Monday, May 27, 2024

Now is the time to revisit New Orleans and explore its queer legacy

New Orleans is famous for its free spirit, authentic food, music and nightlife, but as a settlement site it was claimed for the French Crown in 1682, and this means it has a very colonial, very queer history that clings to every corner, nook and cranny!

Yes, New Orleans is old, which makes it a perfect destination for history buffs, gay Halloween enthusiasts and anyone interested in past lives, real or hypothesized. But Nola is also old when it comes to gay history. For a start, it boasts the country’s longest-running gay bar, Café Lafitte in Exile, it was the home to some iconic gay figures such as Tennessee Williams. Did you know it hosted gay events before many other American cities? The longest running gay event, the Fat Monday Luncheon, started in 1949, and the oldest gay social organization, the Steamboat Club, was launched in 1953. And Krewe of Yuga, the first gay Mardi Gras Carnival club, was formed in 1958.

But New Orleans also tragically harbors the memory of one of the worst crimes against the LGBTQ community—The Upstairs Fire.

So maybe you’re drawn to the Big Easy to soak up the infamous hedonism offered by queer party Southern Decadence, or simply to sample the unique cuisine, go antique shopping, pick up a unique gift at Bryan Batt’s homewares store, Hazelnut, or just drink and dance your cares away at one of the many unique establishments. But you’ll still mingle with the ghosts of the long-lost LGBTQ past, and your experience will be rich and rewarding. Recently, I was privileged to revisit one of my favorite U.S. cities, and to rejoice in the humanity of our culture and the lessons its memories carry with it.

Gay History and The Upstairs Fire

To get to the heart of why I was there: The 50th anniversary of the horrific Upstairs Fire, an act of arson that was the forebear of the mass shootings at Pulse and Club Q—which is to say a homophobic act committed on a grand and public scale. Now, while this might not exactly ignite your desire to travel, nevertheless the 50th anniversary and the way the legacy of this early hate crime was embraced, embodied, and enshrined with love and remembrance by the local community made me adore the destination even more than I already did!

I attended the conference about the fire at which witnesses and the family of victims spoke, which offered a window onto New Orleans culture of the 1970s and the social (and sexual) strata that made this tragedy even more impactful. After the symposium came a moving church service and then a jazz funeral procession in which a band and well-wishers celebrated the lives of the deceased as they proceeded through the city holding banners displaying the names of the 32 victims who perished in the deadly arson attack of June 24, 1973. It was a quintessentially New Orleans experience and one that demonstrated how history is always with us, especially in a place like New Orleans.

The Gay Ghost Tour

There is a spooky side to New Orleans. Perhaps on face value it’s the architecture, the gas lanterns, the antique stores, the perpetual nod to the metaphysical such as voodoo, or the poor souls who died in the yellow fever epidemic, or the sheer turbulence of life in the French Quarter.

Often called the most haunted city in America, there are numerous ghost tours you can take but our favorite was of course gay! This charming tour mixed history with Hollywood gossip and ended up at the Phoenix gay bar. It’s a wonderful way to chat, meet new friends, and walk off a few calories and hear some queer tales, tall and true.

Where to Stay

For my visit I was hosted by the delightfully newish Virgin Hotel New Orleans. This luxury boutique downtown hotel has everything you’ll need for your stay including lighthearted service, the bold, quirky and design-centric decor we’ve come to expect from Virgin—and good cocktails and espresso coffee right off the lobby.

It also has a terrific rooftop bar and lap pool with a friendly club vibe, perfect for lazing about in the heat or humidity, and lapping up drink specials and delicious happy hour bites.

Commons Club in the Virgin Hotel serves innovative modern American cuisine with a Mediterranean influence. This is a convenient choice if you’ve just landed and are still getting your bearings about where to eat in the bountiful Nola dining scene. The dishes at Commons Club are prepared and served with care and offer a lighter, farm-to-table take on New Orleans favorites. And just for fun, check out the Jennifer Coolidge drag brunch on Sundays!

Make new queer friends at the Rooftop Pool & Bar
Where Else to Eat

There are endless options for food in the Crescent City but I have some clear favorites from this trip. Breakfast and brunch is fun, friendly and informal at Ruby Slipper Cafe, which has several locations throughout town and is a convenient choice especially if you’re in the mood for Bennies or Eggs Benedict— try the Chicken St Charles: Fried chicken breast served over a buttermilk biscuit, topped with two poached eggs, finished with a pork tasso cream sauce!

But truth be told, no-one does brunch in Nola like Brennan’s, and that’s very possibly because this historic landmark restaurant invented the concept! A local tradition since 1946, this pink palace offers tranquil and refined ambience, service that simply goes beyond the call of duty, and a menu that is so good you cannot possibly go wrong. It is rich, it is traditional, and it is loaded with French influence. Check it out here. It’s simply an outstanding experience with a story behind every dish (Bananas Foster!) and a local tribute poured into every cocktail—try the Louisiana: Wildcat Bros. Noire Rum, Cointreau, Mango, Almond, and Lime!

Seaworthy is like stepping back in time to an old pirate’s tavern and here you will find the absolute best freshly-shucked Gulf oysters ever, no matter what time of year. I consumed 28, raw, in a single sitting, which is my record—that’s how good they were! The cocktails and wine list are terrific, too, and the service is friendly and fun. The seating is intimate and bar-style so you might find yourself striking up a conversation with an Old Salt, or just finding oodles of pleasure in a coupe of champagne and briny goodness on the half shell.

Seaworthy fresh oysters and craft cocktails

Drag Me to Brunch!

And not to mention, plenty of drinking. The Creole Queen Paddlewheeler is an unmissable brunch experience as it gives you a river cruise of the mighty Mississippi onboard an authentically-local vessel. The buffet brunch serves up staples and favorites such as shrimp and sausage gumbo along with scrambled eggs, french toast, lashings of bacon, and other breakfast temptations. And those bottomless mimosas will have you tipping the queens and dancing like crazy. When we visited, Tina Turner had just passed away and needless to say, the tributes to the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll were heartfelt and celebratory. Upcoming drag brunch dates aboard the Creole Queen are September 30, October 28, November 18, and December 9, 2023. Book here.

The Creole Queen offers an excellent-value drag brunch afloat

As luck would have it, on our way back on land in search of coffee we stumbled upon more excellent drag in the opulent bar known as the Peacock Room in the Kimpton Fontenot. The mood among the queens was delightfully defiant and their talent and glamour was abundant.

Happening Now

So, the good times continue to roll in Nola, with Southern Decadence on August 31, 2023 – September 4, 2023 and falling on Labor Day Weekend every year should you want to plan your 2024 trip!

Southern Decadence began back in 1972 as a going away party among a group of friends who called themselves “Decadents.” Since the group had so much fun over Labor Day Weekend in 1972, they decided to plan another event for that weekend over the Summer of 1973. Each year, the festival kept growing and blossomed into the wild and massive street party that it is today. Taking place in and around the French Quarter, the event includes drag shows, bar events, pool parties, community events, and much more. But it spills even beyond the French Quarter, too.

Venues from the Lower Garden District to the Bywater, and the intersection of St. Ann and Bourbon streets see plenty of action as well. The Phoenix in the Marigny is a focal point especially for the beer bust and The Country Club hosts a drag brunch and pool party. RawhideThe Oz and The Bourbon Pub are also popular with different facets of the community.

But any time of year is a good time to experience the vibrancy and joy of our shared history, and commune with the irrepressible spirits of the past and those of today who keep the good times rolling—no matter what.

Plan your visit to New Orleans today! For itinerary ideas and what’s on, go here.

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Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 140 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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