BATON ROUGE, La. — Sergio Oramas, who’s gay, and Ksaa Zair, a transgender woman who identifies as “demisexual,” live in a two-bedroom apartment in the St. John neighborhood of Baton Rouge.
Their rent is $600 a month, but Oramas tries to get as much overtime as he can at the Sears warehouse where he has worked for two months to “substantiate” Zair who remains unable to get a job. She said half of the money she receives from Medicare each month pays bills and rent, while “another good section of that” goes to the hormones she buys from a website outside the U.S.
“We’re family,” Zair told the Washington Blade on Saturday, referring to Oramas.
Oramas and Zair are among the dozen LGBT residents of Baton Rouge, advocates from groups that include Equality Louisiana and Louisiana Trans Advocates and allies with whom the Blade spoke on Saturday as they ate traditional Louisiana cuisine at a local restaurant.
Tom Merrill, chair of Baton Rouge Pride, grew up in Plain Dealing, a small town in northwestern Louisiana. He has lived in Baton Rouge for nearly 29 years.
“There are lots of things here that you just don’t find anyplace else,” Merrill told the Blade as his partner of nearly two decades, Rick Cain, listened. “Your family’s not necessary the people that are related to you by blood. That’s really true in a larger culture here, that everybody’s your family.”
That sense of family was palpable during a nearly two hour lunch with the group.
Carol Frazier, the former president of PFLAG Greater Baton Rouge, hugged Merrill and others after arriving at the restaurant. She also described this reporter’s lunch of thinly cut fried fish over rice with crawfish étouffée as looking “yummy” after a waitress brought it to the table.
Terri Higginbotham, who is the chapter’s secretary, told the Blade that her now 20-year-old son came out to her as gay when he was a freshman in high school.
She said she received Mother’s Day cards from some of the LGBT youth with whom she works. Higginbotham added some of them even list her as their mother on their Facebook pages.
“They don’t have families who will help take care of them,” she told the Blade. “That shouldn’t be the case. If you have a child, you should love and care for that child either way. It doesn’t matter who they love. It doesn’t matter who they want to marry. It doesn’t matter if they want to shave their head and move to Mozambique.”
Katrina prompts Baton Rouge Pride
Merrill and other LGBT rights advocates launched Baton Rouge Pride in late 2006, slightly more than a year after the city’s population swelled by nearly 200,000 because of the influx of those from New Orleans and other areas of southeastern Louisiana who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“We were in the post-Katrina period where Baton Rouge was the largest city in the state, but we had really nothing going on for Pride,” said Merrill.
Their first event was a picnic that took place in June 2007.
Baton Rouge Pride takes place in June because of the anniversary of the Stonewall riots and what Merrill described as “the historical significance of that.” The weather, however, quickly became an issue.
The heat index in Baton Rouge on Saturday was well above 100 degrees. Merrill told the Blade that paramedics ran out of chemical ice packs last year because of the high temperatures.
“They were throwing ice in latex gloves and putting them on people’s heads,” he said.
The annual event now takes place in a casino along the Mississippi River and features a resource fair and entertainment. Equality Louisiana also holds a march along the riverfront to the nearby state capitol alongside the Capital City Alliance, a local LGBT advocacy group.
Baton Rouge Pride last year honored Frazier and PFLAG Executive Director Jody Huckaby, who grew up in Eunice, La., as their grand marshals.
Roughly 20 people whom a fundamental religious group bussed into Baton Rouge protested this year’s Pride, compared to a handful of protesters who usually gather outside the event each year. Merrill told the Blade that they tell those pushing children in a stroller into the casino that they are “going to hell.”
“As adults we have no problem with that,” he said. “You don’t say that sort of thing to a three-year-old. We, particularly as Southerners, would never say negative things in front of small children. That affects their lives, but they don’t seem to have that same idea of politeness.”
Baton Rouge ‘voice of sodomy’
Matt Patterson, research and policy coordinator for Equality Louisiana, moved to Baton Rouge to attend graduate school. He and his partner, Bobby Beaird, who is the vice president of PFLAG Greater Baton Rouge, celebrated their fifth anniversary on July 4.
Patterson told the Blade that he became the “voice of sodomy” last year after news that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office had arrested at least a dozen men under the state’s sodomy law since 2011. He said he is one of the few people who are willing to speak to the local media about LGBT-specific issues.
“So somehow whenever shit happens in Baton Rouge, I always wind up being the person to go on the local news to talk about it,” said Patterson.
Frazier’s decision to launch PFLAG Greater Baton Rouge stems from her gay son’s suicide in 2002 when he was 37.
She told the Blade before eating her lunch that he moved from Baton Rouge to Nashville because he felt he wasn’t accepted. Frazier, a former journalist, said he had a “corporate-type job” that she said did not compliment “his real life.”
“I felt as though I were to represent the parents who may have not have been as kind to their gay child as I was,” she said. “It was my way of saying let’s all work together to make this a world we can all live in comfortably.”