 people and since has grown to about 25. The group practices and performs three to four ticketed concerts a year in the area, primarily between September and June. Don Hood, treasurer, said he hopes the group makes gay men more visable in the community and shows the positive culture in the gay community. 

Participants range in age, and the group isn’t explicitly for gay men; currently it includes two lesbian-identifying women and a couple transgender people. Hood says that when they invite people to audition for the choir, they make it clear that you don’t have to be gay, you don’t have to be a man, and you don’t have to live in Eugene. 

“We welcome everybody,” Hood says. “We try to be as inclusive and open as we can.”

And spaces that aren’t explicitly LGBTQIA+ are present in Eugene, like Cowfish Bar and Cafe. Cowfish owner Shawn Di Fiore says, “Cowfish was founded not as a straight or gay bar but as a place where all people, or all perspectives, cultures, experiences, can have an opportunity to be exposed to, learn from, appreciate, and understand one another better in a festive, light-hearted, non-agenda driven, and joy-centered environment.” 

Di Fiore says that this approach encourages learning and exposure to different perspectives, and to “understanding the full range of humanity and marginalization that people in our society face.” Cowfish has become a dance club that is a welcoming space to “humanity and creativity.” 

In October 2018 — following the February 2018 closing of The Wayward Lamb, a queer pub — Spectrum Queer Bar opened at 150 W. Broadway. The general manager, Kiki Boniki, says that Spectrum aims to have events for every letter of the LGBTQIA+ family. The bar hosts a lesbian dancing and drag night called “Thorny” as well as lesbian speed dating. They have trans-fem events, trans-masq events and mixers for asexuals. A family-friendly drag brunch is hosted on Sundays. Petra Etc’s After School Special is a drag show specifically for under age people. 

“We’re trying to set up social mixers for trans teens and their families that can kind of all sit down, talk about their issues and stuff they’re going through,” Boniki said. “I get requests from moms and dads that are like, ‘Hey, I have a 15-year-old who is trans. I need them to meet other trans people. How do I do that?’” 

Inside, Spectrum has the front bar, which is a restaurant and bar. The back bar has dance floors, a stage bar and a DJ booth. There is a side room called the library, which is a quiet room. 

“You can sit in there and read or do your work or talk quietly with people that don’t want to be on a thumping dance floor,” Boniki says .

Cowfish hosts Glamazons at Cowfish Eugene Pre-Pride at 10 pm Friday, August 12.