New Orleans LGBT+ History Comes Out of the Closet


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New Orleans is a city of paradoxes. One of the strangest has to do with LGBT+ history. In a city in love with its history, a city which inspires books on the most obscure historical topics on a monthly basis, much of the city’s LGBT+ history remains in the closet. Which is odd, given how vibrant and colorful that history is. Thankfully, in the last few years, writers are beginning to record some of New Orleans’ rainbow history.

The historical closet door creaked open in 2012 with the publication of In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar. Focusing on Café Lafitte In Exile, arguably the nation’s oldest continually operating gay bar, the book establishes a general timeline of the major events, people, and attitudes that shaped the gay community in the 20th Century. It was the first book ever published on the history of LGBT+ New Orleans.

In many ways, the LGBT+ history of New Orleans is not unlike that of other cities, which is to say a history of discrimination, police harassment, hate crimes, and suppression. Despite New Orleans’ reputation for “letting the good times roll” and “anything goes” attitude, it wasn’t always that way for queer folk. The 1950s were especially hostile. When three Tulane undergraduates who assaulted and killed a gay man in the French Quarter in 1958 were acquitted on murder charges, the courtroom erupted in applause. The attack, subsequent trial, and general homophobia of the time is chronicled in Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice, which was published in 2017.

Another example of the city’s negative attitude toward gayness was its reaction to the Up Stairs Lounge arson in 1973. Thirty-two people died as a result of that fire – the deadliest in New Orleans history and, until the Pulse Massacre in Orlando in 2016, the deadliest crime against LGBT+ people in U.S. history. Three books have been written about that tragic event: Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire (2011), The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973 (2014), and Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation (2018).

On a happier note, last year finally saw the publication of a book on gay carnival. Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans (2017) took over twenty years to write and traces the birth of gay carnival in 1958 to the current day. Major gay krewes, some of which are long gone, are given their own chapters and significant figures, from krewe captains to costume designers, are highlighted as well. The illustrations alone, over 600 of them, are priceless.

A few months ago, the LSU Press released Southern Decadence in New Orleans (2018). Founded in the summer of 1972 by a few friends as a modest celebration, Southern Decadence has since grown into one of New Orleans’s largest annual tourist events. This book explores the pivotal moments and public perceptions related to the festival – including the myths and conjecture that often inaccurately characterized it – and provides an in-depth narrative detailing how a small party in the Faubourg Tremé grew into an annual event that attracts over 250,000 visitors to New Orleans.

Southern Decadence, gay carnival, the Up Stairs Lounge arson, and Café Lafitte in Exile are four aspects of New Orleans LGBT+ history that make it unique and distinctive. And while the books written on these subjects are welcome and necessary, there is still much territory to mine. Lesbian and transgender history is woefully underrepresented in the literature and an exhaustive history of LGBT+ New Orleans remains to be written.

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Recommended Reading:

Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire.  Johnny Townsend.  Booklocker.com, 2011.

In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar.  Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist.  LL Publications, 2012.

The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973.  Clayton Delery.  McFarland, 2014.

My Gay New Orleans: 28 Personal Reminiscences on LGBT + Life in New Orleans.  Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist, Eds.  LL Publications, 2016

Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice.  Exposit, 2017.

Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans.  Howard P. Smith.  UP Mississippi, 2017.

Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.  Robert Fieseler.  Liveright, 2018.

Southern Decadence in New Orleans.  Howard P. Smith and Frank Perez.  LSU Press, 2018.

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