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Jan/Feb 2005 | Stepping Out in the Big Easy

Jan/Feb 2005 | Stepping Out in the Big Easy

With voodoo priestesses and culinary gods on nearly every corner, New Orleans is a fat slice of heaven on earth

Our thoughts and hearts go out to the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Please note that this Web article has not been updated since the storm, and many of the places mentioned below could be closed or damaged.

It was spelled out on the plywood-covered window at New Orleans's Corner Oyster Bar when Hurricane Ivan threatened the Gulf Coast last September: "We don't run from hurricanes. We drink them." Across town, local gay writer Jonno d'Addario was calmly digging in his heels: "I have a bottle of bourbon and a pack of cigarettes--I'm ready!" At the Ninth Circle, a gay bar on the outskirts of the French Quarter, owner Tony Langlinais nailed an orange life jacket onto his boarded-up window--just in case someone needed a floatation device. But in the end, whether due to intoxicated stubbornness, voodoo magic, or simple blind luck, Ivan largely spared the Crescent City, hitting shore about 175 miles to the east.

Two days later, however, the city's gays and lesbians were dealt a much greater blow: On September 18, Louisianans voted overwhelmingly to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The vote was closest, of course, in New Orleans, home to a long-established, politically active gay community and a generally open-minded populace. Last May a judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging a 1999 law that allows same-sex domestic partners of city employees to be included in family benefit plans. Red-state resisters can rest assured that 77% of New Orleanians voted for John Kerry, joining a string of royal blue counties that runs straight through the crimson South along the Mississippi River.

Yes, "the city that care forgot" is the biggest loophole in the Bible Belt, flush with year-round bacchanals characterized by an eagerness to push the seven deadly sins to the limit. Its harmonious blend of American, French, Creole, Cajun, Caribbean, Spanish, and African cultures engulfs the senses so completely that one forgets all about politics, gay or otherwise, upon the first whiff of andouille gumbo or the first belch of a brassy trumpet. Even its swampy geography is seductive: The city is set in a bowl five feet below sea level, and when its muggy summer air clashes with the freak cold front, as it did on my last visit in August, the resulting lightning crackles with a distinctly sinister vibe, as if the entire city were being cooked up under a powerful voodoo spell.

In Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, the vampire Louis calls New Orleans a "dream held intact?by a tenacious, though unconscious, collective will." From the menacing beauty of Rice's former home in the Garden District (she moved outside the city in December 2002 after the death of her husband) to the delectable moral laxity of show-it-all Bourbon Street to the mouthwatering crispy duck with ginger peach sauce at JoAnn Clevenger's Upperline restaurant, the fever dream that is New Orleans promises to be more tangible than most--you just have to decide when to go.

When to Go

The party is always on in New Orleans, but most gay and lesbian revelers concentrate their visit around Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday lands on February 8 in 2005) and Southern Decadence (August 31-September 5, 2005). The big gay epicenter of both events is in the Lower French Quarter at the corner of Bourbon and St. Anne streets, anchored by two nightclubs: the Bourbon Street Pub and Oz. Though public decency laws were tightened after a right-wing Christian preacher videotaped a few lewd acts at Southern Decadence in 2003, the anything-goes mentality persists. If you're looking for the more genteel side of New Orleans, go in late March to the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 30-April 3, 2005), a celebration featuring five days of panel discussions, theatrical performances, a one-act play competition, literary walking tours, and musical programs, all culminating in a Stella Shouting Contest, in which contestants vie to rival Stanley Kowalski's shout for "Stella-a-a!" in A Streetcar Named Desire. If you decide to brave the humidity in August, you can tap into the local art scene during White Linen Night, an annual art walk in the city's burgeoning arts district, with open galleries, local bands, and gastronomical delights. Swelter in style in your fabulous new white linen frock.


The Hotel Monaco

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

Located in a former Masonic Temple, the gay-welcoming Hotel Monaco (333 St. Charles Ave.; 504-561-0010; $94-$409) is just three blocks from the French Quarter. The modern-gothic building features 250 colorful rooms decorated with undertones of Creole, Cajun, and African cultures. The insanely cushy beds are draped with soft netting to keep the bugs out. Receive 10%-15% off reservations made through the Kimpton Hotels site (www.kimptonhotels.com/glbt). Tennessee Williams featured the historic Monteleone Hotel(214 Royal St.; 800-535-9595; $225-$275) in his play The Rose Tattoo. Williams frequently stayed at the Monteleone before he bought his mansion in the Quarter. But Williams isn't the only literary giant with a namesake room--other swanky suites are dedicated to William Faulkner and Truman Capote (who liked to tell the press that he was born in the hotel). Miss Celie's Olde Victorian Inn (914 N. Rampart St.; 800-725-2446; $135-$275) is a charming gay-owned property offering balconies, fireplaces, wireless Internet access, a gourmet breakfast, and full day-spa services. The proprietors also own VooBrew Coffee & Tea (830 N. Rampart St.; 504-324-6420), where you can get your coffee grounds read by a voodoo fortune teller.

Restaurants

Mark Twain once said, "New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." Well then, the assorted indulgences at the award-winning Upperline (1413 Upperline St.; 504-891-9822) are downright criminal. Overwhelmed with choices? Follow owner JoAnn Clevenger's advice (she stops by every table) and get the Taste of New Orleans, a sampler that includes Turtle Soup, Duck Etouff?e With Corn Cakes and Louisiana Pepper Jelly, and Andouille Gumbo. And that's just the first course! Enjoy Clevenger's wall-to-wall collection of New Orleans inspired art as you funnel in the last lip-smacking bite of Upperline pecan pie. Deep in the heart of the French Quarter, Muriel's (801 Chartres St.; 504-568-1885) dishes out spicy contemporary Louisiana cuisine in what was originally the private home of Jean Baptiste Destrehan, the French colonial treasurer of the navy. Start your next day with breakfast at Brennan's (417 Royal St.; 504-525-9713), where eye-openers include a Creole Bloody Mary or an Absinthe Suissesse followed by an array of appetizers like Oysters Rockefeller and Southern Baked Apple With Double Cream. And don't miss Brennan's most famous creation: Bananas Foster. The Brennan family also owns Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House (144 Bourbon St.; 504-522-0111), where you can find a prodigious selection of the best bourbon in town. Adjacent to the Hotel Monaco, Cobalt (333 St. Charles Ave.; 504-565-5595) offers contemporary Southern food and delicious martinis in a relaxed atmosphere.

Nightlife

Most bars in New Orleans never close. Café Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon St., 504-522-8397) is purportedly the oldest gay bar in America (though it had to move to a new location down the street when the original building was sold). It was one of Tennessee Williams's favorite watering holes. Vodka is $2 all day long on Sunday. Just a few more steps up Bourbon Street is Mardi Gras central: The biggest rival to the dance floor at Oz (800 Bourbon St.; 504.593.9491) is the balcony at Oz, where countless strings of Mardi Gras beads originate before landing on the necks of eager exhibitionists below. Hop across the street to the Bourbon Street Pub (801 Bourbon St.; 504-529-2107) for more dancing and go-go boy on bar action. Cowpokes (2240 St. Claude St.; 504-947-0505), New Orleans's only country-western bar, offers dancing classes.

Attractions

Catch a refurbished streetcar in front of the Hotel Monaco and head to the Garden District, where Anne Rice's former residence, the nine-bedroom Brevard-Clapp House (1239 First St.), circa 1857, still attracts die-hard Rice fans. The above ground Lafayette Cemetery (Sixth and Prytania streets) figures prominently in Rice's vampire saga. Back in the Quarter, touristy Café du Monde (800 Decatur St.), famous for beignets and caf? au lait, is where Michael Curry and Rowan Mayfair meet for dinner in Rice's The Witching Hour. Get a colorful dose of New Orleans gay history from Roberts Batson on his Gay Heritage Walking Tour, departing Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m. from gift shop Alternatives (909 Bourbon St.; 504-945-6789). Native son Truman Capote wrote his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, while living in an 1831-built apartment building at 711 Royal St. And Tennessee Williams lived in the Avart-Peretti House, an 1842 brick town house, while writing A Streetcar Named Desire. Start your stroll at dusk, just as the gas lamps begin to flicker--you can even grab a mint julep on the way (open container laws don't exist in the Big Easy)--then repeat after me: Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.


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