Holding Our Ground at Mardi Gras

COMMENTARY: Just a week before Mardi Gras in 2019, two of New Orleans' most popular gays bars were getting harassed. According to Bobby Young—one of our writers who has authored Quarter Stories, a series of short stories about bartending in New Orleans in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—both the Phoenix and the Rawhide Lounge reported receiving citations for “lewd acts.”

While not quite raids—no one was arrested—the number and seriousness of these incidents were a distinct about-face following decades of tolerance by the police. As a result of the crackdown, the Rawhide was forced to turn up its lights and strictly enforce a “no lewd activity” policy in its club, causing business to drop. Management tried everything, even turning the club into a disco several nights a week, to survive.

Other gay bars across the city experienced similar harassment. So what was happening? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, harassment by the police was fairly common at the gay bars in New Orleans. Something as simple as a bartender not having a valid manager’s license could shut down a whole bar. But, by the late 1980s, as gay liberation gained momentum and being gay became more acceptable to the general population, raids of gay bars in New Orleans became a thing of the past.

In the episodes in 2019, the citation was prompted by a straight woman, who claimed she supposedly had witnessed “debauchery” between several men in the bar. Wow! Earth-shattering! She was in a dark cruisy gay bar. What did she expect? Karaoke? That sort of activity has been going on in gay bars for decades and is difficult to monitor. So, why were we being called to task for it then? On top of that, isn’t that what the New Orleans Mardi Gras festival is all about? At gay and straight venues across the city, Mardi Gras is a celebration of hedonism and debauchery.

I see part of the problem was the growing encroachment on gay bars by straight people who come there “to take a walk on the wild side.” I blame shows like Sex and the City, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and RuPaul’s Drag Race for publicizing what previously had been invisible to the rest of the world. While I applaud these shows for helping normalize the LGBTQ community, they have also shed light on our most intimate and private activities. In the case of Queer as Folk, that series actually showed for the first time in mainstream media what goes on in backrooms of gay bars.

Now, our bars have become trendy places for everyone to hang out in, especially women who find it a place to escape straight men hitting on them. While we welcome whoever wants to come to a gay nightclub, they shouldn’t expect their girls-night-out parties to be accepted heartily—it’s called a gay bar for a reason! If visitors don’t like seeing what goes on there, then, don’t come in!

Around that time, I witnessed a straight couple making out and heavily groping each other at the Sunday afternoon beer blast at the Eagle in San Francisco, a weekly gathering filled with gay bikers and leathermen. It really annoyed and then angered me. As we’re becoming more accepted, we’re losing our outsider status and, along with that, our inherent outrageousness. Ironically, it seems that the “mainstreaming” and acceptance of the LGBTQ community is actually ruining aspects of the community that make it unique and special.

Another factor that also led to the recent crackdowns has been our popularity. We’ve won the right to marry, are accepted in the military, and are even featured in a new ad for Charmin toilet paper talking about having a clean bum before meeting the in-laws. We are winning. But this just makes our opponents more extreme in their actions. Their fears that our lifestyle goes against their religious beliefs, or worse, we are going to somehow convert others to our sexuality, have led to a backlash of efforts to enact new laws and regulations to limit LGBTQ civil rights. They were emboldened by the Trump administration, which did little to support or defend the LGBT community and often encouraged their hate-filled diatribe. The result has been a rise in hate crimes—at its most extreme, the massacre at the Pulse nightclub. Make no doubt about it, their efforts have gained traction. Now, it seems, the police in more conservative regions have begun cracking down on us, too.

We must be vigilant. We need to pay attention and not minimize the significance of clamp-downs like those that occurred in New Orleans gay bars. Remember that a little over 50 years ago, in most places in the United States, it was illegal to dance with another man. These recent actions were disturbing, striking at the heart of LGBTQ social life. We are at a tipping point and face a future that could easily slide us back towards an earlier pre-Stonewall era of intolerance and repression.