Now that Will and Grace is a standard repetitive rerun on television like I Love Lucy and Ru Paul’s Drag Show is must-see TV, maybe this country could stop being so homophobic and treat their fellow citizens with open arms no matter what they do behind closed doors. Or on stage at a gay bar. Sadly though, during my Labor Day trip to New Orleans, I witnessed that some people living in the angry red Southern states still equate homosexuality with sin which is quite ironic, since the French Quarter of New Orleans is one of our country’s main centers for heterosexual hedonism.
My husband and I had booked a cheap last-minute Internet fare to the Crescent City for the long Labor Day weekend. After paying for our plane tickets, Dave cruised several websites researching hotels and tourist info. “I guess there’s some big celebration that weekend called ‘Southern Decadence,’” he said, scanning the computer screen. “There’s a big parade Sunday night and …um, a drag show Friday night.”
Without planning it, we would be joining the festivities in the French Quarter that weekend for what is considered “Gay Mardi Gras” — and have the time of our lives.
Out of the three other times I have visited this always-entertaining city, the hotels we stayed at have always been bland corporate establishments because in those days were traveled with our son, who is now away at college. Back then, we toured plantations and Civil War battle sites with just a day trip to the French Quarter to buy voodoo dolls or Cajun spices at the open-air market alongside the Mississippi. This Labor Day trip would be more along the lines of an adult theme of dining and drinking the night away. My husband and I would stay right in the heart of the French Quarter at the Hotel St. Helene, in what was once an historical 1830’s townhouse. Southern Decadence, here we come.
By the time we reached our hotel from the airport, it was almost midnight. The night desk clerk was around 40 and spoke in that typical soft Southern accent. He politely showed us to our high-ceilinged, first floor room that was decorated with antique reproduction furniture. The jade green upholstery on the heavily carved settee in the living room matched the thick velvet puddle drapes that covered double French doors that opened onto an old brick courtyard. That is one of the hidden treasures of New Orleans. What on the outside look like plain buildings with shuttered windows are simply a façade for what lies behind their outside walls– lush, tropical courtyards filled with tinkling fountains and antique wrought iron balconies. The St. Helene’s secret spot was no different with its overhanging plants, flickering gaslights and sparkling blue swimming pool.
“In the morning we serve pastries and coffee out in the courtyard,” the hotel clerk had told us as he handed Dave our keys. “And in the late afternoon at five, we have champagne. Enjoy your stay.”
We dump our bags in the room, then head back to the lobby. “Is it safe to walk around at this time?” we asked the clerk. The hustle of the airport was still jangling in our nerves and even though it was way past Dave’s usual bedtime, there was no way we were not going to hit at least a couple of French Quarter bars our first night in Party Town.
The friendly desk clerk told us we had nothing to worry about; that there was always plenty of foot traffic and pointed to us which way Bourbon Street was. Sure enough, after a short two-block walk, we were people watching and buying Hurricanes from a bar’s walk-up window. It was just like ordering hamburgers back home. We checked out menus posted outside of a couple of restaurants and bought postcards at a tourist shop. Two of the tall rum concoctions were enough to take the edge off and we headed back to the St. Helene.
In our suite, I put on my swimsuit and left Dave in bed watching TV while I tiptoed out to the empty courtyard. To hell with the swim safely with a buddy system. It was 2 a.m. but the September air was still warm and humid. Only slightly tipsy, I dipped below the surface of the cool water in an instant escape from the muggy night. I swam a few lazy laps, and then floated under the watchful eye of a stone lion’s head above me on the two-story brick wall of the building next door.
I swam frog-like, moving my legs slowly to my side as I lazily made a few more loops across the pool before reluctantly pulling myself out of the refreshing water. As I entered our room, the icy air-conditioned air felt delicious. Dave was now asleep, but I felt wide awake. I sat under the whirling ceiling fan and turned the TV toward the sitting area. The local 6 p.m. news was being repeated for us night owls.
A woman news reporter was standing with a microphone next to an angry man wearing a crew cut and black rimmed glasses. “Our organization will be marching in protest tomorrow night against the way New Orleans officials allow these sinful people to take over our fine city every Labor Day weekend for these Southern Decadence events. It is an affront to the Christian values of every citizen.”
I wondered if the man was talking about the same New Orleans I had just walked through, where every other establishment was either a bar or a club that featured live sex acts. They guy obviously needed a reality check. Dave and I had just walked all over the French Quarter and things were no different than any other time we had visited the area when it was not Gay Mardi Gras. Then again, perhaps there had been a higher percentage of tastefully dressed men versus ones wearing trucker hats.
After a wonderful night’s rest, in the courtyard the next morning we were greeted by the smell of rich coffee brewing and rows of fresh baked muffins and iced pastries. Two of the three black wrought iron tables were filled with people talking and laughing over their complimentary breakfast. We sat at the only unoccupied table, feeling for the first time like a minority because not only was I the only woman out of the ten hotel guests gathered there, but we were obviously also the only two who weren’t gay. Both groups at each table were talking back and forth, having such a good time that I could not even find a space to interject something and join in the fun.
We finished breakfast and hit the streets, browsing in the antique stores on Royal Street and taking photographs of each other in the famous square in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral. We caught the St. Charles streetcar for a bargain priced ride past the stately old mansions in the Garden District where we hopped off and went for a peaceful walk through an 1880 cemetery filled with ancient tombs and crumbling statues of angels and decorative stone urns.
By the time the afternoon September sun had started to steam the city, we were back in the chilled cool of our room at the St. Helene. We spent the hottest part of the afternoon watching television, and then showered as dusk fell upon the French Quarter.
Dressed in cotton shirts and shorts against the hot humid night, Dave and I wandered the neon lit streets, looking up at the crowded wrought iron balconies as we swayed to the different drifting sounds of jazz and blues that escaped from each passing block.
“So do you want to head over to that drag show at the Golden Lantern?” Dave asked, taking a drag off his Marlboro.
“I don’t know. My feet are tired from all the walking we did today.” The Golden Lantern bar was in the 1200 block of Royal, practically at the very edge of the Quarter and at least eight blocks from where we stood on Bourbon Street. Then again, I had been born in the cross dressing Milton Berle era of the ‘50s. As a teenager in the ‘70s, I had smoked my first joint and then laughed my ass off watching the male cast of Monty Python do skits as English housewives. I don’t know what it is, but I love a man dressed more feminine than me in my usual jeans and a tee shirt. “Exactly how far is it?”
We stopped studying our map and turned around at the whoop-whoop-whoop of a line of motorcycle cops, blue lights flashing as they cleared the streets of half drunken pedestrians. Behind the police escort was a throng of people holding protests signs and chanting, “God hates gays. God hates gays.” Suddenly, I remembered the Christian zealot from the news the night before. I clued Dave in to what the marching crowd was about. “I don’t know why they don’t just stay home and mind their own business,” Dave shrugged.
Okay, we were now definitely going to the drag show, to show our support of the Southern Decadence event as much as anything.
The bevy of bible thumpers reached where we stood on the sidewalk. They filled the street, making it impassable for anyone else. Dave and I walked beside them, purposely talking loudly enough so those protesters nearest us would overhear our conversation.
“Wouldn’t the world be a better place if these people were doing something useful like feeding the homeless or taking a foster child to a movie?
“I bet these are the same people who loved seeing President Clinton hounded because he lied about a blow job, but have no problem with a convicted drunk driver like Bush lying about taking our country to war in Iraq.”
“Isn’t it a sin to judge others?”
Although it was great fun goading the chanting hypocrites, alas, at the Rue Dumaine, we needed to head south and leave the locusts behind. The bawdy bars and sounds of jazz had disappeared. The area had turned quiet and residential, without a soul on the street. We passed not a single business of any kind, just shuttered fronts of seemingly dark townhouses. I was getting a bit frightened. Not even one car drove past us and the dark night was absolutely silent. “Let’s go back,” I begged Dave. Thank goodness earlier that day I had braided my hair and pinned it to my head. Even though the sun had gone down hours ago, I was still perspiring from the sticky Southern September temperatures as we walked and walked.
“We’re almost there,” Dave insisted as I bitched about my feet.
“And I have to pee.”
“Like I said. We’re almost there.”
Sure enough, moments later we had arrived at 1239 Royal. Out of nowhere, there was another couple walking up to the entrance of the Golden Lantern just as we arrived. The man opened the door, took a look inside, then turned around and grabbed his girlfriend’s arm. The two of them quickly walked away.
Me, I caught the door before it closed and walked right into the club with Dave on my heels. I had walked all this way to see a show and I was going in. Besides, I had not seen a public restroom for blocks.
The only customers in the place were men. Just a bunch of average middle class American males.
“Let’s grab a seat for the show and then I’ve gotta pee,” I hollered to Dave over the din of Donna Summer on the jukebox. We headed to the back room where we could see a small stage lit by flashing white lights. Black barstools lined each wall. Dave sat down and I plopped my purse on the seat next to him. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
I weaved in between the various groups of men standing in the middle of the room, talking and drinking. Backlit red signs hung over two restroom doors. One read “MEN.” The second sign read “OTHERS.” I guess that meant me. I crossed my fingers and went in, hoping for the best.
Ah, sweet release. I finished and went back to my seat to see Dave speaking to the man perched on the next stool. “Do you know who this is?” Dave asked me, grinning.
The face was familiar, but I did not have a clue, which must have shown on my face.
The smiling stranger stepped in to save me from my bad memory. “I checked you in last night,” he reminded me and introduced himself as John. Ah, the hotel desk clerk from the St. Helene.
We chatted as Dave went to buy us drinks from the bar in the other room. The room was nearing capacity as the show time neared. Tall women with muscular arms poking out from sequined evening dresses and wearing way too much eye make-up kept walking past us to go backstage. An audience member standing in front of me was wearing a tee shirt silk screened with the phrase, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.” Someone else’s shirt read, “ALL THE GOOD MEN ARE GAY.” Hung on the wall behind us were numerous framed black and white photos for sale. The one behind me showed the back view of four nuns, hiking up their habits to expose their naked white male asses.
Dave managed to squeeze his way back, alcohol in hand. “At least the drinks here are reasonable compared to what they were charging us on Bourbon Street,” he said. “The bartender said the show’ll start in five minutes.”
A buxom blond(e) in a pink polka dot tank dress took the stage. Everyone in the crowd stopped talking and clapped as she adjusted the microphone. “We’re almost there girls,” she announced, then disappeared behind the curtain.
I sipped my drink, grateful that the bar’s air conditioning was doing an adequate job of keeping the crowded place cool. A brawny bearded black man walked past wearing a red spangle dress and a pageant sash that read, “MISS ATLANTA TRASH.” He stopped to lightly touch the side of my head. “I love your braids,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said appreciatively.
The house lights dimmed and the blonde once again was at the microphone. “As part of the celebration of this year’s 33rd annual Southern Decadence celebration, we have a trio of real beauties to-to-night,” said the announcer, tripping over the words. “Wait a minute. I’ve got to take my teeth out.”
“We know that story,” someone from the audience yelled out.
“And now for your enjoyment, let me introduce our first performer, direct from the back of the bus, Miss Clorox Bleachman.”
We all cheered as a drag queen wearing a huge red feathered hat and a matching mini skirt sashayed his hips while lip syncing to Jeannie C. Riley singing Harper Valley P.T.A.
The crowd clapped wildly at the end of the song. Next up, wearing a black cocktail dress, was a Barbara Streisand impersonator who dramatically worded along with a recording of Babs herself singing People.
Everyone applauded as Barbara left the stage and the announcer came back to the microphone. “Our final performer is also this year’s Southern Decadence Grand Marshall. He’s also the oldest Grand Marshall we’ve ever had. And here is Donny James.”
Sauntering onstage, Donny Jay looked more like Cruella De Ville than the Judy Garland look I think he was going for. But as he pretended to sing the pre-recorded song, the way he moved and his facial expressions touched me heart. The deep lines in his face accentuated the sad depths in his eyes. “This is my life. Let me live…”
Halfway through the song, Donny dramatically removed one false eyelash, tossing it into the entranced audience, and then followed with the other. He pulled off his wig to uncover his middle-aged male hairline. Someone handed him a white towel, which he used to wipe away the heavy mascara and lipstick from his face, leaving behind the image of any other man on the street. Still singing in an emotionally sad manner, Donny stripped away his gown to reveal his worn tee shirt and slacks underneath. “Please let me be me…”
I thought about the religious right I had seen earlier in their mean spirited march through the streets and said a little prayer for all of them that they would somehow grow a soul. Maybe that’s why their kind is so scared of going to hell, because that is exactly where they will surely all go.