Katrina’s Queer Victims Still Suffering

Published in The Advocate, August 31, 2006, and The Witness, September 19, 2006

One year later the lives of many LGBT New Orleans residents remain in tatters—no thanks to George Bush’s “faith-based” charities, most of which condemn homosexuality and refuse to recognize, much less assist, our families.

It has been over a year since Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans. Thankfully the waters have receded, as has much of the stench from the wreckage.  What still lingers in the post-Katrina relief efforts are the odious fault lines of heterosexism and faith-based privilege.

While seemingly invisible in this disaster, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer evacuees and their families faced all kinds of discrimination at the hands of many of the faith-based relief agencies because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.

And since sexual orientation is on the “down-low” in much of the African-American community, many African-American LGBT evacuees experienced discrimination from both their communities and black faith-based institutions.

“The Superdome was no place to be an out black couple,” said Jeremiah Leblanc, who now lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. “We got lots of stares and all kinds of looks. What were we thinking? But my partner and I were in a panic and didn’t know what to do when we had to leave our home.”

“The Superdome was no place to be an out black couple … We got lots of stares and all kinds of looks. … But my partner and I were in a panic and didn’t know what to do when we had to leave our home.”

The faith-based organizations vaunted by George W. Bush presented themselves as “armies of compassion” on his behalf. But these organizations’ caveat to LGBT people was “If you’re gay, stay away.”And with black churches, many of which are known for their unabashed homophobia, conducting a large part of the relief effort, African-American LGBT evacuees and their families had neither a chance nor a prayer for assistance.

“When we were all forced to leave the dome, we were gathered like cattle into school buses,” said Leblanc. “[My partner] Le Paul and I both needed our meds, clothes, and a way to find permanent shelter after the storm, but we knew to stay the hell away from the black churches offering help. We couldn’t tell anyone we were sick and HIV-positive.”

With respect to families like Leblanc’s, The Salvation Army had done an excellent job of communicating its website‘s stance that “Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.” If Leblanc had access to the Internet from the evacuee’s shelter, he might have seen that their polices also say that “there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse,” and “in keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation.” But the Salvation Army’s website wasn’t there in the Superdome. The Salvation Army was, and what Leblanc drew from their presence there communicated to him clearly: “when we got to Houston, we saw the Salvation Army, but Le Paul and I knew to stay the hell away from that too.”

“[My partner] Le Paul and I both needed our meds, clothes, and a way to find permanent shelter after the storm, but we knew to stay the hell away from the black churches offering help. We couldn’t tell anyone we were sick and HIV-positive.”

The Bush administration slashed much-needed government programs, contending that more participation from faith-based groups and less participation from governments would restore the spiritual foundation to American public life. Its programs, however, rely on churches and faith-based agencies ill-equipped to provide essential social services for LGBT citizens. In other words, the government takes without respect to sexual orientation, but gives in ways that leave LGBT citizens in the lurch.

Many LGBTQ families worried about being separated from each other by relief organizatios, since Louisiana does not recognize same-sex unions. That fear was intensified as the rhetoric of Bush’s fundamentalist supporters publicly blamed the wrath of Hurricane Katrina on LGBT people. Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast just two days before Labor Day weekend, when New Orleans’s annual Queer “Southern Decadence” festival was to begin. While floods are a regular part of life in the lowlands of Louisiana and hurricanes are frequent occurrences all along the coastline, Michael Marcavage, director of Repent America, an evangelical organization calling for “a nation in rebellion toward God” to reverse itself, had this to say: “We believe that God is in control of the weather. The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter were flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the street. We’re calling it an act of God.”

For these conservative religious groups, the flood was a prayer finally answered and a sin finally addressed. Never mind that neither Bourbon Street nor the French Quarter were ever flooded by the storm.

Not all churches or organizations of faith were unwelcoming to LGBT people. Some churches, albeit few, were opening and affirming parishes to LGBT people and their families before Katrina hit.

“I wasn’t going to the Superdome,” said Angelamia Bachemin, an African-American lesbian percussionist renowned throughout Boston’s Queer and music communities for her pioneering style of jazz/hip-hop, who served as a professor of ethnomusicology at the Berklee School of Music until she returned to her native New Orleans.

… the government takes without respect to sexual orientation, but gives in ways that leave LGBT citizens in the lurch.

“When my partner and I and the children fled, it was not an issue for the folks at this Catholic church. The people at Epiphany Church just took us in, and we began rolling with the evangelists during the relief effort. They paid money for the materials for my roof. They have done more for me and my family than the government.” Bachemin is one of the lucky few LGBT families now in the long process of rebuilding their homes and lives in New Orleans.

Leblanc, however,  isn’t. His partner, who was in the last stages of full-blown AIDS, died two weeks after Katrina. Without access to legal marriage, Leblanc as a widower is not eligible for Social Security benefits for surviving spouses. And because he is gay, he is also not eligible for relief assistance from some faith-based organizations that might otherwise help him get his life back in order.

Katrina showed with intense clarity just how incompetent FEMA political appointees were and just how deep are the fault lines of race and class in this country. But even after a year’s opportunity to reflect on its lessons, mainstream media have not recognized the ways in which Katrina showed some of the hidden abuses of heterosexism and homophobia, and the dark swathes left when “a thousand points of light” left to do the government’s work are deeply biased faith-based organizations who can provide or deny relief as they see fit.

Hurricane Katrina stripped people from their loved ones and families from their homes, for which we all grieve. It also stripped bare the pretenses of a brand of “compassionate conservatism” that offers government giveaways to political supporters but denies compassion to those most in need. The prayer and action of all must ensure that no neglected opportunity for compassion or wisdom remains in the rubble, and that our government is held fully accountable for sweeping both aside.

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