clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When I Feel Unmoored by Life, I Always Find My Way Back to Either/Or

Amid harrowing political moments and questions of identity, queer spaces are a grounding balm

The tufted leather banquettes at the bar at Either/Or in Portland, Oregon.
The bar at Either/Or.
Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland

Back when I felt comfortable sitting in a cafe for hours on end writing, I would walk down North Williams Avenue to visit Either/Or. I’d flash a smile at the barista behind the counter; we’d talk about the weather or where they got their hair cut, and I’d gather my 16-ounce cold brew to take to some dark corner of the cafe. I’d tuck into a breakfast sandwich made with shiitake mushroom sausage or a rice bowl; I’d see friends or sit down to interview a source. I lived my life at Either/Or — without questioning whether or not I belonged there.

Either/Or doesn’t feel like a cafe; inside, its walls are a sultry dark teal, its plush booths a creamy shade of pearl. There’s a small DJ booth next to the entrance. Midnight-blue chairs, dotted with brass, stand at a long bar connected to the barista’s station. If it weren’t for the large coffee grinder on the counter, one might confuse the space for a bar or a restaurant; in certain ways, it is one. As the cafe transitions from day into night, bartenders replace baristas in front of rows of spirits, shaking margaritas and stirring Old Fashioneds. The shop’s famous booze-free White Russian equivalent, the Salty Russian, can be spiked with a shot of vodka. People start up conversations over drinks, sliding down the lengthy banquette to blend parties.

Either/Or’s Williams cafe, one of two in Portland, feels different from other cafes, but not in a jarring way: To the average customer, it’s a place to grab a coffee, maybe some breakfast, and, oddly, a fantastic bottle of wine. But to me and others in Portland’s LGBTQ community, Either/Or has been a respite, one that walked the line between cafe and gay bar. Before the pandemic, Either/Or hosted queer karaoke and queer country nights and then served as a pickup spot for Queer Soup Night takeout throughout the last few years. Its baristas are often queer, and when talking to someone sitting down to a drink or a coffee, it’s likely those customers will be, too.

As longstanding queer holdouts shutter in the wake of the pandemic and anti-LGBTQ bills hit state houses around the country, spaces like Either/Or feel even more essential. In so many ways, Either/Or isn’t exclusively a cafe or a bar or a coffee shop. It’s whatever a customer needs it to be: hot spot, hangout, watering hole, safe haven. It’s an opportunity to decide for myself who I want to be in this sliver of a place that has finally started feeling like mine. And, thankfully, it has become a trailblazer within the wider spectrum of queer-owned businesses in Portland, as the city’s scene loses legacy queer spaces and gains new ones despite the incessant obstacles plaguing both the service industry and the queer community nationally.

A barista in a mask helps a customer in athletic wear at the cafe counter at Either/Or.
Barista Ki greets a customer at Either/Or.
Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland

Ro Tam, the owner of Either/Or, sees her Williams cafe as a queer space, but she doesn’t advertise it that way. She entered the specialty coffee world in 2006, working almost exclusively for queer-owned coffee shops. Still, the gatekeeping inherent to the world of specialty coffee made her feel like an outsider. “I’ve always been on the outskirts of the coffee scene. It was very male-dominant, very hetero, and information was very guarded and inaccessible,” she says. “I was one of five people of color in specialty coffee that I knew, and one of five queer people.”

So, in 2013, she created her own space: the first Either/Or, a tiny Sellwood cafe named for an Elliott Smith album. Tam had initially wanted to open Either/Or as a cafe and bar, but with the funding and the space she started with, it wasn’t exactly feasible. But as Either/Or grew in popularity, she saved and raised enough money to open another location, a true cafe and bar on North Williams where people could grab coffee in the morning and drinks at night. She added menu items that nodded to her childhood in her family’s San Diego Chinese restaurant — wonton soup, sausage and rice bowls, fried rice — as well as more traditional brunch and bar dishes, like breakfast sandwiches and burgers. And the design of the space was meant to play with the idea of what a cafe should look like: Nothing about the new Either/Or, with its moody teal walls and dark-stained wood, reflected the commonplace white-walled, minimalist cafes spotted across the globe. “We called it Chinese midcentury meets Southern gothic,” Tam says.

Everything at Either/Or — the food and drink menus, the design, the event calendar — was meant to be flexible. The menu was vegan-friendly and had multiple gluten-free options, so anyone could find something to eat. It was open from morning until late in the evening, so people could enjoy the space regardless of their schedules. The bar’s drink menu included several nonalcoholic cocktails. And the DJ lineup reflected a wide range of music styles, from R&B to rap to metal to country.

When Either/Or opened its Williams cafe, in a more centralized location with more space and longer hours, it could host more events — a blend of DJ nights, pop-ups, fundraisers, and brunches organized by or in collaboration with the larger queer community in Portland. Either/Or had already developed a reputation as a queer hangout the way so many other iconic queer spaces have: organically and through word-of-mouth within the tight circle of queer Portlanders looking for a place to exist without fear of persecution or harassment. It was a space to decompress after fitting into the boxes of working life and enduring its many microaggressions.

But even beyond simply logging off, Either/Or cultivated the specific sense of ease that can only come from closing a laptop, interrupting any lingering corporate anxieties, and letting an impromptu karaoke number or R&B set take over. That gentle respite often nurtured unpretentious and unapologetic companionship between work-weary strangers and friends. As someone who felt excluded from cafe spaces and the coffee world as a person of color, a queer person, and as a woman, approachability was the common thread for Tam. More than anything, she wanted Either/Or to be accessible to everyone. “There’s a lot of intersectionality here,” Tam says. “Personally, for me, it feels like a queer space, but I want it to be a safe space for everybody.”

The pearl tufted booths at Either/Or on North Williams.
The dining space at Either/Or.
Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland

I came out as queer when I was 18. People had asked before then, but I wasn’t sure myself; I had crushes on girls (and even kissed a few of them), but I knew I liked boys, too. For some reason, using a term like “bisexual” or another hyper-specific label felt like too much of a commitment, as if it implied a scientifically measured and calculated split between who I loved or dated. But it wasn’t until college that I’d finally found the label that fit me, after years of shoehorning myself into labels or spaces that were never intended to accommodate anyone like me. Learning about queer theory in college felt like a relief: Identifying as queer was a way to acknowledge that no specific identity felt like it fit. It united me with other people who weren’t straight; we could share this otherness, together.

The term queer — long a derogatory term for non-straight, non-cis people — was reclaimed in the late 20th century. In particular, theorist Teresa de Lauretis coined the term “queer theory” in 1991 as a way to reframe our understanding of how gender and sexuality work. It’s an umbrella term, a way to avoid the restrictive focus on categorization and instead just experience love, sexuality, and life in a way that feels spontaneous, unbridled by expectations of a particular group or label. For some queer populations, a label with more concrete specificity feels comforting; it’s a way to connect with the people who most closely experience gender and sexuality — or the prejudices surrounding gender and sexuality — the way they do. But for me, identifying as queer allows me to spend less time anxiously evaluating who I am, and instead just live without preconceived notions of who I’m supposed to love or find community with, and how.

At 18, meeting guys felt easy; it was meeting girls and other queer people that felt difficult. Then, my editor at the school paper, Mars, clued me into Diesel Cafe, an LGBTQ-owned coffee shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. I’d bring my homework there and work, comforted by the fact that I was quietly surrounded by queer people. I could strike up a conversation, or not. It felt comforting just to be around other people like me without the looming presence of sex; I was still trying to understand what queerness meant outside of sex, if it meant anything at all. As a newly out college kid at war with her sense of identity, Diesel felt like a place to thrive when everything else felt at odds with who I was. It was the jumping-off point for other queer spaces, for poetry shows and meetups, a place to take other newly out queers and colleagues, a place to exhale.

When I moved to Portland, Either/Or became my local coffee shop by sheer proximity. It was close enough to walk to before work and felt like an ideal neutral space for interviews. I knew it was in my orbit, but it took a little while before I fully realized its pull. I liked its simultaneously chocolatey and fruity cold brew and how the team used shiitake mushrooms in the sausage patties for their breakfast sandwiches. It wasn’t until I started making more queer friends that I found out about the coffee shop’s status as a hangout free from the pressure to be any single, specific thing.

Still, living in Portland, I felt like I was battling this part of myself that felt out of place in most of the city’s queer spaces. I’d felt such a relief being in a city with gay bars in every quadrant, where people asked for pronouns and no one batted an eye, a city home to the country’s oldest working drag queen, bathhouses, and queer motorcycle clubs. But those spaces seemed to be shrinking, and as a straight-passing person, I felt as if I were intruding on some of the few oases left in the city. (And I wasn’t the only one navigating those feelings.) Going to gay bars, I felt like a fraud; for years, I had been a part of those groups side-eyeing the penis-paraphernalia-clad bachelorette parties that rolled in to rage near and gawk at queer people like hungry voyeurs. But what could I offer to the space as someone not actively looking to hook up and definitely not trying to people-watch?

It took one night at CC Slaughters, where I ended up counseling a newly dumped lesbian I’d met at the bar over too many whiskey sours, to figure out the obvious: Despite all my Twitter-fueled hand-wringing and self-consciousness, I didn’t need to earn or justify my place in the queer community — especially in a queer space. I could just exist, as long as I was respectful of the people around me.

That being said, I never felt like I was intruding at Either/Or. As at Diesel Cafe, there were no gatekeepers, no expectation of sex; it was a place to subtly explore what it meant to be queer as a person in a happy, long-term relationship with a man. Going to queer karaoke or queer soup night didn’t feel like going to a gay bar; it was a place to meet friends, get to know people. It allowed me to interact with my queerness outside the framework of who I dated or slept with. And because of its staunch anti-racism, zero tolerance for hate speech, and events catered toward other marginalized groups, Either/Or was a place to remember the other elements of what it meant to be queer — rejecting heteronormativity, expressing fierce solidarity with people who live outside the world of privilege, and embracing the joy that comes with self-determination. Because of the ways Either/Or carves out a safe space for the larger public, it felt like there was infinite room to perform queerness in whichever way felt right. As opposed to seeing queerness as a bar with a bouncer and a capacity limit, a space I had to ask to enter, Either/Or allowed me to experience it in its totality, in abundance. Then, slowly but surely, I found the confidence to allow others to fully know me in mine.

A cup with a cat stamp on it at Either/Or Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland
A sign reads “Asian Americans for Black Lives” in the window of Either/Or. Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland

At the beginning of the pandemic, Tam slid a table below the Williams cafe’s large garage-style window, blocking off its visitors from the interior of the space. It was a choice made to keep her staff safe; neighbors could walk up to the cafe’s entrance to order their teas, coffees, and breakfast sandwiches, and wander off. Its status as a cocktail bar faded away out of necessity. Either/Or began selling take-home cocktails and bottles of wine, but it was no longer a space to listen to a DJ set or sip a drink at the bar.

I felt the restriction of Either/Or as a loss, even though I was still going at least a few times each month. I missed that Chinese midcentury, Southern gothic dining room, where I’d work until I finished my day and celebrate with a cocktail. In turn, my queer-content consumption skyrocketed — I devoured old seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Denice Frohman poems, photos of old Felix Gonzalez-Torres installations. I wanted to rebuild a little Either/Or out of parasocial relationships and art. But it wasn’t just an acknowledgement of the loss so much as an expansion in how I — and so many others — engage with queer Portland, even when the physical spaces we once looked to for comfort were just out of reach.

A year later, directly ahead of Pride, Either/Or reopened its WIlliams dining room, marking its return to hosting queer DJ nights and pouring drinks. The shop still behaved like a coffee counter in the morning, boxes stacked on the tables behind the makeshift bar. But in the evenings, queer Portlanders from across town grabbed tables on the small patio or in the cafe, coffee slushies — with or without booze — in hand. “Cute cafe/bar looking for a service top,” reads an Either/Or hiring notice, in the caption of an Instagram post. “You can cook, work clean, pour a stiff drink and take direction from women and enby folks. You also know what enby is without having to look it up.”

Today, Either/Or exists in a queer Portland that is shifting. The city has lost some of its most iconic LGBTQ spaces: The Roxy — the all-ages, 24-hour diner frequented by drag queens and queer kids — closed its doors after decades in what was once known as Vaseline Alley. Local Lounge shuttered unexpectedly on Northeast MLK, leaving Northeast Portland relatively without overtly queer spaces.

In their place, a new crop of queer spaces has emerged around the city, ones that expand the spectrum of what a queer space can look like. Two queer-owned taquerias, Mis Tacones and Taqueria Los Puñales, opened within a few years of each other; Mis Tacones serves free meals to trans people of color, investing in not just the aesthetics of queerness, but also in its overtly political nature. The Sports Bra, a women’s bar in Northeast Portland, is not explicitly an LGBTQ bar, but it has become a space popular among the city’s lesbian community and other young people who have begun to explore a world outside a straight-as-default society. Rebel Rebel and the Queen’s Head began hosting drag shows in Old Town. The Queen’s Head’s blend of drag shows and British pub fare is unique in the city. Rebel Rebel hosts punk rock and jazz nights, with drag performers who use sign language as they lip sync. Both host drag shows that are overtly political; at the Queen’s Head’s Juneteenth brunch, visitors paid $10 in reparations at the door, in place of a typical cover for the bar. “It’s a celebration of the hodgepodge mix of what being queer actually is,” Rebel Rebel owner J Buck told Eater in April, “seeing it and accepting it and living it and loving it and celebrating each other.” And more queer spaces are coming to Portland: Doc Marie’s, the city’s first lesbian bar in years, opens this weekend.

And it’s not just the bars and restaurants. Despite the shadows of restrictive policies looming over much of the country, Portland itself feels more overtly queer: Going out no longer feels like a choice between the binary of a straight space and an LGBTQ space. Queer pop-ups like Jacques Strappe have begun taking over other bars and restaurants typically frequented by straight Portlanders. Queer chefs and business owners have been more explicit with their identities and the inclusiveness of their venues, without reducing their identity as LGBTQ-owned businesses to an off-handed splattering of rainbow paraphernalia and little else.

The restaurant community, as a whole, feels more like Either/Or — showcasing the countless ways someone can fully embody their identity, how they can craft a space where others can comfortably do the same, and how they can use their business as a way to make the world a safer space for queer people through fundraisers and activism. When being queer feels more terrifying on a national scale, with the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation seeping into states around the country, Portland feels like solid ground, aware of the lapping waves but never fully yielding to them.

Customer Massi drinks a coffee in the window of Either/Or while his dog watches. Maddie Maschger / Eater Portland

On my first visit back to Either/Or, I grabbed a tiny, two-person booth in the dark corner of the bar, opened my laptop, and looked around. Couples laughed over pints, while Marti spun records in the DJ booth. I ordered a mezcal paloma, and I listened to the sound of the room. I no longer question my validity here; I feel no need to. Instead, I can focus on the ways our community can continue to fight for the rights of those at risk, whether it’s advocating for trans kids in the Deep South or homeless youth in our neighborhoods. Instead, I can meet other queer people in most spaces I frequent and affirm other people in their own process of settling into their queerness. Instead, Either/Or can exist the way it was always meant to — as one of many places in this city I can call home.

Either/Or Williams

4003 N Williams Avenue, Portland, OR Visit Website

Portland Restaurants and Food Carts Tip-Toe Onto TikTok

Meet Bridgeport Village’s Montessori-Style Cooking School

Portland Restaurant Openings

A Guide to Portland’s Bar, Restaurant, and Food Cart Openings

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Portland newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world