Living Legend: Larry Bagneris

Larry Bagneris is described as "a monumental figure in city government" by Vincenzo Pasquantonio, executive director of the City of New Orleans Human Relations Commission. Photo courtesy of Larry Bagneris.

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

Larry Bagneris, executive committee member of Houston Gay Pride Week 1979, addresses the crowd.

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 w