A Book Launch at Cafe' Lafitte in Exile, And Why It Matters
In a little less than a week, on November 16, 2017, Out for Queer Blood will have its official book launch at a gay bar in New Orleans called Café Lafitte in Exile. It is a not just a convenient venue; it is a significant one, because it is the bar where Fernando Rios met the man who would take his life.
The business used to be named simply Café Lafitte, and used to be a block further down Bourbon in an old Creole cottage. It opened shortly after Prohibition ended, and, somewhat unusually for the post-Prohibition period, it had a mixed gay and straight clientele. It operated that way for more than fifteen years, until the building changed hands and the new owner objected to the tenant. It’s not that he objected to leasing his property to a bar operation (the bar known as Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop quickly took over the location); he objected to the many gay clients. He told the owners of the bar that they either had to get rid of the gay clients, or he would not renew the lease. The owners moved the business a block up the street to its current location, and changed the name to Café Lafitte In Exile.
Lafitte’s (as it is familiarly known), weathered its forced relocation, and weathered the very difficult decade of the nineteen fifties, during which the mayor and the city administration were engaged in a prolonged effort to rid the city of its homosexual population. The city’s gay men were often singled out as a moral and physical threat to the city’s youth, and a possible threat to New Orleans’ financial viability. The administration believed that the homosexual presence in the city—particularly in the French Quarter—would discourage tourists from visiting and spending their money here.
Many gay bars that were operating at that time faced repeated and prolonged harassment. One bar, Tony Bacino's was raided six times in the summer of 1958, its staff being arrested with each raid. In City Hall, the police raids were seen as praiseworthy, and as a model for how police might treat other bars that catered to deviates.
Somehow, Lafitte's was flying, more or less, under the radar. Fernando Rios was in Lafitte’s one night in September of 1958. He met a handsome young man who indicated interest in a sexual encounter. This man was actually straight, not gay, and he had two friends waiting outside. Rios was led into an alley and trapped within it. He died as a result of the beating he received.
Today the murder would be unambiguously categorized as a hate crime. Back then, the fact that Rios was gay was all the defense his killers needed. In the midst of the drive against the deviates, the killers were portrayed as being the real victims of the encounter. Their killing of Rios wasn’t simply self-defense; it almost seen as an act of public service. The defendants were acquitted to thunderous applause.
Many things have changed since 1958. Now, New Orleans recognizes that the its LGBT population makes important physical, cultural, and economic contributions to the city’s health. Their presence may keep a few straight tourists away, but their absence is negligible in the face of the millions of tourists—of all genders and sexual orientation—who visit the city every year. The drive against the deviates was almost comically unsuccessful, and It is unlikely that another such effort will come from city hall in the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean that the last one didn’t have its causalties. Fernando Rios is one of them. He is dead, but Cafe’ Lafitte in Exile has survived. I am honored that Out for Queer Blood will be launched there.