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Portland’s first SlutWalk – a retrospective

SlutWalk Portland was a trial by fire

Around 4pm on Sunday, I decided to head back to the Terry Shrunk Plaza where this last Sunday’s SlutWalk began, to pick up my bicycle,and head home. Before I left, and I was struck by an (only seemingly) innocuous question: Should I put my clothes back on? Where does acting demonstratively end? United we stand, divided we fall, I decided on a compromise: keeping the short shorts, but adding a shirt (I was also concerned about sunburn at this point.) I picked up my bicycle and was immediately spotted by an older man and woman who couldn’t stop staring at me as I passed them by. The man couldn’t take his eyes off my semi-unbuttoned shirt, shook his head and whispered under his breath. And I’m hardly what you would call feminine. As if this wasn’t the confirmation we needed.

Three hours earlier – a completely different scene. A park full of loving people dedicated to doing their part to eradicate sexual violence, shame-based attitudes to sex and women’s sexuality, along with homophobia and transphobia. Signs speaking simple, heartfelt truths about politics, identity and sexualized violence. A stage full of tender, sharp stories of abuse encountered by all three of SlutWalk’s principal organizers.

But, I am getting ahead of myself here. We need to rewind a little to nuance our view, to get the bigger picture. As originally posted, SlutWalk began as a (somewhat ironically named) response to a police officer’s instruction of trainees that women could avoid getting raped if they didn’t dress like sluts. And so, SlutWalk Toronto was born, spawning SlutWalks all over the nation and the world. What began as a protest against one man’s ideas around sexual violence became a wave of protests against societies that still teach women (and men, and other genders) that they are at fault if they become the victims of (sexualized) violence: They didn’t fight back enough, they were too visibly queer, too “slutty”, in the wrong place, not vigilant enough. Fast forward to several months ago – When Ryan Basille, Sterling Clark and Sophia St. James decided to take on the idea of creating a Portland area SlutWalk. Portland has, despite it’s all-around liberal atmosphere, been suffering from attacks against queers and people of color, with police violence and transphobia. While the SW 3 were busy gathering ideas, a young activist had already decided to take on SlutWalk, and both groups joined forces, only to part ways shortly after. Funding struggles followed, before Casa Diablo and other organizations and companies came on board to sponsor SlutWalk, and community members started donating time and energy.

The march drew in people from the streets

Personnel difficulties aside, SlutWalk Portland managed to pull off an amazing feat: Bringing a SlutWalk fashion show to the Blow Pony stage, bringing a pre-party to Rotture (that had a great turnout despite being scheduled against the Queer Music Festival, which was packed), and a decompression party to Saratoga, which featured a ton of local artists such as Autry!, Delaney and Paris, and Julie Schurr, Angelique Devil and other performers and was the perfect finish to a very long and intense day. But parties and nightclubs and fashion shows aside, what SlutWalk managed to do on a hot Sunday afternooon, was get people into a downtown park, in some cases in their skivvies, holding signs, holding hands, and listening to stories of rape, of murder statistics for queer and transfolk, of childhood sexual abuse, of pain and neglect and isolation, of victim blaming and of sex work, but also of healing and power and light. Of community. Of honesty. It was tough space to hold, and no one in the audience was left untouched. Tears in our eyes and fire in our bellies. All three organizers told their stories, holding little back, bringing the dark, shameful secrets into the light, and standing tall, on a stage, in the sunlight, in public, voices breaking, but messy hearts intact, feeling the heat and the long days and nights that had preceded those steps on stage. And I grasped at those few goofups and jokes, brought on by sun, pressure and lack of sleep, knowing that the lightness is what we have to fight back the dark.

And then you know what SlutWalk did? SW stomped down the street, all sexy and shit, covered in sweat and glitter, and shouted and chanted and raged and thumped it’s way to the north park blocks. Starting out with about 200 hundred people, I turned to Sterling about halfway through, (almost) naked on the street, untouchable and safe amidst the crowds, and said “look around”. Hundreds of people, cheering and shouting, were behind us.  SlutWalk took downtown. SlutWalk took tourists. SlutWalk took the food carts and strippers on the corner. SlutWalk gathered groups of frat boys. SlutWalk took Burnside. We were filling street block after street block by the time we turned the corner to the North Park Blocks, a sweet cascade of skin, of colour, of joy.

I left the march after having a chance to share my gratitude and joy over being involved with the organizers – and heading back to the plaza to pick up my bike. The wind blew some trash across the square, and it was empty, except for an old man sitting on the side, resting in the shadows. But the steps, where the stage had been, where the stories came, was bathed in light.

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