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social sciences

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Portland, Oregon  
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Chartered as a city in 1851, Portland, Oregon soon had a wild and woolly reputation as an outpost of the lawless and adventurous spirit of the pioneer West. Often called the "small town big city," Portland has vacillated in its attitude toward its glbtq population, traversing over the course of its history from fearful and repressive to welcoming and accepting.

With a population of almost 600,000 people, Portland is Oregon's largest city. The Portland metropolitan area is the country's 23rd most populous metropolitan area, with more than 2.2 million people. Known for its green spaces and its environmentally-friendly ethos, Portland is also renowned for its lively art and music scenes and its embrace of quirkiness and individuality.

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The city is home to a thriving and increasingly visible community that has provided leadership for Oregon glbtq activism since the late 1960s. Despite concerted efforts by a determined anti-gay movement that has attempted to suppress gay rights in Oregon, the Portland queer community has become a vital element in the state's complex politics and in the city's rich diversity.

According to Gary Gates's analysis of the 2006 American Community Survey, the City of Portland ranks seventh in the country in terms of glbtq population, with 8.8% of adult residents identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; the Portland metropolitan area ranks fourth among metropolitan areas, with 6.1% of the population identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

On January 1, 2009, when Sam Adams assumed office, Portland became the largest city in the U.S. with an openly gay or lesbian mayor, a distinction it held until Annise Parker won election as Mayor of Houston later that year and took office on January 2, 2010.


Almost at the end of the trail blazed by white explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1806, Portland was claimed in 1843 by pioneers Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, who envisioned a prosperous future for the beautiful area on the banks of the Willamette River that they named after Pettygrove's hometown of Portland, Maine.

The new city, chartered in 1851, soon became a booming frontier town bustling with the legal industries of lumber and shipping and the illegal commerce of prostitution and impressment (the kidnapping of men for forced conscription on trade vessels).

In 1853, the Oregon Territorial Legislature enacted a law that punished the offense with imprisonment of 1 to 5 years, but no one was convicted under the law until 1886.

Homosexuality came to the forefront of Portland city politics for the first time in the dramatic Portland Vice Clique Scandal of 1912. That year, police arrested nineteen-year-old Benjamin Trout on minor charges. Frightened by police interrogation, Trout revealed the secrets and meeting places of an underground homosexual community, until then unknown to most of Portland.

Trout's revelations set off a gay witch hunt that spread throughout the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada, leading to dozens of arrests and at least one suicide. Some 68 Portlanders were implicated, including a few prominent men. In addition, the Portland YMCA was said to be "a hotbed of homosexual activity" by a muckraking newspaper, the Portland News, which broke the story and fanned the flames of the scandal.

Six trials were held in Portland as the result of the scandal and four other men pled guilty to consensual homosexual activity. Three convicted men appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court and were freed.

The fear and suspicion ignited by the Vice Clique Scandal fueled an antagonism to homosexuality that affected politics and social life throughout the twentieth century, though some historians cite the refusal of some juries to convict some of those charged in the scandal as the beginning of Portland's acceptance of the homosexual community.

In 1913, the Oregon legislature strengthened the state's sodomy statute, tripling the term of imprisonment for conviction and vastly expanding the number of acts covered by the law. In the same year, legislators in Oregon and Washington passed laws that authorized the sterilization of sex offenders. In what may be the first referendum on gay rights in the country, Oregon voters soon repealed the law authorizing sterilization of "degenerates" by a 56% to 44% margin. Radical activist Emma Goldman made an appearance in Portland to campaign against the law.

Wounded by the hysteria of the early 1900s, the Portland gay community kept a low profile for the next decades, until World War II brought an influx of new citizens to work in the city's shipyards. Some of these transplants were gays who took advantage of the anonymity of a new city to develop a social subculture, which in turn spawned new police activity to track and control same-sex cruising and socializing.

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Sam Adams became Portland's first gay mayor on January 1, 2009. Photograph by Bryan Grimes.
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