To: The gay and lesbian community of New Orleans
In 1995, at his lecture on New Orleans gay and lesbian history, held at the Louisiana Mint, Roberts Batson began his talk by saying "There is someone here who may try and disrupt my talk, so bear with me."
I was the person he was referring to. I DID NOT disrupt his talk then and have kept quiet about my differences with his version of our history until now. For that I owe our gay community a most sincere apology. I should've spoken up before.
Before I tell you my version of what happened, as I lived it, and NOT Mr. Batson's "selective and subjective" version, let me tell you who I am.
I, and my life partner, Jack Diamond, first came down to New Orleans over July 4th weekend to celebrate our 7th anniversary. We came down for every Mardi Gras (except 1967) until we moved here in 1969.
While in the Army, I edited The Cotton Baler, official publication of the 7th Infantry Regiment, founded at the Battle of New Orleans and helped write an official history of that unit, as well as aided in the presentation of a bale of cotton from New Orleans that, as a symbol of the unit's founding, is still represented in an Army museum.
Before moving to New Orleans from our hometown of Rockford, IL, we ran an openly gay rooming house from 1955 to 1967. In 1964 we successfully fended off an attempted raid on one of our parties held at the house.
I have seen a gay bar in Chicago literally torn apart by police sledgehammers, axes and crowbars. It was called Omar's Tent and if memory serves me well, the year was 1959.
For five decades I have seen our places of gathering from bars that would tolerate us for certain hours, to viable community leaders such as we have now.
It is because of my background that I have kept a gay and lesbian historical file, ranging from 1890's to date. I am currently talking with various places too accept this file for permanent reference. One is our Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
Mr. Batson states that his "revised" chronology of events were "chosen by the author to record significant events in the building of a gay and lesbian community in New Orleans. It is by definition selective and subjective."
If we, as a community, are to claim our past, we must claim it all - good or bad. It is incumbent on all of us, and especially would-be historians, to make sure ALL of our history is passed on to future generations.
By definition, HISTORY MUST NOT BE SUBJECTIVE OR SELECTIVE. Commentaries may be.
I realize Mr. Batson's accounts are limited to the restrictions placed upon him by the nature of journalism but merely to mention the creation of such an important piece of our history, such as the CRESCENT CITY COALITION, and then only to record its demise, is an injustice to an important piece of our history.
Our present generation knows little of the CCC. It is the duty of a historian to fill in gaps and make a picture total and whole. I am sure it was an unintentional oversight on Mr. Batson's part.
Out of the TWO meetings held at the St. Louis Community Center, following the police actions of April, 1981, came the Crescent City Coalition after many meetings with members of our community and much haggling over its name and intent. Despite the attempts of two people who seemed intent on squashing any attempt at such an organization, the CCC was born.
Among its founders were such influential members of our community as John Ognibene, Al Abruzzeo, Donovan Smith, Ian Anderson, Jim Kellog, Jack Sullivan, Stewart Butler, Jack and myself, and one Richard Devlin.
And therein, I believe, lies Mr. Batson's rub!
Mr. Devlin, following years of involvement in the CCC, where he served as second president, and first editor of the Courier, as well as participating in many other gay and lesbian organizations, fled New Orleans taking with him sums of money from various organizations and businesses he was associated with. Or so I understand, as, like so much of what has happened in the past, one cannot get a clear picture of what occurred as everyone tells a different story.
I trust that Mr. Batson's ignoring of the history of the CCC was not a deliberate omission due to prejudice on his part.
I would like to augment his history with the following list of a few of the actions taken by the CCC on behalf of our total community:
1. Sept., 1981. With the permission and participation of LAGPAC, the coalition prints and distributes 5000 copies of YOU AND THE LAW, a booklet on personal civil rights, as it has been rumored that there may be an attempt by the NOPD to harass gay and lesbians during Labor Day weekend.
2. Oct., 1981. The CCC fights, with LAGPAC and other groups, the instigation of "field identification cards" by the NOPD.
3. Oct., 1981. The CCC rents a bus to take non-voters to City Hall to register for voting. It is later reported that 78.3% of all people registered then were taken there by the CCC.
4. Feb., 1982. CCC protests Richard Angelico's attempt to harass the Quarter through his investigative series, "Cruising the Quarter." The CCC files a protest of the series with the FCC.
5. 1982. The CCC takes up the case of "Patience and Sarah," to lesbians faced with criminal charges and potential loss of custody of a child.
6. Aug., 1982. One year before the formation of NO/AIDS, the CCC holds a public meeting at Charlene's on GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It is the 1st group to recognize the potential of the disease and its danger to our community, thanks mainly to the actions of Ian Anderson, someone who had been trained in the services of Hospice. The CCC also begins serialization of "Towards a Healthier Lifestyle," the first AIDS awareness booklet distributed in New Orleans.
7. Aug., 1982. CCC holds Hepatitis B screening at St. Mark's.
8. The CCC also supported the Krewe of Tragaida in its protest of the Riverboat President when they learned the krewe was a gay krewe.
I trust that these will qualify the CCC to be given more than a passing mention in any future delineation of our total history written by Mr. Batson.
In a time when many young Germans claim the Holocaust never happened and a British "historian" claims Russia defeated Germany, not the USA, it is of vital importance that the gays and lesbians leave for our future generations as accurate an account as possible of who we were and what we did, warts and all.
I also hope that as Mr. Batson leads one of his gay and lesbian history tours of our past, that when he passes the St. Louis Community Center, he pauses and says "once we had a Crescent City Coalition and this was its home." The struggle has not been won. The struggle has just begun.
Recently, the New Orleans Public School Board changed the name of one of the city's elementary schools to Barbara Jordan Elementary. The memorial is well-deserved. When Barbara Jordan died in January, 1996, she was lauded properly as a trailblazer in the struggle for equal rights.
After obtaining her law degree from Boston University, in 1966 she won election to the Texas State Senate, the first Black female to do so. Her 1972 election to the U.S. House of Representatives gave her a nationwide platform to profess, in her unforgettable, deep, resonant voice, her high standards of ethics and public service. These principles were exhibited in her performance on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings.
Having obtained the national spotlight, Jordan followed her "internal compass" to the University of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs after three terms in Congress. During her tenure there, she touched deeply the lives of many students. Coupled with her personal struggle against multiple sclerosis and leukemia, Jordan was a noble figure, and she serves as a fine example to all New Orleans school children to this day.
It is interesting to note that the School Board, charged with educating our city's youth, chose to keep them in ignorance of another, less well-known facet of Jordan's life. Barbara Jordan was a lesbian.
A March 5, 1996 cover story in The Advocate, describes in moving detail how Jordan was advised early to conceal her sexual orientation so as to not jeopardize her promising political career. Her lesbianism was not revealed publicly until her longtime companion Nancy Earl, was listed among her survivors in the Houston Chronicle. Earl's role in Jordan's life was acknowledged by the Jordan family and in the eulogy delivered by then-governor Ann Richards.
While one can understand Jordan's motive for living her life in the closet during what were dearly hostile times for gay and lesbian Americans, one has to question the motives of the School Board in their omission of mentioning Jordan's lesbianism in publicity and press releases. Young people, struggling with their sexual identity, need role models. Barbara Jordan, a black, female, lesbian teacher, is an excellent one. While such a discussion may not be appropriate for an audience of elementary school students, we cannot continue to deny to a broader audience that many great civic accomplishments have been made, and are being made today, by gay and lesbian citizens. I hope the School Board will do a better, more complete and inclusive job in the future.
-Robert Udick, Ph.D.
[Letters and Comments should be sent to Ambush Letters, 828-A Bourbon St., New Orleans, LA 70116-3137]