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Friday, June 9, 2017

During Pride month, a look back at one of the first gay rights protests in New Orleans

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge ROBERT ASHWORTH / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0
  • ROBERT ASHWORTH / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

In this week's Gambit, we celebrated the LGBT community with a calendar of this weekend's Pride events, discussions of LGBT theater projects and a drag workshop. But as we were working on this issue, we wanted to learn more about how far the battle for LGBT rights has come. So we took a look back at what newspapers had to say during the first glimmers of gay activism in the city.

One of the earliest reports we found: the Gay Liberation Front's (GLF's) first major march on City Hall, which took place January 23, 1971.

"Gay liberation arrived today in New Orleans," wrote reporter William H. Adler, in a page-one The States-Item story that ran that morning. For Adler's story — a slim 425 words — he spoke to several demonstrators, who planned to march that day to condemn a spate of arrests and alleged harassment of the gay community by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).

The Times-Picayune sent a reporter to cover to cover the march, and its story that ran Jan. 24 adds more detail. The event was organized to rebuke NOPD's vice squad in the wake of several controversial incidents. In particular, the GLF decried three arrests at the French Quarter's Cabrini Playground, describing the arrests as entrapment and "aggravated assault and battery."

That story, which ran without a byline, lists the GLF's demands: a call for an end to arrests and harassment, the formation of a panel to investigate police actions against gay people, and the suspension of police superintendent Clarence Giarrusso and Robert Frey, who served as head of the vice squad at that time.

"About 75 members of the GLF marched in front of City Hall, carrying posters protesting 'intimidation, brutality and terror tactics,'" The Times-Picayune reported. "There were no incidents, but a representative of the vice squad was on hand to observe the activities."

This mention of the presence of a member of the vice squad is one of those troubling vagaries you sometimes see in old news stories, which were limited by space constraints and were, of course, products of their time. Was that vice squad member there to listen to community feedback? Or to make arrests? How bad had things gotten, for GLF spokesman Philip Schmidt to be quoted in the story calling for multiple days of protest? It's hard to tell from the available information, and it's also unclear from news reports whether the panel was ever created. NOPD ultimately would appoint a formal LGBT liaison — earlier this year.

For his States-Item story, Adler quotes three GLF activists as they prepared for that day's protest. Diane Kiesling, at that time a 22-year-old bartender, was one of those activists. She appears in a photo holding a sign with a charmingly '70s touch: "Repeal inhuman laws against sexual freedom now! Right on!"

Kiesling no longer lives in the city, but when we reached her by phone, she was able to share some of her memories of that time. In her view, those early GLF demonstrations helped galvanize a social community into a political movement.

"[There was] a movement for change," she recalls. "I think [the] Stonewall [riots] were the origination of that feeling, [where] we have to stop casting ourselves as a bunch of people who get together in bars, and start coming out and finding a way to express ourselves in a political way."

At the time of the 1971 protest, she says there was a lot of concern within the LGBT community about safety on the street. She says police routinely ignored crimes against gay people, and sometimes there were problems and even violence when people emerged from gay bars.

"While you felt safe inside the bar, sometimes you got really hassled outside. ... whether it was police hassling you or a group of people from the public, especially guys," she says.

She doesn't remember many specifics about that first protest in 1971, but describes it as part of a series of events meant to inspire activism. (In recent materials distributed to media, the New Orleans Pride organization identified one major event that followed — a "gay-in" picnic the GLF hosted in in February, 1971.)

With demonstrations, op-eds in French Quarter newspapers, calls for meetings with City Hall representatives, and more, the GLF began to coalesce into a more robust gay rights movement. The very next week, both The Times-Picayune and The States-Item would report on then-mayor Moon Landrieu's willingness to meet with the GLF.

From our position in the present, where Pride is a fixture of many urban calendars, gay marriage (finally!) was legalized and LGBT culture is a valued part of New Orleans life, it's really eye-opening to think about how much has changed in a relatively short time. And though there's obviously a long way to go (just a few days ago, President Donald Trump declined to formally recognize Pride month), it's inspiring to reflect on the work of these early activists ... even when, as Kiesling says, they often felt like they were making things up as they went along.

"People that were not afraid to be out were just trying to just be out, and find ways to express that as a political movement," Kiesling says. "I felt like something had to change. And if not me, who?"

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