As millions gathered in Manhattan in June 2019 to commemorate WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a pivotal point in gay history, so too did members of the Crescent City LGBTQ community, as they have since the early 1970s.
The annual New Orleans Pride celebration take place each year in early June, with a jam-packed roster of events. The big to-do is a daylong block party at the Phoenix bar on Elysian Fields Avenue, followed by a massive parade through the French Quarter.
Pride isn’t the city’s only LGBTQ event, however. Labor Day weekend brings Southern Decadence, one of the largest gay gatherings in the South, which drew more than 250,000 revelers last summer. There’s Halloween New Orleans, a huge circuit party now in its 35th year, the Gay Easter Parade and, of course, Mardi Gras, where the over-the-top Bourbon Street Awards costume contest is a must-see no matter your sexual orientation.
In conjuction with this year's Pride celebration, the Louisiana State Museum debuted “Grand Illusions: The History and Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans” at the Presbytére in Jackson Square, which will continue throughout the year. The exhibit, the museum’s first-ever in-depth examination of gay Carnival, features close to 200 items, from creative costumes to rarely seen photos of flamboyant tableau balls from the 1950s.
“People in New Orleans are different from other places,” notes tour guide Glenn DeVilliers. “People say we’re liberal or tolerant and things like that. But really and truly, we don’t care. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone from New Orleans who I would swear on a stack of Bibles was straight; there’s a lot of gray area here.”
DeVilliers is sitting at the bar of the storied New Orleans Athletic Club, where playwright Tennessee Williams was a regular, swimsuits were long verboten and he’s been a member since high school. “There have been gay people here from the very beginning,” he says. “At the time of the Stonewall riots there were 15 gay bars in New Orleans.”
Each Saturday DeVilliers sets off on The Twirl: A Gay Heritage and Drinks Tour, which revisits the French Quarter haunts of Williams, Truman Capote, “Miss Dixie” Fasnacht and other key players in the city’s homosexual history, making multiple cocktail stops along the way. “Queens like to drink,” he quips, “but we don’t go to the gay bars; if you do, you lose them.”
Instead, DeVilliers starts with a Sazerac at Antoine’s then hits Brennan’s for a Caribbean Milk Punch, before moving on to the Carousel Bar, where Liberace once tickled the ivories. “There’s a gay-history connection to all of these things,” he explains, “though the milk punch might be the biggest stretch: The rum they use is Mount Gay.”
Think tours are a drag? Give NOLA Drag Tours a try. The two-hour excursions are led by Quinn Laroux, a “draguate” of the wildly popular New Orleans Drag Workshop, who begins at Congo Square with a discussion on slavery and gender identity during the 1700s. “That’s probably the most difficult topic we talk about,” Laroux says en route to Storyville, a former red-light district. “Everything else gets raunchier from here.”
Outfitted in gold lame, fishnets and sensible sneakers, Laroux guides groups down side streets, past former brothels and through Jackson Square, ending at a cluster of clubs. “This circle is called the Fruit Loop; it’s where the gay bars are.”
“You’ve probably seen all of the rainbow flags flying during the tour,” Laroux adds in summation. “This is a city where gay life is very public and celebrated. Queer people have always been part of here—as well as every other city in the country—to the point that now we have a drag queen leading tours of the Quarter…and it’s fine!”