June in the Crescent City is known for its heat, afternoon thunderstorms and the rainbow flags and bunting decorating the balconies and street posts throughout the French Quarter. June is known internationally as Gay Pride Month. It was established to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots which resulted from the initial arrest of thirteen gay men during a raid on the popular Greenwich Village club, The Stonewall Inn. During the 1960’s these raids that police claimed were to maintain civic decency were more and more common. The charges were more and more trumped up. As word spread of yet another raid that specifically targeted the homosexuals of New York City, patrons and neighbors began to assemble out side of the bar. The protesters soon outnumbered the police, nearly fifty to one! According to witnesses, a peace officer would strike a woman and arrest her. That is when the crowd began to throw rocks and bottles at the officers. The protests would involve thousands and lasted for five days.
One year later, on the weekend of the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first Gay Pride events were held. The City of New York planned one for the actual anniversary on the 28th which would fall on a Sunday in 1970. Chicago, therefore held theirs one day earlier on Saturday. New Orleans did not make a public commemoration until February of 1971. Contrary to what the city is known for, it did not have a parade. Instead, the short lived Gay Liberation Front of New Orleans sponsored a “Gay-In” Picnic at City Park. Later that year another was held in Washington Square on Frenchman Street. It is possible that these public exhibitions of homosexuality in 1971 would lead to another yearly tradition, Southern Decadence. In 1972, a handful of Tulane students living in the Tremé neighborhood decided to throw a party for the Labor Day weekend. It was to be a costume party and the theme was ‘your favorite Southern Decadent’. This first gathering was such a success, that the following year they began to ‘parade though the French Quarter, stopping at their favorite bars. By 1974, Southern Decadence was deemed officially part of the New Orleans festival scene with the inclusion of its first grand marshal.
Unfortunately, the New Orleans LGBT community would suffer tragedy in 1973. On June 24th, four days before the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall arrests, a group of 125 were attending services at the Metropolitan Community Church. The congregation would meet in the Upstairs Lounge on Chartres Street above what is today the Jimani Lounge. Around quarter to eight a fire was intentionally started in the main stairway leading to the upstairs bar. Thirty-two men died horrible deaths, unable to escape. Funeral homes and churches turned away grieving families, refusing to provide service for any homosexual. In several instances, families would not even go to the morgue to identify their ‘loved’ ones. A prime example is that of Rev. Bill Larson whose body can be seen in photos partially hanging out a window of the UpStairs Lounge. His sole surviving relative, his mother, refused his remains. This attack would amount to the worst hate crime against homosexuals until the 2017 Pulse Nightclub shooting. The primary suspect in the fire was Roger Nunez, a patron of the bar who was thrown out earlier in the evening. He was not arrested and committed suicide a year later.
In June of 1977, country singer and homophobe Anita Bryant would successfully lead campaigns to repeal anti-discrimination laws in four states. The first and most controversial was the repeal of a measure that would allow gays to adopt. At the time, Bryant was also the spokeswoman for Florida Orange Juice. In retaliation, gay bars throughout the French Quarter stopped making screwdrivers and other drinks that required orange juice as an ingredient. Word of a scheduled performance by Bryant at the Municipal Auditorium in what was then still called Jazz Memorial Park (Armstrong Park) would quickly spread through the network of gay bars in the Quarter. This was to be Anita Bryant’s first performance since the repeal. A protest was organized and met at Jackson Square before her concert. The crowd was estimated to be greater than 2500 people and would grow to more than 3000 as the procession traveled up St Ann Street to the park. The Lavender Line is traditionally viewed as a safe area for homosexuals from Bourbon Street to N Rampart Street. This would be one of the largest civil rights protests to occur in New Orleans. The largest was the Women’s March on January 21, 2017 in which estimates have the attendance at around 10,000. On the anniversary of the Bryant protest, another rally was held again at Jackson Square. This 1978 rally called Gay Fest would be the first event to be promoted as a gay pride event. Two years later in 1980, the first ‘Pride’ parade was held in the city. In 1981 the event was relocated to the newly re-named Armstrong Park and future afternoon talk show host Ellen Degeneres would Emcee. She is also a New Orleans native. Gay Fest would be officially changed to Gay Pride for their 1988 celebration.
As cities prepare to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let us all take a few minutes to think about how much the world view of homosexuality has changed. Today, members of the LGBT community can legally marry, adopt and join the military. Unfortunately, the United States still has a long way to go. As I am writing this blog, it is being announced that the Supreme Court has decided in favor of the Colorado Baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple siting religious beliefs. Anita Baker is still around and touting her tired homophobic rhetoric. Recently, she has found popularity again with the MAGA movement. It was recently announced that Amazon will be producing a biopic on her life.
This year, New Orleans Gay Pride Weekend will be June 8, 9 and 10. Check out that link for a full schedule of events happening around the French Quarter. The parade will be on the 9th beginning at 7:30pm. The route will begin on Elysian Fields, proceed down Royal, Frenchmen, Decatur and Canal Street before making it’s way down world famous Bourbon Street. This year it is estimated that there will be near 5000 people participating in the parade.
Feel free to leave comments or shoot me any questions in the comments. Oh, and check out my website if you are interested and taking one of my tours when you visit!