Frank Perez & Jeffrey Palmquist Perez, Frank and Jeffrey Palmquist.”In Exile The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar ”, 2012.
Everyone in New Orleans knows of Café Lafitte in Exile and I bet every gay man has heard of it. It is one of the oldest gay bars in the new world and certainly one of the most famous. There is an expression in New Orleans, “that’s when he lost his short pants” referring to when a boy becomes a man and many New Orleanians, myself included, lost their short pants at “Fifi’s”. I can remember walking the by bar before I had come out and accepted myself as gay and hearing someone inevitably remarking, “That’s a gay bar” and I remember the first time I went in—looking right and left before entering and making sure no one saw me. I was home at Lafitte’s as so many of us were and for me it is a place that holds many good memories. I often wondered why no one wrote a book about it and now someone has and it is quite a read. My eyes filled with tears several times as I read and I realize now what an important part of gay history, New Orleans history and my personal history, Lafitte’s is. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Lafitte’s is open and there is always someone there. One of my finest memories was coming back to New Orleans in 1989 after having been living in Israel for over 20 years and my first stop was Lafitte’s. It had not changed at all—sure the crowd was not the same but the bar looked exactly as I remembered it and eventually some familiar faces came in. Lafitte’s is every bit as important to gay history as is Stonewall but maybe not for the same reasons. Those of you who have been there on Mardi Gras before Southern Decadence replaced it as the major gay holiday know exactly what I mean. I met Tennessee Williams and Anthony Perkins and Raymond Massey there; I stood next to a United States congressman as he was being orally serviced one Christmas eve. It was and still is the place to start and end an evening in gay New Orleans and I suspect that it always will be.
This is a real look at gay New Orleans and the role that one bar has played and it is a wonderful read. Interestingly enough there has not been much written about gay New Orleans yet it is one of the places many think of when they think about gay life in America. The authors interviewed many gay men and women and were then able to give us this look at “The Queen City”. New Orleans culture and gay culture seem to go hand in hand and we are made aware of what it was like before we were so open and how it was to live a lie in some cases and to live in darkness in others. We get a look at what happened for New Orleans to leave the shadows and become an open and welcoming place for gays even to the point of hosting the biggest gay holiday of them all, “Southern Decadence”.
I was fascinated to learn that it was homophobia that led to the founding of Café Lafitte in Exile and how the bar became an integral part of gay life and has outlasted them all. The authors show insight and thoughtfulness in their writing and the book pulls us in on the first page and keeps us busy until we close the covers. Perhaps this book will cause other bars to do the same and we will eventually get a comprehensive history of gay America. New Orleans has always been a destination for gay people even though most of its history has not been known. Literarily speaking gay writers have come out of the city and there are also musicians, artists, and so on who are the result of having found themselves in the city. And I would be willing to bet that they all spent some time at Lafitte’s as it is referred to by locals. The authors here went to patrons of the bar to get the stories and as I read them I could not help but remember the times I spent there and you will see that if you have not been there you will surely want to go. Lafitte’s is representative of the charm of the city and vice versa.