by Toni Pizanie
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
GAA Lifetime Achievement Winner
The Gay Appreciation Award for Lifetime Achievement will be presented to Charlene Schneider Dec 10 at Body and Soul. This award winner is selected by the Board of the GAA each year to honor a member of the community that has worked for our betterment for over twenty years.
When I called Charlene at her home in Mississippi, we were both watching the Saints pull off a win over St. Louis. Like me, Charlene said she spends more time watching the wall than the TV because she gets too excited and involved in the action. For fans like us, it is difficult to remember that this is just a game.
"I am so excited," she told me. "I really appreciate you thinking of me. I didn't expect to win this award." That quote to me sums up Charlene's life as I know it. She is an activist because she loves her community and who she is as a person. She does not expect awards or praise because Charlene is a natural - no pretense and no false pride.
Charlene's Bar was the first winner of the GAA Bar of the Year. This was fourteen years ago - the same year that she met her life partner, Linda. Charlene has always regretted that she was unable to be at the celebration to receive that award in person. It was a difficult time for her as her mother had just died making it impossible for her to attend. She is truly looking forward to receiving this award in person on Dec. 10 at Body & Soul in New Orleans.
Charlene's Bar was located on Elysian Fields for twenty-three years. The adventure she traveled to get there is exciting and interesting. Directly from high school, she took a job that she loved with a civilian company that worked for the Federal Government. Charlene was a crypto operator with top secret clearance. When she was arrested in a Gay bar and her name was printed in the paper for her boss and family to see, she lost her job. She was told by her boss that if she had been a whore, he could have saved her job but there was nothing he could do because she was Gay.
It was while she was working at the Times-Picayune that the opportunity came to make a lump sum for quitting her job. The work that she was doing was being phased out. Since she didn't see eye to eye with her boss anyway, this was a blessing.
Susan Landrum and Doddie Finley were talking to Charlene about opening a bar, a Gay wimmins bar. She was told that it would only take making $26 a day to break even. The idea was appealing. She worked as the social director at the Country Club while she was deciding to take the chance. Charlene started water volley ball there and was a much-liked success.
Charlene's Bar was to become a successful reality. She called in Kitty Blackwell to set up her bar as she had no experience herself. The bar was a key club with an all male staff that thrived with few problems for the first twelve years. Then escalating expenses and the call for changes began to take a toll. Charlene's sister was the first of her female bar staff. "In the early days," Charlene remembers, "women's bars were like boxing rings." She worked toward giving women a better space.
One of the first Gay activists was Charlene's straight friend Attorney Pat O'Brien. Charlene credits O'Brien "who knew everyone at City Hall" with being "responsible for the Gay movement in New Orleans." He also started the Gay Business Association which dissolved in 1997.
The fire at the Upstairs Lounge had a profound affect on Charlene. When the memorial service was held at St. Mark's Community Center, the attendees were told that they could avoid TV cameras and reporters by exiting through the back of the Center. Charlene and like-minded activists stood up to the challenge and faced the press. This was the start of her open activism.
Next she took on the Preacher of Bourbon St. She wrote to him about Gays and religion. She took part in the "No on 6" campaign to stop the California ballot from allowing Gay teachers to be fired. She was the MC at the dinner/party in the Garden District supporting "No on 6" where she met and became friends with Leonard Matlovich who was one of her idols.
Matlovich was a Gay Vietnam hero. His picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine for his national campaign to speak on behalf of the Gay community. "We lost him to AIDS," she said. Barbara Jordan was Charlene's other hero. They corresponded and Barbara taught her to "speak low and loud."
Charlene was a course marshal for the march against Anita Bryant in New Orleans. When she joined PFLAG, the organization was so young that it couldn't accept her check as they didn't have a checking account. She has definitely been around since the beginning of our movement.
Johnny Jackson visited Charlene's Bar with other activists to assist in drafting the first New Orleans Gay Rights Ordinance which failed to pass. Over the years, many celebrities visited Charlene's and she said that she never knew who she might meet. Charlene says that it was the drag queens that were first to volunteer to help in the fight for rights and start Pride Fest.
As the Grand Marshal of Pride, Charlene wore a "No Dukes" cap. Within days of the event, Duke supporters showed up at her bar. She immediately called Mumbo at the Phoenix and asked for a force of help. Within minutes, a football team of large Gay men walked into Charlene's and asked the Duke supporters what they were doing there. It was the last she heard from Duke.
I asked why the men came to her aid. "I don't have any enemies," she said, "it's not worth it to hate and fight with people. I am loyal to my community and they are loyal to me." This blueprint for life has earned Charlene the ACLU-LAGPAC Award and the HRC Award. As assistant editor of Impact under the ownership of Roy Letson, Charlene wrote articles for and about the rights of Gays in the area.
She has had quite an active life and I asked when she "came out." "It was 1957 and I was in high school," she said, "her name was Barbara and she was my first love." She told me that she knew she was Gay when she walked into the Tiger Lounge. There were five women there and she loved every one of them. The bar was owned by an ex-nun.
Charlene was the speaker at the opening of Pride Fest this year. Her message to the community is that unity is the key to achieving our goal of freedom. She didn't talk about the past. She insisted that we all register to vote and then get out and vote. She told us to get along because today we are a wheel without a hub. We have organizations and no way to bring the organizations together. Our freedom has made us lazy and our young people have dropped the ball. However, it is not up to the older Gay people as they have old ideas and have done their part. The young must take their place as they have an obligation not to lose ground.
This is Charlene's message and it is good advice that will allow us to continue our march to freedom.
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