O What a Night!
It’s 5:45 pm, on the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon Streets. Hot, still dripping a bit of shiny raindrops around the mugginess that is New Orleans in July. Tourists traipse along Bourbon, some moving quickly, more moving slowly so they can see what Bourbon Street is all about. They’ll never really get it, will they?
I was focused on the groups, couples and individuals heading to the same place my friends and I were – OZ. The colors began to be brighter, more sparkly, and more joyful. The 31st Annual Gay Appreciation Awards ceremony, sponsored by Ambush Magazine, was my destination, and my intention was to have a ball while celebrating the nominees and the recipients of the awards. The GAA’s were created 31 years ago, to “thank those in the LGBT Community who often are not recognized for their outstanding service and efforts they perform” as stated in the 2019 program for the event.
Stepping into the bar revealed a magical scene. Welcoming us were stunningly dressed, tall, lovely women and very handsome, chic men, hot queens and very cool kings, dressed and ready to celebrate. The music was loud, lighting was cool, and a general feeling of excitement prevailed. Every step yielded a smile, a hug or two, a wink – all manner of greetings and welcome. The very best feeling of belonging, of knowing who we are and who we can be, was emerging. I guess it felt familiar and calming, amidst the noise and laughter.
The Ambush folks were right there. Tomy Acosta, owner and publisher, along with Reed Wendorf, and Chris Leonard, among others, and ushered us all in, nurturing their event and assuring that success was the only option.
And the mixture of the audience! Sitting in the main area at a little table with friends, I could see the people at the bar, at the other tables, and hear the excitement of being together. An assembling of the community, the allies, the business owners who support the event and all our events, and the organizations who serve, and have consistently worked to change the attitudes, the heart, and the level of acceptance in this city, all well represented at this annual event. What a special evening.
As the co-hosts for the evening stepped onto the stage, there was an unsignaled quiet, likely due to the respect the audience had for Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist.
The show began! I noticed the energy and enthusiasm of the performers throughout the evening, and the support the audience offered for each and every one of the many awards bestowed. But most importantly, in those moments, I found myself remembering and imagining the venue filled with people who are no longer here with us, and recalling some of the struggle to get our community to a safe place. We owe them a great deal of thanks for their leadership and mentorship, so there could be consistent celebrations, and safe passage throughout the city while being true to self, unapologetic and uncompromising. Those men were all those things in their own way, for the time they had with us. Memories are golden, and valuable in learning our history.
I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had of old friends, dedicated advocates, and brave men who passed away during the 80’s and 90’s interwoven with the grandeur that was displayed at Oz at the GAA ceremony. The freedom and pride at Oz was exhilarating. When the ‘now’ reflects the past, we are able to acknowledge the growth, and the struggle, which often means more and is sustaining. It sustains every day, in all of our endeavors. We often simply do not know it.
My recollections are of a few individuals who, in their way, opened the door for just this kind of evening. I thought of the young men I worked with at the first display of the AIDS Quilt in New Orleans, when we thought no one would help or volunteer and, to our delight, the first two meetings many months before the event were crowded with lesbians and gay men, all ages, and walks of life. Since we were working the event, we were allowed to come the day before the public to view it in our time, alone or with loved ones. Forever will be etched in my mind, and in the frame on my dresser, two of my dear friends with arms around shoulders, looking down at the quilt at a panel which was from this area, honoring a 30-year old native New Orleanian. One common goal. One mission. We wanted to memorialize our friends and loved ones from this area. We also made quilts so that they could be shipped to San Francisco, logged in, blocked and backed, and become a part of the National AIDS Quilt that was displayed here. I lost count of how many I actually worked on, but I know the quilts I helped make for friends, like Paul R, Bobby, Michael P, Thomas, Donald M and many others. I imagined several of those young men at Oz with us, in some capacity, as MC’s, performers, bartenders, and most prominently, joyful supporters and positive role models. Those guys loved a party. And if they were there with us at Oz, they wouldn’t have been afraid any more. They would not be afraid of losing a job, or of being evicted when it was found out they were sick. Not now.
I thought of the amazing drag shows at The Country Club – yes, it was very different then in the 1980’s and mid-1990’s. It was a gathering place for alternative entertaining and partying. The Country Club hosted drag night at least once a week. Three young men I knew performed often, two of whom died of AIDS. I do not use their names, as those men couldn’t use them back then for anything gay-related because of their families, and I respect that now. But they were both with me at Oz. And both would have loved it.
As the awards were bestowed, one specific person was there with me in spirit as always. I had the great honor of being asked to present the Buzzy Fanning AIDS Award. That alone would have brought my friend Al to mind. That the recipient of that important award was CrescentCare/NO/AIDS Task Force just made my recollections kick into high gear, and I could see Al McNairn, Will F, and Mike C all dancing, working, and collecting donations. And being in awe of how free it was at Oz, how privileged they would have been to know their protests, their actions and kindness helped pave the way. For you, me and us, right now.
After a wonderful evening, I experienced a fleeting thought of going back in time to about 1987-88, and ending the evening as we had so many times – stopping at La Peniche Restaurant (who remembers it?) in the Marigny on Dauphine Street, and visiting with Al McNairn, the owner.
We’d be having grilled biscuits, coffee, and all the while, Al and Kathy would be sneaking food out the back door to feed the men with AIDS who gathered every night. It was a very scary time, unsafe and unsure. Al dedicated the last years of his life to feeding those in need in the LGBT community, as well as donating many resources, often anonymously, to NO/AIDS Task Force. Even when there was the organization Al founded, Community Relief for People with AIDS, he continued to host PWA’s out of the restaurant. He was a force of good, courageous fortitude, and an inspiring role model. He was with me in spirit for that evening at Oz, along with my good friends who were with me at the awards.
When I think of that evening, and the pride I feel for our community, and reflect on where our fight has taken us, I feel certain the freedom and joy I sensed at the 2019 GAA Awards will be felt for a long time. Even though you may not have experienced a time in the community that was riskier and darker, please know that there were so many fighters, advocates, and issues that have allowed our world to be better for you, much better for all. Let us make it so, by attending events, supporting the organizations that care about us, and by taking a risk. Come out, attend something, learn our past and current achievements. Become a living and active part of the community.
A final note. Do you believe in coincidence? I don’t. As I’m writing this, which would be 9:48 pm Tuesday, July 23, I am watching POSE. Without giving anything away, Patti LuPone is singing at an AIDS Concert in NYC during the early 90’s. I am distracted, because some of what they describe is exactly what several of my friends endured. That’s another article for another day, so many heroes to illuminate. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Watch POSE, FX, Tuesdays, 9:00 pm CT.