Monday, 29 August 2011

ANYTHING GOES AT SOUTHERN DECADENCE, GAYEST FUN YOU'LL HAVE IN NEW ORLEANS

 
 New Orleans's 40th annual Southern Decadence parade and festival runs August 31 through September 5 (Photo courtesy www.southerndecadence.net)


(August 29) The famed explorer and former French governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was born in Montreal in 1680 and founded the city of New Orleans in 1718.

Almost 300 years later, another Montrealer – Bugs Burnett La Bitch, Sieur des Homos – returned to New Orleans for Southern Decadence to do a little, uh, exploring of his own. 

Bourbon Street (Photo courtesy New Orleans  CVB)
That year I unintentionally arrived in N’Awlins on the second anniversary of Katrina on Aug. 29, alongside Anderson Cooper (returning to the Lower Ninth Ward ruins that made him America’s TV emo hero), when I discovered the motorcade at the airport wasn’t for me but for then-President George W. Bush.

But while the feds dithered, New Orleanians were moving on and rebuilding. They knew they needed nothing less than their own Marshall Plan to restore their fabled city to its former glory.

"I lost everything – everything – but I didn’t cry," says my friend Houcine Harrabi, GM of the famed New Orleans record label Jazzology Records, who lost not just his home but all of his personal possessions, including every picture of his late mother. "I’m not bitter. I can’t be selfish. So many others lost friends and family. I still have my friends and community."


St Charles streetcar  (Photo courtesy New Orleans CVB)
Just two weeks ago, the Queen Diva of Bounce Music, NOLA’s very own Big Freedia, told me, “New Orleans used to be the murder capital of America. But Katrina changed us.I was stuck in the city during Katrina and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Then to see it all on TV…. But it needed to happen to change New Orleans. Katrina not only changed the politics of the city, it helped lower the crime rate. The city is definitely looking better because we got a much-needed facelift. We opened our eyes. Katrina made us appreciate what we have in life.”

Still, the week I was there for Southern Decadence (and I have since been back NOLA another couple times), 642 lawsuits were filed ahead of the U.S. District Court’s Aug. 29 deadline, raising Katrina-related lawsuits to 7,124 – thousands of them citing the Army Corps of Engineers who built the levees.

That same week another 5,262 homeowners filed municipal property tax assessment appeals in a city whose coffers have bled dry – despite the 700,000 spectators who attended Mardi Gras that year, 375,000 concertgoers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and 125,000 tourists at Southern Decadence – and the owners of the Astor Crowne Plaza sold their famed five-star hotel at Canal and Bourbon Streets claiming they could no longer handle the financial drain of the post-Katrina hospitality market. 


Chi Chi LaRue hosts 14th annual Big Dick
Contest (Photo Courtesy Chi Chi LaRue )
And the media – “ambulance-chasers like Anderson Cooper,” one tour guide told me – only made the recovery more difficult by focusing on the negative. 

But six years after Katrina, New Orleans is once again welcoming millions of visitors per year. The city has overcome challenges including substantial post-Katrina damage to the city’s infrastructure and reputation as well as a national recession, restrictions in corporate business travel, and the BP oil spill. The number of annual visitors has increased from 3.7 million in 2006 to 8.3 million in 2010 - nearing NOLA's all-time high of 10.1 million visitors in 2004.  And in 2010 tourists spent $5.3 billion, the most visitor spending in city history.

In other words, there is much for tourists to see and do.

The French Quarter, laid out by Jean Baptiste le Moyne on high ground in 1718, was practically untouched by Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. In fact, it’s cleaner and smells better than it did when I first came here 10 years ago.

And the Quarter remains the heart of New Orleans’ gay community. It was here, at the Bourbon Pub, where I saw famed drag queen/porn director Chi Chi LaRue host her raucous Big Dick Contest, which LaRue will host again this week for the 14th year in a row.

New Orleans cemetary (Photo courtesy New Orleans CVB)
Meanwhile, playwright Robert Florence, author of the acclaimed book New Orleans Cemetaries: Life in the Cities of the Dead, gave me a personal tour of the city’s famed and intact cemeteries, visiting the tombs of everybody from voodoo queen Marie Laveaux (a dead-ringer for Queen Latifah) to the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis (whose wife, Varina, sent their children to Montreal during the American Civil War).

Says Robert, "The federal government’s lack of respect for the dead during Katrina – I’ll be angry about that till the day I die."

I also saw Ellis Marsalis perform at the fab French Quarter jazz club Snug Harbor and popped into Tipitina’s, the original Professor Longhair music club (“I once served Robert Plant a Scotch and water, the highlight of my 10 years working here!” says bartender Jules Vicari).

Bugs (in white wig) parades at Southern Decadence
“I’m not worried about the musical legacy of New Orleans,” local music legend Allen Toussaint told me a couple summers ago. “The spirit of the music is alive and well. There’s parades in the streets, musicians are working.”

 The highlight of Southern Decadence is its outrageous parade, a 40-year-old annual pub crawl that winds its way through the French Quarter and was originally created by gays who felt unwelcome at Mardi Gras.

Each year my dear friends Dan and Dave, who own a B&B in the Quarter, organize a parade contingent. They year I took part in the parade we went as the "Whores for Vitter," the Louisiana senator and "family values" hypocrite caught patronizing the D.C. madam.

I was dolled up in an Esther Williams bathing suit and Marilyn Monroe wig and our group thrilled the cheering throngs snapping pictures and lining the streets in what was the longest red carpet of my life.

I was happy to be back in New Orleans and happier that New Orleans is back too. As Allen Toussaint told me, "New Orleans will live beyond Katrina."

Southern Decadence runs August 31 through September 5, 2011. For more details, surf to www.southerndecadence.net and www.southerndecadence.com.

Tickets for the Envy VIP party can be purchased here

And check out New Orleans CVB official tourism website here as well as their web page (with booking discounts) for Southern Decadence.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

HOW NATHAN PHELPS ESCAPED HIS ANTI-GAY DAD, PASTOR FRED PHELPS AND THE WBC

Nathan (Nate) Phelps lectures at Ottawa City Hall on August 27 during Capital Pride
(August 22) It was bad enough that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was pistol whipped, tortured and tied to a wooden fence like a torn, sagging scarecrow outside his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson shortly after midnight on Oct. 7, 1998.

Shepard died five days later, and four days after that, on Oct. 16 in St. Mark’s Church in Casper, Wyoming, the Rev. Anne Kitch spoke at Matthew’s funeral.

"We come here today to mourn Matt," Kitch said. "We come here today to offer our broken hearts. We come here today in the name of love."

But parading outside before the world media were the anti-gay American pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) followers, waving signs with such slogans as "Matt Shepard rots in hell," "AIDS kills fags dead" and "God hates fags."

"That was evil!" says Nate Phelps, the 52-year-old son of Fred Phelps, who left his family 34 years ago. "It’s an evil thing when a human being laughs at you during such a tender, painful moment in your life. They say sticks and stones can break your bones, but the reality is words do the most damage. It’s longest-lasting and often cannot be undone. When someone like my father deliberately steps in to injure someone else, that’s a pretty good definition of evil."

I’m not going to waste ink recapping the evils of the WBC – that’s what Google is for. But Nate Phelps – who has 12 siblings, of which nine (and their own sons and daughters) remain with the WBC – worked up the courage to leave his family the very day he turned 18.

"Growing up at home was a war zone," says Phelps. "[My dad] was always on the warpath about something, either with the kids or mother or someone out there in the world. He was always involved in battle. It’s still a mystery to me why he’s this way. What I know of his childhood is he was a fairly balanced, popular, mainstream kid. But a revival meeting in Mississippi seems to mark the turning point."

Phelps has embraced Canada
Fred Phelps’ children were forced to run 10 miles a day and eat milk curds for dinner, and by the age of seven Nate could recite the names of all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds.

"My sister tried to leave at 17 but there was just no thinking of leaving," Nate recalls. "I’d been at odds with my dad all my life and it escalated in my teens. When I was 16 it became clear [to me] that I was going to leave. I had to find a vehicle. So when I was 17 [in 1976] I bought a Rambler Classic for $300 from a security guard at my high school. I had to hide it, so I kept moving it around."

The second the clock struck midnight on his 18th birthday, Nate drove off in his Rambler with a box of his personal possessions, and "my first three nights [away] I slept in a gas station washroom."

Over the next 25 years Nate owned and ran a series of printing shops in California with his brother Mark, who also left the family. Nate married and had three children before divorcing and moving to Vancouver this past decade. Then last summer he moved in with his new partner in Calgary, a Canadian woman he met on the Internet.

But it was in Vancouver in October 2008 that Nate met UBC journalism student Trevor Melanson when Trevor climbed into his cab in Cranbrook, British Columbia.

"As I drove him to the airport he talked about his activities as a journalism student," Nate writes in the introduction to his website (www.natephelps.com).

"Suddenly he was explaining to me about a program on the BBC about a small, radical church in Topeka, Kansas. The look of stunned confusion on his face, when I told him that was my family, will stay with me for a long time. That chance meeting turned into an award-winning article on the UBC newspaper website called ‘Running from hell.’"

So Nate Phelps decided it was time to speak out publicly against his father. He decided he’d go wherever people invited him. On June 4 last year Nate Phelps addressed a gay rally for the first time in his life during Pittsburgh’s Pride week, and this August 27 he will give yet another public speech, this one at Ottawa City Hall during that city's Capital Pride week gay celebrations.

"This is all a work in progress for me," Nate Phelps explains. "I’m just now getting to know how historically difficult it’s been for the gay community in our society."

Proudly, Nate Phelps adds, "My daughter campaigned against [the ultimately successful anti-gay marriage] Proposition 8 in California [in 2008] and I reminded her that history is on our side. This will change."

But not for Fred Phelps who knows well of his son’s public campaign to discredit him.

"I’m anxious sometimes," says Nate. "After 33 years some days I still feel vulnerable. It’s still hard to hear my family say what they say about gays and Jews and me, but it’s not enough to make me pull back."

Saturday, August 27 at 7:30 pm at Ottawa City Hall (110 Laurier Ave)
$5 (Free for Centre for Inquiry Canada members)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

PARA EL AMOR DE MEXICO - PUERTO VALLARTA RIVIERA NAYARIT ARE TOP 10 GAY DESTINATION

The catch of the day at the Four Seasons Punta Mita -- and the fish was pretty good too! (All photos by Richard Burnett)

"I’ll snort a line of coke off his ass!" an American reporter cracked about the lithe, hot men in Puerto Vallarta as a bunch of shvitzing international travel journalists – including myself – enjoyed ice-cold Pacificos atop the mountainous Haramara Retreat on the Riviera Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

"How about champagne and Valium?" someone else piped up.

One journalist (and doctor from Mexico City) rated Cialis and Viagra-fuelled hard-ons four out of four. "[But] I didn’t bring my prescription pad!"

The Ali McGraw room at Haramara
All this fabulous unholiness took place in the middle of a holistic retreat made famous by owner Sajeela Delaborbolle, her staff (including Liliane, the back-pain specialist hired by Russia’s Vladimir Putin) and her famous guests, including regulars like Hollywood star Ali McGraw.

"Is there anybody there now?" McGraw asked Sajeela before she flew in to Puerto Vallarta last year. "No? Then I’m coming!"

Puerto Vallarta has long been one of the world’s Top Ten choice gay destinations. Now, with its international airport, it is also the southern entry point to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, which tourism officials here have steadily been developing since 2002 with their long-term Tourism Corridor program for Puerto Vallarta and the state of Nayarit.

The Riviera Nayarit is all about "sustainable tourism." In other words, green ecotourism. And the hotels, spas and retreats are all moving in.

Yarn painter Cilan Valadez in Sayulita
At the Haramara Retreat – one stop on this first gay press trip in the history of Mexico – Sajeela told me, "You have to go to Africa or Bora Bora to find unspoiled beauty like this. [Many] people no longer want to go to places that are destroying nature."

So we found ourselves in the small town of San Blas ("Sandblast!" one journalist quipped) where the local La Tovara National Park boasts over 600 different species of birds (including hawks, pelicans, blue herons and papa jays) living in mangroves filled with giant crocodiles. Though the meanest creatures in the mangroves are by far the black mosquitoes!

January is the most recommended time of year to visit La Tovara National Park, and whale watching season (notably humpback whales) in the huge Banderas Bay – which stretches the length of the Riviera Nayarit – is from Dec. 15 to April 15.

El Delfin in San Blas
San Blas is also home to renowned Mexican chef Betty Vazquez Gonzalez’s awesome restaurant El Delfin (part of the Hotel Garza Canola) that is a regular featured guest in Puerto Vallarta’s upcoming 17th annual International Gourmet Festival  in November.

"We have to remind people that Mexican food is not as spicy as they think," Betty explains, whose side dish of chile de arbol peppers on orange slices is to die for. "Too much spice ruins the flavour and your tongue."
About her hometown – population 3,000 – Betty points out San Blas was a big gay tourism destination in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "San Blas is like an old boyfriend that you never stop loving," Betty says.

Clearly, Mexico has come a long way. This press trip was the country’s first-ever gay press trip. I met and hung out with Alejandro Reyes Esparza, the 20-something editor-in-chief of Mexico’s first-ever gay publication, the glossy monthly OHM magazine. And last December, Mexico City legalized gay marriage – marriages now recognized in every other jurisdiction in Mexico. (Mexico City marked its 1,000th gay marriage on August 14, 2011.)

"You don’t [even] have this in America!" Alejandro said.

Taheima Wellness Resorts and Spa
But just like in Canada and America, Mexico still has its fair share of homophobes, like the governor of Jalisco (the state is also home to Puerto Vallarta), Emilio Gonzalez Marquez, who opened his big fat mouth the week I was there and told a forum on family in Guadalajara, "Marriage is [between] a man and a woman. The other [gay marriage], as they say, grosses me out."

El Informador now reports Marquez has apologized in a letter addressed to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, further south, we stopped in the classic ex-pat-filled beach town of Sayulita (great surfing here) where you will have no trouble finding the art gallery of yarn painter Cilan Valadez, son of the Mexican legend Mariano Valadez, both of whom are preserving Huichol culture (they are decendents of the Aztecs who built Mexcaltitán, a small man-made island-city off the Pacific coast, accessible by boat from La Batanza).


Four Seasons Punta Mita 
has old colonial feel
I also stayed at the Taheima Wellness Resorts and Spa where my suite was three times the size of my Montreal apartment. General manager Oliver Coupat – who has been in the hotel business for almost three decades – told me about my $1,500 per night suite: "When you’re paying $40,000 per night, then something’s wrong! But celebrities are hard to work with. One of the hardest is Jennifer Lopez, who wants everything white."

The worst he’s ever worked with over the years? Coupat reveals Johnny Hallyday had a huge hotel bill after trashing his suite. "But," Coupat notes, "the house always wins."

Four Seasons Punta Mita 
bar has old colonial feel

My fave hotel on this trip was hands-down the very exclusive five-diamond, beach-front Four Seasons Hotel in Punta Mita, with one of the most gorgeous colonial-style bars I’ve ever seen. They pour a mean double-vodka too. And they perform same-sex commitment ceremonies here as well.

Like chef Betty Vazquez Gonzalez told me one evening, "Gay people brought their culture to our towns [along the Riviera Nayarit], they have showed us another way to live, and we respect them."

Visit Riviera Nayarit online at www.rivieranayarit.com

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

JAMAICA STILL THE MOST HOMOPHOBIC PLACE ON EARTH - WHAT HAPPENED TO ONE LOVE?


(August 16)  Some years ago Time magazine dubbed Jamaica the "most homophobic place on earth."  It pleased gay activists to no end, since no amount of activism and lobbying for gay civil rights had managed to change a thing in the Caribbean island-nation. Meanwhile, the bad publicity enraged island supporters who dismissed the charges of homophobia because gaybaiting and gaybashing are merely part of Jamaica's cultural heritage.

That intolerace was laid bare again this week when the above video,  featuring former Miss Jamaica World (1998) and Miss Jamaica Universe (2004) Christine Straw with her gay brother, Matthew, was launched by the advocacy group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) and intended for airplay on Jamaica’s main TV stations, CVM and TVJ.

But both stations have refused to air the PSA fearing a public backlash.

I guess they're worried they'll be attacked and lynched like so many of Jamaica's gay citizens.

This week, in Jamaica's national newspaper of record, The Gleaner, columnist and TV host Ian Boyne denounced the TV stations, writing, "It's an indication of our backwardness, appalling intolerance and bigotry that an ad calling for "unconditional love" of our homosexual family members and friends is unlikely to be shown on local television because the stations are just too scared to show leadership in this area."

Boyne adds, "It is to our shame that Jamaican gay people cannot come on television, show their faces, debate their homosexuality with heterosexuals, go back home in peace and to their jobs and live normal lives the next day. If we lay claim to being a pluralistic, democratic society and not an autocracy like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Burma, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, gay people should be free to express their views without fear of violence, harassment or victimisation."

I have traveled to Jamaica a few times over the last 20 years and I don't know if an official gay-tourism boycott would only increase attacks on gay people in an already-impoverished Third World nation.

What I do know is being a gay person in Jamaica is a curse, and living your life openly there is next to impossible.

Even The Gleaner columnist Ian Boyne wants it both ways. He winds down his column, "I detest how the gay lobby has manipulated language to classify any opposition to homosexuality as 'homophobia'. That's absolute nonsense. There are rational, sophisticated people who believe homosexuality is morally wrong and philosophically and theologically unjustifiable. (As much as arrogant gays find that hard to believe). I personally believe that if the Bible is read as authoritative, and if any plenary inspiration is ascribed to it, you cannot come away with any justification whatsoever for homosexual conduct"

Boyne then concludes, "We must reach a point in this country where we can discuss homosexuality rationally; though perhaps not in my lifetime. Gay people, though, must understand that "unconditional love" does not mean unconditional acceptance of their sexuality. That's another form of bigotry."

To which I say tolerance is not acceptance - it is hypocrisy.

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Saturday, 6 August 2011

MEDIA IGNORES MARRIED LESBIAN COUPLE WHO SAVED 40 LIVES AT NORWAY MASSACRE

Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen saved 40 teens at the Norway Massacre (Photo by Maija Tammi)

(August 6) It's been two weeks since the July 22 Norway massacre and two bonafide heroes who repeatedly risked their lives to save 40 teens that day - a married lesbian cople - still have not even gotten their due in the international mainstream media.

Call it indirect homophobia. And direct homophobia.

To recap, in two separate attacks on July 22, a Christian fundamentalist murdered 77 people and injured another 96.

The Finnish capital city’s largest daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomatpublished this account (translated from Finnish):

Hege Dalen and her spouse, Toril Hansen were near Utöyan having dinner on the opposite shore across from the ill-fated campsite, when they began to hear gunfire and screaming on the island.
“We were eating. Then shooting and then the awful screaming. We saw how the young people ran in panic into the lake,” says Dale to HS in an interview.
The couple immediately took action and pushed the boat into Lake Tyrifjorden.
Dalen and Hansen drove the boat to the island, picked up from the water victims in shock in, the young and wounded, and transported them to the opposite shore to the mainland. Between runs they saw that the bullets had hit the right side of the boat.
Since there were so many and not all fit at once aboard, they returned to the island four times.
They were able to rescue 40 young people from the clutches of the killer.
“We did not sleep last night at all. Today, we have been together and talked about the events,” Dalen said.

Had Hege Dalen and Toril Hansenbeen been two straight men, they would have been hailed as heroes on the cover of every magazine from here to Timbuktu.

Just goes to prove that homophobia is alive and well in newsrooms around the world.

Friday, 5 August 2011

LAST KNOWN GAY HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, RUDOLF BRAZDA, DIES AT AGE 98



(August 5) The world's last known gay holocaust survivor, Rudolf Brazda, died on August 3 aged 98 in his sleep, at his home in Alsace, northeastern France.

During World War Two Brazda served 32 months in Buchenwald concentration camp for homosexuality. Brazda had served two prison sentences for "debauchery between men" and was among 10,000 to 15,000 people the Nazis interned for homosexuality, Radio France Internationale reported.

In Brazda's obituary in The London Telegraph, it is noted that "Although homosexuals constituted one of the smallest categories in the camps, they were often treated with a special ferocity — subjected to beatings, “extermination through labour” in the quarries, castration and medical experiments to make them “normal”; they also often suffered the homophobia of their fellow inmates."

Most media outlets and historians continue to report that just up to 15,000 homos were sent to Nazi concentration camps.

So it bears repeating that after Hitler – a self-loathing homosexual – was crowned chancellor in 1933, paragraph 175 of the German penal code enabled authorities to crush Germany’s burgeoning gay movement embraced by the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic. Over 100 gay bars and political organizations were wiped out in Berlin alone and SS chief Himmler himself later boasted the Nazis had slaughtered a million gay men between 1938 and 1944.

One million.

Worse, after the war, homos sentenced to Nazi death camps under paragraph 175 were still treated as criminals by the Europeans and their allies for another 50 years.

For decades Brazda did not speak about what had happened to him, since homosexuality was not decriminalised in France until 1982. As the Telegraph reports, "It was only in May 2008, when Berlin’s openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit unveiled a memorial to homosexuals persecuted in the Third Reich, that Brazda decided to speak out. He had been watching the ceremony on television and picked up the phone to correct a claim by the organisers that the last witness had died three years earlier. Three weeks later Klaus Wowereit went through the ceremony again. Standing at his side, clutching a red rose, was a white-haired, still wildly flirtatious nonagenarian."

 Last year Brazda was a guest of honour at a remembrance ceremony at Buchenwald andearlier this year the German journalist Alexander Zinn published Brazda's biography. Brazda was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honour in April 2011.