Category Archives: Gay History

The Many Shades of Darcelle Closes at the Oregon Historical Society

A Selection from the Imperial Wardrobe

Article by Sebastian Fortino, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Photos by Jewell Harrington III, CEO

It’s been a very big year for Portland’s own First Lady of Entertainment, Darcelle XV. A movie made about her in 2018, Through Darcelle’s Eyes by Portland’s own 360 Labs was featured in the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. Darcelle was reportedly delighted not only with the film, but about the novel sensation of seeing her story come alive via 360 degree, virtual reality technology.

Check out the preview below…

Then, just this past fall, Donald Horn of Triangle Productions brought her life story to the stage–in our fair Rose City of course–in a musical called, “That’s No Lady.” The show was a smashing success, its overall craft, presentation, and professionalism displayed enough strength for a Broadway production.

But: what else would you expect from the fabulous Darcelle?

After all the Portland native was born (as Walter Cole) during the height of the Great Depression. Those born in that era saw hardship and are not afraid to fight for their beliefs. If you missed out–better hope Horn and his team will get it staged again in 2020. Last year marked 50 years of Stonewall, but the coming new year celebrates 50 years of the first gay pride parades throughout much of the country.

Additionally, she brought many a gown and of course a crown to the Oregon Historical Society. “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion, 1967 – 2019″ closed on Sunday, December 8th so if you missed out you’ll just have to keep visiting Darcelle XV’s Showplace, host (or hostess, if you will) of the longest running drag show on the West Coast. You may see some of the garments again. Darcelle, like another royal lady (we’re looking at you Duchess Kate of Cambridge) knows wearing a favorite number again shows confidence in your own sense of style.

A Selection From the Imperial Wardrobe

A Selection from the Queen’s Wardrobe (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/JewellHarrrington III

Check out the glitter, the glamor, and…gaiety. As you will learn from the pictures below Darcelle, like many drag performers and performance artists fashion many of their own costumes.

Hansen/Darcelle Gown, 1965/1985 (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

Channeling Mae West: the Hansen/Darcelle Gown

This gown at right has a provenance of interest not just limited to the life of Darcelle. It was originally constructed for Gracie Hansen, a performer local to Seattle and Portland who came here in the 1960s to headline at the Hoyt Hotel. Fittingly, Gracie had her own showplace, Gracie Hansen’s Roaring Twenties room. Darcelle purchased the performer’s gowns after her death in 1985. Hansen also ran for governor in 1970 claiming she was “The best candidate money could buy.” She came in third place.

It’s fitting the possessions of such an iconoclast as Gracie Hansen would end up in the wardrobe of Darcelle. The ostrich plumes are certainly reminiscent of Mae West, it certainly asks, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”

Darcelle made some alterations to the ensemble, which includes the original hat. An interesting note, both performers were able to wear it at the original length. Despite the fact Ms. Hansen was a petite 5’2″ and Darcelle–without heels–is a solid 6′ tall.

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much: Coronation Gown 1972

Coronation Gown, 1972 (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

Everyone has had a wardrobe malfunction–even an Empress. This was the first time Darcelle used a pattern to create a “lewk,” as they say today. She was not pleased with the result of the gown she created to receive her crown at the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Portland Coronation in 1972.

In fact, she flipped the script on this gown: “When it was finished, I thought it was so damned ugly, I decided to wear it backwards,” the placard quotes Darcelle as saying. “Frontwards or backwards… It has been one hell of an amazing ride ever since.”

Green and white velvet gown, 1972/73 (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

Scintillating Silhouettes: Shimmer, Beads & Magic

The gowns in the image at right have sparkle and undeniable allure. The white gown, in the foreground has an accompanying floor length cape. You can see it in the picture featuring the whole lineup of Darcelle’s items on display if you scroll up in this article.

Darcelle loves the cut of the ensemble, the skirt of this column-style dress, bells out delicately to form a 360 degree hem. But, there’s a little secret.

“The colored balls on the dress are actually marbles that have been pressed flat and then glued to the dress,” Darcelle revealed. This lets us know costume design is part sewing skill, with equal parts ingenuity and magic.

Darcelle premiered the dress in 1972 and wore it to functions then and in the following year, according to the exhibit.

The gown in the background, with the blue and white tiered, flame-stitch application of beads, was in fact hand beaded by Darcelle. The creation weighs 23 pounds. It took three months to delicately string the beads, make sure the flame pattern sections matched continuously, before constructing the dress itself.

They say drag can be a time consuming, and expensive habit. They also say this of interior decorating. It’s not surprising gay men are perhaps suited to these decidedly transformative art forms.

Darcelle XV’s Coronation Crown 1972 awarded by the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Portland, OR (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

Activism: Heavy is the Head, that Wears…
…the crown, pictured at left. This is the very crown by which Darcelle XV was crowned by the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Portland, in 1972 as Empress. She has worn it through the early days of Gay Liberation in the 1970s, the days of disco, when Diana Ross first crooned “I’m Comin’ Out” to gay men and women happy to want “the world to know.”

But, this isn’t the only piece of jewelry she is proud of: despite the splashy baubles, bangles, and beads below and on her many costumes take a look at that simple denim jacket alongside all that glitters.

Darcelle’s Denim Bejeweled Jacket, Jewelry, Crown (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

In the 1970s Darcelle began wearing this jacket to functions where she did not necessarily need to appear in drag. Appearing in casual street clothes, topped off with this jacket. Over the past 50 years as a performer, activist, philanthropist, and all-around champion of gay civil rights many marks of service have been added. These mementos are both local and national, with a heavy score of them coming from work or appearances in San Francisco.

But most touchingly, and to remind us that a decade after Darcelle was crowned in 1972 the glittering party of that decade came to a shocking end: take notice of the AIDS ribbon pin worn to the right of the “D” pin, to the left of the crown pin. Despite all the accolades she has received for her performances, it’s not hard to imagine her considering her greatest work is the help she has given to the gay community locally and beyond.

Darcelle saw the impact of World War II as a child and adolescent; as Walter Cole he served the United States in the Korean War; in the 1960s he fell in love with his late life partner Roxy Neuhart; that same decade he took over a tavern in Chinatown transforming it into one of the most fabled drag venues in the country, if not on the globe, and was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for her long life and longevity on the stage. Then, bravely and eloquently, Darcelle used her venue, her voice, and her love to help support those stricken by the diagnosis in the early days.

A Belated Birthday: Darcelle with Words of Wisdom for Any Age

A few weeks ago, Darcelle XV reached her 89th birthday. Both in and out of drag, Darcelle speaks her mind. When asked what comments she had about her birthday, her response was simple and eloquent.

“We learn to laugh at ourselves first, and then we can laugh at everyone else,” she said to mark her birthday. Before reminding us, “Until we meet again, take all the time to make a special someone happy. Stay safe, stay well, and by all means stay in love.”


Darcelle as Walter Cole (left), with Donald Horn of Triangle Productions (right) at the Oregon Historical Society (c) 2019 ProudTimes.com/Jewell Harrrington III

These are the perfect words to begin our holiday season, here in Oregon! So, Merry Christmas, a Hanukah, a Blessed Kwanzaa, a Healthy New Year, and Happy Holidays all around.

The Bubbles No Longer Tickle My Nose: Being Gay & Half-Native on Thanksgiving

By Hellen Back

Ms. Back is a performer, originally from Santa Cruz, who now makes their home in Portland. She has kindly agreed to share recollections from her life, in and out of drag.

My dad’s family didn’t approve that my mother wasn’t white: so I never met them, never celebrated holidays, never met my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the whole lot. Instead I was raised by my Mom’s family, who are Native-American.

Thanksgiving was always kind of a joke in our family.

During these dinners, a maternal relative would inevitably shout out, and cause everyone to laugh, “Why the hell are we celebrating this again?” You bet, Thanksgiving was always kind of a joke in our family.

Thanksgiving was alway a mindless eating binge, with very little thought given to the supposed history behind the holiday. A time to gather with family to eat, laugh, eat, nap, eat, repeat. Then watch old movies and football and then of course eat some more. 

My nana’s green bean casserole with the crunchy God-knows-what on the top, the standard dry and overcooked bird, the forgotten rolls burning away in the oven, lumps in the gravy and years, the standard shit some families insist on repeating less than 30 days later on Christmas. Of course, years ago, when various pain-in-the ass uncles were still alive, the political arguments. This was often followed by squealing tires as someone left in a rage. As dad once put it, “They drove up in a Mercedes, but left in a huff!”

Dad had married into my big crazy Native American family when he met mom. She was petite and gorgeous and the love of his life. He was great, a big, good look’n guy. A bit actor in “motion pictures” and TV shows, mostly Westerns. 

He was great on a horse so he was often a stuntman, and made his career doubling actors like Errol Flynn and John Barrymore. He really was a dead ringer for Barrymore and cut quite the figure and profile. As a kid I remember dad always being impeccably dressed and people inevitably used the word dapper when describing him. He was also the most liberal, loving person you’d ever meet with a huge heart that was definitely in the right place.

…roped-off heirloom chairs in their houses and roped-off heirloom minds in their heads.

He had been born into a well-to-do, Protestant Bostonian family of polite WASPs–the kind with roped-off heirloom chairs in their houses and roped-off heirloom minds in their heads. Scandalously, his mother had been French-Catholic and had made sure he was christened in the Roman Catholic Church just before she passed away from complications caused by his birth.

That’s all it took, a few drops of holy water and the unintelligible mutterings of some musty old priest and his life was changed forever. His father’s family from that day forward treated him like a servant, even worse than a servant. He slept on the porch, even in the dead of winter. He stole bagels and milk off of the neighborhood porches and did his best to get by.

Hellen as a Youngster, at Roughly the Same Age His Father was Abandoned by His Own Father…

One day his father took him down to the train station when he was about five-years old or so, handed him a couple dollars and then stepped aboard a departing train as it pulled away from the station, never to be seen or heard from again. After that, dad was on his own. Luckily for him he was taken in by a Black family in Boston who fed and clothed him. He never forgot that kindness and he lived his life completely devoid of any racism. His first wife was latino with whom he had eight very good look’n kids.

“Would you like to be in motion pictures?”

Later in life, in his late forties, he met my mom. Mom was dark and beautiful with a dazzling smile and a killer figure. She told me that dad’s first words out of his mouth to her had been, “Would you like to be in motion pictures?”

Yeah, She Was in Pictures…No Joke.

She laughed and told him what a line and then, they were together for the next thirty or more years. I remember people staring at us and yelling things when we’d go out. Restaurants were particularly uncomfortable. I was born in 1957 so-mixed race couples were few and far between. Kids at school would say “Your mom’s a n****r.”

So, dad would come down to the principal’s office to raise hell.

Both mom and dad’s best-friends were black. When they’d visit, I’d be in the front yard playing with their kids, and every other house on the block in our lily white neighborhood of Downey, California was studded with angry faces peeking through curtains watching us disapprovingly. A few years later when I was to come out as gay the residents of Downey had something else to hate me for and–hate me they did. Daily verbal and physical assaults which lasted until the day I escaped that awful little city.  

Portrait of the Artist as a Fey Lad

When I came out to my parents…dad wasn’t in the least bit fazed and never had an issue with it. Mom had wanted grandchildren badly, but soon got past that and our family, mom’s family, they didn’t blink an eye, they loved me unconditionally, the entire family.

After knowing the “good Christian” white people of Downey I realized that I wasn’t missing a thing by not knowing my dad’s family, the only good thing they ever produced was him, a good guy that never saw the color of a person’s skin or judged someone by whom they loved. 

…the only family I’ve ever known.

Today I think of family, my Mom’s Family…the only family I’ve ever known. Today they are scattered around the country and many have passed, but they are all in my thoughts and my heart. Just a bunch of fun, loving, crazy Indians (we still call ourselves Indians by the way, because we can call ourselves whatever we damn well please) and at some point today someone in each household will pause and ask, 

“Why the Hell are we celebrating today again?” 

Gay History to Be Thankful For as We Approach 2020

by Robin Will, President of Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest

While We’re Thinking About Thanksgiving Local LGBTQ+ Groups Are Already Focused on Next Spring

Robin Will, President of GLAPN

ProudTimes welcomes Robin Will and the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest to this publication. In his first piece for us, he discusses the importance of both 2019 & 2020 as hallmark years for our community.

A word or two about terminology: in the beginning, the word “gay” seemed to be enough. In 1970, two of the principals of Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, marched in the first parade under the banner of their newly-formed transvestite organization. In Portland, Gay Pride didn’t become Lesbian & Gay Pride until 1982. Other factions of our community found their voices and claimed their space at other times. Our awareness and our language are still changing.

In 2020, we’re looking at two more semi-centennials: the first Pride celebration nationally, and the first gay community organizing in Portland. Our community can expect a lot of emphasis on history as part of Portland Pride this year.

First, Let’s Consider Stonewall

June 28, 1969 marked the beginning of three days of rioting at the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, after a routine police bust went seriously off the tracks. The Stonewall Riots weren’t the first demonstrations by gay folks, nor the first time queer people ever fought back against bullying by police. However, they seem to be the first events that, as they happened, were understood as a struggle for civil rights and, in the terms of the moment, for liberation.

People were certain that the Stonewall riots were more than just another spat with the cops – so much so that by November of 1969, a community group in Greenwich Village had already obtained a parade permit for the first anniversary of the riots. The event would be called The Christopher Street Liberation Day

The Very First Pride Parade

There’s also a second 50th anniversary to be thankful for – it was the first Pride parade. Marchers lined up for 14 blocks, and Stonewall principals Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson walked with their brand-new organization, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which may have been our country’s first militant transgender organization – or at least, by definition, the first to march in a Gay Pride parade. 

Consider checking out a preview of a documentary which came out a few years ago about the life of pioneer transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, via Netflix.

So in 2019 we celebrated the riots; in 2020, we’ll be marking the 50th anniversary of that first Pride Parade. That accounts for two anniversaries – and there’s one more, in-between, that’s local to Portland. After Stonewall, calls for gay liberation went out on radio, TV, in publications we would have referred to as “establishment” back in the day, as well as in press that we called “underground” catering to the gay community which was decidedly a fringe group at the time. Nationwide, queer people heard those calls, and responded. 

Below: An example of the “underground” and largely clandestine publications available to queer and what we might call counter-culture or subversive readers in the late 1960s & 1970s.The Willamette Bridge was one such paper, it ran for only a few years from June of 1968 to June of 1971. John Wilkinson, who lamented gay life in Portland at the time in this article, is also a hero of the gay community in the Pacific Northwest.“Gay, young, & lonely” was too often the norm in describing the lives of queer people at the time.

In Oregon, the Eugene Gay People’s Alliance (EPGA) first met in January 1970. In Portland, an article in the Willamette Bridge pointed out in February that Portland didn’t have anything like the Gay Liberation Front that was meeting in other cities. The uptake was quick: Portland’s Gay Liberation Front met for the first time on March 24, 1970.

Queering Oregon: The Gay Liberation Front Comes to Portland

So there’s the third semi-centennial – the start-from-scratch beginnings of Portland’s own LGBTQ+ community. 

As we move through 2020, Portland’s Pride Northwest will be doing their best to celebrate these beginnings, and they will be getting some help from GLAPN, the region’s only LGBTQ+ historical society. Since GLAPN has been proudly collecting, preserving, and sharing our community’s history.

The Gay Liberation Front got discussion rolling, and almost immediately yielded to The Second Foundation (a nod to Isaac Asimov) to develop a gay presence in Portland. It was The Second Foundation that created the first Pride celebration in Portland, an indoor gathering held in 1971. In 1975 the party moved outdoors, to the Park Blocks near Portland State University; and in 1976, the event took place at Waterfront Park. Portland had our first Pride parade in 1977.

In Their 70s Now

The queer youngsters who were in their late teens and early twenties in 1970 – the ones who had the fire and gumption to picket, parade, and organize and work for gay liberation – are in their seventies now. For sure, they were following in the footsteps of elders – work in the queer community had gone on in one form or another since the 1920s in the United States. But this particular generation has the dubious symmetry of being born into pre-Pride isolation and persecution, seeing the first public glimmer of hope just as they came of age, and witnessing the LGBTQ+ rainbow developing in living color through their adult lives. 

Ask somebody over 70, and they’ll explain: Stonewall came to the nation, and the Gay Liberation Front came to Portland, when there were no legal protections for LGBTQ+ people, and no interest in developing any. Persecuting gays was legal, and it was a social norm: homosexuals were considered criminal by law, mentally ill by health professionals, and pariahs by most of the religious community.

George Oberg, a Local Hero of the Early Gay Rights Movement in Portland…

Criminals, Reprobates, Mentally Ill

Yes, being gay was criminal. In Oregon, homosexuality was effectively outlawed until 1972 by a law that prohibited sodomy. Over the years the legislature and the courts had redefined the “crime” in almost comically broad terms, but the penalty wasn’t funny: a felony conviction, with 5-15 years in the penitentiary. After 1923, sodomy convictions also resulted in referral to the Oregon Board of Eugenics for sterilization. A sodomy charge – with a public trial, covered in detail in the newspapers – could ruin a life and derail a career. But there were other tactics at the discretion of the cop on the beat: citations for lewd conduct, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, and/or illegal assembly were perfectly routine and legal ways to harass gays, get them off the street, get their names in the paper, and maybe lock them up for a little while.

In 1972 – two years after the first Gay Liberation Front meeting in Portland – Oregon was the fourth state to legalize sex between consenting adults, outside of prostitution. That means today’s 70-year-olds were 23 before the onus of criminality was removed from their sexuality in Oregon. Other states were slower.

Homosexuality was listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1973. Families or courts could – and did – commit individuals to mental hospitals for treatment. Today’s septuagenarians were 24 years old when they came off of the “sick list.” The mental health professions weren’t instantly transformed – hidebound professionals believe what they learned in their senior seminars, and many conservative religious groups haven’t changed their minds to this day – but the change was valuable to young professionals, for morale in general, and, occasionally, in courts of law. It’s worth noting that every LGBTQ+ community startup in Portland, ever, has immediately developed its own list of doctors and counselors. We sadly haven’t ever been able to trust the community at large with our physical and mental health.

Well, Portland’s Gay Liberation Front didn’t last long. Reading between the lines, those early gatherings were apparently a matter of hippies and slogans.  Almost immediately, a more mature organization picked up the stronger folks from the GLF and got on with business of creating community. They called themselves The Second Foundation, with a nod to Isaac Asimov, and their name is on most of the earliest heavy lifting that made space for queer people in Portland. 

The Risks They Took

Many of the LGBTQ+ people who did that early work are still living, and this year, GLAPN and Pride-NW will be telling their stories. There was the transplant from Ohio, who wanted to know where the gay bars were, and didn’t know who he could safely ask. There was the kid who couch-surfed away from home until his 18th birthday, because he overheard his parents discussing getting him lobotomized to cure his homosexuality. There was the young teacher who was considering suicide as an alternative to coming out to her parents; and the reporter who was using several pen names in the underground press, to give the impression that more than one person in Portland was interested in women’s issues.

They are people who didn’t know if they would get arrested or not at these first meetings, and they weren’t sure what coming out in public would do to their reputations and employability, forever. They’re in their seventies now. Pride Northwest, GLAPN, and this publication intend to wish them Happy 50th Anniversary in the months to come.

Robin Will (pronouns he/him/his) was born in Hillsboro and grew up in Portland, graduating from Benson Polytechnic High School in 1966, and from Portland State University in 2007.  After briefly considering the ministry and exploring social work as a paraprofessional, he spent most of his career in the publishing industry, in a variety of roles that included writing, editing, design, and production management, He has been president of GLAPN (Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest) since 2014.