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New Orleans’ LGBT community adapts and evolves 

Christopher Jennings talks with New Orleanians of several generations to see what Pride means to them

click to enlarge Paul Zansler stands out-
side what previously was the site of Rubyfruit Jungle, a bar he frequented as 
a teenager.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Paul Zansler stands out- side what previously was the site of Rubyfruit Jungle, a bar he frequented as a teenager.

The oldest public celebration of New Orleans gay life, New Orleans Pride, may be overshadowed by the outlandishness of Southern Decadence, but the celebration has been held on and off for the last 43 years. While still a party atmosphere, Pride has more of an eye toward activism and education than Decadence. According to Chris Leonard, director of New Orleans Pride, the festival's mission is "to create an atmosphere where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can be proud of their sexual orientation and gender identity and to celebrate and promote history along with future prosperity of not only the New Orleans area, but the entire Gulf Coast region."

  Marky Brisset, 49, who owns Construction Labor Contractors, remembers Pride's early days and says straight people and tourists alike have warmed to the festival and parade since it began in her childhood. "When it first started, they didn't want to see [it]," she says. "Bourbon Street would almost be empty. Now it's packed."

  Brisset has been involved in the LGBT community since the 1970s, when, while making mischief in the French Quarter as an adolescent, she first encountered Rosemary "Mama" Pino, a pioneer in the New Orleans lesbian community. Pino and her partner Margie Normand owned and operated gay bars throughout the city, including Pino's, De Ja Vu, the Grog, the Blue Odyssey and Club 621.

  "Mama [Pino] grabbed me by the ear and said 'What are you doing?" Brisset says. "And later she turns to Margie and says, 'This kid is the future of our community.'"

  Brisset has established herself as a sort of heir to Pino, a den mother and mentor to a new generation of lesbians throughout the city. In the 41 years since Brisset entered the scene, she has noticed many changes — most of them for the better, she says.

  "We were definitely more closeted in the '70s," Brisset says. "I would see gay guys getting jumped. If you wore a flannel shirt as a female in the '70s, you weren't getting home without getting your ass kicked. By the time the '80s got here, people were more outward, more coming out, more standing their ground. When somebody was beating up a gay guy, another guy would run and get help. In the '80s you took your ass-whupping and kept moving forward."

  Craig Talluto, 51, a clinical researcher now living in Boston, grew up in New Orleans in the 1980s and remembers the community in the first half of that decade as carefree and party-oriented. He and his friends frequented spaces like Cafe Lafitte in Exile, the Country Club and the Bourbon Pub & Parade — all of which are still on the scene. It wasn't until one of his friends opened his eyes to the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s that Talluto noticed the atmosphere becoming more serious, although there was still revelry.

  "Until 1987, I was just hanging out with my friends and having a good time," he says. "Once AIDS became a reality for the community, we tried to do something about it. I got involved in fundraisers. Project Lazarus' Halloween function was started by a handful of guys who donated their own money for this fundraiser. It turned into this huge party."

Paul Zansler's first memory of Pride was trying to get his mother to drop him off a few blocks away from the parade. "We were driving up to Washington Square Park, and I'm like, 'I can get out here!'" Zansler says. His mother sighed, "I know you're going to the parade. Just tell me where to drop you off.'"

  Zansler, 36, an interior designer who grew up in Metairie and came out at 15 in 1993, had a slightly different path to the larger LGBT community. He was first accepted as gay in a youth group at Munholland United Methodist Church in Metairie. Through the group, he made contact with other LGBT teenagers in the suburbs and they carpooled to the LGBT Community Center in downtown New Orleans.

  "The main area was the Quarter, but there were other offshoots like the Coffee Bean because generally, at 16, you're going to coffeeshops. You're sneaking into bars," Zansler says. He says he and his friends frequented the Bourbon Pub and the now-defunct lesbian bar Rubyfruit Jungle — due to its lax ID policy.

  "In New Orleans, we aren't so much proud as we are shameless," says Aesha Rasheed, an Oklahoma transplant and massage therapist who also works in education reform. Rasheed, 37, didn't come out until after moving to New Orleans in 2000. Her first introduction to LGBT venues in the Crescent City was in what she refers to as the "Fruit Loop" — the gay men's bar circuit in the French Quarter in the blocks around the Bourbon Pub.

  "My introduction to queer or gay spaces was really men's bars because I went to the Pub," Rasheed says. "I was often the only female-bodied or woman-identified person in our little set of people. I loved the gay men's bars and I had a great time, but my relationship to them was not my home."

  In addition to the Fruit Loop, Rasheed and her friends frequented Rainbow in Metairie and Kims 940, a now-defunct lesbian bar in the Faubourg Marigny. She also joined an LGBT book club to meet more lesbians. She says gender was not the only isolating factor in her introduction to the community.

  "When I first was coming out, [the community] was not inclusive at all," she says. "I'm excited about this younger queer community that's happening that does seem to be more consciously embracing and creating spaces that really do integrate folks across genders, across race. But I think there's a tendency towards whiteness in all the queer spaces."

  Rasheed says she has an "on-again, off-again relationship" with Pride festivities, working at tables some years or forgetting about it entirely other years.

  "It doesn't feel like an organic expression of the queer community in this city as much as there's a date on a calendar and we have to do something for it like Memorial Day or something," Rasheed says.

The Bourbon Pub & Parade, located at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann streets, is one of the major anchors of the LGBT social scene in New Orleans and many members of the community who have been around since it opened in the mid-1970s have some sort of connection to, or story about, the bar.

  Brisset says she has been going to the Pub since it was called the Caverns. Her friend Jerry Menefee bought the bar in the early 1970s and it opened on Halloween 1975. "[Menefee] and I were standing out there and he looked at me and he smiled and said 'Look at the fags on that balcony,'" Brisset says. "Then the fire department showed up and pulled all these people off the balcony and out the bar."

  Zansler says he first went to the Pub with straight friends at 16. "It was absolutely frightening because it's like, 'Wait, oh my God, this is the community,'" he says. "Not bad frightening, but it was frightening in the sense of ... a kid's first dance or something like that."

  Talluto says he met most of his friends in New Orleans at the Pub. "I went to Catholic school my whole life and didn't have a lot of friends because I was different from most people I grew up with, and it was exciting to realize there were so many people like me," he says.

  Zansler, who spent 12 years in New York before returning to New Orleans last year, says that while the gay men's bars he remembers continue to thrive, the landscape has shifted due to the development of Internet dating and smartphone hookup apps.

  "Pub-Parade, Oz, Ninth Circle, 700 Club, Golden Lantern, Lafitte's, they have been there 20-plus years," Zansler says. "It is not as crowded now, but I'm sure that has more to do with how people are meeting more so than that these bars have physically changed. ... It's the 'order-in syndrome,' I guess you could say."

Things have changed even more significantly for gay women. Since Rubyfruit Jungle closed in 2012, there are no more bars in New Orleans catering directly to a lesbian clientele.

  "Once upon a time on Rampart Street ... there was four or five lesbian bars. Now we don't have anywhere to go," Brisset says. "Mama Pino and Margie Normand paved the way for us, opened it up for us. These women fought so hard and so long for us to be free so we could have a wide variety of places to be free. But girl bars don't make it."

  Brisset says she and her network of friends often settle on going to one of the gay men's bars, or even straight venues like the Cat's Meow or Balcony Bar & Cafe, though the gay men's bars aren't always as welcoming to lesbians as the straight bars are, according to Brisset. She recently returned to the Bourbon Pub for the first time in several months and experienced hostility from some of the clientele.

  "One of them says, 'Look, there's a lesbian in here. Why can't they go to their own bar?'" Brisset says. "I'm like, 'I've been frequenting this bar since I'm 11 years old. Who do you think you are?'"

  Rasheed says one alternative for lesbians in New Orleans is semi-regular takeovers of other venues. This includes DIY music events, the Deep Lez dance party at Big Daddy's Bar and pop-up event GrrlSpot.

  "The idea is like we take over a bar," she says. "We just show up. When [GrrlSpot] started, we would just show up, like a flash mob. It was like 'Pick a bar. We'll all go there. Boom. There we are. Then it got so big they started to have to be like, 'We should tell the bar we're coming' because it's a sudden influx of 70 women."

  Rasheed thinks these sorts of events may not last. "My fear for those spaces is because they're so youth-oriented is that they may not be sustainable because of that, like people will just get older and be like 'I'm tired of going out,'" Rasheed says. "Either you pass the torch or not." She is optimistic about the progressive political renaissance and newfound activism happening in New Orleans' LGBT social spaces, saying that LGBT nights out have to be more than "I go and I drink and I sing."

  "I'm not saying that's not worth it, but we were not connected to the reason why queer spaces are necessary," she says. "Unpacking the ways in which we are and aren't privileged at this point is really important, and I really appreciate that people are not just focused on questions of marriage rights or questions of just as long as we get ours. ... I think that's really important and refreshing about what's happening in New Orleans and happening across the South at this point."

  Brisset hopes that the conversations about what it means to be LGBT in New Orleans continue beyond Pride weekend.

  "[Pride] unites people and brings them together, but it only does it for a day. It only does it for a weekend," she says. "We need to feel pride all year long."

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