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Christmas In Gay New Orleans


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Christmas In Gay New Orleans

Little To Celebrate For Many

by Rex Wockner 365Gay.com Editor-At-Large

Posted: December 18, 2005 4:00 pm ET

(New Orleans, Louisiana) A few Christian political activists blamed Hurricane Katrina on gays, noting that it hit immediately prior to gay-friendly New Orleans' famed "Southern Decadence" gay festival.

But, in fact, about the only parts of the city that weren't severely damaged by the massive flooding from burst levees were the gayest areas. And the New Orleans gay scene appears to be bouncing back faster than the city in general.

"The 20 percent of the city that was spared, 80 percent of those parts of the city are gay [neighborhoods]," said Larry Bagneris, executive director of the New Orleans Human Relations Commission. "The benefits of living in that environment -- the French Quarter, the Marigny, the Bywater, Uptown -- where most gay people live, they were spared the water. We've come back not only to dry land, but to our jobs.

"All those preachers who blamed the gay community for Katrina -- our neighborhoods were the ones that had the rainbow over us and were blessed," Bagneris said.

But many gay people didn't live in those gayest neighborhoods -- especially lesbians, blacks and men who don't frequent gay bars.

"The flooding hit a lot of the community that is less visible than the bar crowd," said Randal Beach, co-chair of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans. "A lot of the people whose social activities revolve around the bar scene live in and around the French Quarter, and they were fortunately spared the flooding. But many others in the community -- particularly the women's and trans[gender] communities -- lived in areas that were badly flooded. New Orleans also has a large black community, and the overwhelming majority those people lived in neighborhoods that were severely damaged."

Former city Health Department director and well-known French Quarter figure Dr. Brobson Lutz agreed that "gay people of color were more prone to live in areas that were more susceptible to the flooding."

Lesbians took a harder hit, Bagneris said, because "more lesbians lived in [the flooded] Mid-City and Lakeview [areas], and many have kids that have to go to school."

Most schools have not reopened, which prevents people with school-aged children from coming home, even if they have a home to come home to, which most evacuees do not.

The city's lesbian population is likely to remain depleted for some time, said Belinda Hernandez, an openly gay executive producer at WDSU-TV.

"A lot of the lesbian population relocated -- and we don't even know where they are," she said. "Lakeview is gone. Much of Mid-City was under water as well."


The fact that most evacuees still haven't been able to come home also has thrown the Lesbian and Gay Community Center into dire financial straits. It may, in fact, have to close if help doesn't arrive soon.

"It's devastating," Beach said. "We have met several times trying to figure out how to keep the doors open. The base of our support has always been in the community itself, we've never had a lot of corporate support, [and] many of our heavy donors are scattered around the country. Many we haven't been able to talk to. We don't even know where they went.

"Also, it's hard to ask people for money when they don't even have a house," he said.

The center has 100 to 150 core donors but has been able to contact "no more than half a dozen of them," Beach said.

The all-volunteer facility, located in the unflooded Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, operates on $30,000 to $50,000 a year. If 2,500 people from the gay community around the country donated $20 each, the center's crisis could be averted for a full year, Beach said.

"At a time when there are a lot of people in our community desperately needing help and desperately needing community, the center needs to be up and running and operating," he said. "But we can't keep the doors open without insurance and rent and utilities."

The center hosts the Metropolitan Community Church; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); political organizations; a youth group; the gay film festival and other community institutions. It also operates a resource library.

Another way that gays around the country can help out is to start visiting New Orleans again, said Bagneris.

"The crowds in the bars are about the same, if not fuller, because we have FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) people, computer people, people from out of town," he said.

"I'm encouraging gay people to visit now -- if you can get a hotel and a flight. Only about 35 percent of our flights are coming in and out. Hotels are tight because of FEMA and insurance people. But this would be a great time to visit. ... The areas that were preserved are the areas that we enjoy the most. The bars are popping, the restaurants are open, you can view the sights, and you can go through the areas that have been under water and realize how blessed you are."

While FEMA partiers may be helping keep the gay bars afloat, that's pretty much the only positive thing Bagneris and others had to say about the feds.

"The federal government has shown a lack of leadership from the top down," Bagneris said. "We're dealing with an inept president and an inept FEMA. ... But I feel extremely optimistic. We've always done what is best for the city, which has kept this unique culture and individuality. We tend to build and restructure in spite of the federal government's lack of support."


FEMA also came in for criticism during conversations with French Quarter gay bartenders.

"We're ready for the FEMA people to go away. In fact, we'll help them pack," said Eric Evans, manager of the Rawhide 2010 bar.

"They've sucked up all the rooms in the hotels," he said. "We don't know what they're doing. We need our tourists to come and visit and stay in the hotels that they can't get into because the FEMA people are occupying them. Basically, we're occupied by the federal government right now. We need them to go away.

"Tell all of our people it's time to come home," Evans added. "We're ready for you."

Evans said business at Rawhide has been "steady ... pretty much normal for December, but it's all locals."

A Saturday-night pub crawl found 40 to 75 people in each of several gay bars between 11 p.m. and midnight -- numbers that some locals said were low. A Sunday afternoon visit to a popular Bourbon Street gay bar found more than 100 patrons.

"It's very unpredictable," said Jerry Frederick, assistant manager of Good Friends Bar. "Some nights we're crazy busy when we don't think we're going to be, and then when we think we're going to be [busy], it's slow. The majority of the time, though, we are generally rather busy, so we're getting back to where we should be.

"It's a lot of locals," Frederick said. "We don't have any tourists in town yet. There's not a lot of lodging available because all the hotels are taken by FEMA and construction workers. When the tourists come back, then it's gonna pick up a lot more.

"We also have a 2 o'clock curfew," he noted. "When they lift the curfew, that's going to change things a lot, too."

Over on Bourbon Street, the main tourist strip, Bourbon Pub barback Marc Anthoni said that "the last month or so, business has been good."

"I think the gay population in New Orleans has bounced back considerably faster than the general population," he said. "I feel we're very fortunate that the business really is here. It's kind of a 50/50 mix here -- we get some relief workers, a lot of construction people who are coming in from out of state to rebuild the community and, yeah, a lot of the local faces have been gracing our humble establishment. We've been blessed."

Cafe Lafitte In Exile, which also is on Bourbon Street, "has been pretty busy," said bartender Manuel Carillo.

"We're getting a lot of out-of-towners," he said. "What we're really worried about is when the relief workers leave, are we going to have enough actual residents to keep the city going. That's the big scare. We just don't have enough people returning, so that's not a good sign.

"Tourism is real, real low because of all the relief work going on," Carillo agreed. "There's no space at the hotels."

Former city health director Lutz predicted it will be many years before New Orleans' population returns to pre-hurricane levels.

"New Orleans was said to have a population of 480,000 to 500,000 pre-Katrina," he said. "There's no way we'll get 200,000 residents in a year. We'll be lucky to have 150,000 residents in a year. I think the next three to four years are really going to be rough. I think it's going to take us 10 years to really start booming again."

Lutz suggested that the present population mix gives the city an Old West feel.

"The city is running 60 to 70 percent male right now, which is very unusual for a U.S. city, and probably more characteristic of an old frontier operation like in the Wild West or in Alaska," he said.

* Editor's Note: Donations for the gay community center can be mailed to: LGCCNO, 2114 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA 70116.

©365Gay.com 2005


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