In the 1900s, LGBT+ people from around the country were drawn to the French Quarter's shifting centers of queer gravity, which offered both a spicy nightlife scene and an evolving culture.
- by Frank Perez
A random day in the 1990s: A belligerent drunk is being obnoxious and causing problems at The Wild Side, a gay bar on the corner of Dauphine and St. Louis streets. The bartender, a trans former prizefighter named Miss Do, punches him in the face and knocks him off his barstool and then yells to no one in particular, “Get him outta here!” Outside, a group of trans sex workers argue over who is going to pilfer the drunk’s pockets. A car rolls slowly by while the driver makes eye contact with a young man sitting on a stoop and rubs his thumb against his index and forefingers.
Welcome to the 1990s version of the “Financial District,” a two-block stretch of St. Louis Street from Bourbon to Burgundy. It borders an area of the Quarter dubbed the Tango Belt in the Roaring Twenties. After the famous prostitution district Storyville closed in 1917, brothels had simply scooted sideways a few blocks closer to the river and for many years thrived in that part of the Vieux Carré.
In the '90s, the Financial District’s name was originally derived from the symbiotic relationship between a shadowy network of bars, hustlers, johns, drug dealers, and bar regulars. Across from the historic Hermann-Grima house was Le Round Up, a notorious dive bar frequented by trans sex workers, ne’r-do-wells, the down-and-out, and what was known in gay parlance as “rough trade.” Up the street at the corner of Burgundy was the Corner Pocket, a go-go boy bar that catered to gay men.
While that portion of St. Louis Street is still affectionately referred to as the Financial District by the gay demimonde of the Quarter (and the thousands of sex tourists who visit each year), the character of the neighborhood has changed dramatically over the last three decades. Le Round Up is no more (it’s now B-Mac’s). The Wild Side became Double Play and is now Crossing. Only the Corner Pocket survives, still popular as the place “where the boys are dancin’ nightly on the bar!”
But the Financial District is only one of multiple centers of gravity for LGBT+ people that have popped throughout the Quarter's storied history. These queer nexuses consisted of clusters of bars, restaurants and other businesses owned and frequented by gay folk. Today one thinks of Bourbon and St. Ann and the “Fruit Loop,” but in years past there were other gay loci.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, hustlers abounded along Iberville between Royal and Chartres. There were a number of gay bars in that area, including Gertrude’s, Wanda’s, the Safari Room, the Midship, and the Up Stairs Lounge. The Up Stairs Lounge did not cater to hustlers, although it was burned down by one who was angry for being thrown out of the bar.
Nearby Exchange Place Alley (along with Cabrini Park on the other end of the Quarter) was a popular cruising area among gay men searching for anonymous assignations. In the ’40s, beat writer William S. Burroughs frequented the Alley, although he lived in Algiers. After a drug arrest, he broke bond and made for Mexico.
In the 1950s, St. Peter and Bourbon was the trendy, upscale gay locus. Dixie’s Bar of Music and the Bourbon House, a popular eatery among gays and lesbians, dominated the corner while not far away Pat O’Brien’s featured a bar “for bachelors.” And next door, behind what would later become Preservation Hall, was fabled French Quarter eccentric Pops Whitesell, who in addition to his “respectable” photography, also photographed virtually nude men for bodybuilder magazines, the gay porn of the time.
Whitesell, whom Quarterites called the Leprechaun of St. Peter Street because of his diminutive stature, often drank with famed lesbian photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who upon retiring moved to New Orleans in 1949 and lived a few blocks away in the 1100 block of Bourbon.
Dixie’s and the bachelor room at Pat O’Brien’s were reserved for the “upper set”; hustlers were relegated to street corners and parks. In later years they might try to find benefactors at the Chart House, nicknamed the “Wrinkle Room,” on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres. And there was also the Caverns, which was notoriously sleazy until Jerry Menefee bought it and opened the Bourbon Pub.
While today there are no lesbian bars in New Orleans, there used to be many of them. Kitty Blackwell, Rosemary Pino, Charlene Schneider, and Diane Dimiceli were all lesbian bar barons. Alice Brady opened her first bar, Mascarade (later Le Round Up) in 1952 and later had Alice Brady’s on Ursulines, before opening Mr. D’s Hi-da-way and then Brady’s at 700 N. Rampart (now the Black Penny).
By the early 1980s, N. Rampart was a gay nexus. In addition to bars such as The Grog, Travis’s, T.T.’s West, Menefee’s, Finale II, and Diane’s, there were Restaurant Jonathan and Marti’s. Jonathan’s was an art deco temple; famed artist and designer Erté graced opening night by showing up in white fur. Up the street, Tennessee Williams was a regular at Marti’s, which was across from his home on Dumaine. Around the corner was Daisy Mae’s unforgettable junk shop. Further down just beyond the Quarter were more bars—Les Pierre’s, Charlene’s, and the Phoenix.
Another gay loop in the 1980s in the lower Quarter consisted of the Golden Lantern, Lucille’s, Mississippi River Bottom, the Great American Refuge, and the fabled Jewel’s, which featured a bathtub in a dark room for those into watersports. Not far away, artist George Dureau could be found holding court at Sbisa’s.
Today most people would probably say the intersection of St. Ann & Bourbon is the epicenter of gay bar life in the Quarter. Three of the four corners play host to gay bars with still more bars within a block. This corner is certainly ground zero for Southern Decadence revelers every Labor Day weekend. Oz occupies Pete Fountain’s old nightclub and his name can still be seen on the corner. Historian Richard Campanella notes that St. Ann is often called the lavender line because it separates the straight and gay sections of Bourbon Street.
In a larger sense, the lavender line is starting to blur. As attitudes toward gayness evolve and traditional binary boundaries devolve into something more fluid, the need for gay bars, but not gay spaces, dissipates. In a sense, this is a return to what once was. Before Bienville (who lived into his eighties and never married) renamed Bulbancha Nouvelle Orleans, the Native Americans honored the queer among them with the term “two-spirits.”
Bars and businesses come and go and it’s difficult to predict what gay zones will look like in the decades to come. It is, however, a safe bet the Quarter will always retain a hint of lavender. After all, police chief Provosty Dayries noted in 1958, “Apparently the French Quarter of New Orleans has an atmosphere that appeals to these people.”
Yes, Chief Dayries, it certainly does.
Read Frank's previous Rainbow History pieces, go to French Quarter Journal's home page, or check out our Hunkering Down blog.
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