In The Land Of Exiles: Finding Community In New Orleans’ Oldest Gay Bar

There’s no sadness that a gay bar can’t cure.

I hadn’t expected to see a football game televised in a gay bar. Yet there it was, the Thanksgiving showdown between the New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills, blasting on the screen above the bar at Lafitte in Exile. In my experience — admittedly, mostly limited to Boston’s Club Cafe — gay bars played Anderson Cooper on CNN, followed by music videos, if they broadcast anything at all. 

But football? In a gay bar? No way. I looked around for a quick exit, fearing I’d stumbled into a straight bar by mistake. Then I caught sight of the rainbow flag, and a series of framed plaques lining the interior walls, each defining “Queer” in creative and empowering ways. Queer: Out. Queer: Phenomenal. 

I settled into a seat at the bar and ordered an Aperol spritz, reassured I’d come to the right place. 

Lafitte in Exile, in New Orleans’ French Quarter, is the oldest continuously operating gay bar in New Orleans, and a must-stop for LBGTQ+ tourists looking for the famed city’s gay scene. But I’d come early in the night and the place was quiet. A few couples, all men, sat scattered around the triangular bar, drinking from plastic cups (necessary for a city where you can take beverages to go, and drink openly on the streets). The game was in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, with the Bills in a commanding lead. Not good for the hometown audience. 

I’d come to New Orleans as a sort of stowaway: my wife’s friend had an extra ticket to the game, and had invited her down for the Thanksgiving weekend. I’d never been to New Orleans, and so I’d tagged along. I’d already made myself something of a headache for them, since my wife had spent hours on the phone trying to find a restaurant that not only still had seats available on Thanksgiving, but which also provided vegetarian options (“You can be thankful I’m not vegan,” I’d told her. She hadn’t been amused.) And we had no way of scrounging up another ticket to the game — for which I was eternally thankful, since I had no desire to cram myself into a crowd of drunken, cheerful football fans. Still, with half of the city, including my wife, at the Superdome, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out. While not exactly a third wheel, I wasn’t part of the bike, either. 

I had other reasons for needing some cheering up. I’d spent my solo night on a New Orleans ghost tour — I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do enjoy good ghost stories. And the French Quarter, with its colonial mansions, eerie gas lanterns and quiet, moody back streets, is the place to go for a good ghost tour. Guides gleefully embellish tales of the distraught hurling themselves from galleries, of teenage suitors disemboweled on hooks as they snuck from lover’s second-story bedroom windows, of Civil War doctors who roam the halls of hospitals-turned hotels, looking for limbs to lop off. And our guide, Brie — who’d come adorned in a sparkling black shirt that sprinkled glitter everywhere — did not disappoint. Linger too long under a gallery and you might feel cool, wet drops of blood tickle your neck.

All was good, albeit sick fun, until the tour ended and I was alone on the backstreets of the French Quarter. A few oil lamps glowed orange under the galleries. Now closed, the colonial facades of restaurants and knick-knack shops looked like dwellings out of a ghost town, ready for the bayous to swallow up. It was easy to understand how someone could imagine a shadow cast by an oil lamp to be a shimmering apparition, or mistake a distant whoop from the bars on Bourbon Street as a ghostly shriek. 

So there I was in the empty Lafitte in Exile, something of an exile myself: a vegetarian in the carnivorous Big Easy, a non-football fan in town for Thanksgiving’s big game, a skeptic spooked by a ghost tour. Jean Lafitte, famed New Orleans privateer, allegedly owned the blacksmith’s shop that was later converted into the original Lafitte’s bar; it was rechristened “in exile” after the owner had been forced to relocate. It’s played host to famous patrons like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, and even allegedly has its own ghost: Mr Bubbly, who gets a thrill out of pinching patrons’ behinds. 

But even a friendly pinch from Mr. Bubbly (had I been his type) wouldn’t have made me feel like I actually fit in at Lafitte. When I’m traveling, which I often do alone, I always head into the local gay bar expecting it to be a sort of queer community center, where strangers will greet you with easy conversation, letting you know you inherently belong. But in my experience, going to both gay and lesbian bars when I’m solo usually reminds me of my own loneliness. I’m often too shy to spark conversation and most of the patrons I’m surrounded by have come in fortified by their own friend circle, which they have no interest in expanding. 

So I did what any shy introvert in a bar alone would do: I pulled out my journal. 

I’d gotten halfway through some scribble about the ghost tour when a voice asked, “I’m sorry, but can I interrupt you for a moment?”

The voice belonged to a balding, middle-aged man with a light-colored beard and warm, soft face. He was seated two bar stools from me, next to a silent man of similar appearance whose attention was focused on what looked like a gin and tonic. 

“Of course!” I said, surprised by just how not annoyed I was with the interruption. 

“I’m so glad,” the man said with obvious relief. “I journal, too, so I don’t want to interrupt you in the middle of a very important thought.” 

I assured him that no very important thought was forthcoming. He introduced himself as Ricky*. The silent man with the G&T he introduced as his husband, Tom*. They’d driven down from Houston, Ricky explained. Tom’s family lived forty minutes outside New Orleans. “We came down for the holiday but it was so awkward. They know we’re married but we can’t talk about it, or anything gay for that matter. So we made our appearance at dinner and now we’re here.”

He was friendly, easy to talk to. He was from a small town in Missouri. “And when I say small town, I mean small town. Tom thinks he’s from a small town — and he is — but I’m like, ‘Uh-uh.’ Not like the town where I’m from. Where I’m from, the first day of hunting season is a holiday. I’m serious. We had the day off from school and everything.”

No surprise, then, that young, queer Ricky wasn’t exactly at home in this town. He wasn’t out, even to himself, but those around him still knew. The teasing was merciless. And, like so many young, queer persons, he got out as soon as he could. 

“That’s when I started coming here,” he said, of New Orleans. “And it was like my eureka moment. I was like, ‘This is where I belonged!’” 

“I used to come here every weekend when I came out,” Tom said, breaking his silence. He pointed at the patio door which opened onto the street, where a few of the bar-goers had gathered and were now sipping cocktails from plastic cups. “Right over there. I spent every weekend right there, watching the world go by.”

“Things were so different then,” said Ricky. “Things were so exciting. Going into a dark, smelly bar — and it did smell, like pencil lead, if you know what I mean — and winding your way into some dark corner to meet a stranger. There was something so thrilling about that.” 

“It was rebellious,” said Tom. “It felt good to be rebellious.” 

For two queer boys growing up in the South, I could only imagine how good being rebellious — which, when you’re gay, means being yourself — could actually be. To come from a small town to New Orleans, with its anything goes attitude and gay bars galore, would be akin to waking in a dream. It’s the city of Mardi Gras, Southern Decadence — the end-of-summer queer party blast that makes Pride look like a ladies’ tea —  and the Lavender Line of gay bars along Bourbon Street, which includes Lafitte in Exile. 

And, from how Ricky narrated the scene, his own formative years were filled with all sorts of gay decadence. “You’d walk in and there’d be a circle of men standing around a table. You’d have to play ‘Marco Polo’ with your friends just to make sure you weren’t sucking each other’s dicks. But we needed those spaces for that, you know? Where else could you go?”

A bar might have been a step up from the empty freight trucks along the Hudson that had been popular cruising spots in the pre-Stonewall days, but still he was right: where else could you go? Bars offered a safe haven for many – although not all – of the exiles who didn’t quite fit anywhere else. 

But perhaps what struck me most about Ricky’s narrative was how different my own experience had been. I’d come out in my mid-20s, the height of the Bush era, when America was on a conservative trend and many states, including my homeground, Ohio, were instituting bans on same-sex marriage. I was also, however, fortunate enough to be part of communities that were trending in the other direction. I came out in a Midwestern college town where I was surrounded by plenty of queer friends and allies (not to mention both a gay and lesbian bar). I then moved to the Boston area, where I found a socially active group of queer women who could be out and open without fear. I was financially independent, without fear that I’d lose my job for being gay. I also didn’t have to fear that my family would disown me. 

I realize just how lucky I am to have had this experience. Had I come out a few years earlier or, earlier still, when I’d been in high school, I’ve no doubts things would have been very different. But I was fortunate. I didn’t have to be a queer in exile. Not then, and not now. 

After about an hour, I said goodbye to my new friends and walked back through the streets of the French Quarter, still largely empty but not at all sinister, to the hotel downtown. There’s no sadness that going to a gay bar can’t cure. 

I had grand plans to try another gay bar the following night – perhaps Good Friends in the Quarter, which Ricky recommended, or Page in Treme, a short walk from our hotel. But my wife, her friend, and I were tired and didn’t feel like going out. Instead, we went for a round of drinks at the hotel bar where we spent the rest of the night playing pool and where I didn’t have to be afraid to hold my wife’s hand.

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