Mike LeBlanc was 19 years old and still closeted when he first set foot inside Chez Gisèle, a gay bar out on Abbeville Highway. It was 1972, and LeBlanc arrived with a woman and another ostensibly straight couple to a packed barroom. The proprietress, Gisèle “Gigi” Carriton, had moved her operation out into the country after she and her clientele faced escalating harassment at her previous location inside the Gordon Hotel in Downtown Lafayette. Exiled to the country, her following swelled.
“There were people sitting on the bar, on the floor,” LeBlanc tells me of his first night out. After a few drag queens performed, Lafayette native and soon-to-be Miss Gay USA, Naomi Sims, took the stage for a rendition of “Killing Me Softly” that, nearly 50 years later, LeBlanc remembers vividly.
This past Saturday, LeBlanc had occasion to revisit his memory of Sims at the AcA’s opening of the exhibit, Fantasy II in Exile. A collaboration between Lafayette native Jacob Broussard and his Orlando-based colleague, Emile Mausner, the show features mixed-media and figurative artworks inspired in part by a shuttered Lafayette gay bar that once went by the same name. The artists hope visitors come away from the exhibit understanding “the closet” as an imaginative place of willing exile, a place one goes to play dress-up with their identity. It’s a contemplative activity that many, not just queer folks, can relate to after a year of forced isolation and lockdown.
By memorializing queer social spaces of the past, the artists have also created a social space inside of the gallery itself where different generations of Acadiana’s LGBTQIA+ community can connect.
Mausner and Broussard met while pursuing their MFAs at the Yale School of Art. Both queer, they share an appreciation for folk art and cite a range of aesthetic influences from Disney World to 19th century Italian portraiture. Their exhibit reflects this breadth of sensibility: A psychologically emotive, 6-foot-tall acrylic portrait of Galveston artist Forrest Bess shares the space with platform heels fabricated from paper mâché, nail polish and bubble wrap. There are multi-panel pencil drawings, still lifes and a poster advertising “An Evening of Exiles” with the likenesses of southern queer artists including Carson McCullers and George Dureau.
Broussard first learned of Fantasy II while reading Black Sheep Boy, a novel-in-stories by Acadiana author Martin Pousson. Intrigued but unable to learn much about the bar in his research, Broussard tells me he saw “a great opportunity for us to bring forth our own notions of fantasy, what exile means, and how those two things are linked.”
Having grown up in a musical family, Broussard credits his father’s cover band with his proclivity for “taking something on” and transforming it. Scattered throughout the exhibit are visual “covers” of images borrowed from both Acadiana’s history of queer nightlife and the fine art canon.
“Sims’ stage backdrop was a pair of eyes,” Broussard says, and they recur in multiple pieces.
Mausner, taken by Italian artist Giorgio de Cherico’s surrealist painting of two horses, riffed on it in a variety of works, including a watercolor where the prancing ponies backdrop Liza Minelli. When asked about the import of de Cherico’s horses, Mausner clarifies that as far as she knows, he wasn’t gay. There’s just something queer about that painting, she says with a shrug.
“If I can make a proposition for queerness, it’s that it’s available to everyone,” Mausner says. “Because it’s about using whatever materials are at hand to create a fantasy that’s true to you.”
Like the pair of eyes and the twin horses tucked about the exhibit, gay bars in Acadiana have historically been “kinda hidden,” says Keith Faulk, a friend of LeBlanc’s who came with him to the gallery opening on Saturday. Fantasy II in Exile, he tells me, was located behind Mel’s Diner off Johnston Street, but its side entrance wasn’t visible from the road. It was a “packed dance bar,” he says, doing brisk business on the weekends throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s before it closed.
Faulk and LaBlanc remember more than half a dozen different bars that catered to Acadiana’s queer community over the past half century: the Peppermint Lounge, Southern Comfort, Kingfish, Starlight, Owl’s Perch, Fantasy I. Some they can only remember by landmarks — “the one on Simcoe,” “the one by the fire station.” Others have monikers like Al’s or Jon’s. Every few years, a bar would shut down after getting one too many bottles hurled at its windows from passing trucks, only to pop back up in some new incarnation on the other side of town.
Neither Faulk and LeBlanc have memories of police raids like the infamous one that triggered the Stonewall Uprising, commemorated each June for Pride Month, but LeBlanc admits that gay men with “more feminine” gender presentations faced serious harassment outside the sanctuary of these bars. With uncanny nonchalance, Faulk and LeBlanc recall the murder of a drag queen and the disposal of her body in a field out in Duson; an acquaintance who went partially blind after taking a beer bottle to the eye socket; a bar that once stood across the street from Agave on Vermilion Street burning down under dubious circumstances. If a map of queer Acadiana is dotted with invisible histories of dancehalls and debauchery, it’s also crossed with violence.
And, in the case of men in Faulk’s generation, disease. Naomi Sims died in the early ’90s from AIDS complications. By 1995, one out of every nine gay men in America had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 10% of gay men between 25-44 had died.
Jaik Faulk, the AcA’s visual art director and the exhibit’s curator, notes that “a lot of that generation was wiped out, and their memories go with them.”
Standing in the presence of LeBlanc and Faulk, I’m struck by the rarity of the encounter. The decimation of such a large portion of elders has left younger queer folks like me without role models, which can make it difficult to imagine a future for ourselves as we age.
For Faulk, shows like Fantasy II serve an important function. After all, despite the Pride event recently celebrated Downtown, local legislators did just close out a session at the Capitol in which four different bills took aim at limiting the rights of transgender youth. So as pleased as Faulk felt to see Sims’ face on Broussard’s yellow cardstock poster, he believes that sharing memories can also remind us of the progress we’ve made and keep us fighting for those in our community who still lack rights.
“People need to know where we came from,” he says, smiling.