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Come as you are: New Orleans embraces queer women.

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There's a special spirit in New Orleans. Maybe it's the unmistakable patina of a fascinating history. Maybe it's the libidinal freedom that comes from partying 24/7. For me, the sense of ease I get from being in the Big Easy is because of its inherent queerness. It's a part of America that seems to have been untouched by the Puritan spirit. A place where you can be yourself, especially if that means sipping a mimosa-to-go before noon and strolling the French Quarter. This city is constantly renewing itself while remaining true to itself, it bounced back after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to become bigger, better, and brighter with a strong and visible LGBT community.

WHERE THE GIRLS ARE

For a steamy good time, Southern Decadence on Labor Day Weekend (southerndecadence.net) has something for everyone, including Dykeadence, which is the main lesbian event, along with the dance party Fleurt! Thanks to Christine Johnson and Jenna Ard--the dedicated, friendly, and forward-thinking organizers behind GrrlSpot (see sidebar)--there are monthly pop-up nightclub events for queer women and all gender identities all year round in this city.

For queer relaxation and socializing, The Country Club is a hidden oasis in the Bywater neighborhood with a rich history of serving the local gay community. Inside this grand old house you'll find a pub-like atmosphere with sustenance such as spicy Bloody Marys and fresh Cajun fish tacos. Out back there's an in-ground, resort-style pool where you can frolic all day for a modest cover charge. It's a great place to meet new queer female friends on a hot day. (thecountryclubneworleans.com)

Queer women also run businesses here, and I was delighted to meet Carla Williams, a lesbian boutique owner and woman of color who moved from the Northeast to New Orleans to pursue her interest in selling meaningfully curated African-American artifacts, crafts, fine art, gifts, kitsch, and collectibles in a welcoming space. Her store, Material Life, is worth a visit and exemplifies the motto "Live With What You Love." And that includes a beautiful large-scale wall hanging by the celebrated artist Mickalene Thomas, which takes pride of place, (material.life)

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Fuel up with breakfast at gay-owned Vacherie, a charming and relaxed Cajun cafe inside the quaint Hotel St. Marie, located in a street with classic New Orleans wrought iron facades. The servings are generous and homestyle. (vacherierestaurant.com)

New Orleans cuisine extends beyond fried chicken, catfish, charbroiled oysters or shrimp po' boys--although they're all delicious! Eating lighter is an option, such as at Mopho, where Chef Michael Gulotta creates Vietnamese-Louisiana fusion food in a way which pair perfectly with Asian-inspired cocktails, (mophonola.com)

For a classic local dinner, Arnaud's is a time-honored tradition. Just off Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter, Arnaud's serves up classic Creole cuisine (think oysters six-ways, alligator sausage, and seafood gumbo) with old school service in turn of the century, date-worthy dining rooms. Begin or end dinner the French75 bar, where you must try the namesake cocktail perfectly prepared by experts, (arnaudsrestaurant.com)

There's something lazy and fun about brunch, and in New Orleans there are many options. None is better than at the legendary, female-owned Commander's Palace. This New Orleans landmark, operating since 1893, is a special and celebratory place and is famous for its fine food and its 25c martinis! Ti Martin and Lally Brennan have nurtured the venue to James Beard Foundation standard, while keeping it an enduring favorite with locals. (commanderspalace.com)

WHERE TO STAY

The elegant Windsor Court Hotel, walking distance to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, pays homage to European royalty and you can act out your queenly fantasies amidst the charming decor, the product of a $22 million renovation. Book a massage at the spa, take a dip in the outdoor pool, and get into vacation mode. At the high floor Club Level enjoy continental breakfast and cocktails at sunset. Dinner at the Grill Room presents beautiful and tasty dishes such as delicate tuna crudo and bouncy grilled Gulf shrimp, and the Lobby Bar serves a perfect dirty martini. If you time your cocktail right you can enjoy Robin Barnes, jazz chanteuse extraordinaire, who has a residence there. (windsorcourthotel.com)

If you're a hipster at heart head to the Ace Hotel, a hotspot for locals and visitors with its rooftop bar, chic lobby lounge, coffeeshop and music venue. The rooms have the distinctive style of an artistic warehouse apartment, and these suites have the swagger and self-confidence of the city itself. There are six types to choose from, but it's the spacious, loft-style Ace Suite that had us wanting to stay. Sup on local oysters at Seaworthy raw bar then continue on to dinner at Josephine Estelle, the hotel's romantic osteria which boasts a menu featuring innovative dishes dreamt up by James Beard-nominated chefs. Feeling casual and budget-conscious? Enjoy al fresco snacks on the roof at Alto. Ace Hotel has it all, including entertainment, from swing to hip-hop. (acehotel.com/neworleans)

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Get your bearings with a gay heritage walking tour of the French Quarter. Glenn DeVillier is like a walking history book--only much more fun--dishing little-known facts about the city's past, including the powerful businesswomen of early days and the gay artists who lived here, such as Tennessee Williams. (glfdevilliers.com/about-the-tours.html)

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It may surprise you to learn that New Orleans is naturally abundant, with Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John providing a refuge for many birds, fish, and animals. No need to hit the gym; take a Kayak tour on the bayou and see New Orleans from a different angle. The folks at Kayak-lti-Yat lead groups during the day, weather permitting, (kayakitiyat. com) For less strenuous exercise take a walk through New Orleans City Park's 1,300 acres of beautiful botanical gardens. Located within City Park is the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Stop for cafe au lait and beignets at Morning Call, a refreshment kiosk located in the park that has been serving locals since 1870. If you've never tried beignets--the chewy and addictive pastry treat--this is a good place.

Day or night, live music is all around you in New Orleans; it's on the streets, in the lobbies of hotels, in pubs and nightclubs, as well as churches. It's always at the House of Blues, and this venue is one of the best in the chain. But if burlesque is more your scene, catch Whiskey and Rhinestones, by Bella Blue, the queer darling of the New Orleans burlesque scene. Bella works with her life and business partner AJay Strong to produce LGBTQ-friendly spectacles with a variety of performers from their talented troupe, (thebellalounge.com)

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LOCAL LESBIANS: JENNA ARD AND CHRISTINE JOHNSON

GrrlSpot started in February 2006 as a small gathering of lesbians returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, when Ard and Johnson began dating, they pitched ideas on how to shape GrrlSpot into "a movable and memorable space for everyone under the queer umbrella to meet, see shows, and dance their faces off," says Ard. GrrlSpot went from "a small gathering of mostly white lesbians in a dive bar, to beautiful venues packed with some of the most diverse queer crowds I have ever seen," says Johnson. "Individuals across all spectrums attend our events, and we create and maintain safe spaces for our guests."

No permanent home means freedom and variety, says Ard. "Depending upon the venue, we can have aerialists, fire-spitters, burlesque performers, drag performers, live art. Christine and I have been very deliberate in our work crossing boundaries among groups in the city, through charity benefits and outreach. We strive to make everyone feel welcome--trans folks, people of color, and people of all ages and abilities. GrrlSpot belongs to everyone, and the incredible diversity of our guests shows that we are accomplishing our goals."

If you don't feel welcome in your Southern state, head to New Orleans. "New Orleans is a colorful bubble of liberalism and acceptance within the dark red South, and it has been for centuries," says Johnson. "For a small city, New Orleans has a large LGBTQ population, and as our political climate declines, and intolerance spreads, New Orleans will remain a safe haven for LGBTQ people. Come as you are, NOLA welcomes you, no questions asked."

JENNA & CHRISTINE PICKS

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* See one of Bella Blue's burlesque shows. Internationally-acclaimed Bella has performances in different venues around town, almost every night of the week

* Greetings, From Queer Mountain is a fun and unique queer storytelling show held on the second Friday of each month

* Krewe du Vieux--the provocative adults only parade kicks off the three-week long Mardi Gras season

* Gay Easter Parade, where queers in horse-drawn carriages parade through the French Quarter in fabulous Easter hats

* New Orleans Pride, the fastest growing Pride fest in the country, and its party, Rouge

* Dykeadence, Labor Day Weekend, for women, trans people, and people of color during Southern Decadence Weekend (a.k.a. Gay Mardi Gras).

Caption: The rooftop of the Ace Hotel

Caption: By-a cocktail or meal at the Ace Hotel

Caption: The Windsor Court Hotel

Caption: Dinner at The Grill Room

Caption: Feurt! Burleque
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Title Annotation:FEATURES/TRAVEL; New Orleans, Louisiana
Author:Johns, Merryn
Publication:Curve
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2017
Words:1558
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