It started with Drag Queen Story Time

PFLAG's Matt Humphrey flies the rainbow flag outside the Lafayette Public Library on the day Drag Queen Story Time was finally held. Photo by Travis Gauthier

At 16, Matt Humphrey wanted to be a youth pastor. He founded a Christian club at Iota High School. He witnessed in the evangelical tradition and laid his hands over sinners: prostitutes, drug addicts, homosexuals. At home, he begged God to deliver him from his own sexuality. Humphrey’s devotion, even more fervent than the rest of his family’s, was an attempt to rid himself of what he believed to be the germ of depravity, as described in the damning sermons of the televangelists that dominated his childhood TV diet. 

Learning about homosexuality from the 700 Club nearly killed him. Even as he turned to face himself as he matured, finding a husband, settling down, he struggled to accept it. He soaked his anxiety in liquor, in food, in drugs, ballooning to 450 pounds by his mid 20s. Surgery carved away the weight. Therapy walked back the trauma of self-loathing. 

“I don’t want to see a child in this parish ever to reach the extent of self-destruction that I did,” Humphrey, now in his late 30s, tells me. Outreach, support, love and education would have saved him a lot of trouble. And it’s those resources he and a group of queer people and straight allies aim to provide with the re-introduction of a local chapter of PFLAG, a national support organization for the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones. 

“PFLAG is not so much for the queer community. We’re not necessarily looking to change people’s hearts and minds as they are now. What we’re trying to do is create a place for people to reach out to in order to find the resources that they need,” he says. 

The energy to create the organization burst in response to last year’s furor over Drag Queen Story Time, an episode that dragged an ugly side of Lafayette into public view on social media and in the chambers of Lafayette’s City-Parish Council. Humphrey and other members of the organization’s founding board were among the queues of speakers who addressed heated council meetings and fought to make Drag Queen Story Time happen inside a Lafayette public library.

The year’s high-profile embattlements — the slurs on social media, the commerce of homophobic myths and the limp responses of local government — exposed what advocates and LGBTQ+ people interviewed for this story say is an uncomfortable truth: It’s difficult to be queer in Lafayette. It’s difficult to be queer anywhere. PFLAG Lafayette seemed necessary. Queer people needed it. Straight people needed it. Lafayette needed it. 

“After Drag Queen Story Time, it’s been crystal clear that there’s a lack of education,” Humphrey told me the day after the resolution failed. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with PFLAG. Locally, people relate to the LGBTQ community at arm’s length — the person that does my hair, the cousin I see at family functions, the lady coworker who gets dropped off at work by another lady.” 

Traditionally, Lafayette has served as something of a magnet for queer people from around the Acadiana region. It’s the big city of the area; the first place many young gay, lesbian and trans people find other follks like them, and that’s been true for some time. According to some readers responding to this survey, the city had a vibrant gay bar scene dating back to the 1970s. One reader described the scene as “don’t ask, don’t tell” with respect to the community at large. That attitude — echoing the arm’s length distance Humphrey described — has in large measure persisted. 

Just a few years ago, then Mayor-President Joey Durel took fire for brushing aside pressure to adopt a parishwide ordinance extending anti-discrimination protections to the LGBTQ+ community, spurred in part by similar legislation passed in Shreveport in 2013. While LCG’s employment policy guarantees protections on the basis of sexual orientation, an update was pushed through in 2010 by Durel’s CAO, Dee Stanley, and local gay rights activists. Durel saw passing a parishwide ordinance as a symbolic move that served little purpose. 

Echoes of that argument were heard in the mainstream political opposition to a resolution to formally recognize Pride Month pushed in June at the council by PFLAG advocates. It was the group’s first act of political intrusion since signing the formulating paperwork in March. Just as they had in the throes of the Drag Queen Story Time conflict, Humphrey and other PFLAG members took to the council podium to tell their stories and lobby for recognition. Some gripped handwritten pages with shaky hands, others held forth from pulpits. Some spoke with optimism. Others with rage.

The council — missing two members — couldn’t muster the five votes needed to pass. It failed, oddly, 4 to 3. The resolution had no teeth, no fiscal or policy impact. It was eye contact. In effect, Lafayette looked away. Though deflated and hurt, the PFLAG advocates were not defeated. 

“I see the resolution as a grand success,” PFLAG board member and founder Keith Dorwick tells me. “It was obviously a failure. But it was an administrative failure. Because it was one vote short. … Next time we’ll get it done.” 

Volunteers with PFLAG Lafayette paint a rainbow flag and the transgender flag onto the Lafayette sign in Parc Sans Souci in celebration of LGBT Pride Month in downtown Lafayette on June 19, 2019.

Dorwick, who identifies as gender queer and is pursuing ordination as an Episcopal deacon, sees PFLAG’s work as a crucial resource in a worsening moment, particularly for the trans community. A longtime advocate with experience in suicide prevention, Dorwick has served as a frequent first call for students and community members under threat or in despair. In recent years, he says, the calls have spiked, pushing against a conventional narrative that things have gotten any easier for the queer community in the modern age. One recent study found 51% of transgender male teens had attempted suicide at least once.

Marriage equality, achieved in the landmark Obergefell decision, remains fragile and useful only to those who want to get married, he says, and essential services like housing and medical care are out of reach for many trans people, particularly trans people of color. The service and rights gaps have become more evident as more and more people begin to publicly identify as trans. A recent survey by Louisiana Trans Advocates found that trans persons of color in the state experience homelessness at twice the rate of white counterparts. Whatever scarce privileges afforded to gay white men, which is how Dorwick presents, are not extended to the trans community. 

“There’s no way it’s getting better,” Dorwick says.  

A lingering shroud over the local queer community has made outreach difficult. This iteration of PFLAG is not the first local advocacy to fight for visibility — it’s not the first local PFLAG even. PFLAG Acadiana, a separate effort, fizzled as members moved away. Over the years, organizations have come and gone, keeping a growing number of student organizations, church groups and supporters, and disconnected and diffuse in pursuit of advancing the queer community’s cause. 

Longstanding resources like Acadiana Cares, which has served Lafayette since the 1980s, remain relatively obscure. Cares grew out of grassroots outreach and now operates a medical clinic that offers a suite of services like housing, counseling, pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment for HIV and hormone replacement therapy, for which there is currently a 40-person waiting list. HIV suppression rates — the point at which HIV is neither detectable nor communicable — are close to 92% among its patient population, more than 30% higher than the suppression rate of the general population in the region, according to clinic CEO Claude Martin. Despite its success and wide mission — the clinic’s services aren’t exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community — Martin says Cares is essentially hidden in plain view, a function of operating in Lafayette’s moral climate. 

“We’re at capacity all the time. But why don’t people know about it? It’s a real balancing act of deciding how safe we make this place so it doesn’t become stigmatized,” Martin says. The clinic runs more than a million dollar budget, which it doesn’t generate through the kind of fundraising typical of a nonprofit. Instead, the clinic is able claw finances from grants, rental income and fees. “We would not be able to raise that kind of money in Lafayette. There is so much judgment. We have this woman who has three kids, [she’s] four months sober, HIV positive. That’s not a poster child for local charity.” 

Stigma and misinformation go hand-in-hand. PFLAG organizers believe their outreach can form an educational vanguard in the public realm, closing resource gaps and providing a first-stop for help and, crucially, support. Members fundamentally believe that compassion can be transformative.

“I can’t imagine telling my child that because they love another person of the same gender that I wouldn’t love them. And that’s been said to people that I know,” Hannah Boni, a mother of two, tells me, her son crawling around a café bench. Boni is a straight ally and PFLAG’s vice president. She helped organize painting the inclusive Pride flag on Downtown’s Lafayette sign shortly after the resolution was voted down. 

Like the other six board members, Boni’s efforts began with Drag Queen Story Time. She threw her shoulder into the effort both as a library advocate and as someone with a trans family member who went through a public transition. “Because we supported [her family member], they no longer felt suicidal thoughts,” she says. “Now they’re happy that they are themselves and have transitioned. All because we loved them unconditionally, they felt accepted and loved enough to stay around here.” 

The trans community is, in a sense, a new frontier for local advocacy. Dorwick tells me there was an open question whether PFLAG was the right fit given the historical meaning of its acronym: Parents and Friends and Lesbians and Gays. The organization has since discarded the underlying translation and stuck with “PFLAG” as a brand unto itself — a “neologism,” Dorwick, the English professor, tells me.

“Transgender is a new category for us. That’s one reason I really wanted to do PFLAG, because people really don’t get that. It used to be people moved back and forth across the transgender category, by self-description,” Dorwick says. “People would go from being drag queens to seeing themselves as transgender women, male to female, to butch male, now I see a lot of young people identifying as transgender. And that’s new new.” 

Misinformation was on plain display during the Drag Queen Story Time controversy. Opposition materials conflated drag and gender expression with malevolent intent. For PFLAG, addressing those knowledge gaps presents an opportunity to make outreach in two directions: to the trans community for support and to the broader community for education. 

Protestors outside the Drag Queen Story Time event held at the South Regional Library earlier this year.

A lot of the enthusiasm driving the group comes from its straight allies, Dorwick says, which is roughly half straight and half queer people. Aimee Boyd Robinson, another straight ally, rounds out PFLAG’s board officers as treasurer. The mix reflects PFLAG’s history as a support group founded by a straight parent marching with her gay son at a gay pride march in 1972. 

Given Lafayette’s history and a coarsening public dialogue around identity, PFLAG’s task is a tough one. Marching into the summer, coming up just short on the Pride Month push, the feeling is, if PFLAG Lafayette can make this much noise a few months into its existence, it can make a difference in a year’s time. It’s an aggressive plan, and one that will collide with fits of election rhetoric along the way. Humphrey has measured his expectations and come up wryly hopeful. If PFLAG can grab the city by the horns, arm’s length can get a little closer.  

“We don’t need a full embrace,” Humphrey smirks. “We just need you to not be in the way.”