FP: Your recently wrote your doctoral dissertation on New Orleans gay history. How did you get interested in this topic?
RP: It began in 2013, when a good friend of mine pointed out it was the fortieth anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire. After reading about the tragedy, I was shocked (and a little ashamed) that I had never heard of such an important chapter of gay New Orleans history. As I began reading more about the fire, I discovered other fascinating stories about the New Orleans gay community that despite growing up in the city I had never been exposed to. It dawned on me that I knew little of my community’s own history. Also, if I was ignorant of this history, perhaps others were as well. This awareness came early in the process of working toward my Ph.D. in History, and I decided to devote my dissertation to telling the history of one of the most vibrant and important gay communities in the world.
FP: What type of research did you do? What was the most challenging aspect of researching this topic?
RP: Researching gay history before the liberation movements of the 1970s is particularly difficult due to the dangers of exposing one’s sexuality. Therefore, this project would have been impossible without the personal guidance of the passionate archivists working at several archival repositories in New Orleans. I must specifically acknowledge the work of the LGBT+ Archives of Louisiana, which is working so hard to fix the challenges of researching gay Louisiana history by creating an invaluable database cataloging the state’s gay holdings. That said, it would have been impossible to research gay New Orleans history in archives alone. Speaking with those who were there, including gay activists, artists, business owners, and scholars, was essential to uncovering a history which largely existed beyond the written word. Interviews were essential to this project, and the eagerness with which so many helped me tell this story will not be forgotten. It is also important to note that in recent years there has been a growing interest in writing about the history of specific events and places in gay New Orleans history, and the support of other scholars of gay New Orleans has been extremely helpful.
FP: What is the primary argument of the dissertation? What have you concluded about New Orleans gay history?
RP: My dissertation adds to recent scholarship which argues against the historical understanding of gay life in America as existing primarily on the East and West Coast. I argue against the belief that LGBT youths during the twentieth century fed entirely from the Midwest and Deep South for gay-friendly neighborhoods in New York and California. I have concluded that the New Orleans gay community has expanded since the end of World War I, and in fact LGBT transplants have been flocking to the city for various reasons for the last century. Ultimately, the history of gay New Orleans is important if one seeks to understand gay history nationwide.
FP: Does your research focus exclusively on the gay male community or does it also include lesbian and transgender history as well?
RP: It was very important for me to not present a history of gay New Orleans as a story primarily featuring gay white men. It was also important to not just pay lip service to the experiences of the local lesbian and transgender communities, but to illustrate how they are an integral part of the narrative. This has especially been true when telling the history of gay activism in New Orleans, and expressing how crucial the role of lesbians and transgender residents have been in the struggle for liberation. It was also important to not separate the issue of race from the history of gay New Orleans, particularly how the city’s own relationship with race impacted gay communities. This is especially important now with the work being done in New Orleans to help transgender people of color, a community often shamefully overlooked by the larger gay community.
FP: What makes New Orleans gay history different than that of other cities? RP: What makes New Orleans gay history so different from other cities is the exact same thing which makes New Orleans itself so different. New Orleans is a city of contrasts, run by three different countries over three centuries, and is steeped in old world conservatives social and religious traditions while simultaneously celebrating the decadence and hedonism of the Carnival season. It was by navigating and exploiting these contrasts that the gay New Orleans community thrived in the modern era. For example, when the French Quarter was crumbling from neglect during the 1920s, gay artists saw an opportunity to create an artistic bohemia in the historic district. When raids on gay bars were escalating after World War II, the New Orleans gay community created exclusive gay Mardi Gras Krewes in which they could socialize without being threatened by undercover vice cops. One cannot underestimate the importance of Mardi Gras to New Orleans gay history. The modern Mardi Gras season allowed New Orleans festival goers to dress opposite their gender and party in the streets dating back to the 19th century without the slightest risk of criminal or social liability. This is a concept which is still inconceivable in many parts of the United States, underscoring the uniqueness of New Orleans gay history.
FP: Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you?
RP: The biggest surprise for me was how the New Orleans gay community became politically mobilized. The common misunderstanding is that the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969 ushered in an immediate total radicalization of gay communities nationwide. In reality, while the 1970s became defined in many ways by the gay liberation movement, how individual cities became radicalized was not monolithic. Almost everyone I spoke with while researching this dissertation pointed to country singer Anita Bryant’s concert in New Orleans in 1977 as the moment in which the city’s gay community became radicalized. That is not to say that the New Orleans gay community was previously apathetic about gay rights, but their ability to foster safe gay spaces unavailable in other cities made the necessity of political activism less urgent. After Bryant famously led a successful campaign to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida in 1977, the New Orleans gay community knew that they were not immune to having their own rights taken away. When Bryant performed in New Orleans soon after the Florida referendum, what organizers thought would be a modest turnout became a huge demonstration against Bryant’s homophobic message and in support for gay rights. What fascinated me during my research was how drastically things changed for the New Orleans gay community after the Bryant demonstrations. This passion for mobilization within the gay community expanded quickly and has never waned.