There have always been queer people in New Orleans, and while the city currently looks favorably upon us, it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t too long ago that rainbow flags on Rampart Street and Mayoral proclamations for Pride and Southern Decadence would have been inconceivable. The New Orleans Police Department was still raiding gay bars as recently as the 1980s.
It was really bad in the 1950s. Just as the tourism industry began to blossom in the years after WW II, many business leaders and politicians at City Hall felt that gay visibility would frighten away straight tourist dollars. Back then, the tourist market was primarily white, straight male conventioneers. The queer tourist market was still in the closet. So the attitude among the powers-that-be toward our community was to encourage them to “tone it down.”
And just how did they do that? With the big stick of the law. In 1958, Mayor Chep Morrison established a special “Committee on the Problem of Sex Deviates.” The committee harassed gay bars in the French Quarter. For example, it revoked the Starlet Lounge’s liquor license and it arrested the staff of Tony Bacino’s multiple times. The Committee suggested the city adopt a “Climate of Hostility” toward homosexuals.
The climate was already pretty frigid. As early as 1951, this sensational headline graced the pages of the Times-Picayune: “Curb Advocated on Homosexuals: Crackdown to Save Young Persons Demanded.”
The article stated:
“A warning that homosexuals in the French Quarter are at work corrupting high school boys and girls was made Friday by Richard R. Foster, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on the Vieux Carre, in an address before the Civic Council of New Orleans. For that reason, he said, the homosexual problem is one of the city’s most serious. ‘In several instances, parents have come to police begging them to save their children,’ he asserted. ‘High school boys and girls enticed into places habituated by homosexuals often see an obscene show or something of that nature as a starter,’ he added. The homosexuals are, he said, ‘continuously recruiting’ and there at least four ‘places’ in the Quarter which cater to almost no one but homosexuals. ‘It almost seems as if youngsters who develop homosexual tendencies in other Southern cities are put on a train and sent to New Orleans,’ he said.”
And in 1955, Police Superintendent Provosty A. Dayrides publicly proclaimed that homosexuals were the city’s “Number One vice problem,” adding “They are the ones we want to get rid of most.”
One of the most sweeping police raids occurred in 1953 when officers descended upon several gay and lesbian bars throughout the French Quarter and Marigny. 43 women were arrested at the Goldenrod Inn on Frenchmen Street alone. Historian James Sears notes, “Then there was also the Goldenrod—whose front area for straight men served as a cover for a back-room lesbian bar—where one Saturday night in 1953 forty-three women were booked for disturbing the peace and being ‘loud and boisterous’.”
John D’Emilio, who made passing reference to this particular raid in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, writes, “In New Orleans in 1953, vice officers packed Doris Lunden and sixty-three other women into vans after clearing them from a lesbian bar in the French Quarter. The next day, Lunden found the court overflowing with men and women brought in from other bars in the city.”
Chris Strayer in Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies quotes Lunden’s reaction to being arrested, “That night we had to go to court and I discovered then that they had raided every gay bar in New Orleans. It was like a big cleanup. I had never seen so many gay people in my life. It was really exciting. I almost forgot to be scared about whether I would be convicted or not. My case was dismissed, but I think that set me free in some way.”
Police raids of gay and lesbian bars continued for decades. Consider this headline in the Times-Picayune on September 9, 1962: “18 Arrested on Morals Charge.”
The article stated: “Eleven women and seven men were arrested late Saturday night in an uptown cocktail lounge and booked in the Second District station with vagrancy by loitering in a place where homosexuals congregate. The place was identified by Sgt. Frederick Soule, commander of the special headquarters (vice) squad as the Rose Room, 4520 Magazine.”
The article then lists the names, ages, and addresses of those arrested. The Rose Room eventually became the iconic Brothers Three Lounge, which closed earlier this year when the last of the three brothers, 86-year-old Mr. Johnny, died.
Thankfully, the days of police raids are gone now. Sadly, so are the days of lesbian bars. The last lesbian bar in New Orleans, Rubyfruit Jungle, closed in 2012.