Rebuilding our city

By Greg Hernandez

Originally published on Advocate.com September 26 2005 12:00 AM ET

Someone forgot to
tell C.W. Stambaugh the party was over: The owner of
the New Orleans gay bar Starlight by the Park kept his doors
open as Hurricane Katrina thrashed the Crescent City.
Stambaugh stayed put after the levees broke and the
city flooded.

Despite the
deplorable conditions, he and a group of about 40 others
held their own gay parade, featuring outlandish
costumes, on September 4. The party flowed around the
corner from the French Quarter bar to Stambaugh’s
home. “We had Southern Decadence, and it felt
good,” he says, referring to the city’s
traditional gay Labor Day bash, founded in 1972, that
usually attracts more than 100,000 revelers. “It
seemed to lift the spirits of a lot of people.”
Stambaugh was eventually forced to evacuate, but once
the city is again inhabitable he will return. “We
will rebuild the city better than it’s ever
been before,” he vows. “We’ll be
back.”

Thousands of
other gay men and lesbians say they owe it to the city to
return. It’s not an easy choice. Many New Orleans
residents, especially those in lower income brackets,
will likely never come back. During the past weeks
some evacuees have found new jobs and new lives in other
cities, including Baton Rouge, La.; Houston; and more
distant locales. Gay men and lesbians were also
displaced to neighboring states—their lives,
careers, education, real estate deals, and health care
interrupted. They face the daunting task of rebuilding. But
most say they will.

For more than a
century this has been their town. Since the early 1800s
New Orleans welcomed those with same-sex attractions into a
sea of fabulous architecture, boozy decadent affairs,
outrageous parades, fabulous costumes, and
gender-bending. The city inspired gay poet Walt
Whitman to write that Louisiana’s “rude,
unbending, lusty” live oak trees made him
“think of manly love.”

Years later a
husky man named Miss Big Nelly ran a brothel and
boardinghouse for gays, a hotbed of same-sex interracial
parties that lasted into the night, according to
historians. Then the famed writers came, including
Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote [see page 50]. In
the 1940s and 1950s the city even had a transvestite bar
called My-O-My near the lakefront.

“I will be
seeking a way to help the city come back,” says
novelist Martin Pousson, 39. Before the deluge he had
been setting up his new office as writer in residence
at Loyola University New Orleans. He knows he is one
of the lucky ones: Not only was he able to escape the city
for the comfort of his parents’ home in
Lafayette, La., but Columbia University offered him a
position while Loyola is closed. Pousson, a graduate
of Loyola, turned down the Ivy League offer. “I want
to take part in New Orleans’s
resurgence,” he says. “Ultimately the city
will open its doors, and it will need all the hands
and minds it can get.”

Pousson says New
Orleans may seem vulnerable and weak at the moment, but
he compares it to a phoenix rising from the
ashes—again and again: “It’s a
300-year-old city. It’s been burned to the ground and
has survived numerous plagues, floods, and hurricanes.
It’s a crazy quilt of architecture built up
over centuries with different styles at different
moments. This will be yet another troubled, complicated, but
ultimately beautiful layer of the city.”

Ron Marlow, a
member of the New Orleans Gay Men’s Chorus, is
already planning the group’s Christmas show.
This year it will be held in Baton Rouge, but the
chorus will return to its roots. “The gay community
has flourished because it is a close gay
community,” says Marlow, who has lived in New
Orleans for eight years with his partner, Michael Knight.
“The younger gay men take care of the older gay men.
You can carry drinks from bar to bar. The gay
community is one of the friendliest gay communities
I’ve ever lived in.”

Marlow and Knight
were able to escape the city unscathed. They headed to
Houston, where Knight’s company secured them
corporate housing. The couple believe their
third-floor condominium in the warehouse district is
intact. “Every gay person I’ve talked to will
go home,” says Marlow, 44. “Everyone is
ready to go back. It’s an incredible level of
friendship, walking around a community where everyone
knows you and has been your friend for a long time. It
will be just as good as it was.”

Jean Burke and
her girlfriend, university professor J.E. Cowden, are also
trying to look ahead after absorbing the shock of -Katrina.
“It’s been absolutely awful in some
ways—the idea that this has happened to the city
I grew up in—but we feel very blessed in other
ways,” says Burke. Cowden’s house is for
sale, and escrow was supposed to have closed on
September 20. She had planned to move into a townhome in a
part of the city severely damaged by the hurricane.
Burke’s house also sustained damage. A hospital
social worker, she is on paid administrative leave
from her job until September 30 and is waiting to take her
next step. “There’s a part of me that
says, I’m taking early retirement and moving
somewhere else,” Burke admits. “But
it’s an accepting city where my friends and my
support system are.”

Even before the
hurricane, 49-year-old Robyn Brown—a leader of the
predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church of Greater
New Orleans—was embroiled in controversy that
attracted national headlines. The MCC was being kicked
out of its new home at a Catholic HIV/AIDS facility
because the Catholic archdiocese did not want to give the
impression that it supported same-sex marriage, according to
news reports. “That was some of what we were
going through, and now we have this on top of
it,” says Brown, living temporarily in Baton Rouge.
“It gives you perspective on what is really
important. We moved to New Orleans two years ago from
St. Louis, and we did so by choice. There are some
people saying they will never go back, but we will
definitely go back and rebuild.”

Jamie Temple was
starting a new chapter in his life when Katrina changed
everything. He had just sold his popular leather bar near
the French Quarter after 23 years in business and was
in the process of buying a bed-and-breakfast on North
Rampart Street. Temple is now staying with a friend in
Florida. He is one of the lucky ones who can afford to
return to New Orleans, but he is more worried about
his former longtime employees. “I don’t
know how they will get jobs in other cities,” he
says. “In New Orleans, when you get a job in a gay
bar, you can have it for 20 or 25 years.” A New
Jersey native, Temple says New Orleans has been good
to him. He arrived while with the U.S. Coast Guard, and he
stayed. “In almost 30 years that I’ve lived
there—I’m 48 years old—I’ve
maybe been called ‘faggot’ once,” he
says. “The Phoenix was a leather bar, and it
was perfectly accepted in our neighborhood.” Temple
became an active volunteer, leading tours of the
French Quarter for the Louisiana State Museum.
“It has always had a ‘live and let
live’ feel to it,” he says of his city.
“New Orleans had culture before they had
agriculture,” he says. “We had three
opera houses before the Revolutionary War. It was a
thriving city in the 1700s, and I believe it will thrive
again.”

In the week after
the tragedy, as evacuees fought to flee the city from
their rooftops, the convention center, and the Superdome,
LGBT survivors had their own specific concerns. For
one, how would those with HIV or AIDS get their
medications when all they had left were the shirts on
their backs? “I think people need to think about the
images they’ve seen on television, about the
rampant poverty that existed in New Orleans and was
often unseen behind the facade of a good time,” says
HIV Alliance for Region Two executive director Tim
Young. The Baton Rouge group was providing medicine
and housing to LGBT survivors. “The HIV problem is
very similar,” Young says. “It exists to a
large degree in our community. We know it’s a
critical problem, and just as we have looked at the
potential for levee breaches, this storm has brought the
HIV/AIDS population to our community in a similar way.
The flood has come in, and we are ill equipped to deal
with it.”

More than 15,000
people were known to be living with HIV or AIDS in
Louisiana at the end of 2003, the most recent year for which
CDC statistics are available. An estimated 3,500 of
those live in and around Baton Rouge, and a still
greater number live in New Orleans. “When you
combine the two cities, you probably have the largest
HIV/AIDS population in the country,
percentage-wise,” Young says. And resources were
particularly strained in Baton Rouge because the city does
not receive Ryan White Act funding.
“We’re tremendously underequipped. Now we are
challenged with attempting to meet those needs for half or
more of the AIDS population of New Orleans. They have
faced death before, and they faced it again
here.”

In addition to
arranging for medications and counseling, groups rushed to
provide HIV/AIDS patients with such personal items as
toiletry kits, Wal-Mart gift cards, and food gift
certificates. “The gay community is responding
quickly. They are on alert and organizing themselves into
volunteer networks,” Young says.

Less than a week
after the devastation, the Montrose Counseling Center in
Houston was working to get LGBT people—especially
those who felt they might be subject to gay
bashing—out of shelters. After housing was
secured for them, case management teams were assigned to
evacuees, and support groups were formed.
“Initially we are dealing with shock and
denial,” says spokeswoman Sally Huffer. “Two,
three, four months down the line, we will still be
there for them. Around the holidays is when a lot of
stuff is probably going to hit them.”

In July,
24-year-old gay man Matthew Cardinale returned to New
Orleans after earning a master’s degree in
sociology from the University of California, Irvine.
He had big plans in the Big Easy—working with
homeless youths and starting an alternative newspaper. The
problem of teen homelessness was close to his heart:
He left home when he was only 14 to escape an
“intolerable” situation, and he became a
legally emancipated minor at 16. “New Orleans
was calling me,” he says. “Southern
hospitality is a real thing. They know how to treat people
warmly.” As the storm raged, Cardinale, a Point
Foundation scholar, stayed behind in the uptown
two-story home of friends to care for his three cats,
Beebosh, Annie, and Daphne. But neighborhood fires
forced him to leave. He endured a harrowing journey,
wading through polluted water to be picked up by the
U.S. Coast Guard and then dropped off in the dark in a
crime-ridden neighborhood. He waited hours for a bus
that never came. “I’ve become a tough
cookie over the years through a lot of crisis situations,
but this was really out of my league,” he says.
He finally made it to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where
he’s staying with the man who helped him achieve
his independence as a teen. But Cardinale won’t turn
his back on New Orleans. He’ll return, ready to
help homeless youths and publish his newspaper.
“The second they allow people to go back into the
city, I’m going to be there,” he says.
“I want to go back home.”