On a hot, summer day in 1986, a woman dressed as the infamous stage actress Tallulah Bankhead was kicked out of the Riverwalk Mall. She had hopped into a fountain and was splashing around wildly, blowing a whistle at her friends, and otherwise “making a scene,” much to the horror of confused onlookers. When approached by security, she was berated for disrupting the peace in a family-friendly environment. “But I’m with my family!” the woman exclaimed, gesturing to the large group of drag queens that had accompanied her. This group happened to be part of the 15th annual Southern Decadence parade, and the woman, Kathleen Conlon, was the parade’s Grand Marshal.
It’s a beautiful spring morning, and I’m speaking to Kathleen on a charming balcony that looks out over a bustling Royal Street. We’re not too far from where the fountain incident took place over 30 years ago. She remembers it fondly, explaining that they were just having a bit of fun. “Nobody knew what it was. Back then, Southern Decadence was just an underground thing.”
Kathleen followed a somewhat unique path to becoming a Southern Decadence Grand Marshal. She grew up in a sleepy Boston suburb where she wasn’t exposed to LGBT communities at all. Such communities were relegated to the shadows by people who disapproved of their identities. It was the very fact that queer communities were forced to hide that Kathleen found herself drawn to them. She tells me about being told to avoid Boston’s gay bars as a young adult, because they were perceived as dirty or even dangerous places. Naturally, this only piqued her curiosity further. But it wasn’t until she moved to New Orleans in the early 1980s that she really entered the community herself, developing a powerful bond with her close-knit group of LGBT friends and becoming a staunch ally for the community. She found herself embraced and accepted by the community in ways she hadn’t felt before.
In talking to Kathleen, it is immediately apparent that she is a natural storyteller. She fills her stories with the vivid images of her past. One moment she is telling me about playing piano with transgender icon Holly Woodlawn at a posh mansion party, and the next she reminisces about performing as the only woman in a troupe of bearded drag queens who called themselves Demented Women. Later, we share laughter about the time she saw an elderly woman drag a hose up to her balcony and drench a group of homophobic protesters in the Quarter.
But for all the laughs we share, our conversation is inevitably quite somber at times. She tells me that many of the people who participated in Southern Decadence in its early years thought that it would always stay underground or that the city would shut it down eventually. “It’s sad,” she says, “because none of these people are here to see the progress or reap the rewards when it was their sacrifice that made it all possible.” The AIDS epidemic took the lives of so many of these young men before they were able to see how far the LGBT community would come. Indeed, looking at a list of former Southern Decadence Grand Marshals, many of whom were Kathleen’s peers, is sobering. Out of the ten individuals who were Grand Marshal between 1986 and 1995, Kathleen is one of just two still living. This paints only a fraction of the picture. By 1995, nearly 350,000 people had died from AIDS in the United States and a largely disproportionate number of these deaths were of gay and bisexual men.
Kathleen distinctly remembers the beginning of the crisis. One of her friends, a young, perfectly healthy gay man who had recently moved to New Orleans began to show signs of a disease people knew very little about. “Initially, we were calling it the ‘gay flu’ or ‘gay cancer’,” she tells me. “And he’d come from San Francisco which was where, to our knowledge, it had originated. So when he started to show signs of it, we were upset and sad, but we weren’t surprised, because he came from San Francisco.” I ask her if she or her friends were scared at the time. “No. No, we just thought, this is terrible and sad. But we thought it was an isolated incident.”
Unfortunately, this young man’s death was, as Kathleen describes it, “a warning shot, or a harbinger of what was to come.” She continues, “It was pretty rapid, within three or four months it started, and then it was just relentless for several years.” She explains that the AIDS crisis was devastating on so many different levels. “There was the stigma for those who got it. And the physicality… you’d see incredible things that you didn’t even think were physically possible. Everything that plagues an old person, you’d see in a twenty-five or thirty or forty year old man. Things like dementia, physical impairment… I saw my friend lose literally forty pounds over a weekend. I saw him on a Thursday and he looked like himself. He told me he was sick. And then by Monday, he was unrecognizable, because he looked skeletal.” This particular friend was a bartender at Kathleen’s favorite hangout, The Golden Lantern, a famed gay bar in the French Quarter. They did children’s theatre together at Le Petit Theatre. Tragically, he is just one of countless friends Kathleen lost to the epidemic.
The shocking and often disturbing nature of the illness was a major contributing factor in the fear and misconceptions that became prevalent surrounding AIDS. As Kathleen explains, even the people who should have been the most educated, nurses and medical staff, were sometimes among the most ignorant. “They had an AIDS wing in Charity Hospital,” she tells me. “So we would go visit our friends. I would be sitting on the bed and I’d have my arm around whoever it was. And the nurse would come in wearing a burka, warning us that we were going to contract it too. But we’d all done our homework, we knew that wasn’t possible.”
It wasn’t just the people who contracted HIV/AIDS who were affected. Many of the survivors dealt with a variety of devastating repercussions. “There was this couple that had been together for something like thirty years, an incredibly long amount of time. But there was no legal recognition of their union.” In fact, gay marriage would not be legalized for another three decades. Kathleen continues, “When [one of these men] died of AIDS, his family came down and kicked his partner out of his own apartment and took away his possessions, because he had no legal hold. That happened to a lot of people during the AIDS crisis.” Kathleen explains that some families were very religious, often Baptist. “They just wanted to make the whole thing go away. So they would throw away everything.” Among the things thrown away by conservative families were videotapes containing performances by Kathleen’s drag group Demented Women. Some of these shows were impromptu AIDS charity events, the proceeds of which were donated to whomever in the community was in need. “It was heartbreaking,” she tells me, for all those memories to be lost.
I ask Kathleen how she and the other survivors could have possibly coped during a period of such devastation. “We drank a lot. We really did. You’d just numb yourself to the pain. It was the only thing that kind of helped you get through it… Of course that had a reverse effect, because then you’d have friends drink themselves to death, because they didn’t contract it. They felt survivor’s guilt. So it was a one-two punch. I blame a lot of the alcoholic deaths on AIDS. I really do.”
By the 1990s, Kathleen had moved to New York. There, she joined the renowned LGBT advocacy group ACT UP, which was still in relative infancy at the time. In January of 1991, she participated in the Day of Desperation, one of the most well known of the group’s organized protests. At the peak of rush hour, ACT UP inundated Grand Central Station with protesters, forcing the station to close. Kathleen’s role was to stand outside the station and let all of the delayed commuters know what was happening. “People were understandably outraged and angry that they couldn’t get to their train. But once I explained it, nobody was upset. They would say, ‘Oh, my son’s gay,’ or, ‘Oh, my neighbor’s gay.’ Every person knew a gay person and they thanked me for what I was doing.” Slowly but surely, attitudes were changing. These changes were long overdue for LGBT communities which had been facing discrimination and oppression for countless years. But progress was being made.
Kathleen recently moved back to New Orleans and is currently the vice president of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana. She is also working on a memoir.