The Oregonian, OR, USA
Portland club changes name, labor bureau investigates its treatment of
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012, 1:48 PM | Updated: Sunday,
September 23, 2012, 6:40 PM
By Casey Parks, The Oregonian
[Photo: The Twilight Room Annex, formerly known as the Portsmouth
Club, at 5262 N Lombard is being investigated for its treatment of
Nearly 50 years after the first Portsmouth Club sign went up, Chris
Penner painted a new name on the North Lombard Street bar. This,
Penner said in mid-September, is the Twilight Room Annex. The P Club
-- the shortened name Penner has used for two years -- is dead, he
But a name change won't erase the controversy Penner created in July
when he called a group of transgender women and told them not to come
back to the bar.
The group, the Rose City T-Girls, had frequented the bar every Friday
night for two years. They brought anywhere from a dozen to 40 people
-- some who crossdress, others who have fully transitioned to female
-- into the cavernous club each week. But their presence drove other
customers away, Penner said.
"People think that A: We're a tranny bar, or B: We're a gay bar," he
said in a message left on one of the T-Girls voicemail. "We are
neither. People are not coming in because they just don't want to be
here on a Friday night now."
Penner doesn't think he did anything wrong by leaving the message, but
it's now key evidence in a Bureau of Labor and Industries
investigation into the former P Club. Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian
himself filed the complaint that sparked the inquiry.
"You can't just kick people out of bar because they're an unpopular
class of people," said the T-Girls' lawyer, Beth Allen. "I think he
thought because perhaps some of his patrons have a negative view of
transgender individuals, that that gave him the right to kick them
out. If this were a rowdy group -- I don't care if they were
transgender or truckers -- you could kick them out. But they weren't."
Penner legally could have booted the T-Girls prior to 2001, when
Portland enacted a law banning discrimination against gay and
transgender people in employment and public places. The Legislature
passed a similar ban for the whole state in 2007. Since then, the
labor bureau has received 147 complaints of discrimination based on
Allen contacted the Bureau of Labor and Industries, which has a civil
rights division, to ask about filing a complaint and got a quick
response. Though Avakian does not always file complaints, bureau
spokesman Bob Estabrook said he did in this case because "there was
concern that a large number of people were impacted." He also said
that because many of the T-Girls are not out of the closet as
crossdressers "there may be barriers to the individuals filing the
Penner insists he's neither homophobic nor anti-transgender people. He
once hosted a weekly queer dance night in the space, and on Wednesday
nights a gay pool team practices in the bar.
But a year ago, he said, he started hearing complaints about the
T-Girls. Other customers said they left the stall doors open and seats
up in the women's restrooms.
"Most are in-the-closet, straight men, but they're using the women's
restrooms," he said. "They feel they have a right to use those
restrooms because on Friday nights, they are women."
But Allen, their lawyer, says the group was always respectful.
"The most noise they ever made was if somebody got a good shot in
shuffleboard, someone might have let out a whoop," she said. ". Their
goal was to have a good time, not to lead some sort of charge. They
were very thoughtful about how they used the bathroom. They did not
leave seats up."
Penner wanted to ask the T-Girls to leave the bar a year ago, he said.
But Cindy Benton, his bar manager, told him he couldn't do that, said
Penner, noting she, "by the way, is a lesbian and having her wedding
reception here next year."
After another year of decline in customers, he asked a bartender for a
phone number for Cassandra Lynn, one of the T-Girls. Then, while
vacationing, he left the message for the T-Girls.
"I wasn't exactly PC," Penner admits. "I put my foot in my mouth. ...
I'm not a lawyer. I was trying to explain."
Penner wants his club to be more like the Twilight Room, the bar his
father has run next door for 50 years. Retirees and University of
Portland students pack that space. Penner started working the grill at
his father's spot when he was 13. He and his mother bought the
Portsmouth Club a quarter of a century ago.
He once dreamed of owning a Grocery Outlet, so he sold the bar in
2005. He returned to run the Portsmouth Club when Dustin Drago, the
man he sold the club to, defaulted on payments and left town. That,
too, caused a fight with the state.
The labor bureau said Penner owed $7,000 in back wages that Drago
never paid employees. Penner appealed the agency's ruling, though, and
in May the Court of Appeals agreed that he could not be held liable
for Drago's failure to pay.
Penner believes that commissioner Avakian holds a grudge against him
for winning the appeal. That, Penner says, is why Avakian issued a
complaint himself on behalf of the T-Girls.
"It's pretty coincidental, honestly," said Estabrook, the labor bureau
official. "That and this investigation have nothing to do with each
Investigations like these generally take between six and eight months,
Estabrook said. Once the investigation is complete, the labor bureau
will decide whether to hold a hearing.
In the meantime, Penner has revamped the spot into a banquet hall and
grill. It's an attempt, he says, to bring customers back to the space
that has been an Italian restaurant, a pizza parlor, hip-hop lounge
and neighborhood watering hole.
"My job here is to make sure this place makes money," he said.
"Whatever I have to do, sometimes it's not popular, but I have to do
it to pay the bills, pay the employees. Something has to change."
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