I've lived in New Orleans for three years. My first memory of the city is my mother telling me, as a child, that we couldn't stay in the hotels in the French Quarter because that's where all the homosexuals were. Two decades later, I'm proud to count myself as one of them. What can I say? This city has a magical pull.
How can I explain how insanely queer this city is? I'll try my best. Breaking down roles, recreating identities, writing our own stories, and celebrating the uniqueness of our culture is ingrained in the essence of NOLA. The city is incredibly diverse; the culture of the city grows out of African and Caribbean, French creole, German, and Spanish influences. There's a thriving young queer and trans population, and the African-American LGBT community may be one of the largest in the U.S. You might not find the typical gay things in New Orleans -- we don't have a big, flashy Pride, for instance. But we have sissy bounce. We have Southern Decadence. We have Krewe du Vieux. Stop by and say hello. I promise to show you what Southern hospitality really means.
When the Saints Come Marching In: Festivals and Fun
The New Orleans social calendar is a smorgasboard. No matter what time of year you visit the city, you're pretty much guaranteed to find a festival or a parade. NOLA also has no open container laws and no laws requiring bars to close. You can always find a bar that doesn't have a last call, and every bar and restaurant has "go-cups," plastic cups to take your beer out the door with you. Magical!
Of course, I can't mention New Orleans without talking about Mardi Gras. Carnival season starts on Epiphany, January 6th (the first day of king cake!), and goes through Ash Wednesday, when the police sweep the streets and everyone enters a city-wide hangover known to the Catholics as Lent. The first Carnival parade and my personal favorite, Krewe du Vieux, takes place two weeks before Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"). Krewe du Vieux is a hypersexualized, satirical parade through the French Quarter; it's definitely the most overtly queer event of the season.
The Carnival parades stretch over three weekends, building to the crescendo of five-day, non-stop partying that is Mardi Gras weekend. You won't see boobs outside of Bourbon Street, but everywhere you go, you will see costumes, more beads than you know what to do with, and fantastic house parties. Carnival has historically been a safe space for queerness, gender-bending, sexual freedom, and identity de-construction.
Spring in New Orleans brings St. Patrick's Day parades, the Mardi Gras Indians, the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and French Quarter Festival, all of which deserve a page of writing to themselves. I can't skip over a mention of the Gay Easter Parade on Easter Day, when horse-drawn carriages of queers in fabulous hats parade through the Quarter. (Points if you can name the musical reference!) And then there's the biggest festival of all: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest offering seven days of local and internationally-known artists with 75,000 of your new best friends. During Jazz Fest, every venue in town hosts music, so even if you can't afford the pricey entrance tickets, you'll find crowds to dance with until the wee hours of the morning. Check out the plethora of venues on lower Frenchman Street and One-Eyed Jacks any time of year for some of the best live music in town.
Though most of the city slows down for the summer heat, there are a few major events during the hot months. The summer season kicks off with Essence Fest in early July, bringing together some of the best African-American musical artists and fashionistas from across the country, along with Bayou Bougaloo, a Mid-City free neighborhood festival with a plastic duck race in Bayou St. John. The Running of the Bulls in July is a knock-off of Pamplona, featuring roller derby girls from local teams as the "bulls."
In October we gear up for Halloween, one of the biggest holidays in New Orleans. The three-day Voodoo Music Experience brings thousands of visitors to the city. But Halloween night is best spent on Frenchman Street, where locals stake out a spot to drink, show off costumes, and celebrate the chance to become anyone else under the cover of darkness.
Rolling on the River: Neighborhoods of Interest
Every neighborhood in New Orleans has its own charm and flavor. The Marigny, Bywater, Mid City, and French Quarter are perhaps most gay-friendly/inclusive, though to be fair, I live in Uptown, and I'm hella attached to my hood and all the queers in it. The city is relatively affordable for a major urban area, though to be honest the cost of living mirrors the lower wages and primarily service-industry economy. Life in NOLA is more expensive than most areas of Louisiana, but has dramatically cheaper cost of living than the East or West coast. Most everywhere in New Orleans is queer-friendly, though there are a few places to avoid, like the frat/college bars around Tulane/Loyola Universities and Bourbon Street.
I can't emphasize how much I am not a fan of Bourbon Street. The beers are overpriced, the bars are corporate, the food is tourist-marketed, and the bar fights suck. There are hundreds of fantastic, fun bars and restaurants in this city -- don't settle for Bourbon Street. If you do visit Bourbon, head toward the gay end -- St. Ann & Bourbon St. -- where three gay bars (Napoleon's Itch, Bourbon Pub & Parade, and Oz) converge on the corner. These are gay mens' bars that are usually hit-or-miss for women, but you'll be safer with queer brothers than anywhere else on Bourbon.
A super important note about safety: New Orleans is notorious for crime. While I wouldn't let that deter you from visiting or choosing to live here, I would tell you not to wander alone at night. There's no "safe" and "unsafe" areas. Travel in groups, be aware of your surroundings, know your neighbors, and don't get too intoxicated to find your way home.
A note for transgender and gender non-conforming peeps: Bathrooms can an issue in NOLA. Take a friend with you for safety, or try one of the local (non-chain) coffee shops for gender-neutral/unisex bathrooms.
New Orleans Ladies: Bars and Nightlife
Tribute: The only true lesbian bar in town, which actually sits outside the city limits in Metairie (which does have open container laws). Open only on Friday and Saturday night, Tribute is best for special events -- drag king shows, traveling artists, and the occasional lube wrestling competition. Think old-school dyke bar, and you've got the right image in mind.
The Allways Lounge and Theatre: A de-facto queer bar hosting drag shows, queer burlesque, all manner of music, arm wrestling matches, erotica, comedy, and anything else that requires a stage and an audience. The theater, an intimate room (read: sweaty in the summertime, just like we like it) is utilized for quieter musical sets and slightly more formal theatrical performances. Pun alert: there is always something happening at the Allways.
Club Fusions: Queer Hip hop bar/club open on Saturdays and featuring Monday night drag shows. Predominantly African-American and trans-friendly.
GrrlSpot: New Orleans' guerilla girl bar initiative which takes over a new bar each month in the name of gay lady socializing. GrrlSpot tries to hold events all over the city, sampling each of New Orleans' distinct neighborhoods, and has the keen ability to draw a sizable and eclectic crowd.
The Country Club: A gay oasis in the relentlessly hot New Orleans summer. Nestled near the river in the hip Bywater neighborhood, the Country Club is a bar and restaurant with a clothing-optional pool (chilled in the summer, heated in the winter), hot tub, sauna, outdoor showers and a projector for watchin' movies while you splash around. Thursday night is ladies' night, where cheap drinks and birthday suits abound. Strictly 21+ and open until 2am.
Drama Free/Club Entice: Saturday nights are Ladies' Nights with great music and drink specials. Usually a $5+ cover.
Kajun's Pub: A 24-hour karaoke destination, Kajuns is queer-owned, features cheap drinks and a late-night kitchen complete with charbroiled oysters. Packed on Friday and Saturday night. Very trans-friendly.
Good Friends: French Quarter gay bar that is primarily populated with dudes but very friendly. The bar is known for free shots when the Saints score and a frozen coffee/booze drink called a Separator guaranteed to separate you from your pants.
Swirl Wine Bar: Queer-owned wine bar in beautiful Bayou St. John, right off Esplanade. You can grab a bottle of your preferred beverage, french bread and artisan cheese, and walk to the cute park across the street or to the nearby bayou or City Park. Free wine tasting and professional social hour for women on the first Thursday of each month.
St. Rock Tavern: St. Roch is a sweaty steam/crust punk dive bar with one of the best dance nights in town and a vegan kitchen. On Saturday nights you can expect a crowded hip-hop/bounce party and cheap drinks. Fights and excessive drunkenness sometimes occur, and the surrounding neighborhood can be dangerous. Cash only.
Orlando's Society Page: Predominately African-American bar situated on the far edge of the Quarter on Rampart Street. Open late.
Club LAX: Gay/lesbian bar in Metairie (outside the city limits) catering to a low-key, usually 30's and up crowd.
Wit's Inn: Mid-City neighborhood bar that has been semi-taken over by lesbians on Thursdays, when ladies get three free drinks.
The city has more gay bars than any one person could list. I noted those that tend to be more friendly to women; not all are welcoming for women and transpeople. While there isn't usually overt animosity between the L, G, B, and T communities, there are class/race/gender divides within the community. The trans community often struggles with the lack of welcoming venues and inclusive events, though more queer/trans-friendly events have started to pop up in the last two or three years.
Show Me Somethin' Mister: Drag and Queer Performance
New Orleans Carnival Kings: Performing since 2002, the Carnival Kings is New Orleans' oldest drag troupe. They perform "jukebox drag," which Primary Show Coordinator Harvey Wallbanger describes as a "mosaic experience" because, like a jukebox, performances are randomly composed of music chosen by individual performers, including contemporary hits, classics, and a smattering of the obscure. The Carnival Kings perform weekly on Tuesday night at midnight at Bourbon Pub & Parade during GirlBar New Orleans. Carnival Kings shows are always queer/trans-friendly.
Vanity: A queer variety show (drag, burlesque, etc.) that performs at different venues around town.
La Familia: Variety drag show featuring both kings and queens. They perform intermittently in the Greater New Orleans area for events such as PrideFest and at bars like Anything Geauxs in Slidell, Club LAX, and the Bourbon Pub and Parade.
Queerlesque!: Described by founder Ace Falcor as "one of the nation's longest-running all-queer all-burlesque shows." Queerlesque! prides itself on providing safe stages for a diverse krewe of queer performers of all races, ages, sizes, gender identities and expressions, and most importantly - styles of burlesque. Queerlesque! shows take place at random times during the year, usually at the Allways Lounge, though the venue is subject to change.
"Stellaaaaaaaa!": Performing Arts
NOLA has a thriving performing arts community, with particular attention paid to the unusual, avant-garde, and DIY. The Fringe Theatre Festival held annually in November, always offers a wide variety of queer-themed shows in venues ranging from empty pools to alleyways. While no theater in New Orleans is queer-specific, these theatres have all put on shows with queer characters or themes, and many of them have amazing queer staff and members.
Local production groups/companies that offer shows at various spaces:
New Orleans is also the birthplace of the Free Southern Theatre which disbanded in 1980 but played an important role in the Black Theatre Movement. Junebug Productions (which also puts on fabulous community classes), Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and the Anthony Bean Community Theatre carry on this tradition in their own unique ways.
Lagniappe: A Little Something Extra
NOLA Print Shop: This grassroots arts and education initiative engages local artists, printmakers, and entrepreneurs in the practices of printmaking by providing instructional classes andtechnique demonstrations suited to every level of print experience and background, for-hire commercial contract printing, and events that connect artists with buyers.
Black, Brown, and Queer (BBQ) Monthly barbeque and picnic for queer people of color and their friends
New Orleans Bondage and Leather Enthusiasts (NOBLE): The local queer-friendly kink group. NOBLE hosts regular munches (conversational, low-key meet-ups in local restaurants or coffee shops), play parties, and educational classes.
Zeitgeist: Central City institution for independent film, queer films, and several film festivals. Constant and varied programming make this a film destination nearly every night of the week.
NOLAW: New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling: The New Orleans Ladies' Arm Wrestlers NOLAW are fired up ladies who toe the line between theatrical antics and hardcore athleticism. Eight lady-identified wrestlers compete in each event, called a brawl. Wrestlers choose a persona, bio, theme song, and money-hungry entourage to back them up and collect "bets" from the crowd. Proceeds raised from bets go to a chosen local organization or project that benefits women and girls. Arguably one of the most fun and stimulating events in New Orleans, NOLAW brawls occur about every two months at various locations around town and are always followed by a dance party.
No More Fiction: Local organization that books punk house shows for girl/queer bands.
Plan B: NOLA's beloved community bike project, located in the Marigny neighborhood, seeks to promote bike building/use, educate folks on bike maintenance, and encourage the reuse of salvaged materials, all at a low cost to community members. Ladies/Trans/Sissies only bike-building time on Friday evenings.
New Orleans Free School: The New Orleans Free School offers quality, no-cost, volunteer-run, community-based educational opportunities for people of all ages throughout the city of New Orleans. Classes include fermentation, demolition, facilitation, zen meditation, male feminism, and many others.
If you're looking for something that moves beyond fan dances and into the debaucherous and funky, check out Slow Burn Burlesque, Freakshow to Geaux, and any of the impromptu shows at the Allways Lounge or the Hi-Ho Lounge. What to learn some moves yourself? Bella Blue offers classes weekly through the New Orleans School of Burlesque.
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