Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The downtown fire fighter statue is due for repairs and, although he will soon be behind bars, he’ll always be out of the closet. By Anna Purdy

                                        Photo by Robin May

You may have noticed the gigantic red plastic mass on the corner of Vermilion and Lee streets that was barricaded and guarded during this year’s Festival International. Underneath it was a statue that was waiting to come out — a statue that has come to be known as Lafayette’s Gay Fire Fighter (LGFF). With hips cocked, arm outstretched as if to point to Fire Island and a hose in the other hand, the statue has earned this proud moniker via thousands of Facebook fans. LGFF now has his own Twitter feed, too. And his own controversy.

As suddenly as a closet light going out, Lafayette’s Gay Fire Fighter was wrapped up like a present the Thursday morning of Festival. It was ostensibly done to prevent further damage — there is a long crack running down his outstretched arm in need of new plaster.

But the Lafayette Fire Department is going a step further and will also place a wrought-iron fence around LGFF.

“Lafayette’s fire fighters are paying for the repair and the fence out of their own pockets, to replaster it,” says Fire Chief Robert Benoit. “It was not designed for people to hang off of and swing off of.”

Benoit says the statue was wrapped and protected during Festival because people were taking “disrespectful” pictures with it. Not coincidentally, LGFF asked fans on Facebook to snap photos with him during the four-day event. The Ind snapped its staff Christmas photo at and on the statue last year.

Now I have two confessions to make: First, statues don’t talk and, second, I am part of the reason this statue is called Lafayette’s Gay Fire Fighter.

Nearly a decade ago when my best friend moved to our Hub City, I introduced him to the statue. “Is this not the gayest statue you’ve ever seen?” I asked. As the years went by my friend and I would use the statue as our compass.

“Where are you?”

“Dude, I just walked past the Gay Fire Fighter. I’ll meet you at the Sans Souci stage.”

This same friend started a Facebook fan page for the statue last year. It was a joke among a few of us in the know — although I am certain my friend and I were not the first to dub the statue as such — until the Facebook page went viral. Now it has friends from all around the world, not just Lafayette. People come to town just to take pictures with it — a tourist attraction whose one serious aspect is that, just maybe, gay youth can feel good about this statue, like they have a voice in a pretty conservative town. If we can have statues and monuments dedicated to people who were slave owners — a documented fact — surely our Gay Fire Fighter nickname isn’t so bad.

My best friend who maintains the Facebook page is gay. Coincidentally, his fiancé is related to Nugier J. Perrodin, one of the two men who made the statue in 1970. We like to think the sculptor would be proud of his descendent.

So I’m sorry, Lafayette Fire Department, if our joke has caused any trouble. But it’s just a nickname. No one means to disrespect the proud men and women of our fire department. By all means, hold fundraisers to repair the statue, but don’t spend money on a fence. Use the extra cash to throw yourselves a party.

The LGFF brouhaha got The Independent to wondering: What does the statue think? So we asked, via email.

IND: Hi, it’s an honor to finally chat with you. How are you?
LGFF: Feisty and fabulous! Standing under the warm Louisiana sun, fighting fires. What can I have to complain about?

IND: So let’s get to it. What do you think about the fact that an 8-foot wrought-iron fence will be put around you? Don’t you think it’ll look like a go-go cage?
LGFF: I like the life of a free-range statue, able to come and go as I please. I was always more of a bar top dancer than a boy in a cage. I have a groove thing to shake, and no iron bars are gonna hold me back.

IND: What does being a grassroots gay icon mean to you?
LGFF: It means almost as much as making sure I check the battery in my smoke detector when I change my clocks for daylight savings time. LGBT youth (and the young at heart) need a role model, and I like to think I can let them know they can grow up to be anything: a fire fighter or even a statue. Everyone is unique, everyone is different and everyone is a part of Lafayette. I think that’s my message.  

IND: Do you think the fire department is uncomfortable with you’re sexuality?
LGFF: Some might be, but I love them anyway. I make no excuses. As a statue of Lady Gaga might say, “Baby, I was sculpted this way!”  

IND: Fire Chief Robert Benoit said that people “have been hanging off the statue and taking disrespectful pictures.” Have they? Will a fence stop that?
: Some good-natured climbing is in the cards for most statues, and I think most of my fans respect my integrity (both moral and material). I think a fence sends the wrong message to everyone, but I think the move comes from a place of love. Those fire fighters want to make sure I point the way for their kids and grandkids. But I think a little work and some public education about safer statue interaction would be preferable to a fence. Gotta spread my wings.  

IND: Lastly, and I’ve always wanted to know — what are you pointing toward?
Girl, I’m pointing at the future, at the best time you are ever going to have. I am pointing at all my little gremlins and the rich history and culture that I am proud to be a part of — I’m pointing at Lafayette, La.!

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