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Lesbian Gay New Orleans History

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Madam John Dodt's Legacy #1

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

About a month ago, I was approached in the subtlest and stealthiest and most serpentine of manners by the publisher of this flamboyant-fagazine-and-lit'ry-review and summoned, in the most conspiratorial manner, to the bric-a-brac-bedecked offices located on the rez-de-chaussee of an unassuming Bourbon Street townhouse (i.e.., to get a hustler's-eye-view of the place, you'd never know that two splendiferous sissies dwelt within-besides you can't have a story in this publication without making a half-dozen or so references to Rip and Marsha, it simply ain't done, m'dear!). While Ms. Delain cast her usual suspicious eye over me like a prison search light, Rip and I settled cosily into an overstuffed Directoire settee with carved legs that, in a triumph of the wood-carver's art, cunningly depicted Miss Fly as a Cher-like caryatid (told you it was an antique); turning to me, Rip said in a stage-whisper that probably carried over to Chartres Street, "Girl... " I knew this had to be good. But then... "we'd like you to do an occasional peace on Gay History.

"The Clover Grill cheeseburger I had bolted a scant hour before suddenly turned to Polonium-or some other heavy metal the weight of a beignet in my stomach. "Mmm," I said, either indicating considerable knowledge of the subject kept in mnemonic reserve or else a second taste of the onion and dill pickle garnish. Then came the kicker: "Now, no sad stuff, no tragedies, nothing grim, you know what we like... " No more blue songs, only hoop-de-doo songs, as Cole Porter once put it.

"But Rip, darling," I remonstrated, in an unconscious echo of Miss Prism, "that is what history means. Wars, famines, epidemics, massacres, slaughter, blood, persecution, and of course a little bit of drag in the royal families along with hemophilia and cranial deformities. " He put his hand up magisterially, missing my cheek by millimeters, "Nope, nothing sad. Isn't life bad enough?"

Certainly, this was something to chew on. Having been ungraciously given a heave-ho and bums' rush from the Catholic newspaper where I had spent so many happy, if not always profitable, hours over nearly fifteen years with a few breaks to do some actual work occasionally indeed, life was more than bad enough. I told Rip I'd think it over and sidled crablike out the door, while Ms. Delain continued her sphinxlike gaze in my direction.

So, of course, I hoofed it home and for weeks simply immersed myself in Hume and Leibniz and Hegel and the historiographical philosophers, hoping (against hope) that somewhere in those musty tomes I'd find the inspiration, that in the middle of the night when I might be putting my time to better use watching porno tapes or eating pistachio ice cream, Clio herself might perch on my shoulder and whisper the words that would unlock the puzzle of Gay History. Because one of the problems with Gay History as opposed to most other kinds, is that it exists rather in the form that aborigine legends do: As oral storytelling tradition. There's not a great deal of documentation. And even though in academia, Queer Studies, which are "interdisciplinary, meaning more or less that anything goes-are the dernier cri these days, sometimes things get a little out of control ...

I'll give you an example. It'll take me a while but I'll give it to you. I remember when I was a young adolescent queer just finding out about ... things. And while young people today are terribly independent and self-important, it was crucial in those longgone days to find some sort of mentor, that is, some older-and-wiser queen to pass along the body of Queen Knowledge, which is thoroughly encyclopedic and contains everything from the fine and lively arts and literature to more crucial forms of learning like Broadway musicals, which Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies are essential for a young sissy's sentimental education and which are not, an at-least-rudimentary knowledge of fabrics, make-up, home decorating, how to order from a French menu, where to find boys should you fish up in Barcelona or Baghdad or Burlington, Vermont, etc.

One of the things these old queens always passed along was The Litany Of Famous People Who Were ... the list didn't change much, really, but you can guess who it contained: Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great (to prove that sissies could be fighting tough when necessary) and Michelangelo and Tchaikowsky and Proust and Walt Whitman and Socrates and Francis Bacon and Nijinsky. (Things never really got juicy until you got to the later part of the list with living people-and you thought outing was something invented last Tuesday-and there was always a brought smile on your gay old instructor's face when he'd mention, say, Cary Grant or Robert Taylor, and you'd exclaim in great wonder, "He IS?!!') OK, you get the picture.

One of the things that Queer Studies does these days is a subtle form of recruiting, searching through all kinds of sources for the possible, faint pecker-tracks left behind by the famous, some letter, some third-party-reference, anything that would allow this famous person to be claimed as what the late, lamented, and luscious Earl Larr would call "a member of the committee. " And sometimes these academics, and their popularizers, clutch at historical straws. Here's that example. I told you it would take a while:

A couple of months ago, Vanity Fair published an article on the French painter Paul Ce'zanne; now Ce'zanne is hot shit art-historically since he is generally regarded as the father of modernism in painting, more or less all twentieth century art comes from him. What a prize catch he would be for the Queer Studies professionals! So this article claimed, on the slenderest of evidence I might add, that Ce'zanne was a repressed queer because he didn't paint women very well and seems to have been afraid of rendering their genitalia directly, seems to have treated his wife badly, farted in public, agonized over the few men he painted without clothing, and might have had a passionate boyhood romance with the famous French novelist Zemile Zola who also happened to live in Aix-en-Provence. (Well, OK, they went skinny-dipping together and Ce'zanne translated some racy Roman verses for Zola and then got bashful about the whole thing; then later, they fell out apparently because Zola wrote a novel about a painter in which the unattractive hero (trust me, I've read the novel, was based on Ce'zanne.) Now this is nonsense. Because someone doesn't like women or is afraid of them or doesn't paint them well or is socially awkward with them isn't much reason to suppose that they're queer. Most straight men seem to be afraid of women and socially awkward with them, and so what? We'll skip the farting in public aspects. The boyhood attachment between two men, at least one of whom led a complicated and peculiar heterosexual existence (Zola), seems to be building a house on sand, but that's what much of Queer Studies does. They drag in the craziest things; as a result, Gay History, the little bit that really existed before the academic boom of the last fifteen years gets distorted and turned inside out even more.

So, allright, we'll keep this frothy and amusing (we hope!) and perhaps even relentlessly trivial. Next time: How New Orleans Got That Way, or some Old French Queens and a Couple of Kings and a Full House, and how that led to Kenny Petit's Video Poker Obsession.

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