Ten years ago, a childhood friend came out to me. He was nearly sixty and still living in Laurel, Mississippi, the small town where we both grew up. He said he had been seeing the same woman now for 20 years, unable to come to terms with his sexuality. He had had plenty of sex with men, but had never had a date with one. Had never spent the entire night with one. Had never been sent flowers. Had never been kissed. It’s still the rent gay men pay for living in certain parts of the world. Sever your heart from your sexuality, lest you lend dignity to what is deemed as evil by Heaven’s bouncers.
My friend had been listening to the radio preachers and had come up with a solution, one that he was hoping would quell his inner demons. “Do you think,” he asked earnestly, “that castration would work?”
I told him he might want to begin with something a little less permanent. The first thing that came to my mind was a quick trip to New Orleans.
You see, when I was in college back in the seventies, there were two rivers that flowed into the Crescent City. One of course was the Mississippi. The other was that river of young gay men fleeing red-dirt, Bible-belted, ultra-conservative, football fanatic, sexually-fevered crossroad communities in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana. Refugees from their own families, friends, and faith.
Shy, hormonally frustrated, gender confused, sexually silent outcasts. Pariahs, lepers, misfits, and social cripples making their pilgrimage not to the healing waters of Lourdes, but to the sweet elixir that was Bourbon Street.
New Orleans has always been a beacon to us prodigal sons of the South. For many a Bible-bred gay Southerner, it was our last shot at salvation. Of course the radio preacher would say salvation is about giving up your life to gain your soul. But that assumes you have a life to trade in for a soul. We had run out of options for lives worth living.
The choices were only different flavors of death. Perhaps it was the gradual sexual suffocation in a straight-jacketed hetero-marriage.
Or maybe the neutered role of the sweet-as-can-be bachelor organist at the Cottolandia Baptist Church. Going home alone at night with the musty smell of the church basement mingling with the scent of the face powder, hugged-off the delicate old ladies who, “can’t understand why some girl hasn’t snatched you up yet.”
We emitted a desperate death-odor from a suffocating heart, confined to a cell constructed by those two dictatorial pronouns, unambiguously defined, intelligently designed, Biblically fundamental, biologically distinct—He and She.
New Orleans for us was a city of grace and glitter and most of all a myriad of sizzling options. Where the borders of rigid sexual maps melted like the mascara on a fevered drag queen’s sequined face.
New Orleans was a place where eyes, brimming with all the desire and longing of a football hero ogling the homecoming queen back home in Tupelo were now fixed upon us. These were not furtive glances shadowed by shame. They were lingering and liquid and straight-out audacious.
New Orleans was a place where your flesh was not leprous and detested, but desired and sought after and most of all worthy of human caress.
By the tens of thousands we drove and hitchhiked and bussed ourselves over that concrete span to paradise, the Lake Pontchartrain Expressway, with every mile the halo of the city growing more intense until at last, cresting the final incline, there lying below us, was the starry firmament of New Orleans. A shimmering bubble below sea level.
At the city gates, you gasped, and only then did you realize that your soul had been holding its breath since you were 9 or 10 or whenever it was you first knew. You dared to believe for the first time in a very long time. God, there is a life after Mississippi or Alabama or Arkansas, maybe one worth trading a soul in for.
As my friend and I approached the city on I-10, I wondered if the magic was still there. And if it was, would there be enough to save a sixty-year-old man.
We walked down Bourbon, past Iberville Street and its out-of-town gawkers; past Bienville and Conti Streets and the single-for-the-weekend businessmen; past St. Louis and Lafitte and the strip bars; past Orleans and the drunken fraternity boys.
By the time we approached the magical boundary of Bourbon and St. Ann, the straight crowd had thinned, and the nervous stragglers, sensing the instability of the gender-shifting tectonic plates beneath their feet, abruptly about-faced and hurried back to the safety of their herd.
But we continued our descent deeper and deeper into the Id of the Quarter, toward Dumain and St. Phillip. The air became thinner, the population gayer, society’s sharp edges began to blur, and the possibilities became legion.
The moment he entered his first-ever gay bar, with scores of men, short and tall, fat and thin, masculine and effeminate, young and old, stunningly studly, baby-doll pretty and hopelessly ordinary; laughing and preening and flirting and joking and debating, celebrating a thousand ways of being with one another without shame or apology, I knew then, my friend had turned a corner. I could see it in his eyes. It was the moment you realize that what you thought was your last best hope is only the opening bid at life’s gaming table, and the house just raised your limit high enough to cover your heart’s desire.
That’s what I want to tell my friend’s radio preacher. That perhaps the reason the French Quarter has survived hurricane, fire, flood, pirates, preachers, and Republicans is because it is indeed the holiest of ground. All the proof I need is to see my friend now, living with the man he adores, in a bigger, roomier world, with space enough for not only the love they have for each other but also for their God.
I want to tell his radio preacher, “You see, even when the churches lock their doors, and the preachers shut their eyes, God still finds a way to bring his children home. Sometimes by mysterious and wondrous routes.”
And one of them is to take Interstate 10 across the Pontchartrain Expressway, and let it gently lower you into the forgiving, generous arms of New Orleans.
Author of three novels, The View from Delphi (Macadam Cage 2004) The Healing, (Random House 2012) Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League (Maiden Lane Press 2015). Odell’s essays appear in various publications (Commonweal, The Bitter Southerner, etc) Raised in Mississippi, he presently lives in Minnesota with his husband.