Guest post by Amy L. Stone
This is not what I expected.
I’m standing on the streets of downtown Lafayette, a small city of about 120,000 people in Southern Louisiana in the heart of Acadiana, or Cajun country. I’m in the middle of a research project on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) visibility and incorporation into Mardi Gras throughout the Gulf South. I’ve intentionally avoided New Orleans and instead am looking at visibility and incorporation into Mardi Gras in smaller cities throughout the Gulf South like Mobile, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette.
At the moment, I’m mainly freezing, waiting outside in the March cold for a night parade to start. Along the barricades set up in downtown Lafayette are families with kids, senior citizens, young men and women. I’m standing between an older white couple and three drunk men with matted hair and flannel shirts. The parade begins late and includes a series of high school marching bands and parade floats organized by krewes, or private Mardi Gras societies. The parade floats are all double-decker floats with krewe members throwing beads, stuffed animals, and toys out to people along the route. At the end of the twenty-two floats comes the Mystick Krewe of Apollo de Lafayette, a racially inclusive gay men’s krewe that has run an annual Mardi Gras masque ball in Lafayette since 1976.
At first when I found out that Apollo was going to be at the end of the parade, I wondered if it signaled their marginalization within the parade, relegated to the back of the bus. Instead, as they turn the corner, I realize they are the grand finale. The crowd around me goes wild, the kids screaming and jumping up and down when they hear the music pounding off of Apollo’s float. Apollo floats include two floodlights searching the skies, and the head of the first float is Captain Apollo, the krewe ball captain decked out in LED-lit costuming from head to foot. The king and queen of Apollo are dressed in royal garb, sashes, and tiaras, with the queen done up in elegant drag. The krewe members on the float throw out beads of all colors, including specially colored rainbow beads. The last float of the parade has four distinct Pride flags, including one modeled after the American flag, draped off the end of it.
My first thought was “it’s a gay bar on a float.”
My second thought was “how is this happening in Lafayette?”
Earlier this week I had been reading about the ongoing issues with queer visibility in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, particularly concerns over explicitly queer symbols like Pride flags. Indeed, there’s a long history of animosity over queer inclusion in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and New York City. Yet here I am in Lafayette, where gay men’s visibility in the parade, including Pride flags and drag, seems to be relatively unproblematic. In fact, Apollo seems to have a more developed gay parading tradition than krewes in New Orleans, where no openly queer krewe parades. Throughout the Gulf South, krewes like Apollo are incorporated into Mardi Gras traditions and often celebrated as producing the best masque balls in town. At these balls, queer relationships, cross-dressing, creativity, and social relations are on display for thousands of ball attendees.
I become acutely aware that my puzzlement over why this parade is happening has a lot to do with my own assumptions about queer progress and geography. I assumed that clearly queer visibility in a city like Lafayette would be significantly less than in Boston or New York City, based on the lack of LGBT political rights in the city and understandings of Southern queer repression.
However, spending my sabbatical studying Mardi Gras in the Gulf South made me acutely aware of the assumptions that many scholars bring to research outside of the queer center. I think of the queer center as queer life in major cities like New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles or well-known queer havens like Key West. These cities are often studied as if there is something generalizable about queer life in them. I wonder if most LGBT scholars study the queer center because of their personal comfort level or because of assumptions that cities like Lafayette will some day in the distant future have the same LGBT tolerance, visibility, cultural forms, activism, legal rights, or public opinions that currently exist in, say, Chicago.
I sense a modernist teleological assumption in discussions about queer life in the South. I’ve had multiple people describe cities like Lafayette or Mobile as being “twenty years behind” the rest of the country, an understanding that is echoed in media reports on the South. This presumes that there’s some trajectory of queer acceptance that happens everywhere in the same way. It reminds me of a modernist division of countries into undeveloped, developing and developed nations, which assumes that developing nations will, of course, eventually become properly and fully developed.
These assumptions are corrected by the complex research on the queer South and on rural queer life. I’ve been thinking a lot about work by scholars like John Howard, E. Patrick Johnson, and Brock Thompson on gay and lesbian life in the South. In his book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, Johnson argues that queer life in the South is often “hidden in plain sight”, as unusual public spaces may be created for same-sex desire and culture. Scholars like Mary Gray and Emily Kazyak studying rural queer life also emphasize that rural cultural spaces are different. In her Gender &Society article on rural lesbians in the Midwest, Kazyak argues that rural spaces may be conducive to lesbian culture, particularly female masculinity.
I wonder if our analysis of queer visibility and acceptance needs to be refined even further to consider these smaller public spaces, the way queer visibility seems to be easily incorporated into a Mardi Gras parade in Lafayette yet is difficult to reconcile with the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston. That rather than a clear notion of queer progress, we understand the contingent, relational, and specific nature of queer visibility.