When Lafayette was ‘out and proud’ 

A man holds a poster for Lafayette's first Pride festival in a library
"You had gay bars everywhere,” says Ted Richard, whose oral history was recorded as part of UL Lafayette’s Queering the Collection project. Photo by Travis Gauthier

“We grew up back in the ’70s and ’80s, where you had gay bars everywhere,” says Ted Richard, whose oral history was recorded as part of UL Lafayette’s Queering the Collection project. “I mean, everywhere. At one point, Lafayette had seven gay bars.” 

Richard recalls going to Fantasy, which was located behind Mel’s Diner on Johnston Street, and then having breakfast with friends at Mel’s after. Strokes was a bar shaped like a dome behind Bayou Shadows apartment complex. Frank’s on the corner of Taft and Jefferson was everyone’s favorite bar. “You ended up at Frank’s sometime during the night,” he says. Leaping Lena’s hosted the after-crowd on the Evangeline Thruway and could stay open until 6 a.m. since it was outside the city limits. 

“We were out and proud back then,” says Richard. Lafayette was known as a gay-friendly town. “The gay community was very vibrant then. We didn’t have cell phones, so we still went to the bar to meet everybody.” 

Archivists are collecting memories like Richard’s in two local collections. Queering the Collection is an effort by UL Lafayette Special Collections to document the history of queer culture in Southwest Louisiana. The project joins the LGBT+ Archives of Louisiana, which has two holdings at the Center for Louisiana Studies. The collections are right next door to each other in the Dupré Library.  Scholars, students and anyone interested in this history can visit to view books and artifacts, listen to recordings and see old newsletters like Zipper and The Alternative. 

Dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the newsletters document the vibrant scene Richard remembers. Ads for clubs like Southern Comfort and Lena’s are mixed with news about drag shows, pageants, Gay Fest Acadiana, letters to the editor and listings for bars and events from Monroe (affectionately called “Funroe” in these pages) to Houma. 

John Sharp, assistant director for research at the Center for Louisiana Studies, met Executive Director of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana Frank Perez at a Louisiana history conference. Perez, who has two degrees from UL and conducts queer history tours of New Orleans, asked if the Center for Louisiana Studies had anything to contribute to the state archive. Sharp said it did not but noted that the center itself would welcome collecting some. In 2020, Perez handed over his own collection of old newsletters, along with the Rich Magill Collection, consisting of audio recordings of gay rights activists and leaders. 

Sharp is especially curious about the history of Acadiana’s gay bars as an extension of his research into Louisiana dancehalls for the center.

“We are definitely interested in more material,” Sharp says. “We want to get to the point where [the newsletters are] digitized online. It’s just a matter of resources and manpower.” 

Next door at Special Collections, they hired an undergraduate research assistant with funds from a $10,000 American Library Association grant to find out what materials were out there specifically related to Louisiana. The result was the acquisition of photographs from LGBTQ+ Mardi Gras organizations, artifacts from 1930s drag bar Club My-O-My in New Orleans and a large book collection, along with the digitization of photos from the Krewe of Apollo, materials from Pride Acadiana (on display this month) and oral histories like Richard’s. 

“We had a couple patrons come in and ask if we had anything related to the LGBT+ community, and I was forced to say no,” says Dr. Zachary Stein, interim assistant dean of technical services at Dupré Library, who worked on the Queering the Collection project with Dr. Marissa Petrou at the Guilbeau Center for Public History. “There was a big gap in our collections,” says Stein.

Petrou, who is originally from New York, says she grew up during the 1990s when AIDS was still a massive public health crisis and has been interested in collecting this type of history for a long time. 

“This project is about creating more inclusive spaces at libraries, museums and archives when we are documenting history in this region,” she says. “It’s also a great opportunity to document more marginalized histories and give training to our students.” 

While Queering the Collection has been mostly well received, it hasn’t been without controversy. Stein and Petrou had to release a statement last August following a barrage of anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Black language during a lecture series with Bridgett Johnson-Pride, who was speaking via Zoom about creating the “Exploring Black LGBTQ Studies” library guide at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. 

“It was a really horrifying, traumatic experience,” says Petrou. “We had been making an effort to create a safe, educational space, and it was completely destroyed.” 

The lecture series was successfully rescheduled, and the project is still ongoing with additional funding from the UL’s history department. Their future wish list of items includes Perez’s book The Life and Times of Stewart Butler (an activist interviewed as part of the Magill Collection), gay tour brochures of New Orleans from the 1950s and a matchbook cover from New Orleans gay bar Oz. Richard also recently donated a scrapbook about his experience working with AcadianaCares, which started in 1985 as Lafayette C.A.R.E.S. (Concern for AIDS Relief Education and Support). 

“Ephemera like brochures, event fliers, matchbooks — it’s what remains,” says Petrou. “It’s really important for telling LGBTQ+ history.” 

So are people like Richard, who survived the AIDS epidemic and lives with HIV today. He also helped found Lafayette’s first Pride Festival in 2014. It was a four-day festival at the end of March and included a play about Chez Giselle, the first gay bar in Downtown Lafayette, music on the Parc International stage, a drag show at Fame bar on Pinhook and a Sunday brunch. That festival ran through 2018 and was revived again in 2021. 

Richard is thrilled to see Pride Acadiana continue in Lafayette on June 24 and businesses Downtown support the event. He plans to volunteer with this year’s event, and Stein and Petrou also plan to be out at Pride Acadiana collecting more oral histories.

“Anyone who wants to share their story can find us at a booth on Jefferson Street,” says Petrou. 

In New Orleans, Perez will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire on June 23-25. Lafayette’s gay bars have had their own share of mysterious fires, but the Upstairs Lounge fire resulted in the death of 32 people and was the deadliest crime against LGBTQ+ people in U.S. history until the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.

“If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” says Perez. “With the political climate we’re in now, we’re already starting to go backwards. So much of our history remains in the closet, and we just want to get it out of there so these voices can be heard.” 

If you have an oral history, artifacts or anything else related to the queer history of Acadiana, please contact one of these organizations.