A Streetcar Full of Desires: ‘The Sons of Tennessee Williams’

[26 April 2012]

By Terrence Butcher

Is there something particularly gay about New Orleans? Now, I don’t wield that charged word in the manner that a 9th-grader would, as in, “That’s so gay!”, in other words, disgusting, lame, corny, whatever pejorative you care to use. No, I mean “gay” as in having a same-gender preference.

Its Deep South location notwithstanding, the Crescent City, on paper at least, seems a stereotypically quaint urban stage for an A-list gay male lifestyle. Here you have a history-drenched seaport town cluttered with lovingly-maintained 19th century buildings, an epicurean dining scene, antique shops galore, and raucous ‘til-the-wee-hours nightlife, as epitomized by the internationally-renowned Mardi Gras. Blanket all this with a moist, sultry climate and you have a pretty heady mix.

Despite this, we know precious little of the Big Easy’s LGBT heritage. Director Tim Wolff attempts to remedy this with his new documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams, which arguably bridges the gap between Wigstock and Before Stonewall, if one can imagine that.

Wolff’s film ostensibly covers the elaborate drag balls organized by gay Mardi Gras krewes, particularly the venerable Krewe of Armenius, an assemblage mostly of elderly and middle-aged men—and we visit their 2008 “Queen” coronation – but it quickly evolves into an examination of LGBT life since the Second World War, including the dark ages when men could be arrested merely for congregating in large numbers. Initially, Wolff presents newsreel footage of long-ago Mardis Gras, juxtaposed with personal remembrances of being dressed by parents in colorful, often homemade outfits in preparation for the festivities. These childhood masquerades seem an ironic foreshadowing of the closeted lives many of these men would later lead, for fear of ostracism from families or employment.

Indeed, stringent anti-gay ordinances were the law of the land in pre-liberation NOLA, and Wolff displays a threatening newspaper headline of the era, with “Crackdown Planned On Homosexuals” emblazoned ominously on the page. In fact, the city’s foremost periodical, The Times-Picayune, regularly published names of homosexuals unfortunate enough to get collared, and this encouraged an atmosphere of occasional thuggery; one man, Tracy Hendrix, speaks of being assaulted with a pipe, and, in a sadly infamous case, a visiting Mexican tour guide was murdered by local rednecks, who were promptly judged “not guilty” by the jury.

As with the long-extant African-American krewes, the Krewe of Armenius soirees had their roots in satire; specifically, mocking the elegant society parties that were de riguer amongst the Southern upper crust. In times past, New Orleans’ gay citizens could gather publicly only on Mardi Gras Day, and drag attire was prohibited after nightfall. Even during daytime hours, participants were required to wear at least one item of traditional male clothing, although it could be hidden under whatever you wanted the world to see.

Armenius was hardly alone. Several other primarily gay krewes were established, among them the Krewe Yuga, a gathering of wealthy uptowners, and the decidedly exclusive Petronius, who, surprisingly, were embraced by the churchgoing African-American community, and thus could hold events at the black union hall. Amusingly, some balls became hot tickets outside of the LGBT demimonde, and it wasn’t uncommon for the mayor to appear.

Other diversions, or havens, existed. The most celebrated gay bar of postwar NOLA was Dixie’s, which insisted their patrons be in jacket and tie before entering, much as some of New Orleans’ finer restaurants still do. In a city steamy several months of the year, such Old World formality seems paradoxical; I recall with dread the punishing humidity of my own July evening in New Orleans two summers ago.

NOLA’s gay community wasn’t completely devoid of friends in high places, either. Apparently, Harry Connick, Sr. was sufficiently comfy with alternative lifestyles to reach out to them, the polar opposite of famed Kennedy Assassination investigator Jim Garrison, and I’m reminded of the scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK where Kevin Bacon’s character makes an audacious pass at Costner’s Garrison which goes ignored. In the early ‘90s, it was already impolitic for a sympathetic protagonist to be outwardly homophobic, so Stone keeps Garrison stoic and silent as he strides away.

The krewes would be dealt some difficult blows in the years to come, first in the holocaust of AIDS, which spread its lethal tendrils into the Deep South, as it would across the globe, then during 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina, which dispossessed many, while drowning others. In this respect, The Sons of Tennessee Williams becomes a proclamation of resilience for the men involved, a sort of “I’m Still Standing” for a vulnerable population that has persevered.

Odd then, that one of the elder gentleman in “Sons” chides Gen Y gay men for a perceived lack of activist zeal. Has this guy been on the moon for the past 25 years? So many battles have been won, with AIDS now a manageable condition, gay marriage legal in some states and countries, and the ban on serving openly in the armed forces relegated to history’s dustbin. How does he imagine all this occurred? By silence? Please!

I must kvetch, however, at the near complete absence of African-American faces in this doc, especially in a city with a pre-Katrina black majority, not to mention a town whose musical renown is unimaginable without jazz, a town noted for its more relaxed racial attitudes as compared with much of the Jim Crow-era South. I counted only person of color in the entire film, a young man recently recruited by one of the krewes, as too many members are aging into infirmity. At best, the exclusion of African-Americans in the film is a glaring and curious omission.

Extras are less than abundant, and fairly predictable. We get a photo gallery of outfits from the diverse costume balls, a second gallery of DVD offerings from First Run Features, a glance at Let Them Eat Cake 2008, among the largest drag events, and footage of the coronation ceremonies for the Krewe of Armenius. Lastly, there are brief chats with men from the Mystic Krewe of Celestial Knights, a splinter group formed when Petronius supposedly embroiled itself in political infighting.

It’s been said that American Southern culture, perhaps more than the rest of the nation, has always represented a tug-of-war between the puritan (sacred) and cavalier (profane) ethics, although these dueling mindsets could often be bedfellows in the oppression of LGBT folks. A good ol’ boy could could drink himself into a stupor on Saturday, pray away his sins at the chapel on Sunday, then taunt the “queers” in the Quarter on Monday.

It’s suggested in the film that “New Orleans isn’t a modern society”, and the city’s fearsome police force, entrenched, race-skewed poverty, proximity to wicked storms, and over-dependence on tourism would seem to bear this out. As one writer insists, New Orleans should be viewed as a rich Caribbean city, not a poor American one. Probably a trenchant observation, and I can’t guess if the men presented in The Sons of Tennessee Williams would concur, but they do enjoy freedoms – albeit hard-fought—their island-locked brethren can only dream of.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/157760-the-sons-of-tennessee-williams/