On the Gay Bar and Good Friends
Scenes from New Orleans written after receiving a Matthew Peck art print from my best friend, Athens, Georgia, July 2022
Queer scenes are the true salons des refusés where the most heterogenous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised or rejected in a world of norms they now recognize as false morality.
— Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal
Scene One: Finding Good Friends
Every gay man remembers their first gay bar. To my first, I wore a thin, skin-tight, zippered purple hoodie with black drawstrings. I had just bought it at Urban Outfitters in Baton Rouge with one of my best girlfriends (K). It was New Year’s Eve 2008; we were twenty-one. On winter break from university, we drove an hour down Interstate 10 from her hometown to New Orleans for the night; we stayed with one of her “gay friends” (G) who said he would take us to the French Quarter to meet up with friends of his, an older gay couple who had lived in the city for years. They, he said, knew the ropes. I had selected the hoodie for the occasion because I could leave it slightly unzipped, revealing my developing chest muscles. You see, I wanted to appear desirable: as much as I was looking for friendly fellowship to ring in the New Year, I was also chasing a boy who I knew was going to be in New Orleans for the weekend. I told my best girlfriend when trying on the hoodie, I think this décolletage might catch his eye. We were still in the phase of using fancy sounding words to describe our bodies and our pleasures. We had not yet graduated to the curt frank language of adult desire. But neither the snug hoodie nor my chest got me the boy from whom I longed: the hoodie just left me cold in the late-night Louisiana winter.
Though I followed desire to the French Quarter, what I found were good friends. K, G, and I met the older gay couple, A and J, at 740 Dauphine Street at a bar a block behind Bourbon Street’s unofficial queer intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann. Though I had been around the block, I still felt somewhat nervous walking up the step into the space, which would prove to be my first of many gay bars. There were numerous entry points, open doors on the ground level that wrapped around the corner lot. Inside, the bar formed a rectangle around the lower level. To the far left: a billiard table with game machines and a sitting area, bathrooms visible in the distance. The place was low-key, a neighborhood bar, a relaxing contrast I would discover to the louder dance bars Oz or Bourbon Pub around the corner. Good Friends, aka my first gay bar, felt like a place locals would go to hang, drink, and chill. Our guide, G, led us to a staircase on the far wall. They’re upstairs, he said.
Walking upstairs, the décor shifted to a Victorian era lounge of solid oak floors and luxe velvet curtains that lined walls adorned with sconces topped in lampshades. This was the Queen’s Head Pub, the upscale second floor of the two-floor bar known as Good Friends, which first opened in 1988 making it just one year younger than I was when I first visited. When it was purchased in 1988, the bottom floor had been a liquor store named “Good Friends” and the top floor had been apartments. The new owners kept the building name and converted the structure into two distinct but linked bar experiences, Good Friends on level one and the Queen’s Head Pub on level two. As we walked out onto the balcony to meet A and J, I felt at ease in the bar’s relaxed atmosphere even as I felt eyes staring at me from all angles.
K, G, and I sat in high top chairs on the balcony across from A and J as we began the usual small talk of getting to know one another. A and J told us their love story; their many years living in New Orleans; their struggles as a gay couple in 1970s and 80s America, all details that are ultimately theirs to share publicly should they decide. That’s the kind of vibe Good Friends afforded: intimate and deeply personal but also sacred and private, a place in which one could literally sit outside in the public sphere — en plein air — but still feel as though your conversations were private, your intimacy protected, your queer life dignified and respected. A and J first introduced me to the gay bar circuit in the Quarter, describing the leather bars and the kink clubs, the dance bars with go-go boys and the low-key chill bars, the places to see drag shows and the places with backrooms. From A and J, I learned the landscape of queer intimate possibility in the city closest to me in geographic proximity as a young gay kid from the neighboring state of Mississippi. I learned how queer people carved terrain and created sites in which to find one another. I learned, most importantly, that I was not alone.
Whenever there would be a break in conversation, my eyes would drift down to the street below as people passed along the circuit from Oz/Bourbon Pub/ Café Lafitte in Exile to Good Friends/Rawhide/Corner Pocket and the other gay friendly bars in the Quarter A and J had described. At one point, I noticed the boy I followed to New Orleans with his gaggle of friends passing us heading down St. Ann toward Bourbon Street. Though I longed to follow this boy who K had warned me only wanted me on his terms, I remained at Good Friends — cold in my hoodie in the night air — in the company of those whose stories I needed to hear as a young gay man from the South who had had no form of queer sexual or romantic education beyond the books I had read and the few queer friends I had found at college.
At Good Friends, A and J taught me more than how to navigate queer New Orleans nightlife. They gave me my first lesson in sexual health as a gay man, crucial advice on how to protect myself, things they had learned over the years living in New Orleans through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, well before the development and widespread use of PreP. As J put it: down here, we call it swamp AIDS because it could sneak up on you and just suck you under. That’s what it felt like to us anyways. We lost a lot of friends, but we had each other. We had each other. In retrospect, it seems to me that A and J were teaching me lessons I did not then understand in how to navigate sexual stigma and shame, how to resist the perpetual and insidious devaluation of queer sexuality often from both the medical establishment and an unthinking and prejudiced culture. Such lessons in camaraderie, queer friendship, and “manly attachment” (as Whitman might call it) feel deeply resonant in this moment of renewed misguided and inaccurate stigmatization of specifically gay male sexuality with the ongoing Monkeypox outbreak. ‘We had each other’ echoes in my mind today as I think about our responsibility to our good friends and casual acquaintances.
The advice A and J gave me on how to build and sustain relationships between men has proven to be the most meaningful for me in the long term. They first stimulated a socio-intellectual pursuit into the questions philosopher Michel Foucault once posed: “how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences?” (136). In their presence, A and J provided an initial model, and in their wisdom, a roadmap. Pursue, they said, but never chase. Intimacy evolves, they said. Gay men often need several sexual partners but that doesn’t mean the love between two partners isn’t real. Trust your heart more than your libido, they said. Sometimes your soul mate is not who you would expect. You must practice radical communication, they said, when you think you shouldn’t say something about your needs, that’s when you know you must. And, A said, if someone wants to walk out of your life, you let them.
Scene Two: Leaving Good Friends Early
Every gay man remembers their first Southern Decadence, a raucous Labor Day weekend romp first established in New Orleans in 1972. Though I have had my share of flirtatious encounters at Decadence, I have been more fortunate to share the experience on three occasions with a few of my good friends. As 1995 Decadence Grand Marshal Edward “Blanche” Norton described the weekend, “The only thing in life that is truly sacred is friendship. When you mix that with the pagan and the profane, you would probably get something like Decadence” (Smith and Perez 104). In their book Southern Decadence in New Orleans, Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez write, “Decadence’s symbiotic relationship with bar culture has only strengthened over the years,” and it would be Decadence that would bring me back to my first gay bar and deepen three of my closest friendships (114).
The first time I returned to Good Friends after New Year’s Eve 2008 was during the 2009 Southern Decadence weekend. On a whim, my friends A, R, L, and I drove down for what we hoped would be a gay old time. At twenty-two, we were unprepared for the level of debauchery we would find, and many of our observed encounters that weekend continue to be the topic of our friend groups’ collective memory. During the day, as we attended official events and explored New Orleans, I remember I wore white framed aviator sunglasses, a black bandana around my head, and a white t-shirt that read “Fight for Peace.” I looked, as my aunt once described me, like a flower child. When we went out that night to various bars, I wore a short sleeve blue plaid shirt — top buttons undone — with white shorts. We wound up at Good Friends.
Downstairs at Good Friends, go-go boys danced naked atop the bar, their tumescence visible for all to see. My straight girlfriend R was in thrall, striking up a rather intense conversation with one of the well-endowed dancers who told her he identified as straight. I will never forget the sight of this straight man and woman — she, standing by the bar, and he, kneeling on the bar, erect, as they each took turns whispering in each other’s ears, deep in conversation as gay men gesticulated and celebrated all around them. I asked R if she was alright before we three gay male friends walked upstairs. Not long before, I had carried R, distraught over an ex-boyfriend, across a field outside Po’ Monkeys, a juke joint in my native Mississippi Delta. I did not want to leave her unattended. R reassured me that she was fine talking to the dancer. As we left R and entered the second floor Queen’s Head Pub, I can remember spotting a shirtless man who stared intensely at me, walked up to me, and, without saying a word, stuck his tongue down my throat. Right in front of my friends. I admit that twenty-two-year-old me did not resist despite realizing I had not fully consented to the encounter. He looked probably twenty-eight; I was into him, and I kissed back. “I went out to take risks. I went out to be close to other bodies,” Jeremy Atherton Lin writes in Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (273). I did not come to Decadence to be a saint.
Trust me, you would remember the time you had H1N1; 2009 was the summer of the swine flu. Not long after the man stuck his tongue down my throat, not long after we had a quick make-out session in the Queen’s Head Pub, I told my friends that I needed to go back to the hotel to sleep. It’s late, I said. I’m tired, I said. In reality, I was beginning to experience symptoms of what would be diagnosed as H1N1 when I returned home the following day. I have no way of knowing if this man who cruised and kissed me gave me H1N1 or if being in New Orleans around many people on a hot summer weekend did the trick. And honestly, it doesn’t matter. I kissed back, and to this day I don’t regret it even if H1N1 wasn’t the most pleasant experience.
My friends returned from Good Friends about an hour after I got back to the hotel. I was trying to sleep. R — ever responsible — did not go home with her go-go dancer paramour who she came to find out had a girlfriend at home waiting for him. Instead, R was sharing a bed with me that weekend. When she crawled into the bed next to me, I heard her whisper to our two friends in the other bed, Eric must’ve taken a shower; the bed is soaked. I had not showered and gone to bed damp; what R felt were my night sweats. When I awoke the next morning with a 100-degree fever, my friends and I started our journey home. Though our Decadence weekend was cut short, we had each other.
Gay bars are about potentiality, not resolution. Gay bars are not about arriving. The best ones were always a departure.
— Jeremy Atherton Lin, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out
Scene Three and Four: With B Before and After M
Not every gay man remembers their second or third (or …) Southern Decadence. Call it Southern Decadence redux: a blur. Though the details are not as vivid as my first experience, I remember my second and third times in shorthand: before M, after M. The second time I went to Decadence was before my first serious relationship with an alcoholic (M) who would turn out to be physically abusive; the third time I went to Decadence was just after that difficult relationship ended. This relationship took place in the years of my Saturn return, the astrological period when significant challenges bring you fully into adulthood, usually from the ages 27–30. For the three years of my relationship with M, I did not follow A and J’s advice; I did not let this man walk out of my life, though he attempted time and time again to do so in his dissociative drunken rages. I believed despite all evidence to the contrary that I could save him. My mother says I have a thing for “fragile birds,” that I want to believe that it’s possible for my love to save someone from damage that isn’t mine to own or solve. Though in retrospect I knew it was over long before, when M came home to our Atlanta apartment drunk late one night, yelled at me as I slept, attempted to leave with our two dogs (having nowhere to go), and shoved my head into a concrete wall when I told him he was being irresponsible and irrational — that night was the end. I made my plans to walk out of his life.
Though I frame my second and third trips to Decadence by the bookends of the “M years,” M was not present at either of those trips. Rather, each was accompanied by my best friend (B), whose loyalty and support are the only reasons I maintained my sanity as the chaos of life with M slowly accumulated. In the first “single ladies” trip, both B and K (my girlfriend from scene one) observed as my gay roommate T and I spent a weekend competing to see who could get the most attention. Younger than me, T’s boyish charms and cherubic complexion played to his favor. Like T and I, B is gay, but B has always been able to cut through the noise of gay male social ritual, as if he existed in a contented higher plane that did not necessitate competition or comparison or the endless need to perform well with/for other gay men. I met B when I was 17, and he was 18. We proved inseparable. B became such an integral part of my family’s life that my mother calls him her son, and my siblings and I call him our brother. Sometimes we joke that Brother B is our mother’s favorite child.
Though B and I had been to New Orleans many times before, we were 26 and 27 during our first joint Decadence trip “before M.” We went to Good Friends and all our usual haunts. In the photograph, dated August 31, 2013, I wear a backwards blue baseball cap, a yellow tank top, and short royal blue shorts with yellow tipping in a vintage 70s style. K has on a blue sundress and pink headband. Both of us wear sunglasses. B wears pink shorts and a taupe shirt; his eyes visible behind his eyeglasses depict his characteristic expression whenever I ask to take photographs: over it. We were young, naïve in so many ways, but we had each other even in moments when smiles could not be feigned.
The next time B and I attended Decadence was “after M,” after the demise of what I thought was my first “grown up” relationship. A month before, B had helped me move out of an apartment partially to escape unwanted memories and a lingering fear that M would return and never let go, pulling me completely into his self-destruction. I leaned heavily on B in those months: daily phone calls, crying in the parking lot, wondering if the “love” I received from M was what I deserved. But good friends — the best ones — remind you of your strength and resilience. They both validate your feelings and call you on your bullshit. They refuse to allow you to wallow, to collapse, to cave into your own worst impulses. In those summer months of 2016, B picked me up and set me straight. B looked at me dead on and said, You always say, ‘we accept the love we think we deserve’ — repeating a quotation from a favorite book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that I would often tell others — and you know you deserve better than this. At Good Friends, A and J had told me that radical communication is the bedrock of any relationship between men, and B and I have always been radically honest with one another in ways I have not been able to replicate with an intimate partner. As I went to therapy and began to resurface from an abusive relationship, B gifted me a short quotation from J.M. Barrie on a small piece of paper that I still carry with me as a daily affirmation: “Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others, cannot keep it from themselves.”
Having purpose helped direct me out of grief: B and I attended Decadence in 2016 to host a Bachelorette Party for our friend R (the same friend from scene two). We decided on a saints and sinners themed weekend, paying homage to the annual New Orleans LGBTQ+ literary festival of the same name. One night, we all dressed in red with devil horns; the next night, we all dressed in angelic white. B and I were part of a company of 6 or 7 women including the bride to be. We made many friend group memories that trip. The final night of our stay, B and I went out on our own to Good Friends. I wore a black lace shirt, black leather gilet, and black shorts. B wore a pink tank top, silver sneakers, and sequin silver shorts with a lace overlay. That night we were feeling it, vibing in our queer regalia marching the bar circuit of the Vieux Carré. As we walked back to the hotel, we took photographs with a mystery person in a giant Pikachu costume wandering the streets of the Quarter. It was a night far from normal, a night of random encounters and strange magic, but of the thousands of nights we have spent in friendship and brotherhood, that night stands out in my memory: we two best friends free of obligation or expectation lost in each other’s company having grown closer through all that we had been through. We had each other.
Scene Five: A Flamboyance
We have each other. In Matthew Peck’s 2021 mixed media painting titled “Pride,” a giant pink flamingo with out-spanned wing sits in profile ensconced on the corner railing of the second story balcony of Good Friends. Rainbow bunting adorns the external balcony floor. The sky is midnight blue, the building glows in hues of gold. Men in shorts and t-shirts gather on the sidewalk and balcony. Some wear pants and button downs, but in New Orleans humidity, they are in the minority. Lean in, you can hear the painting: Good Friends hums with the conversations between men. You hear pick-up lines, you’re cute. What’s your name? You hear banter, girl, he said what? You hear echoes of friends who just want to have fun, let’s have another drink. You hear yourself at twenty-one asking men older than you for advice: Should I follow him to Oz or stay here with my friends? You hear R whispering in the ear of a go-go dancer: so, you’re straight but you dance here? You hear your voice, you’re my best friend, followed quickly by B’s voice, no, you’re my best friend, and finally a drunken unison, fine, you win.
For my thirty-fifth birthday this year, B gifted me Peck’s print (#8 of 100) of “Good Friends.” I first saw the painting on a stroll with Frank Perez, the unofficial gay major of the French Quarter and co-author of Southern Decadence, during one of his tours for the Saints and Sinners festival in March 2022. I went on the tour solo, and I enjoyed seeing the city through the eyes of both New Orleans newbies and longtime residents like Perez. In Peck’s gallery on Chartres Street near Jackson Square, as I listened to Perez and a friend discuss Decadence, I observed Peck’s painting and became lost in my own memories. I thought of my alphabet of friends — K and G, A and J, R, A, L, T — with whom I’ve shared New Orleans. But most of all, I thought of B. A New Orleans native, Peck describes his artwork as combining “traditional painting and drawing techniques with modern graphic art, color design, and photography to create unique mixed media paintings.” A bricolage, Peck’s artistic methods mirror the makeshift friendship B and I have forged over the years. No matter where we are, we are there for one another in whatever ways we are able. In Peck’s “Pride” portrait of Good Friends, I see the faces and hear the echoes of so many people with whom I’ve shared the balcony. Good Friends is a place I can always return to and feel at home. Yet, as cliché as it may sound, sometimes home is most embodied in a person, a good friend with whom you feel absolutely at home. For all the memories made on the balcony, perhaps the ones made with B will always be the most indelible. I know — come hell or high water — we two best friends will always have each other.
I know somewhere in the pink flamingo at the top center of Peck’s frame lies a metaphor for the importance of the gay bar and “good friends,” our “good Judys.” Flamingos are able to stand on one leg for long periods of time; we humans, typically, cannot. Maybe our friends help keep our lives balanced — the adage of lean on me — but that doesn’t feel like the full conceit. As Jennifer Price writes in her essay “A Brief Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingos,” “gay men [have] waged arguably the most creative celebration of the extremes of artifice” in elevating the pink flamingo to camp status (82). A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance, which feels like an apt term for the various groupings that inhabit the space of the gay bar. We, the flamboyance, claim the artificial as natural, recognize falsity, wage in extremity, and make the often-dark spaces of our queer scenes come alive with abundance.
Future Scenes: Gay Bar, Queer Sanctuary, Further Role Play
In my most recent trip to Good Friends with my poet friend (also called B) earlier this year, I observed from the balcony two men, clearly lovers, arguing on the sidewalk below. I could not hear what it was about, but I thought, this, too, happens at the gay bar: scenes of disagreement. Break ups. Break downs. Suffering. Self-destruction. Pain. Struggle. Loss. We go out to take risks, to be vulnerable. We do not go out to the gay bar to find perfect scenes of intimacy and encounter or pretty tableaus of stability and sterility. The gay bar is often messy, full of spilled drinks and broken people longing to follow the proverbial boys down the road — those who will not reciprocate the love they have to give — instead of remaining in the embrace of good friends and loyal lovers. Such queer scenes of rejection, too, make up the gay bar and our continued need for them. In revelry, one may find connection and commonality. So, too, in heartache.
The details of my story over the years at Good Friends are unique to me but they typify the experiences, the rites of passage, that so many gay men experience in gay bars. I have been inspired in this essay by recent work such as Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar, which beautifully elucidates Lin’s experiences at various gay bars while arguing with nuance for their continued support even as we continue the good trouble of criticizing the often-exclusionary practices of bar owners and patrons. Though I believe geospatial apps like Grindr and Scruff have an important place and can perform important functions in our culture, I do not think they can provide frameworks for our lives and our becoming in quite the same way as sites in the built environment such as gay bars where we learn how to navigate a complex array of social cues and emotional turmoil. In times of increased curtailment of queer lives, rights, and freedoms, when stigma and suspicion of our lives and spaces receive sanctioned support from legislatures and public officials, we need our gay bars. We need our spaces from which to stand our ground and enact solidarity. Whereas “the blippy alert of an incoming Grindr message” reveals all spaces “to be permeable,” the gay bar “affords refuge,” a place in which one may flee the violability and permeability of other spaces (Lin 32–33). Or as Justin Torres wrote in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub murders, “Outside, the world can be murderous to you and your kind… But inside, it is loud and sexy and on.” The context of Torres’s reflections resonates with the recently reimagined Queer as Folk (2022), which is set in New Orleans and is narratively framed around a community’s reclamation of its sanctuary after a shooting at the fictional queer bar Babylon. In the queer space of the gay bar, one may find, claim, own, and rebuild, if needed, sanctuary — in various senses of the word: a place of refuge, a nature reserve for the flamboyance, a holy place, inviolable.
Within our holy places, we trouble norms and rethink ethics. Michael Warner writes in The Trouble with Normal of a connection between gay shame and dignity, arguing that “the lesbian and gay movement has always been rooted in a queer ethic of dignity in shame” (37). Such an ethic goes beyond sexuality and sexual identity to encompass multiple categories of social stigma — racism, transphobia, body shaming — affecting LGBTQIA+ folk. Though many fail, gay bars have the potential to be intersectional in rethinking our relationships to one another. Scenes of rejection in the heteronormative world may shape our collective queer feelings of shame, yet within such shame we find a bond of dignity that approaches the realm of something sacred. In refusing the rejecting heteronormative logics of the world beyond the gay bar, we say to each other in the gay bar that we have each other. Such dignity can be forged in the crucible of the gay bar, where a series of successive queer scenes grants us the ability to glimpse our worth as queer people and claim our dignity as human beings.
Warner’s work (like Lin’s and Torres’s) helps outline the roles we play within and beyond the gay bar. In reflection, I realize I’ve played various roles inside Good Friends and other gay bars: hairless ingenue seeking wisdom; lovestruck southern college boy; gay bestie to straight girlfriends; party planner extraordinaire; queer club kid in leather and lace; shirtless bear on the prowl; dancer on his own; wallflower in thrall. We go out to perform and no two performances are identical. As we enter these spaces, we create versions of ourselves, fashioning and re-fashioning who we are in relationship to one another. Like A and J all those years ago at my first gay bar, I’ve recently found myself becoming the “older” man at the bar extolling advice. At my local queer college bar — an irreverent “sacred” space appropriately named Church — I’ve been called daddy more times than I can count. As Lin writes, “Somewhere along the line I became a daddy,” a term that has been “re-defined as men exploring one another, and not necessarily across wide age gaps” (245). Full disclosure, “daddy” is a role I’m comfortable with; it’s an endearing and often titillating sobriquet. Call me daddy all you want to. But obey when I tell you to lean in and listen closely. For like A and J before me, I believe we have a responsibility that goes beyond sexual foreplay to the queer folk with whom we share space in the gay bar. That responsibility includes but extends beyond those with whom we have intimate encounter; it includes the long-time friends we arrived with and the new ones we meet upon arrival.
Perhaps the role I’m most proud of is one that I learned to play from the very beginning both within and beyond the gay bar: good friend. In a later interview on sexuality and ethics, Foucault said, “The problem is not to discover the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships… The development toward which the problem of homosexuality tends is one of friendship” (135–136). For Foucault, the homosexual “mode of life” disturbed “sanitized society” not solely for our sexual acts but for our “formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force” that are rooted in “love” rather than “law, rule, or habit” (136–137). Following Foucault, queer friendship — the “way of life” of the flamboyance — is both “a culture and an ethics” (138). To be a good queer friend is an ethical stance, a cultural practice of radical care.
Looking again at Matthew Peck’s painting of Good Friends, I am reminded of the alliances and lines of force that we create in gay bars and queer scenes. I am reminded of the importance of these spaces for our culture. I am reminded of how queer folk have created our way of life and continue to create our own sense of ethical relationship to one another. We are together.
Finally, I am reminded of B — my brother, my best friend — who continues to make my life good.
Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press, 1997.
Lin, Jeremy Atherton. Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2021.
Price, Jennifer. “A Brief Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingos.” In Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature In Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Smith, Howard Philips and Frank Perez. Southern Decadence in New Orleans. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2018.
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Up, 1999.