The reclamation of the term ‘queer’ was a crucial part of the LGBTQ rights movement in the late 20th century. The influential essay “Queers Read This” and activist group Queer Nation use that descriptor intentionally, as an act of reclamation but also as a unifying term: By identifying as “queer,” non-straight populations could live in solidarity, outside the tenets of heteronormativity. The reclamation of certain words, in general, has been a tradition and survival mechanism within the LGBTQ community, from full-on slurs to words flung by bullies in school.
While Derek Palmer (Raven & Rose) and Truman Cox (The Benson) were growing up, they were often bullied; specifically, they were called sissies. So when they decided to open their bar, they decided to opt for that old moniker: Sissy Bar.
“We wanted a name that was overtly queer, that people can chuckle about a little bit,” Palmer says. “It’s catering to the people who feel like outcasts.”
Sissy Bar, coming to SE Morrison early next year, is what Palmer calls a “video bar” — tvs around the space will play “video vignettes” of scenes from specific movies, occasionally fitting specific themed nights (think: Desperately Seeking Susan for Madonna’s birthday). Any given month will be dotted with various themed parties, ranging from Xanadu parties to Cher nights. Though the space isn’t the most conducive to drag shows, Palmer hopes that he can hire drag queens to host some of the movie compilations and shows while visitors knock back drinks.
The bar will stick to well-executed, classic cocktails, while the kitchen serves Colombian dishes like arepas and empanadas. The food menu is, in certain ways, a romantic gesture: Palmer’s husband, Andres, is Colombian, and Palmer learned how to cook some of the foods his husband loved by working with Andres’s aunt, Lilia Amortegui. Those recipes are the foundation of the menu at Sissy Bar, from the croquetas de pescado (Colombian fish croquettes) to sudado de pollo (a spiced chicken stew).
The design of the space is an homage to Barracuda, a classic New York drag bar with low lounge lighting and a lengthy bar. Sissy Bar will have a similarly designed backbar and a long banquette, with a yet-to-be-revealed “Instagram wall.” “It’s meant to be dark and cozy, with the right kind of lighting you want to sit in for a while,” Palmer says.
In recent years, Portland’s LGBTQ bars and restaurants have closed left and right; most recently, Local Lounge, a North Portland bar known for its drag nights and live music, locked up its entrance earlier this month, though institutions like Embers and Fox & Hounds have also closed within the last decade. However, more Portland queer spaces have opened outside the traditional “gay club” format — places like the transparently queer Mexican restaurant Taqueria Los Puñales, or the swanky cocktail bar Santé. Sissy Bar, similarly, is looking to fill a void within Portland’s scene. “We’ve traveled around the world, we’ve seen bars we really like, and we haven’t seen one of those reflected in Portland,” Palmer says. “This is an amalgamation of different bars that we’ve liked around the world... We hope to be successful doing this because we want to cater to everyone in our community.”
Sissy Bar hopes to open in February 2022 at 1416 SE Morrison Street.