Lafayette's moment of Pride

Pride Festival organizer Wendy Dorfman
Wendy Dorfman grins ear-to-ear outside her shop in Downtown Lafayette just before the district hosts its first-ever Pride Festival. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Don’t bother. That’s what Wendy Dorfman’s friends told her when she hatched a plan for a Pride Festival. People are friendly enough here, they said, but they won’t rally publicly.

“I think it’s a lot of the gay community, having been shunned and getting treated like crap and not feeling welcome and safe; they just expect that nobody wants them. They’ve learned by that experience, they’re not welcome,” she says.

Dorfman, who owns Sugarwolf Outdoor Exchange with her partner Allison Nederveld, asked her neighbors up and down Jefferson Street anyway, inspired by the moment to do something to mark Pride Month in Lafayette. Just ahead of the Pride Festival’s Downtown takeover this Saturday, she’s got more businesses pitching in than she can fit on the flyer.

“Maybe it’s just rainbow washing,” Dorfman laughs. “But I don’t care.”

The festival follows a highwater mark for local LGBTQ+ advocates battling in recent years for visibility. In early June, it seemed another Pride Month would go undeclared by Lafayette Consolidated Government. With a City Council proclamation secured, advocates have something tangible to celebrate, a place to throw their party and a Downtown community willing to support it with them publicly.

The event was set in motion before the proclamation was in reach. Down the street from Sugarwolf, Beausoleil Books had plans underway for a Pride-themed day of reading and discussion scheduled for its regular book club. Store manager Alexis Lemoine and community coordinator Endya Hash booked the event as part of the shop’s community outreach mission. Bryan Dupree, who opened the shop with his husband, James Colvin, Hash and curator Blair Boles in 2020, credits Dorfman with stretching the event across the entire Downtown community.

“Wendy did what we really weren’t doing. She was able to pull in a lot of the other people Downtown to make the event more universal,” Dupree says.

Downtown Lafayette Pride 2021 now has a sprawling lineup of speakers, vendors, music and food. As planned, Beausoleil is hosting panels, trivia and a drag show. Jiu Jitsu instructor John Jordan is teaching a short class on self defense. There’s tie dye, silk screening, mom hugs and specials: half-off rainbow rolls at Tsunami and deals from Scratch, Tula and Pamplona.

Dorfman crafted a crew of volunteers to paint the town rainbow. Free of charge, they’ve been working their way up and down Jefferson Street. Several have opted in, while others declined but still offered gift packs or taped flyers in their windows.

The network of support was a natural extension of the Downtown community’s daily camaraderie. Owners frequent each other’s shops and restaurants, Dupree says. They pop in for help and conversation. It’s a neighborhood.

Handy Stop owner Bradley Cruice says “y'all means all” is a value he derived from his faith. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Catercorner from Sugarwolf, a proud declaration is painted on the window at the Handy Stop: “Y'all means all.” Owner Bradley Cruice, raised Catholic, says it’s a value derived from his faith. But putting the rainbow on his window didn’t take an act of God. The transaction was simple. A friend asked for help. He obliged. It’s not a statement of values, Cruice says. It’s the neighborly thing to do. 

“When your neighbor asks you that. When your business colleague asks you that. I didn’t give it a second thought,” Cruice says. Plus, it’s a free painting.

Dorfman found that easy willingness wherever she went. She tallied up more businesses than she could promote in just a few days, some who were unaware of Pride and what it commemorates — riots resisting homophobic laws enforced in New York City in June 1969 — but happy to help nevertheless. She got immediate assistance from the Downtown Development Authority, which offered to help coordinate an even bigger affair. DDA is marketing the festival and co-hosting its Facebook page.

The event would have happened with or without the proclamation — and with or without fellow Downtowners, both Dupree and Dorfman say. Pride is, historically, an act of defiance for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Pride is for us,” Dupree says. That it’s drawn support from the rest of the community is a bonus. Outreach to the queer community is the goal, and would have been all the more important if allies and neighbors had not gotten behind it. “It will mean something to someone,” Dupree says.

Visibility for the queer community is still a political battle in Lafayette. Local political leadership has tacked further right, influenced by conservative activists who vocally opposed the Pride Month proclamation as a bid to declare Lafayette a “Gay City.” As a candidate, the mayor-president signed a pledge to donors to protect Lafayette’s “traditional values,” and he’s stood by that commitment since taking office, rebuffing requests for the proclamation while making dozens of others. Recent appointees to the library board protested Drag Queen Story Time. This week, the presence of Pride Month displays in Lafayette’s public libraries drew skepticism from conservative board members, wary of the “controversy” they could churn.

It's not just recognition, either. Violence motivated by hate remains a threat for the LGBTQ+ community, and public policy decisions continue to have tangible impacts. This year, the Louisiana Legislature took up several bills targeting trans rights, including one banning trans youth from women's sports, which Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed this week. All but two members of Lafayette's legislative delegation supported the measure.

Against that backdrop, small wins can be a big deal. Halfway through Pride Month, four of the five City Council members signed their name to a proclamation. For advocates who pushed for local government recognition, it was a victory for visibility. With their efforts, they have repeatedly hammered the message that gestures are powerful.

“It doesn’t feel like a win; it feels like an embrace,” says Matt Humphrey, one of the advocates fighting for the proclamation.

That this is even a controversy, advocates say, illustrates how far there is to go. Lafayette can still feel like it’s living in the past, Dorfman says. But the festival will be a beacon for Lafayette’s queer community, lighting up Downtown as a welcome zone.

As community spots, gay bars have come and gone Downtown over the years, but in recent months, the district’s reputation as a friendly zone for Lafayette’s LGBTQ+ community has grown. Several shops are owned by openly queer proprietors. But the sense of openness radiates further to storefronts from Rêve to Carpe Diem.

“It feels good in Downtown Lafayette lately, and that excites me more than anything,” wrote Cait Marshal, a UL grad student, in Straight News Online’s Living with Pride series. “I want other queer folks from around the Acadiana area to see the good Lafayette has to offer, even if it’s sometimes hard to find it.”

Lagniappe Records is one of the shops Downtown that's publicized itself as a safe and inclusive space. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The upswell of support does extend outside the Downtown enclave. Humphrey says this year just feels different, and that would have been the case without the proclamation. The local chapter of PFLAG, the LGBTQ+ support organization, sold out its first run of T-shirts. Humphrey saw a wave of support on social media. A group of pastors penned a letter urging leaders to stand on their faith and offer their support to the LGBTQ+ community, reinforcing the message that symbols like the proclamation mean something.

“Please ask yourselves this: how do we protect people? How do we love the unloved? How do we see the unseen? The answer is simple. We acknowledge their existence,” the letter reads.

Community gestures like these have been hard to come by, and even in small doses can be powerful signals, notes Humphrey.

“It’s just something I never thought I’d see in Lafayette: business owners putting on their own thing; the churches that wrote the letter, the City Council saying this needs to be done,” he says. “Everyday people are joining. … It’s a huge baby step.”

Why the step comes now is unclear to both Dorfman and Humphrey. It’s possible no one asked, Dorfman muses. Or maybe it’s attitudes warming nationally. Whatever it is, she’s been overwhelmed by the moment. Lafayette’s first Pride Festival is shaping up to be bigger than she imagined. It could go so well, she laughs, that it could be a disaster. Maybe she should have sprung for a block party and shut down part of Jefferson Street, she wonders.

“That’s what next year is for,” Dorfman says.