Artist: Monica Kelly
Storyteller: Elizabeth Steeby
“Always the dance floor. Always the music.” And “always a lot of sexual energy.”
Juanita Pierre and her partner Leslie Martinez opened Les Pierres, the first Black lesbian owned bar in New Orleans, in the 1980s. Located on the corner of Pauger and Rampart Streets in the Marigny, their Saturday night crowd spilled out of the bar’s French doors and onto the street. Known for their drag queen and king shows, it was a place where “anyone was welcome.”
In some sense, this scene at Les Pierres was nothing new. Queers have paraded Rampart Street, found lovers in dark French Quarter bars, starred in gender-bending variety shows, and visibly defined the nightlife of the city since at least the 1920s. Queer women have long labored in the larger economy of sex and entertainment tourism here. Some bars they frequented were a part of the hustle economy and some were a relief from it: The Starlet Lounge, the Goldenrod Inn, Miss Kitty’s. Les Pierres was the kind of place locals went after their late shifts in the Quarter had ended. What was new about Les Pierres and this particular moment in lesbian bar culture was that, beginning in the 1950s with Dixie Fasnacht of Dixie’s Bar of Music, women now owned and operated these businesses for themselves. They joined the ranks of Brady’s, Charlene’s, Pinstripes and Lace, Rubyfruit Jungle—at least a dozen bars in total—that were women-run bars catering to lesbian patrons from the 1950s to the early 2000s in New Orleans.
“We did it for us,” Pierre firmly declares in her recent interview with “Last Call,” a podcast dedicated to the stories of people who experienced the thriving (and now non-existent) lesbian bar culture of that era. The stakes were high. Outside the doors of Les Pierres was a culture dedicated to profiting from these women while violently limiting their experiences, desires, and mobility, especially those who challenged gender and racial norms. But that culture was not simply outside the doors, safely at a distance.
A long history of police brutality and harassment in particular threatened what this community continually created together. The 1950s saw large-scale raids of bars frequented by gays and lesbians. In 1953, one lesbian bar in New Orleans was raided 78 times by the police. Women were frequently charged with lewd conduct, being improperly attired in men’s clothing, and having no visible means of employment. After arrest, their names and addresses were printed in the papers, and if they had jobs, they usually lost them.
By the 1960s popular white lesbian bars like Brady’s anticipated police surveillance and so limited dancing and touching in the bar, insisting on feminine attire for their clientele. Bar patrons and bar owners paid off police and the mafia in hopes of avoiding being targets of vice squads. Upon arrest, white women faced shame and stigma, while Black women faced time in state prisons. In the long glare of Jim Crow, gay and lesbian bars have been as segregated as the rest of social, political, and economic institutions of the city. Though often targets of state violence, white lesbian bars enforced the status quo as much as they challenged it.
When Les Pierres opened, they defied the past prohibitions on intimacy between women and the enforcement of gender norms. They created an erotic space of defiance for women of color. The energy of collective organizing was nurtured in spaces like Les Pierres. These bars were spaces of political incubation where radical visions and lifelong friendships were born.
And so in the dance, the music, the sexual energy of Les Pierres was a long legacy of electric resistance.