It has been over a decade now since Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans. Today, much of the Big Easy has gotten its groove back. But the predominantly-African-American Lower Ninth Ward, the largest of NOLA'S 17 wards, has not. And a demographic group that unfortunately has and continues to be invisible in this recovery story is NOLA's African-American LGBTQ community.
While many of NOLA’s gay bars and enclaves were not devastated by Katrina — disproving the conservative vitriol that the hurricane was God’s divine retribution for the city’s annual Southern Decadence gay festival — many of the city’s African-American LGBTQ residents don't patronize the predominantly white gay bars that populate the French Quarter. The black gays and lesbians of New Orleans were as affected by Katrina as all black people in the city were, i.e. severely.
Sadly, the hurricane exposed not only race and class fault lines, but so too the odious fault lines of heterosexism and faith-based privilege. LGBTQ evacuees and their families faced all kinds of discrimination at the hands of many of the faith-based relief agencies because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. With most of the evacuees being African-American, and the fact that being gay is on the “down low” in much of the African-American community, many black evacuees experienced discrimination from both their communities and black faith-based institutions.
“The Superdome was no place to be an out black couple,” Jeremiah Leblanc told me in 2005 (he later then moved in Shreveport). "We got lots of stares and all kinds of looks. What were we thinking? But my partner and I were in a panic and didn't know what to do when we had to leave our home."
George W. Bush’s faith-based organizations fronted themselves as "armies of compassion" on his behalf. And with black churches conducting a large part of the relief effort, African-American LGBTQ evacuees and their families had neither a chance nor a prayer for assistance.
"When we were all forced to leave the dome, we were gathered like cattle into school buses," Leblanc said. "[My partner] Le Paul and I both needed our meds, clothes, and a way to find permanent shelter after the storm, but we knew to stay the hell away from the black churches offering help. We couldn't tell anyone we were sick and HIV-positive. And when we got to Houston, we saw the Salvation Army, but Le Paul and I knew to stay the hell away from that too."
The Salvation Army delivered no salvation to a lot LGBTQ families. On its website, the Salvation Army states, "Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage."
With an administration that believed that restoring a spiritual foundation to American public life had less to do with government involvement and more to do with the participation of faith-based groups, Bush slashed needed government programs by calling on churches and faith-based agencies, at taxpayers' expense, to provide essential social services that would also impact the lives and well-being of its LGBT citizens.
"Tragedy does not discriminate and neither should relief agencies," stated Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, in a news release. "In our experience during the aftermath of Sept. 11, LGBT people face compounded difficulties because on top of the disaster they face discrimination when it comes to recognizing their relationships, leading to even more hardship at the worst moment imaginable.”
Many LGBTQ families worried about being separated from each other, since Louisiana at the time did not recognize same-sex unions.
Leblanc’s partner, who was in the last stages of AIDS, died two weeks after Katrina. Not legally married, Leblanc as a widower was not eligible for surviving-spouse Social Security benefits. And because he is gay, he was also not eligible for any of the faith-based relief assistance to help him get his life back in order.
For several years now I’ve been searching for Leblanc, wondering if he returned to New Orleans, but the city still does not have accurate records of its evacuees. Small and marginalized communities, however, keep oral records and memories of their denizens, and Leblanc and Le Paul, I was told, were known as patrons of Club Fusions, a nationally renowned African-American gay and transgender nightclub, known for its dancing, bounce, R&B music, and festive drag shows.
“To see our home like this, a lot of people called this home, where we feel comfortable, we can be ourselves here, a lot of people gotta hide being gay,” Lateasha Clark told New Orleans's Times-Picayune. Clark said she has visited the club since she was 18, but declined to give her age. “This bar has history, way long ago before Katrina and everything, so everyone knows about this spot, and the alternative lifestyle people.”
Captain Edwin Holmes of the New Orleans Fire Department told TV station WVUE the building is a “total loss.” He reported that “the cause was not imitatively clear” and the fire was under investigation.
I wished the same due diligence could be applied in finding LeBlanc.