NBA All-Star game spotlights LGBT oasis in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The city hosting this year’s NBA All-Star game has long enjoyed a reputation as a welcoming place for the gay and lesbian community. New Orleans is home to one of the country’s oldest gay bars, the gay celebration Southern Decadence draws nearly 200,000 people yearly, and gay and lesbian authors flock here for the Saints and Sinners literary festival.

All of that acceptance will be on full display this weekend in a not-so-subtle statement about equality.

The city of Charlotte was supposed to host the All-Star game Sunday, but the NBA moved it to New Orleans when North Carolina passed “the bathroom bill,” which limits protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people. It also requires transgender people to use many public restrooms corresponding with the sex on their birth certificate.

Louisiana hasn’t passed laws similar to North Carolina. Gov. John Bel Edwards touted the state’s diversity while lobbying the NBA, saying bringing the game here would reaffirm the league’s “commitment to communities that value fairness and inclusion.”

Just last year, Edwards signed an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT state workers and contractors.

“We were able to recruit and bring the NBA here because of positive pro-equality work that the city and state have been doing,” said SarahJane Guidry, who heads the Forum for Equality, a Louisiana group advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

She said Edwards’ executive order went further than his Democratic predecessors by including transgender people (immediate predecessor Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal did not sign any such order). The order has since stalled in legal wrangling but Guidry still considers it important.

Activists also point out New Orleans passed an ordinance protecting the LGB community in 1991 and extended it in 1997 to the transgender community.

Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s President of Social Responsibility & Player Programs, said a variety of factors went into picking New Orleans. The issue of LGBT inclusion played a role as did the city’s ability to work under a tight deadline and track record of putting on big events; it hosted the All-Star game in 2014.

“It’s important for us to have our All-Star game in a city that’s welcoming to all of our participants and guests,” she said. She said the city and state “know how to manage and put on great big fun events and welcome everyone and treat everyone fairly and equally.”

Beyond the laws, the city has long had a status as a welcoming place for gay and lesbian people - Tennessee Williams, author of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” called New Orleans home for years.

“Any young gay man or girl from Texas to Oklahoma to all the way to Georgia, when they came out, would come here or if they got kicked out by their parents,” said Frank Perez, author “In Exile,” about the city’s LGBT community. “You either go to New York, San Francisco, Chicago or New Orleans.”

Perez credits part of the welcoming atmosphere to the city’s French settlers - “puritanical morality” never really took over here.

Mardi Gras - a holiday where people dress in elaborate costumes and mask their identities - also played a key role, said Wayne Phillips, author of an upcoming book about the history of gay Carnival in New Orleans.

The first gay krewe formed in 1958. They gathered yearly for their ball until a 1962 police raid ended with dozens of people arrested. Phillips said some hypothesize it was instigated by someone who didn’t get an invite.

But instead of being cowed, another gay Carnival group - Petronius - decided the key to survival was getting formal recognition like other krewes. So the group got a signed charter with the secretary of state.

Petronius is still in existence today, and its tactic was emulated by other gay krewes in the 1960s. Phillips said the krewes were essential to New Orleans becoming a center for sexual identity diversity in the South.

“They … provided a de-facto family, particularly in the early years - 1960s and 1970s - when many of these men moved to New Orleans, perhaps leaving their own family behind and finding a new family in New Orleans,” he said.

Not to say the city’s LGBT community hasn’t faced challenges. Perez describes raids on gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s and arson that killed 32 people at a club in 1973.

This year’s All-Star game-related activities feature a number of LGBT-friendly aspects. The Forum for Equality is hosting a reception with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans to help kick off the week’s events.

The host group putting on the game created an “inclusion committee” to reach out to LGBT businesses, said Jay Cicero, who heads the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which led the bid to get the game here.

And the NBA is partnering with organizations including Athlete Ally, which tries to end homophobia in sports, on a forum to educate area coaches on gender and sexuality issues.

Troy Glines, a gay man hanging out one evening outside Cafe Lafitte in Exile, a bar that has operated since 1933, said he’s a football fan and the NBA’s decision isn’t going to make him any more likely to watch basketball. But he praised the league for pulling the game from Charlotte.

“It was absolutely a good thing. Money, that’s where you can put a hurt on somebody,” he said.

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