Seeing Red

This piece is dedicated to members of the board (past and present) for your tireless efforts, and to the volunteers , sponsors, photographers, DJs, and thousands of attendees for supporting the wonderful beneficiaries along the way.

All nonprofits are not created equal. 

In 2000, shortly after I moved to Portland, Oregon from the Netherlands (Amsterdam), my partner and I moved into our first home together. At that time, I didn’t know anyone in Portland other than Eric and a few of his friends I had met at his birthday party in March prior to officially relocating back to the states. 

Through a series of events, while Eric and I were attending the opening of the new Portland Mill Work location, we met Dustin and Reid. These guys were really sweet. Eric had previously known Reid from life in Portland but not his partner Dustin. I didn’t think anything out of the ordinary about meeting these guys, but a few short months later, serendipity showed its hand.  Unbeknownst to Eric and I, Dustin and Reid had become our neighbors. 

Having these guys as neighbors was great. They had fun friends and often included invites to their parties. I couldn’t think of a better way of getting to know the neighbors in our then struggling area of Northeast Portland. Eric and I lived in the Vernon (Alberta Arts District) neighborhood. Like many underserved areas in the country, Portland too was experiencing the pains and challenges of gentrification. 

One afternoon, we heard what sounded like a helicopter flying over the house. This wasn’t really uncommon since we lived under the flight path for Portland International Airport. Curious about the disruption, I walked out on the deck (our home had reverse living with the living room, kitchen, and master upstairs) to see this guy trying to sneak in the back window of the duplex that butted up to our backyard, which also happened to be where Dustin and Reid lived. I called the guys to alert them of this intruder in their backyard and discovered that Reid was already in action. In fact, the intruder was actually pleading with Reid at the rear bedroom window to let him hide in the house. Reid wasn’t having anything to do with the guy and told the guy to scram. Despite these growing pains, it was a great neighborhood. 

With the weekend just around the corner, Dustin asked if I was available to lend a hand for this event (party) he, Reid, and friends of theirs were putting on. He said that it would be a fun time and I’d get free entry, food and drink, plus Eric can join as well. This sounded exciting and all I had to do was put a little physical labor into the party. It may have taken me about 30 seconds to think about it when I said yes! There’s one more thing Dustin added. If you stay for the party, you have to be willing to put on a “red dress”. I asked, “is this a drag party”? He chuckled and explained. This is a fundraiser for those impacted by HIV/AIDS. The red dress symbolizes the red ribbon and serves as a way to level the playing field and create solidarity. It’s not masculine or feminine and becomes a community uniform. I thought about the friends that had died because of this deadly disease and this party, really sounded like a fun way to not only raise funds and awareness, but also to honor them.

As the party started, the organizers were nervous and anxious. This was actually the first time that this party was open to the public and a fundraiser. The party originally started two years prior as a small house party in North Portland. Because of increased interest, the party outgrew its basement location making the organizers think, maybe there’s something they could do where they can continue the fun and do some common good at the same time. After filing for 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status, Red Dress Party PDX was born. 

Portlanders can be very creative. As attendees arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile as these red clad supporters made their way inside the venue. So much so, my cheeks ached. Some dresses were elaborate red gowns, dyed wedding dresses, and homemade garments. I was really surprised at how hot some guys looked in dresses! Some dresses were so short, any time they lifted their arms, you could see that they went “commando”, sans underwear, beneath their frocks. This was entertaining to watch these guys maneuver through the crowd with drinks in hands as they displayed their dangling man parts! Though the attendees were predominantly men, there were plenty of gal pal sidekicks present too. That’s the beauty of this party is that every walk of life is welcome provided you are wearing a red dress. In the later years, organizers enlisted the help of the Portland chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to be the enforcers of the dress code. Anyone not attired in a red dress will have to leave the party or purchase one of the on-site reserve dresses (some exceptions are allowed as long as it’s red). 

Food and drink were included and jello shots jiggled throughout the crowd. The party was a hit!  With most events, there is always a bit of drama that happens behind the scenes. At one point of the night the worst thing imaginable happened, we were running out of the signature cocktail. With some quick thinking, one of the volunteers, Alisa, jumped into action. This lovely lady was dressed in a long frock (red of course) and elbow length gloves, she grabbed a five gallon container to mix up the rosy elixir. Unbeknownst to Alisa, there was still a gallon of clear booze remaining when she added more booze. With no spoon long enough to reach the bottom of the container, the volunteer reached down with her gloved hand to mix the crimson juice combined with other ingredients to ensure nothing clogged the receptacle! I know, you’re probably thinking eew, that’s gross, but back then, decisions were made on the fly, albeit unconventional. These organizers were friends and kind-hearted volunteers just trying to do some good, not professional party planners.

These were the early days of the party when things were really dirty, gritty, and honestly less complicated. The one constant about this organization is its determination to survive and grow. The years that followed, we always looked for raw warehouse space to create an environment of fun and whimsy based on a ”Red” theme. Some of the themes from parties past include, Red Square in 2004, Red Light in 2005, Red Planet in 2006, Red Sea in 2008 (think Poseidon Adventure), and one of my favorites, Red Eye in 2009. Where board members were dressed as sexy flight attendants pushing beverage carts with jello shots. This party also featured a seating section made to look like a luggage carousel; it actually rotated too. Volunteers constructed a giant big wheel and typewriter (RedRum) in 2010 – think The Shining, and even a giant cake topper (Red Wedding) to help support and promote marriage equality in 2014.  Check out the Red Dress PDX flickr page for more photos!

Over the years, the number of challenges to get this party off the ground have been nothing short of abundant. All aspects of this party; the planning, design, and execution is all done by a small volunteer board and dedicated committee members. As a former Board President, being part of this amazing crew requires the commitment of practically taking on a full-time job. Just finding a venue large enough to hold up to 2200 attendees isn’t as easy as it used to be.

With Portland’s increased popularity as a livable and hip place to be, any affordable warehouse space has been razed to make way for shiny new high-rise condos and offices. Also regulatory changes influenced by the disastrous 2016 Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in Oakland, CA have forced organizers of large scale events in Portland to secure costlier venues with sprinklers and other onsite safety enhancements, disqualifying many older structures that are often more cost-effective options for nonprofits. Don’t get me wrong, safety is and always has been a part of the process plan with the Red Dress Party. In fact, there are emergency medical technicians onsite, security present to ensure illegal drugs or weapons aren’t smuggeled in, and the party doesn’t even happen unless the fire marshal signs off on the party layout. 

Despite the challenges, the party continues to shimmy on! During the two decade run of the party, Red Dress has attracted politicians, or their offspring (Chelsea Clinton), and even a few celebrities. Entertainers from the sexy siren Storm Large and headlining DJs such as Nina Flowers (from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1) and handsome hunk James Cerne have kept crowds jumping on the dance floor. The party has also been written about Een Vreemde Tweeling (A Strange Twin) by the globetrotting Dutch travel writer Jurriaan Teulings comparing the weird on-goings in Austin, TX and Portland, OR.

Photo credit: Gina Garbero

The mission of Red Dress PDX is to support queer youth, help community members living with HIV and AIDS, help to fight domestic violence, and serve other community members in need. To date, this unconventional fundraiser has given more than $500,000 to local charities. These funds are unconditional too. Meaning they are not specifically designated for a particular beneficiary program. 

It’s hard to believe this little party I affectionately call the “Sexy Beast” is celebrating 20 years. This year’s theme is Roaring Red so think flapper dresses and speakeasies for your fashion options. Though this party may seem like fun and “gaymes”,  for me it’s a tale of friendships, philanthropy, and fabulousness! 

May 16th, 2020 would have marked the 20th anniversary of the Red Dress Party PDX annual fundraising event. Like so much of life, Covid-19 has forced the cancellation and postponement of everything. Happy Anniversary!

#RedDressPDX #RoaringRed #InThisTogether

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