It has been over a decade now since Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans. Today, much of the Big Easy has gotten its groove back. But the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, the largest of 17 wards of New Orleans, and predominately African American, has not. The demographic group that unfortunately has been, and continues to be, invisible in this story of recovery is its African American LGBTQ community.
While many of New Orleans’ gay bars and enclaves were not devastated by Katrina — disproving the conservative religious vitriol that the hurricane was finally God’s divine retribution for the city’s then-upcoming annual LGBTQ Southern Decadence festival — many of its African American LGBTQ communities are not patrons of its White gay bars, or residents in those communities.
Sadly, the hurricane exposed not only race and class fault lines, but so, too, the odious fault lines of heterosexism and faith-based privilege. LGBTQ evacuees and their families, many of whom are now internally displaced, faced all kinds of discrimination at the hands of many of the faith-based relief agencies due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.
With most of the evacuees being African American — and the fact that sexual orientation is on the “down low” in much of the African American community — many African American LGBTQ evacuees experienced discrimination from both their communities and Black faith-based institutions.
“The Superdome was no place to be an out Black gay couple,” Jeremiah Leblanc told me in 2005, who then moved to Shreveport, LA. “We got lots of stares and all kinds of looks. What were we thinking? But my partner and I were in a panic and didn’t know what to do when we had to leave our home.”
George W. Bush’s faith-based organizations fronted themselves as “armies of compassion” on his behalf. And with Black churches conducting a large part of the relief effort, African American LGBTQ evacuees and their families had neither a chance nor a prayer for assistance.
“When we were all forced to leave the dome, we were gathered like cattle into school buses,” said Leblanc. “[My partner] Le Paul and I both needed our meds, clothes, and a way to find permanent shelter after the storm, but we knew to stay the hell away from the Black churches offering help. We couldn’t tell anyone we were sick and HIV-positive. And when we got to Houston, we saw the Salvation Army, but Le Paul and I knew to stay the hell away from that, too.”
The Salvation Army delivered no salvation to a lot LGBTQ families. On its website, the Salvation Army states: “Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.”
With an administration that believed that restoring a spiritual foundation to American public life had less to do with government involvement and more to do with the participation of faith-based groups, Bush slashed needed government programs by calling on churches and faith-based agencies, at taxpayers’ expense, to provide essential social services that would also impact the lives and well-being of its LGBT citizens.
“Tragedy does not discriminate and neither should relief agencies,” stated Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, in a news release. “In our experience during the aftermath of September 11, LGBT people face compounded difficulties because on top of the disaster they face discrimination when it comes to recognizing their relationships, leading to even more hardship at the worst moment imaginable.”
Many of the LGBTQ families worried about being separated from each other, since Louisiana, at the time, did not recognize same-sex unions. Leblanc’s partner, who was in the last stages of full-blown AIDS, died two weeks after Katrina. Not legally married, Leblanc was not eligible for surviving-spouse Social Security benefits. Because he is gay, he is also not eligible for any of the faith-based relief assistance to help him get his life back in order.
I’ve been searching for Leblanc for several years, wondering if he had returned to New Orleans. The city still does not have good nor accurate records of its evacuees. Small and marginalized communities, however, keep oral records and memories of their denizens, and Leblanc and Le Paul, I was told, were known among its patrons of Club Fusions, a nationally renown African American gay and transgender nightclub. But now the nightclub is gone. It just recently and mysteriously went up in flames in the wee hours of August 31.
“To see our home like this; a lot of people called this home, where we feel comfortable, we can be ourselves here. A lot of people gotta hide being gay,” Lateasha Clark told the Times-Picayune. Clark has visited the club since she was 18, but didn’t give her age. “This bar has history, way long ago before Katrina and everything, so everyone knows about this spot, and the alternative lifestyle people.”
Captain Edwin Holmes of the New Orleans Fire Department told WVUE Fox 8 the building is a “total loss.” He reported, “the cause was not imitatively clear” and the fire was under investigation. I wished the same due diligence could be applied in finding LeBlanc, and recovering some of what the LGBTQ Black community of New Orleans lost a decade ago.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.