Monday, November 16, 2009

Maine's Oldest Gay Bar Closes

October 10, 2009 from
"LEWISTON -- As a gay teenager and young adult, Michael Martin had few places to turn to in Lewiston.
Sure, there were support groups and other organizations for young gay people, but they offered just once-a-week or once-a-month meetings. Not real camaraderie. Not community.

However, the Sportsman's Athletic Club did.

"When I was 15, I would hang out in front of the bar, which wasn't a good thing to do," said Martin, now 36 and manager of the place. "But it was the only spot. The only spot. And once I did turn 21, I was welcomed with open arms. They made you feel comfortable about yourself."

For more than 30 years, the gay bar on Bates Street has been an important part of life for many in the gay community. It was a place where they could find friends, dance with a same-sex partner without worry, be themselves. Outside the bar they might be harassed, bullied, told they were going to hell. At Sportsman's they were accepted.

And because of Sportsman's, the wider community started to accept them as well.

"I think it paved the way," Martin said.

But all of that will end tonight. Sportsman's, the longest running gay bar in the state, according to the former owner, is closing.

"We're calling it the curtain call," Martin said. "The end of an era to a legendary bar."

When Sportsman's opened on Lincoln Street in 1958 it was originally geared toward straight people. Roland Blais turned it into a gay bar when he bought it in the mid-1970s.

"They needed something gay up here," he said. "It was in demand. If something's in demand, you go for it for business. There's no place for gays to go. That way they can go to the gay bar and be themselves."

He moved the bar to Canal Street, then Bates Street. Over the years the bar became known for its mix of people -- both gay and straight -- and for both its cozy atmosphere and vibrant dance music.

"It's always been pretty much a homey type bar, very comfortable setting," Martin said. "But it can become very crazy, too. Usually after 9 o'clock at night when the younger crowd comes out and they want to dance and party. That's when things pick up and get loud."

But even early on, Sportsman's was more than just a place to grab a quiet drink or party to re-mixed pop music. The bar represented a community whose members, led by Blais, helped raise money for AIDS, took canoe trips, played volleyball and climbed Tumbledown mountain. In the early 1990s, Blais helped fight for equal rights for homosexuals in the city.

"This is America. This is supposed to be equal," Blais said.

In more recent years, bar patrons have traveled en masse to gay pride parades.

About four years ago Blais sold the bar to Marc Mason, who also owns the Acme Social Club in Lewiston. Blais had run Sportsman's for about 30 years. It was time, he said, to retire.

"I was burned out. I'm 71 years old. I'm not young anymore," he said.

Martin has managed the bar for the last four years. He said business has dropped over the years, that the economy has affected Sportsman's. The business has been sold. He believes the building is slated to be torn down.

Mason could not be reached for comment Friday.

The bar's closing was at first kept quiet. Martin said he wasn't comfortable with that, so he recently began telling patrons.

"These people have been dedicated to this place much too long to be shut out to the truth," Martin said. "I said 'No, enough's enough.' I think it's time they know so they can prepare themselves."

Martin expects a large crowd for the last night tonight, including a few patrons who started coming when Blais opened the place as a gay bar -- and are still regulars.

"I call them our ancients, and we treat them like gold," Martin said.

The bar will open at 6 p.m., an hour early, to accommodate the crowd. A New York DJ, who worked at the club in the 1980s, will perform that night. The bar will also host various performers, including its popular drag queens.

The bar will close at 1 a.m.

"It's going to be emotional," Martin said.

Martin believes homosexuals are more accepted now than they used to be -- and he credits Sportsman's for some of that -- but he also believes there's still a need for a place where young gay people can gather.

"One thing I've noticed, when one club closes another club usually opens. I can't say for fact that one will, but I'm hoping and praying for their sake," he said. "