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22 November 2020

Trans New Orleans: Part II - to the two fires of 1972-3

Part I: the early years to news of Christine Jorgensen

Part II: to the two fires of 1972-3

Part III: Activism and Legal Changes




1954

At Louisiana State University Perry Desmond found his first gay friends, but was expelled for being gay. He found a lover in Baton Rouge until his mother interfered. He then went to Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafeyette) and found another lover before being kicked out for doing so. In New Orleans he became a waiter and a prostitute, and as a kept boy started wearing female clothing full time, until his mother interfered.

1955

Charlotte McLeod, back from surgery in Copenhagen, took a gig in New Orleans, but found that the contract was with a strip club. “And right across the street was a very, well the nicest club on the street. No hard bumps and grinds and strips and all that kind of thing. And to get me out of the verbal contract the owner paid for me going to court. And the next thing I am sitting up in front of the judge. I never will forget, I had a great big felt cart wheel hat on. Couldn’t sit on the seat because the cart wheel hat hit the back and I had to take my hat off. I don’t know why I should remember that. In that day and time ladies wore their hats. And he released me from the contract and I went across to the Show Bar, which was the nicest club on the street.” A dancer-comedienne called Cupcake wrote material for Charlotte: “I’ve been to many places, environments strange, and then I went to Denmark, just for a little change”.

Charlotte met Christine Jorgensen when they were both appearing in New Orleans. 

Stormé DeLarverie, New Orleans born, became the sole male impersonator in the Jewel Box Revue. After starting with the show he began to dress in men's clothing offstage too.

Impersonator Harvey Lee performed at Club My-O-My.


Queer Music Heritage


NOPD Superintendent declares homosexuals to be “Number 1 vice problem”.

1956

Bobby Marchan was employed by Ace Records’ Johnny Vincent who did not realize that Bobby was not a woman until told two days later.

Leynon, from Mexico was a star at the My-O-My Club on Lake Ponchatrain. When Perry Desmond was hired for a first chance as a performer at New Orleans’ My-O-My Club in 1956, Leynon stepped in to help Desmond with make-up and costume.

Desmond records that Leynon was viciously murdered in a transphobic hate crime in Mexico a few years later. 

Perry Desmond was recruited for the Jewel Box Review because his size allowed him to take over the costumes of one who had left. He quit the Revue when his father was in hospital. After that he opened a beauty salon, but then performed in various drag clubs.

1958

The first gay 'krewe' – of the krewes that put on the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations –the Yuga Krewe, was founded. The first two Yuga Balls – a mixture of a drag show and a bal masque - were held in a private house on Carrollton Avenue, but the neighbors had become irate. They did not join the Mardi Gars parade.

Candy Lee had started a career as a female impersonator at the Club My-O-My on Lake Pontchartrain. She also worked as a bartender at Bacino’s bar, and was an acquaintance of playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote a one-act play, And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens in 1958, which is said to be inspired by the life of Candy. The play’s protagonist, an interior decorator who sometimes cross-dresses, is called Candy, and is about to turn 35. Her older lover who set her up in business has left her for a younger man. Candy picks up a sailor, Karl, in a gay bar. She spends money on him, and he then beats her up and steals more. This was the first play by Williams with explicit gay characters, and was never performed during his lifetime.

Candy was also one of the founder members of the Yuga Krewe. However she did not get on with the other members, and by the early 1960s had been banned from the balls. The word is that she called the police on the 1962 Fifth Yuga Ball.

An agent in New York named Perry Desmond ‘The South’s Most Beautiful Boy’. In 1958 he and 142 others were arrested at a big costume ball at the Manhattan Center in New York. At the same time he came down with jaundice.

New Orleans city council created a “Committee on the Problem of Sex Deviates”.

Section 5-66, ccs 18, 537 was added to city ordinances. “No person of lewd, immoral, or dissolute character, sexual pervert … shall be employed” in bars or restaurants. This ordinance was not repealed until 1993.

The manager and staff (one of whom was Candy lee) of Tony Bacino’s, a gay bar, were arrested six times, the charge each time reading “Person of lewd character employed as bartender”. They applied for and were awarded an injunction and temporary restraining order, but ultimately lost the case.

Three students at New Orleans’ Tulane University decided to” roll a queer”. At 1:30 am one of them picked up a man in the Café Lafitte in Exile. He got him into an alley, where he and the two others beat the man so badly that he died 12 hours later. An autopsy revealed that the victim had an unusually thin cranium. During their murder trial the three students argued that his thin cranium was why he died, not their beating. The all-white, all-male jury quickly acquitted them to courtroom applause. They were also charged with robbery and got six-months suspended. 

1960

The third Yuga Ball in 1960 was held in a jazz club, Mama Lou’s on Lake Pontchartrain, reached by a wooden walkway that proved quite difficult for those who came in high heels. William Wooley was the head window dresser at a department store on Canal St. He and his team simply borrowed stock for the Yuga ball.

Smith p107

One day on the street Perry Desmond met an old friend who was close to completing transition, and demanded the name of her doctor. Perry then started on hormone injections from “Dr Ritter” in New York (probably Dr Benito Rish) , and started electrolysis. She also bleached her hair. She had a nose job and silicone injections. Once she had breasts she passed easily as a woman, and went back to a mix of hooking and running a beauty salon. She gave that up to be a kept woman, but after a year of two-timing her husband, left him for the other man, Wayne.

New Orleans chapter of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis founded.

1961

The Krewe of Petronius legally registered as a Mardi Gras krewe. It received a charter from the state to stage a Mardi Gras ball. The krewe also hired a police detail for protection, thus making it safe from a raid or other harassment.

1962

The fourth and fifth Yuga Balls were held in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie in a school that had a large dance studio, and was surrounded by a wooded area close to the lake. The second gay krewe, that of Petronius, held its first ball in 1962 at the same location.

However the Yuga Ball a week later was raided by the Parish Police. Some managed to flee, but many were arrested in what the police dubbed a ‘lewd stag party’. Those arrested had their names printed in the newspapers and thus most lost their jobs.

Newly elected and sexually flexible District Attorney Jim Garrison made headlines with a series of vice raids in the French Quarter.

1963

Soon-to-be-assassination-patsy Lee Harvey Oswald returned to his birth city. He approached Jules Weiss of the gay Armeinius Krewe who was also known as Lovely Rita. Weiss let him stay in his spare room for several weeks before he moved on to Dallas. Oswald noted this kindness in his diary, and a decade later Weiss was charged with conspiracy to kill President Kennedy and fencing stolen goods.

John Rechy published his accounts of male hustling in New Orleans and elsewhere. He had seemingly been unaffected by Garrison’s vice raids.

After surgery in New York and at Johns Hopkins, Reed Erickson legally transitioned – a legal precedent in Louisiana. He married his first wife shortly afterwards.

  • John Rechy. City of Night. Grove Press, 1963.

1964

Tony Barreto-Neto ran off to New Orleans where, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a lesbian, he did a degree at Louisiana State University Medical Center while being openly gay, dropped out of graduate school, ran a gay disco, played drums in several bands, especially Original Bleus, became active on lesbian issues, was the first female co-chair of the Louisiana Gay Political Action Coalition (LAGPAC)

1965

Delisa Newton , nurse, jazz vocalist, had surgery and was billed in the press as ‘The First Negro Sex Change’.

Mid-1960s

A few of the bars in the French Quarter offered drag performances, but it was strictly enforced that performers had to arrive dressed as men, and likewise to leave.

The balls of the gay krewes were popular despite police harassment. They had problems finding places for the balls to be held. Some of the few organizations willing to rent to them were the African-American labor unions, especially the Longshoremen’s Association.

1966

Richard Ekins, the English future sociologist of transgender, and jazz musician, on his first visit to New Orleans encountered Joseph 'Kid Twat' Butler, bass player with the Kid Thomas Band, who had never seen such a tall, long-haired and heavily-bearded man, and bowed down proclaiming: “Here come de Lord!". The moniker stuck. Lord Richard set up his own record label, La Croix Records, and released seven LPs by both British and New Orleans musicians. The famous Kid Thomas Band recorded live in 1968 at Kohlman’s Tavern in New Orleans was one of his projects.

State v. Young et al (1966); the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously held that cunnilingus between lesbian partners was also criminal.

1967

Originally from New Orleans, Lady Java had been working in Los Angeles for two years, and was then performing and waiting at the Redd Foxx Club. She was billed as "The Prettiest Man on Earth”.

Eddie Dame, the future Barbara de Lamere, had lost his New York boyfriend to a heterosexual marriage. After the wedding, Eddie went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and bought a full set of female clothing. Back in New York Eddie started going out en femme. Barbara completed transition by 1982.

Prominent gay businessman Clay Shaw was charged by Jim Garrison with conspiring to bring about the JFK assassination. New Orleans gay persons saw this as homophobic persecution.

1968

Perry Desmond’s father died, and she bought male clothing to attend his funeral. She opened a new beauty salon in a haunted ante-bellum house in New Orleans, and then became a self-taught astrologer, and did lots of drugs. Her business evolved into an occult shop called The Age of Aquarius. She had her fortune read two or three times every day and constantly recalculated her horoscope.

1969

Alice Stevenson reportedly first NO trans woman to achieve completion surgery. (Approximate year.)

Clay Shaw reads about his trial

The trial of Clay Shaw started during Mardi Gras. A not guilty verdict was returned by a jury that took less than one hour to decide.

1970

Gay Liberation Front local chapter founded. Although the group fell apart by mid-1971, in that brief span it had produced the first gay public action, a demonstration at City Hall protesting police harassment. It also published the first gay-identified publication, a newsletter entitled Sunflower, and presented the first Stonewall commemoration, a June 1971 "Gay-In" in City Park.

1971

Joseph Cluse from Lafayette, Louisiana, moved to New Orleans, became Joanna, performed in a nightclub and did sex work. She also did lots of drugs and drink.

New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church founded.

It is said that Bubbles Rose Lee of New York’s Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was extradited to Louisiana on serious criminal charges – although there is no record of a trial.

1972

Club My-O-My destroyed by fire. It relocated to the French Quarter for a short wile, before closing permanently.

First Southern Decadence. At first a private party, it has grown into one of the city's most important gay events. Guests at the original party were invited to come as their favorite Southern decadent character, real or fictional. This was repeated and became the huge annual Labor Day extravaganza called Southern Decadence, which rivals Mardi Gras in terms of the number of gay tourists it attracts. Costumes and cross-dressing are part of the celebrations.

1973

24 June. An arson attack at the Up Stairs Lounge, 141 Chartres Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The prime suspect is a gay man who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the day. He was never charged and killed himself 17 months later. 29 died, and another 18 were injured, of whom three later died. 

Among the dead was Reginald Adams, an Afro-American from Dallas who had been studying at Loyola University in New Orleans, initially with the aim of becoming a Jesuit priest. At the Up Stairs lounge he had met a young performer, who did drag acts, and was trying out some feminine personae. They became a couple, Regina and Reginald, one of the few inter-racial gay couples in New Orleans at that time. They were both at the Up Stairs social on the fatal night. They realized that they did not have enough money for a dinner arrangement afterwards, and, having finished her drink, it was Regina who went home to get some, and also a borrowed hat to be returned. On return she saw the building aflame.

Marcy Marcel was a regular performer at the Upstairs, but she was fortunate in that she arrived late after watching Bette Davies in Jezebel on television.

Another survivor was Adrian St Clair, a drag performer who went on to be the repeated winner of the Miss Drag Universe Pageant.

The horror of the Upstairs fire was compounded by the undisguised homophobia of the time. Some churches refused to allow funerals for the victims, and some parents refused to claim the bodies of their children for burial. The tragedy, however, did motivate a handful of activists who launched another publication, Causeway, and established a Gay Crisis Phone Line.

Marsha Delain met Rip Naquin on a trip to New Orleans. They soon moved in with each other in Baton Rouge. They started two gay publications that ultimately failed. Their third attempt was Ambush Magazine. Originally it covered Baton Rouge and north Louisiana.

-------------------

The following were consulted:

  •  James T Sears. Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South. Rutgers University Press, 2001.
  • Roberts Batson. “New Orleans”. GLBTQ, 2004.
  • Albert J Carey. “New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewes”. GLBTQ, 2004.
  • Scott S Ellis. Madame Vieux Carré. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
  • Jelisa Thompson. You make Me Feel: A Study of the Gay Rights Movement in New Orleans. BA Thesis. The University of Southern Mississippi, 2011.
  • Frank Perez & Jeffrey Palmquist. In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar. LL Publications, 2012.
  • Frank Perez. ““My O My! The Most Interesting Women Are Not Women At All!”. Ambush Magazine, March 5-18, 2013: 12. Online.
  • Frank Perez. “Killer Tricks”. Ambush Magazine, September 24 – October 7, 2013. Online.
  • Clayton Delery-Edwards. The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973. McFarland Publishing, 2014.
  • Howard Philips Smith. Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans. University Press of Mississippi, 2017. 
  • Robert W Fieselar.  Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. Liveright, 2018. 
  • Ryan Pretcher. Gay New Orleans: A History. PhD Thesis. Georgia State University, 2017. 

Trans Legends on New Orleans      History of Drag Culture in New Orleans     

LGBT+ Archives of Louisiana        QueerMusicHeritage(Club My-O-My) 

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