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New Orleans  
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One of America's most colorful cities, New Orleans boasts a rich tradition for glbtq people. It is both a popular travel destination for gay men and lesbians and the home of a diverse glbtq community.

The iconic American melting pot did not melt in New Orleans. Instead of cooking down its ethnic ingredients into a bland Americana soup, the component cultures--French, Spanish, African, Native American, and, later, Irish, Italian, Croatian, and Vietnamese, among others--resisted homogenization but did interact to cook up a spicy gumbo that retained the flavorful individuality of each one.

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The Early Years

As early as the sixteenth century, French and Spanish explorers in the Mississippi River Valley noted the presence of berdaches (or "two-spirits") among the native people of the area. They were shocked that men would willingly assume the "demeaning" manner of women and do women's work, and they were astonished that these odd people were held in high regard by their tribes.

Somewhat later, in a 1751 report in which he judged Native Americans by dominant European values, Jean Bernard Bossu said of the Choctaw, "They are morally quite perverted, and most of them are addicted to ."

French settlement along the central Gulf Coast began in the late 1600s. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, Napoleon got it back in 1800, and it became American in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.

Originally dominated by the descendants of French and Spanish settlers, known as Creoles, the city's population also included a large contingent of slaves and a considerable number of free people of color. The descendants of the latter, who were often tied by blood and other relationships to the dominant white community, also identified themselves as Creoles.

Accounts of same-sex relationships during the colonial period are rare and are discerned mostly through inference. This reticence is understandable, as both church and state abhorred homosexual acts as the crime not to be spoken of by Christians.

After the Louisiana Purchase, the Territorial Convention of 1805 imposed the harsh sodomy statute the Americans had written for Mississippi. The first Louisiana Criminal Code prescribed a mandatory life sentence for indulging in "the abominable and detestable crime against nature." Later, the penalty was reduced to ten years in prison; and, later still, to five years.

The Raunchy Nineteenth Century

From the time steamboats arrived in 1812, New Orleans grew rapidly, its population bolstered by an influx of settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee and other parts of the United States. As a major port city, it possessed significant military and commercial importance, becoming the economic center of the enormous cotton and sugar industries.

New Orleans soon acquired a reputation as "The City that Care Forgot." When Walt Whitman arrived in the city in 1848 he was a modest Quaker who had dismissed bars as "places of vapid, irrational un-amusement." That attitude changed quickly. Soon he was writing a series of newspaper columns set in "our first-rate tip-top" saloons.

Scholars have noted that Whitman's New Orleans experience "had an important impact on his conception of male love" as reflected in his poems. In "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City," a poem about New Orleans, he wrote "I remember only the man who wandered with me, there, for love of me." In "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," he exulted that the "rude, unbending, lusty" tree made him "think of manly love."

New Orleans suffered greatly during the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, but the fact that economic stagnation persisted for almost a century afterwards meant that a great deal of its ante bellum architecture was not demolished in modernization efforts. As a result, New Orleans today has the largest inventory of nineteenth-century buildings in the United States.

Throughout its history, a vibrant same-sex social world flourished underground in the sensual city. In the late nineteenth century, one of the most colorful brothel owners, Fanny Sweet, was described as "Thief, lesbian, Confederate spy, poisoner and procurer." About that same time, a burly male madam known as Miss Big Nelly reportedly ran a house for male homosexuals, which was the scene of "large scale, noisy interracial functions."

Jazz, perhaps New Orleans's most significant cultural creation, flourished in late nineteenth-century bordellos. It was shaped importantly by Tony Jackson, the preeminent founding pianist and composer of this scandalous new music. After his death at age 44, he was remembered as "an epileptic, alcoholic, homosexual Negro genius," the most brilliant musician of the lot.

Jackson's hit song "Pretty Baby" was written about another man. Composed in a Bienville Street saloon in the early years of the twentieth century, it was not published until 1916, and then with new lyrics tailored for Fanny Brice to perform in the Broadway musical, Passing Show.

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Reveler Joel Haas in costume for Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 2004.
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