Illustration by Paulo Campos
People think they know New Orleans. Whether they’ve been to the city or not, they have definite ideas about what the city is or isn’t. And if they have been there, the city is fixed in their minds as the way they experienced it: the parties at Mardi Gras, the hookups at Southern Decadence, the bucolic families at Papa Noel, the students flooding Uptown. But if the city of New Orleans had a gender, it’d be genderqueer. It’s a languid metropolis that’s always in flux, always in some state of transition.
I’ve been there nearly 60 times now, beginning with the 1984 World’s Fair, when I was 16 — a heady time for a girl coming into her own sexuality. There were also four stints living there, first in college (at Tulane, then later at Xavier), then after I was married. I returned out of love (for the city and the people) and left each time because a job opportunity called.
I haven’t lived there for 22 years now. But the city still courses through my veins. It calls to me in my dreams, my mind in that twilight between sleep and waking, sometimes racing down the potholed streets from Tchoupitoulas to Rampart, Carrollton to Elysian.
So, I jumped when I had the chance to fly in for two weeks last year — first to attend the U.S. Conference on AIDS and later for the LGBT Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. Like the majority of the other 9.28 million visitors in 2013, I went for a business-related function. The city boasts one of the busiest convention centers in the country, partly because even meeting planners and CEOs want to visit New Orleans.
I went with no expectations. I’m happily married, so there was no pressure to hook up; no kids meant no kid-centric stops needed; no NOLA virgin friends in tow needing to hit every museum, gallery, cemetery, and historical tourist spot (though I made it a point to visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which sadly lost most of its 10,000 fish in Hurricane Katrina but has rebounded well).
I did pack a secret with me: I hadn’t had sex in six months. Call it a dry spell, a slump, an embarrassment — but between the pressures of work, caring for an aging mom, finishing a memoir, and all the usual life stuff, the co-pilot and I hadn’t found time to knock boots in nearly half a year. Once you skip sex for more than 30 days, sexlessness becomes rote, a way of life, and your relationship to your body detaches. And as a woman entering middle age, body dysmorphia can easily settle in, too. After all that, a woman needs inspiration to kick the motorboat back in drive.
I couldn’t find that at home, but when I went to New Orleans, this time with little pressure, I ate and drank and cruised ghostly abodes, and suddenly I was Jenna Jamison in the sack.
Here’s what I did.
I ate, a lot. GW Fins, Oceana Grill, the super gay-friendly Mother’s Restaurant, Deanie’s Seafood, Antoine’s Restaurant (where I had my first baked Alaska and felt like a wealthy 1900s patron), Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, Atchafalaya (the city’s only 5-star restaurant), Café du Monde (at least once daily for beignets and café au lait).
I drank daily. But never to Mardi Gras-style excess. The city is one of the few in the U.S. that has no open container laws, so I walked around with a takeout cup of strawberry-peach daiquiri every day.
I slept well. I visited several hotels — including the Bourbon Orleans (the city’s haunted hotel), W New Orleans in the French Quarter, and the Hyatt Regency, an amazing all-in-one complex where you barely need to leave to experience the city. Regardless of whether my night started at 10 p.m. or 4 a.m., I could count on being able to return to each hotel for 10 hours of comfortable rest.
I walked through the city and rode the streetcars, drenched and frizzy-haired (damn the humidity!), open to all the sex and sin and love and history and beauty, from the strip club barkers on Bourbon Street to the lazy brown tide of the Mississippi River.
And I was open and inspired by the out sexuality all around me, not just when you cross the so-called Lavender Line at St. Ann Street. That leads to the more LGBT-centric part of the French Quarter (where you’ll find Bourbon Pub and Parade, Oz, and Café Lafitte in Exile, billed as the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the U.S.), but nowadays the whole Quarter feels queer– and trans-friendly.
I noticed more same-sex couples kissing than ever before. Several of them told me they were honeymooners. I watched lesbian and gay couples, obviously blended families, polyamorous sorts, and mixed transgender-cisgender couples all holding hands, canoodling (and sometimes more) out in the open.
As I walked Bourbon Street, the apex of sex trade in the city, I really watched for the first time the men and women outside the adult venues and strip clubs meant to entice you in. And I saw myself. Rather, I saw middle-aged women like myself, tarted up, yes, but au naturale as well. In Los Angeles, it’s hard to find ladies exposing real unaltered bodies: cellulite, dimples, wrinkles, sagging boobs, pale skin, visible cesarean section scars. But in New Orleans, realistic women were outside and inside the clubs, dancing along the requisite flawless 19-year-olds, garnering as much attention and adulation working acrobatics on the pole (routines so perfected over two decades that young men and women sat mesmerized), or twerking on the sidewalk with customers following them inside as though they were the Pied Piper of ass.
Some people see a middle-aged woman working a stripper pole and think it’s sad. I see something else: an empowered woman making choices to do sex work and a society that values and desires real women, real bodies without the airbrushing, Photoshopping, and pinkening you find in porn. I see myself, desirable with my flaws born from four decades of living, a sexual creature who can have even more orgasms than I did, with less baggage, at 20 or 30, as long as I slow down long enough for them to, um, come.
On that visit to New Orleans, I discovered a city that continues to transition, evolve, and reinvent — one eye on history, the other on the future. And that reminded me of my own transitions, my own past and future, and that like the city and its sex workers, aging doesn’t have to mean your glory is fading. And all that, or at least seeing myself reflected in the women of New Orleans, got me in the sack. A lot. By the end of the visit, my sex drought was over. The city, it seemed, worked way better than therapy.
Check our guide to where to eat, stay, and play in New Orleans>>>