Southern Discomfort

Author James Sears discusses the gay rights movement in the South, from the Up Stairs Lounge fire to Anita Bryant and beyond.



In 1969, New York City police raided the gay-frequented Stonewall bar, sparking a counterattack against police that lasted three nights. America's social landscape was embroiled in radical change at the time, and the Stonewall riots launched a gay rights movement that quickly gained momentum.

The 1970s gave rise to gay activist coalitions around the country that attempted to counteract the legal and social bias against homosexuality that permeated American culture. Their newfound recognition faced resistance by conservative crusaders such as singer Anita Bryant, who founded the Christian-based "Save Our Children" organization, named for Bryant's belief that gay activists were attempting to recruit children to their cause. Her efforts resulted in Miami-Dade County, Fla., overturning a 1977 ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in the workplace (an action reversed in 1998).

Down South, the gay rights movement advanced a little differently than in other parts of the country -- more slowly, perhaps, but progressive nonetheless. In New Orleans, the annual Southern Decadence weekend of gay pride -- which takes place this weekend in New Orleans -- began in 1972 as a way for bored French Quarterites to spice up the dog days of summer. Two other incidents also helped galvanize the gay rights movement in the Big Easy and beyond.

One was a 1973 fire at the French Quarter gay bar the Up Stairs Lounge. Thirty-two people died, and many officials and citizens regarded the incident as a lesser tragedy because of the patrons' sexual orientation. Victims were mocked and survivors scorned. Then, at a time when disclosing sexual preference was a dangerous revelation in the South, an unprecedented 250 people attended a memorial service for the victims at St. Mark's Methodist Church. In the recently released book Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestone: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, author and historian James T. Sears describes the event:

"[The Rev. Troy] Perry recollects that he received a note: 'There are TV cameras set up across the street out in front.' He interrupted the organist and spoke to the congregation: 'I cannot control what is happening across the street. I just want to tell you that you can go out of the side door ... [and] leave through the alley.' One woman stood up: 'I am not ashamed to be here. And I am walking out the front door!'"

"[Perry recalls later:] 'In a city where people were really frightened, nobody left by the back door ... they walked out with their heads held high.'"

Four years later, when Bryant performed at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Jackson Square to protest her anti-gay crusade.

In his book, a chronicle of Southern gay rights activity from 1970-79, Sears offers vignettes of individuals and organizations who fought to establish their place in American society in a turbulent time. Sears has taught gay studies at Harvard University and the University of South Carolina, and his new book is part of an ongoing history of gay Southern life, a project that includes the earlier books Growing Up Gay in the South and Lonely Hunters.

What do you mean by the term 'queering space'?

I'm referring to the process by which sexual minorities -- people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, people who fall outside the "heterosexual norm" -- over a period of time incorporated and immigrated themselves into various kinds of spaces. This includes not only geographic space, such as the French Quarter or Marigny, but also less permanent space. Queer space could be the [gay Mardi Gras] krewes. Queering space could also include softball fields.

In the '40s, '50s and '60s, many of the Southern towns like Raleigh, Houston, Atlanta -- if you were a gay man and you wanted to find other gay men, a good place would be hotel bars. It wouldn't be just any hotels, it would be the bars of the most prominent hotels in the city. And in that space you would be able to locate indirectly, and very discreetly, other gay men.

Down South, the gay movement has been shaped by separatism along race and gender lines. How has this affected 'queering space' in the South?

The reason why I use 'space' instead of 'community' is sometimes when people think about community, they confuse community with locality. If we think about how different groups appropriate space and use space, you can see how that's done along gender, class and racial lines. A good example of gender lines would, of course, be the lesbian separatists as well as lesbian feminists, some of whom were not separatists. In communities like Houston you had a lesbian group called the Lesberadas, and in Atlanta you had the ALFA (Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance) house -- all of those were spaces which were all women.

As far as African Americans, the only real space was drag. That was a safe space for some men of color to find a sense of community. That came out of the systemic discrimination that was found in pretty much every Southern city in terms of gay bars, many of which were owned by gay people. You would find discrimination such as asking for multiple forms of ID for persons of color, or switching music if there were too many blacks or Latinos in the bar.

Louisiana is one of the last holdouts in the country to abolish sodomy laws and pass an anti-discrimination bill for gays in the workforce. Why in Louisiana is there such a reluctance to officially tolerate a sizable gay population?

I have to ask myself, why is the South sort of the stalwart group of states that basically have refused to accept what is obvious to most others, that is, people come in all different kinds of sexual varieties? Conservative religion plays a big role -- in Louisiana the Catholic Church plays a big role, and conservative Protestantism plays a big role. It's also important to put it in the context that emerged out of feminists and lesbians of the time. You can't separate the legislators -- which you equate primarily with men -- from their disdain for homosexuality and gender issues including reproductive rights.

Another reason is just sex. We as a nation are uncomfortable with sex, and that's why sex sells, and consequently, when talking about gay rights, people think "sex" immediately. There's a lot of complicated forces at work.

The fire at the Up Stairs Lounge generated a powerful impromptu gay pride demonstration at St. Mark's church. In your book you say this galvanized the movement nationally and in New Orleans. But later you write that New Orleans' gay community quickly seemed to forget about this incident. Why didn't it have a more permanent impact?

Because there was no infrastructure there. Besides the [gay] bars, you had the MCC [Metropolitan Community Church] which was a small group to begin with, and you had tiny student groups. So I think what you had in the fire was a tragic event which certainly did galvanize people emotionally, in terms of sadness and anger and frustration. Beyond that event, you had people trying to organize, but unless you have enough of a political or social critical mass of people to sustain that, there's not going to be that kind of activism. And you really never did have that critical mass in New Orleans.

I think the interesting comparison was between the fire and [the 1977 protest of] Anita Bryant. The fire was tragic and emotional and riveting, but ultimately it had very little impact with respect to any type of social or political organization in New Orleans and nationally. It didn't galvanize gays in New Orleans outside of making people feel terrible about it. But what did galvanize people and have a sustained major impact, more so than Stonewall, was Anita Bryant. Anita Bryant was simply more than one tragic day ... she traveled around as a singer. And, also, [the protest] happened four years later and by the middle '70s you began to develop some sort of infrastructure within many Southern communities. So when Anita Bryant came to town for those two days, you had that group connecting with others to form an umbrella group here, and you had that ability to mobilize. And the times had changed by then, too.

How so?

For a four-year period of time you went from a small Advocate -- the national gay paper -- to one that was much more in appearance like Time magazine. By then you had more national organizations, more national publications. You also had more social groupings -- you had more discos, more clubs, more activities, and all of those brought people together. One example was [Houston lesbian activist] Pokey Anderson and Lesberadas -- lesbian softball allowed them to get together twice a week to practice, and that would mean they would communicate twice a week.

There have been several gay publications and political coalitions in New Orleans that have come and gone. Why has it been difficult for gay activists in New Orleans to maintain a consistent political or media presence over the years?

I think that's true to a certain degree throughout the South. New Orleans is not exceptional in that. With any kind of movement, there's always a core of organizers, and those people get burned out. And you're in the South, so when you go back to anti-lynching activists, to the suffragettes, to labor organizers, it's always been much more difficult in the South organizing than it has been in other regions of the country, and one would not expect that to be any different in the gay community.

I think that by and large New Orleans is probably more extreme in this than other Southern cities. People (in New Orleans) are much more tuned to social events than political events. Louisiana, I think, has a history of making political events social events. You look at those groups who were around for quite a while, the [gay] krewes, the Steamboat Club -- all those were social. You have to develop a group identity that you are something larger besides who you have sex with. That's why the social groupings, krewes, softball, motorcycle clubs -- why those are so important. So when you ask the question "Why hasn't New Orleans sustained this?" I would argue it has sustained it, but you have to understand this from a broad perspective. You can't define it too narrowly and explicitly in terms of political activism.

There was a strong political front in New Orleans against Anita Bryant, yet in your book you note that it seemed to fall apart.

It fell apart certainly in the sense that you didn't bring together several thousand people again, but one of the things that happened that year was IMPACT magazine. That newspaper has been around for a long time, and it has been important in the New Orleans gay community. And a year later New Orleans did have its first gay pride rally, so it's not like things went back to the way they were before Anita Bryant. But they certainly did not have the same level of energy.

If you look at this period of time in New Orleans, for every slight movement forward there's been at least a pause and sometimes a little bit of drifting backwards. But if you look at the entire decade, you have LAGPAC (Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus), you have openly gay people running for a seat in the Democratic Committee -- all these things were happening by the '79-'80 period. If you compare that to '69-'70, there is a tremendous difference.

What would you say are the most major contributions that Southern culture has made to gay culture, and vice versa? Drag shows exist around the country and have for decades, but drag itself has been elevated to its pinnacle [in the South] and many of the most famous drag stars from decade to decade have come from the South. You can go to any small town that has a [gay] bar in the South and find a drag show once a week. I think also there is a notion of sensibility that is less "in-your-face," and not just in terms of politics. Part of that gay sensibility can be traced back to the South in an understanding of how one communicates in coded ways, both in terms of gestures and language. The art of discretion and the ability to communicate in coded language is, I think, an element of the South.

Another way the South has contributed is a disproportionate number of leaders and activists in the country came out of the South. Many times they left the South. From going back to Stonewall, many of those people heavily involved in New York City were Southerners. Writers -- Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. The most important book for lesbians in the 20th century was Rubyfruit Jungle. Who wrote that? Rita Mae Brown. Where was she from? Southern Florida.

So if you look at the arts, in terms of mainstream politics, there is a disproportionate number of Southerners, and I think angry Southerners. People who are in the most conservative, the most repressive reach of the country begin to realize they'd been basically f--ked over because of their sexuality and gender, and they get mad. And they do something about it. And they have a motivation and an activism and a fire within them that's evident in their writing, in their drag performances, in their leadership, that has stood them apart from other people in those same positions.

What is the next big step that gay activists in the South need to accomplish?

I think given the context of Southern culture, the most important step is movement toward legislative issues. But that can only be accomplished through individual, personal efforts. By that I mean there are many people who are queer or queer allies who need to be vocal, not simply in terms of being political or writing their legislators or marching, but being more open. More open in the workplace, more open with their families, more open with their friends. Sexual diversity is evident everywhere, but until the grandmother who lives on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain -- until she understands that her daughter is a lesbian and the laws of the state of Louisiana hurt her daughter, and says that to her friends or writes that to her state legislator -- things are not going to change. That is phenomenally important. And everyone can do that if they want to. [Activists in the 1970s] could do that, they could come out to their parents and organize a coalition and march against Anita Bryant -- and we're talking about 25 years ago! People who are queer or queer allies have to have at least as much courage as that generation. Each generation builds upon the last.

That's how change takes place, and change also doesn't take place if we as queer people see our only concern as being gay people, queer issues. We are connected in terms of social change with other groups, and that includes equal rights for women, discrimination issues in terms of race. Those groups of people from the early '70s, they understood that we're not just talking about freedom for homosexuals, we're talking about freedom.

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: In the Aug. 14 "Hot Seven," Roy Erwin was incorrectly mentioned as the executive chef of Crescent City Brewhouse; Mark Latino holds that position. In last week's Home Smart feature "Puttin' on the Ritz," ("Interiors," Aug. 21), Stewart Juneau was misidentified as the chief executive officer of the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans; he is the CEO of Le Triomphe Property Group, developer of the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans. Also, last week's cover photograph of the riverboat paddlewheel should have been credited to Kevin Willey. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.



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