Nearly six decades after Larry Bagneris began his activist career, the now-retired local and regional LGBTQ pioneer is busy learning meditation.
“I never knew how much this could help!” Bagneris, 72, proclaimed recently from his French Quarter home. “I need it to deal with Trump.”
Bagneris spent 30 years working for the City of New Orleans. First, as a commissioner on the 18-member Human Relations Commission’s advisory committee for 12 years. Then, as its executive director for 18 years. Bagneris retired in May 2018.
“I worked for Marc [Morial], Ray [Nagin] and Mitch [Landrieu]. I realized with all these young kids coming through here I need to start thinking about what I want for me.”
What Bagneris has always wanted is the freedom and respect granted from equal treatment under the law. For all of us. Growing up in his close-knit family at St. Ann and Galvez streets, Bagneris knew early on that he was different.
“I knew I was gay when I was 4. When the priest hit me with the holy water at confirmation, I prayed that I would get rid of all that gay stuff,” Bagneris remembers.
Nevertheless, it was simply not to be. Neither the $238 psychiatrist’s bill did it nor did the idea of suggested shock therapy treatments. Instead, Bagneris began channeling his energies more constructively.
In 1962, at 16, he began picketing on Canal Street for civil rights, initially stepping in when a restroom-ready protester agreed to let him help. Bagneris later studied and worked with the women’s movement, too. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Xavier University and moving to Houston for work, Bagneris found his calling as an organizing advocate for gay rights.
Something to talk about
Ever the New Orleanian, the Houston Gay Pride Parade thanks Bagneris for dreaming it up 40 years ago, in 1978. As chair of Gay Pride, Bagneris is responsible for the beads, marching bands and whimsical throws associated with this now-massive event, which snakes through downtown Houston each June. Attendance in 2015, days after the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, is estimated at a record 700,000. That’s a far cry from those first parades along Westheimer Boulevard in Montrose with two police car escorts.
“The first year, just a handful of people came out,” Bagneris remembers. “The next year 10,000 people showed up. We used the parade as a vehicle of something the community could become. We wanted to present this as something a community could be proud of.
“In recent years, I’m just blown away by the number of people who come out. When we started out, my whole idea of it was ‘if the bars made money, that’s a successful Pride Festival.’”
But Bagneris soon realized the error in his thinking. Eventually, he was planning and organizing a $100,000 venture. In 1986, Tina Turner performed at Houston Pride, the dayslong event leading up to the Saturday parade.
Bagneris’ recall of names is good. He handily spouts off full names of acquaintances, associates and friends from his adventurous past. His handle on acronymic organizations is also whip-sharp.
“What struck me about Larry is that he was always really good at listening to people.
Vincenzo Pasquantonio, executive director of the City of New Orleans Human Relations Commission, says. “His method is to gather facts and listen to folks.” Pasquantonio noted that at the start of any interaction, Bagneris always seeks to make it a win-win shot for both parties.
Since 2011, details of this trailblazing bon vivant’s life have been housed in the Larry Bagneris Papers at Amistad Research Center.
“Years ago I became aware of Amistad, and I was familiar with what [it was] doing at Tulane. Later, when I was looking for a place to store my papers, I dropped by. I had a lot of stuff I didn’t want to throw out. When I saw how comfortable the place is and how so effectively it makes information accessible, I knew this was where I wanted to house my papers,” Bagneris says. Initially, it had been a toss-up between Amistad and New Orleans Public Library.
“I loved the concentration on civil rights and inclusiveness and knowing that there are students all around who can access these items,” he continued. “I just want them to know that whatever they’ve envisioned for themselves, they would be able to accomplish it by hopefully learning something from my life, in the fight for justice.”
Bagneris worked in corporate America for 20 years as an agent, assistant manager and trainer with Washington National Insurance Co. This tenure with the “very generous” company allowed him lots of vacations as well as national exposure to rights wins and trends. Pioneer San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk picked Bagneris out of a Gay Political Caucus banquet crowd when Milk noticed him weeping during Milk’s keynote.
“We hit if off real well. I spent one week with him after [he finally won] election,” Bagneris says. “I spent the week in his office. I met the guy who shot him.
“I learned so much from Harvey about staging things; about making proclamations. I took [his murder] very personally. [Milk] really was a great human being.”
The following year, Bagneris attended the first March on Washington for Gay Rights as a member of the national planning committee. The march was Oct. 14, 1979. Ephemera in his papers document his attendance at the Democratic National Conference in Memphis in December 1978 as “Guest,” as part of the “Presidential Convention Staff” at the Texas Democratic Party and as “Delegate” to the 1980 Democratic National Committee in Madison Square Garden over three days in August.
He was the first openly gay person elected to a Texas delegation of the DNC. In 1983 he was honored with the Harvey Milk Award.
When his company was acquired in a buy-out, Bagneris packed his bags for home. He needed to channel grief from his companion Jimmy’s terminal diagnosis, so made a run in 1990 for the District C city council seat. After making the runoff, he lost with a respectable 40 percent of the vote. He’d later work as a lobbyist for the N.O. AIDS Task Force in Baton Rouge, where legislators killed no less than 186 HIV/AIDS-related bills. Bagneris stitched several names onto the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In New Orleans, he committed 10 years to the N.O. AIDS Task Force. Bagneris was unsuccessful in his candidacy for House District 93, against the Rev. Avery Alexander, a mentor, in the fall elections of 1999. But the following year, Mayor Marc Morial tapped Bagneris to head the city’s Human Relations Commission. The Commission was created by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy to receive and mediate complaints of discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment for the City of New Orleans. In 2004, Mayor Nagin appointed him liaison to the New Orleans City Council.
So, what drove and sustained Bagneris during his active activist years?
“Deep inside of my soul is the same thing that drove me to watch the ignorance and the homophobia and the misogyny with a sense of incredulousness and sadness. Inequality to anybody means inequality for everybody,” Bagneris says. “Women and a laundry list of other people are under attack. This job is never done. These bigots are always one step ahead of you.”
While heading the HRC, Bagneris says his greatest achievements were saving Southern Decadence, the city’s $150 million late-summer shot in the arm, and recouping and distributing $2 million over the last 12 years in wrongfully-withheld pay to Spanish-speaking laborers. Thanks to Bagneris, there are now also Civil District Court sessions in Spanish.
“My job has been to get people to look beyond the stupidity of homophobia. It’s been largely about educating the police departments and exposing both communities to each other,” Bagneris says. “I just found this to be challenging work that gave you even more back.”
New Orleans Police Department Captain Louis Dabdoub wrote Nagin in September 2003 “to commend [Bagneris’] efforts...hard work, dedication and now-proven abilities in tough situations. We are lucky to have him on our team,” the longtime 8th District commander gushed.
Flying his flag
Although he left the Commission, Bagneris says he remains committed. These days, when he’s not meditating away presidential pain or traveling the world, you can still find him organizing the local LGBTQ community. One very visible reminder of his enduring legacy are all those fabulous rainbow flags flying above North Rampart Street, the west border entrance to the French Quarter.
“I had fun with other people’s money,” Bagneris deadpans again. “Twenty bars are paying $500 each for those flags” along eight city blocks.
He recently began gathering his thoughts for a book documenting his experiences: his “magical upbringing,” his ever-supportive family and Houston as the place where he “couldn’t have found a better place” to have been.
“From my papers, people can see what I’ve done and see that New Orleans is 10 to 15 years behind. My mission has been making justice for every group in the city,” Bagneris says. “You can’t beat that. I’ve been through the hard days; now you enjoy it.”
Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.