Monday, March 19, 2007

How New Orleans Shaped Me And My Views About Others

This is a middle of the night post. I spent all of St. Patrick's Day boozing it up, being a stereotypical Irish woman. Well, I'm not exactly all that stereotypical, am I? I mean, when most people think of Irishmen, they don't think of anyone who looks like me. It was this fact that got me to thinking about a lot of stuff. I started writing this last night but I couldn't finish it then. I decided to gather my thoughts a bit more and I spent the day doing that. Tonight I decided to separate what I wrote into multiple posts so that it made a bit more sense.

Growing up in New Orleans, there was never a time where I can remember being unaware of cultural diversity. I was very lucky to be in a place where people were (better) able to live as they pleased without facing nearly as much discrimination as there is in other places. It wasn't until I was an adult and got to travel to other parts of the USA that I found out just how rare a place New Orleans really is.

The city's long history of being so diverse (due to the successive periods of ownership by several different nations) made it a magnet for those whose lives have taken them on "the road less traveled". Partially because it was so cut off from much of the rest of the country for so long, many people came here seeking refuge. As any New Orleanian can tell you, it is a place of secrets. It's a place where privacy was well respected, or at least rarely was it publicly violated. That provided a very nourishing environment for corrupt politicians but it also allowed those who would never have survived in other places to make a life for themselves and easily find others who shared their proclivities. Some may disagree with this trade-off but New Orleanians long ago decided that they preferred putting up with the public corruption if it meant retaining their personal privacy.

Inter-racial couples were probably among the first groups to take advantage of this in significant numbers. Slavery did exist but it was the most lenient variety of slavery in the entire region. Alongside the black slaves and white slaveholder class, there were also the gen de coleur libre (free people of color). Some of them were former slaves who had purchased their freedom and others were freed by their owners as a reward for some service. Some slave owners freed their lovers and the children they produced through these unions. While many slavers were certainly guilty of raping people of color, this does not entirely explain the whole picture. Other relationships were much more nuanced. There were some men in the slaveholder class who chose to have life long inter-racial relationships with a single partner. Many remained in New Orleans where they could enjoy freedom that would be unavailable to them anywhere else in the south. These relationships flourished over time to such an extent that eventually the number of multi-racial individuals made up a fairly large portion of the New Orleanian population and still does to this day.

Gay people have also benefited from the laissez faire attitude in New Orleans. Many people know about the infamous Storyville district where prostitution was legal and quite popular but far fewer are familiar with the multiple gay-friendly communities scattered throughout old New Orleans. Many famous gay writers, actors, and musicians were born in or migrated to New Orleans where they could live and thrive in peace. It's no wonder that this was such a mecca for the arts back in the early twentieth century.

As far back as I can remember, there has also been a vibrant transgender community. I went to school with transgendered kids in high school. I had friends who were transgendered. And there were always transgendered people within the African-American community here. In fact, they were a part of every community here. I guess that's why I didn't know that there was supposedly some adversarial relationship between gay and transgendered people until I encountered it on the web. Down here, the two have always co-existed in the same spaces which makes sense seeing as there are so many people who were both gay and transgendered. All of the places that were frequented by either group were frequented by both groups.

I remember being young and trying to understand who I was and then figuring out how I could become comfortable with who I was and then trying to decide how I could develop this person that I was trying to enjoy being. It was this city, where people of color, gay, and transgendered people of all income brackets intersected as so many points, that made it possible for me to work all of this out despite living in a family where homophobic, snobbish, right-wing, fundamentalist religion was inescapable until I became an adult and got the opportunity to decide which one I would let influence me the most.

I chose New Orleans.


belledame222 said...

great post.

yeah, i'm always jolted a bit when I leave NYC, especially my neighborhood, and spend time in, say, the suburb I grew up in. or most non-urban places, really...

i'd love to see NO one day though, it's clearly special.

Natalie said...

Isn't it strange how things change when you leave the place where acceptance is simply the rule. You were lucky to have it be a city, many of us have to keep it in the home.