The French Quarter neighborhood's rainbow reputation reaches back into the 1800s. Why? Long-term resident, historian and tour guide, Frank Perez, offers ideas.
- by Frank Perez
- photos by Ellis Anderson
A few years ago as I was conducting a walking tour through the French Quarter, a twenty-ish young man on the tour turned to me and said, “The French Quarter is kind of gay, huh?”
The comment startled me, and my instinct was to be offended, but I wasn’t. He smiled when he said it, and I could tell it was more of an observation rather than a condemnation.
“Yes,” I replied, “I suppose it is.”
I’m not sure what prompted his remark. Was it all the rainbow flags? Was it the frilly cast iron balconies from which those flags fly? Was it the drag queen who greeted me as she walked by? Perhaps it was the lazy, sauntering sashay of locals in general? Or maybe it was all the mask shops and art galleries and antique stores.
Was it all of the above? Something else?
The more I thought about it in the days that followed, the more convinced I became that the young man had stumbled upon a profound epiphany. This young man had intuitively sensed the density of rainbow history that permeates the Quarter.
“Sensitive” men, especially writers, have always found a sort of subliminal comfort in the Quarter’s queer lineage, feeling at home in the Sacred Enclave. Walt Whitman felt it when he cruised sailors and roustabouts along the riverfront. Lyle Saxon felt it at his long-running literary salon in the 1920s. John Kennedy Toole certainly felt it when he created the flamboyant character of Dorian Greene.
And Walker Percy, although not gay, felt it as well when he warned, “The occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which might also be called the Vieux Carré syndrome. One is apt to turn fey, potter about a patio, and write feuilletons and vignettes or catty romans à clef, a pleasant enough life but for me too seductive.”
Can the Quarter make a man “turn fey?”
Provosty Dayries, who was Chief of Police in the 1950s, thought so, once observing, “Apparently the French Quarter has an atmosphere which appeals to these people (gays and lesbians)."
Yes, Mr. Dayries. Yes, indeed.
So what, precisely, is it that makes the Quarter so appealing to gay folk?
It’s the same thing that makes the neighborhood so inspirational to writers. At its core, the Quarter is a fascinating study in desire -- its pull, its promises, its lies and its consequences. The crux of the mutual affinity between queer folk and the Quarter is a fixation with desire. It’s what fuels Carnival and Mardi Gras, the neighborhood's music and culinary and bar scenes.
Tennessee Williams came as close as anyone to explaining the phenomenon. It’s no mistake Williams set his most famous play on Elysian Fields Avenue. Upon arriving in the city, Blanche Dubois says, “They told me to catch a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemeteries.” The easy metaphor is that desire leads to death, but Williams, like all gay people, knows reality is not that easy.
Quarterites since Bienville (who, by the way, lived into his eighties and never married) have been keenly aware of their own mortality, and it is this grim awareness that feeds the urgency of desire. Who knows what dreams may come in that sleep of death, so we better live it up while we have the time.
Elysium is the perfect metaphor for the Quarter. Both are mythical places that defy easy description. For Homer and Pindar, Elysium was the final resting place for tragic heroes. Renaissance poets envisioned Elysium as a paradise filled with joyful indulgences. For Tolkien, Elysium was a realm of gods and elves and other fantastical creatures.
In all these literary depictions, Elysium is positioned on the edge of the underworld, located off center, on the edge. So it is with New Orleans: on the edge of the continent, on the edge of imagination, on the edge between life and death. To be gay in a homophobic society is to certainly identify with such marginalization.
Which brings us back to the Quarter. For Williams, the Quarter is Elysium. Here, objective reality is adapted to the ideal, not the other way around. Here, the boundary between fantasy and reality is permeable.
In Streetcar, Blanche comes to New Orleans to escape her past and begin her gradual descent into madness. Here, madness is not a nightmare but rather a beautiful dream. Whether dining at Galatoire’s or musing on the bells of St. Louis Cathedral (“the only clean thing in the Quarter”), Blanche finds an alternate reality -- an Elysium where broken dreams are redeemed and ghosts no longer haunt.
At one point in the play, Blanche sings, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” whose lyrics declare if both lovers believe their imagined reality, then it’s no longer make-believe. The Quarter and her many gay lovers couldn’t agree more.