The pick-up line was direct: “You can fuck me, and I’ll suck you.” That’s what Alfred Doolittle whispered in Stewart Butler’s ear on the night they met. The pair left Lafitte’s and immediately went to Stewart’s house. On the way there, Alfred remarked, “You’ll probably throw me out in the morning like the rest of them.” But Stewart didn’t throw him out. The two fell in love and remained together until Alfred’s death thirty-five years later.
Thus began one of the strangest and most consequential relationships in queer New Orleans history—a relationship marked by insanity and a political legacy that lingers still.
It was Carnival Season 1973. Stewart and a friend were barhopping in the French Quarter when they noticed a good looking young man standing outside a gay bar named Gertrude’s near Iberville and Chartres streets. It was raining that day, and the young man was wet, shivering. Alfred had just arrived in town and checked into the Hotel Monteleone. He had begun exploring the Quarter and its gay scene. There were several gay bars within a block of the Monteleone, including Wanda’s, the Safari Lounge, Gene’s Hideaway, the Midship, the UpStairs Lounge, and Gertrude’s. Stewart and his friend introduced themselves and the trio eventually ended up at Lafitte’s.
Stewart later recalled, “It didn’t take long to discover Alfred was from a rather financially well-off San Francisco socialite family and would not be a financial burden. Nor did it take long to realize he was also schizophrenic.”
A few months after meeting, Stewart and Alfred were at the UpStairs Lounge the night an arsonist set it ablaze. The Sunday Beer Bust was underway, and everyone was in good spirits with the exception of a troubled young man named Rodger Nunez. Nunez, a street hustler who lived in a flop house next door to the bar, was highly intoxicated and generally annoying. Most tried to ignore him but one regular, Mike Scarborough, had enough and punched Nunez. He had already complained to the bartender that Nunez had been harassing him in the bathroom, but Nunez kept badgering him. As he was being escorted out the bar, Nunez threatened to “burn you all out.”
Stewart and Alfred’s friend Steven Duplantis heard the threat and had a bad feeling about it. He immediately warned Stewart and Alfred that they needed to leave. But Stewart, who was chatting with his barber, another regular named Horace Broussard, didn’t think much of it and said he wasn’t ready to leave. Alfred, however, heeded Steven’s warning and told Stewart he wanted to leave. But Stewart dismissed the idea, figuring Alfred was just being paranoid.
Steven tried to persuade Stewart again, but Stewart wasn’t budging. Frustrated, Steven told them goodbye and left. Several minutes later, Alfred insisted they leave the bar and Stewart reluctantly agreed. He was not happy about it and the two got into an argument on the stairwell leading to Iberville Street. They then walked a block down to Wanda’s bar, which was on the corner of Royal and Iberville streets. Also at that intersection, across the street from Wanda’s, was a Walgreens pharmacy. As Stewart and Alfred walked past the pharmacy, they had no idea Nunez was inside buying a can of lighter fluid. It was just after 7:30pm.
Minutes later, Stewart and Alfred heard the sirens. Stewart ran back to the UpStairs to find a chaotic, grisly scene.
In a very real sense, Alfred saved Stewart’s life that night. The trauma of it all, including the city’s homophobic response to the tragedy, cemented the bond Stewart & Alfred had and deepened their relationship. It also re-awakened in Stewart his sense of social justice, as well as a desire to become politically active.
A few years later, when Alfred inherited his fortune, he told Stewart he wanted him to retire and become a full-time activist. So at the age of fifty, Stewart reinvented himself and became a queer rights advocate.
Stewart and Alfred were at the Anita Bryant protest in Jackson Square in 1977, the first major demonstration on behalf of queer rights in Louisiana. They were also members of the Gertrude Stein Society, which in 1980 morphed into the Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus (LAGPAC). LAGPAC was the first successful effort at sustained queer activism, lasting from 1980 to 2005. Stewart was also heavily involved in the 1991 passage of a non-discrimination ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council. He was also an early advocate for trans rights. Under his leadership, the local PFLAG chapter led the nation in persuading the national PFLAG organization to include trans people in its mission statement, the first national LGBT group to do so. He was also a co-founder of the Lesbian & Gay Community Center and the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana. He also saved the local Pride organization from financial ruin, in addition to being a Board Member and tireless laborer on behalf of PFLAG.
His was a consequential life that left the world a better place, and it was all made possible by Alfred’s benevolence. Alfred died in 2008, Stewart in 2020. Stewart Butler is the subject of a new biography, written by yours truly, called Political Animal: The Life and Times of Stewart Butler. The book is available at area bookstores in New Orleans and from the University Press of Mississippi, as well as Amazon.