The first time I went to Gay Skate at Oaks Park, I was 19, and on a first date with a girl from my college. Bordered by the Willamette, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, quaint Sellwood, and the amusement park’s vintage carnival rides, the place had an out-of-time feel, a dreamy retro innocence.
Even in the middle of winter when the Ferris wheel stops turning, the windows of the roller rink glowed orange and we could hear the faint echos of a Prince song.
Most of what I knew about skating came from watching roller derby, that perfect blend of femme creativity and tough-as-nails punk rock attitude. As a young queer girl, I was enthralled by roller derby—which is right up there with softball and soccer as the most lesbian-friendly of sports.
My date was good at skating. I was not, smashing into the rink’s walls whenever I needed to stop. Still, it was the perfect excuse to hold her hand.
We didn’t exactly know it then, but we were part of a long-standing tradition and community of LGBTQ skaters here in Portland.
The third Monday of every month for the past 30 years, LGBTQ skaters young and old, graceful and clumsy have taken over the Oaks Park rink. It’s been around for so long that now people who started coming to Gay Skate as teens can bring their own children to the event.
“My biggest goal is providing a safe space for everybody,” says Beki Safar, who has been DJ’ing the event since 2007, rolling out all the pop and house hits, from Wham! and Whitney to “It’s Raining Men.”
A roller derby superfan in her youth, just like me, Safar always knew that skating would play a major role in her life. And a what major role it’s been—Safar even met her wife at the rink.
Back when Safar first started spinning there, Gay Skate looked a little different. Started in 1991 as a fundraiser for gay men’s square-dancing group the Rosetown Ramblers, the event almost exclusively attracted gay men in its earliest days—no women and definitely no LGBTQ youth.
Safar started growing the event by collaborating with iconic regional LGBTQ magazines Just Out and PQ Monthly. She brought in longtime Portland drag queen Bolivia Carmichael for DJ sets and performances. And when attendance declined in the 2010s and Oaks Park management wanted to pull the plug on the event, Safar went to bat to save it.
In her time, she’s seen Gay Skate go from an event that pulled in 50 people to one that attracts hundreds.
Now with the resurgence in roller-skating's popularity thanks to TikTok, things have gone “supernova,” she says. Hundreds of queer people and their allies comes through to show off their skills and personal flair. In fact, the event has gotten so popular that, starting in January 2022, Oaks Park will start presenting Gay Skate twice a month, every first and third Monday.
As the event has grown, it’s also gotten more diverse. Portland and the LGBTQ community can often be overrun by 21+ events. But Gay Skate offers an alternative, all-ages space to come together. Eight-year-olds stumble around on Bambi legs in skates for the first time while old pros glide by on suede skates they bought in the ’70s. It’s one of the few truly intergenerational spaces where young queer Portlanders can bond with the community’s elders.
“Skating has always attracted queer people,” says Emily MacKay, marketing and events director for Oaks Park, who started working in the roller rink as a teen. “It was really eye-opening for me as a young person, seeing others who were totally comfortable with themselves out in the open.” Years after she started working here, MacKay has two daughters who come to Gay Skate nights.
The last skate of 2021 was Gay Skate’s 30th anniversary, and the team went all out. The event served as a fundraiser for New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit working to prevent youth homelessness. There was a raffle and cake in addition to the beloved greasy carnival staples like corn dogs and tater tots.
But the main event, as always, was the rink. Gaggles of men in sparkly tops twirled with ease while a couple of novice skaters in patterned house dresses shuffled around a turn, hand-in-hand. Throngs of Gen Z-ers anxiously fixed their hair in the corners while one family made a daisy chain with their arms. One friend group showed up in full drag, the disco ball gleaming off their wigs. Ugly Christmas sweaters were a recurring theme, along with retro chic flares.
In a place so welcoming, the crowd is by nature eclectic. No two people are the same. Goths in petticoats skated alongside men in sweatpants and Johnny Cash T-shirts. It was and it is a happy jumble of ages, genders, sexualities, and styles. And it’s only just getting started.