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. 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."