‘Queer people are here, and they’re Cajun’

Two people dancing in the street at a festival
Pride Acadiana brought an inclusive celebration to Downtown Layette in June. Outside of Lafayette, many queer people still find recognition hard to come by. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Over the last weekend in June, the Acadiana Queer Collective brought Pride Acadiana to Downtown Lafayette. The second annual parade and block party featured drag queens, musicians and a host of vendors – including artists and a number of local churches, businesses and advocacy organizations. 

“Downtown Lafayette does feel like a safe space to be,” says Wendy Dorfman, vice president of the Acadiana Queer Collective. “The businesses Downtown have been very supportive, and they are here to be safe spaces. But go a couple of miles in any direction, and it feels different.” 

It was a public culmination of a full month of Pride-themed activities in Lafayette, including a Queer Film Festival at Cité des Arts and an exhibition of LGBTQ+ artists at the Hilliard Art Museum. Earlier this year, the Collective also hosted Lafayette’s first Inclusive Prom for gay and queer teenagers. 

For the most part, however, this type of programming does not extend far outside of Downtown Lafayette, let alone the rest of Acadiana. Many LGBTQ+ residents still have to travel or move away from their hometowns to find support for navigating queer life in the Deep South.  

Lex R Thomas, a Lafayette-based visual artist from Kaplan, says a large representation gap is evident in Acadiana.

“I did not identify as a queer person until moving to Lafayette after high school,” says Thomas. “Lafayette is not where it needs to be, but compared to Kaplan where there’s no representation… it was definitely an identity shift. I do think there’s just as many gay and queer people in the country [across Acadiana’s small towns and rural villages], but a lot of people don’t have language for it.”

Person in front of a bulletin board with sticky notes
Lex R Thomas, a Lafayette-based visual artist from Kaplan, says a large representation gap is evident in Acadiana.

Thomas says the gap stems partly from a lack of awareness around what it means to be both Cajun and queer.  

“Queer people are here, and they’re Cajun, living their lives,” says Thomas. “I have a friend who grew up in Arnaudville, and they believe it’s within Cajun culture to be understanding and accepting of others. These are people who were expelled and stripped of their language.  

“The culture can be much more expansive than we’re typically shown. But a bunch of identities are still very underrepresented.”

John Arabie-White of Eunice echoes that perspective. In 2015, he and his late husband, George White, were the first gay couple to be married in St. Landry Parish

“The day it was legal we went to apply for our marriage license, and the judge in Eunice wouldn’t marry us,” says Arabie-White. The couple had been together for 46 years at that point. “A friend set out on a mission to find someone who would marry us, and this other guy [an Acadia Parish justice of the peace] came to Eunice City Hall to do it.” 

John Arabie graduated from Eunice High School in 1968, and later moved to Houston where he met George White. Both men were gay-rights activists and members of ACT UP and Queer Nation. The couple moved back to Eunice in the mid-90s to care for Arabie’s mother. 

Arabie-White says he has not seen much progress in terms of LGBTQ+ representation from the Eunice of his childhood. 

“I have the only gay pride flag that I’ve seen here. Many people are still shunned by their own families,” he says. “But in my family, I have a number of young gay family members, and their parents thank me for being out. It helps them to understand their own children.”

Last year, Arabie-White went to the first-ever Pride event in Mamou, hosted by the Hotel Cazan and owner Valerie Cahill. Cahill says the Mamou Pride Fest was well attended by guests from outside the region, including Texas and New Orleans — but there was not much local support. 

Man and woman hold flag that reads
Valerie Cahill and John Arabie-White stand in the lobby of the Hotel Cazan in Mamou.

“We had tremendous participation from out of town. This room was packed,” she says, speaking from the Cazan Center’s bar. “Local businesses were not supportive, and I did get a lot of pushback from people canceling rooms and saying they would never come here again. Fine by me.”

Cahill is not a Mamou native. She grew up in San Francisco and later moved to New Orleans with her family, where she still makes her home in the Old Jefferson neighborhood. 

“Everyone was so lovely. Especially because of all the don’t say gay legislation and all of the pushback, I thought that doing something like this was long overdue,” she says. “Some people even brought their kids who are gay so they could meet other members of the community.” 

Mamou Pride was canceled this month due to the heat advisory, but Cahill plans to bring it back in October, around Halloween.

“it’s going to be bigger and better than ever,” Cahill says. “A number of drag queens are on board already — but I want more drag kings to perform as well.” 

These businesses and organizations, alongside individual community members from across the region, are driving progress in a place not known for gay-friendly politics. Intolerance and hostility toward queer people was among the more common reasons Lafayette expats cited for moving away in a questionnaire circulated by The Current. That sentiment is echoed by many young voters The Current surveyed ahead of this fall’s elections. 

But Lafayette may be a good case study for how quickly a place can change. 

Ted Richard, past president of the Acadiana Pride Festival, founded Lafayette’s first Pride event in 2014. This iteration of the festival ran for four years before being discontinued after 2017. 

“We never had this many people,” says Richard, now a Pride Acadiana volunteer. “At the time we didn’t have the support of any of the Downtown businesses. We never could have pulled all this off,” he says, looking across the thousands of people gathered on Jefferson Street on the last Saturday in June.