The Queen’s Head and Rebel Rebel Are Keeping Old Town Queer

The new bars are ready to restore Old Town to its former queer glory.

By Thom Hilton Photography by Thom Hilton June 8, 2022 Published in the June 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

J Buck at Rebel Rebel (left) and Daniel Bund at the Queen’s Head

Image: Thom Hilton

The past few years have brought a lot of news of Portland’s queer spaces closing—legendary spots Embers, Hobo’s, the Roxy, and Local Lounge have all shut their doors since 2017—but heading into Pride 2022, there are signs of life. And perhaps surprisingly (but perhaps not), they’re concentrated in the historically queer hub of Old Town.

The Queen’s Head, a queer twist on classic English pubs inspired by owner Daniel Bund’s time in London, opened in November 2021 right behind Voodoo Doughnut and features a stacked weekly lineup including trivia, karaoke, slam poetry, storytelling, and drag queen piano nights. Bund wants to make it clear that the Queen’s Head is a queer bar—meaning a space for everyone under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella—not just a gay or lesbian spot with an occasional night swinging the other way. “I still think there is a place for specifically gay male or lesbian spaces as well. It’s just not what we’re doing or who our customers are,” Bund says.

His new neighbors are on the same page. “It’s up to a lot of us as queer business owners to really focus on building community,” says J Buck, owner of Rebel Rebel, another new queer bar that opened just two blocks away from the Queen’s Head in February. An intimate alleyway-style space, Rebel Rebel is bathed in red neon and decorated with tropical plants, wood paneling, and money cats: personal touches that pay homage to Buck’s Hawaiian upbringing. The space is hypercolorful, with a disco ball and a DJ platform in the back, but it also has a casual, neighborhood charm that allows Rebel Rebel to shift from a drag hot spot some nights to a chill post-show spot for queens on others. Buck hopes that fluidity comes to characterize the space.

“This is not just my bar, my idea, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’ It’s a free-form, changing space. With the programming, the drag queens, the DJs, and everything, I want to let the community take the wheel and decide what we really want,” he says. “We’re not gonna put ourselves in a box.”

Both the Queen’s Head and Rebel Rebel’s inclusive intentions informed where they chose to open, with nearby businesses like CC Slaughters and Darcelle’s helping foster a sort of gayborhood vibe that recalls downtown’s so-called “Vaseline Alley” of the ’80s and ’90s. Bund says that despite the current stigma around the area, its queer nightlife is starting to find footing.

“If you live in the suburbs or you don’t live anywhere near downtown, there’s this mistaken idea that the area is on fire, and that is absolutely not the case,” he notes. “There are a lot of people living on the street, and at times we have to be a resource for them, but they alone do not make downtown unsafe. The best thing we can do is encourage critical mass: the more people there are, the more that it will feel safe. If it remains a ghost town, it’s gonna feel a little challenging.”

While Pride events weren’t locked in at press time, the venues were looking forward to block parties with their neighbors in June. “We’re the closest space to the Pride festival in Waterfront Park, and we’re already on a pedestrian alley, so we’re ready,” says Bund. Through the ups and downs of opening a queer space in an unpredictable time, he says the moments when he can revel in what he has built make it all worthwhile. “A few nights ago, somebody who was nonbinary proposed to their trans girlfriend, and they were like, ‘This is the first place we’ve ever felt safe.’ I’m running a business, and it’s stressful working seven days a week, 10 hours a day, but when I get the opportunity to enjoy it and see people having a good time, it’s so rewarding and so affirming.”