Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It should be a point of pride that Lafayette’s LGBT community is relatively robust.

About the only eyebrow-raiser in Lafayette Parish having the second highest per capita number of same-sex couples in Louisiana behind Orleans is that the 2010 census data was crunched by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, leading me to conclude that “Williams” is code for rainbow. Or unicorn. Or unicorn giving birth to teacup Yorkies in a manger festooned with rainbow-colored ribbons. 
I’m exaggerating a lot.

But seriously, at 8.58 same-sex couples per 1,000 households, the Lafayette Parish number is higher than the state average of 7.03, which is also the national average, although far below the 13.58 per 1,000 in New Orleans. Yet it is still a respectable showing for several reasons and underscores a common perception in Lafayette that we are more like New Orleans than any other Louisiana city or parish.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Colin Miller, South Louisiana field director for Forum for Equality, an advocacy group that lobbies state and local lawmakers on LGBT issues. “Aside from New Orleans, there’s nowhere else in the state I’d want to live.”

But does this data qualify Lafayette as a “gay-friendly” parish?

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say we are the ‘second-most gay friendly parish’ in the state; I don’t think we can make that claim by this data set,” says Stephen Handwerk, a Midwestern native and Lafayette resident who is also co-chair of the Stonewall Democrats, the blue counterpart to the GOP’s Log Cabin Republicans.

“However, I would say that the investment in the creative class and the support for the arts is certainly something that is a large draw,” Handwerk continues. “When you combine that with the friendly environment it certainly is easy to fall in love with this city, as my partner of 10 years and I have.”

Handwerk nails it: Among the points of orthodoxy for modern city planning is the notion that the vitality of a community’s LGBT population is an indicator of how progressive that community is — and by progressive I don’t mean liberal, socialist or Kenyan — of its level of commitment to funding arts, culture, recreation, urban renewal, technology and other initiatives that are attractive to the creative class.

Lafayette is followed in descending order by St. Bernard, Tangipahoa and East Baton Rouge to round out the top five. Digging deeper into the data an interesting demographic pattern emerges: While overall same-sex couples tend to cluster in urban areas in South Louisiana, those couples raising children tend to eschew the more heavily populated areas, seeking out the relative quiet of rural enclaves, including in far northeastern Louisiana — Richland Parish and the Carrolls East and West.

Lafayette’s strong showing, and South Louisiana’s overall rankings for same-sex couples, could — and this is my speculation, shared by others — be attributed to another important demographic, specifically the higher proportion of Roman Catholics and/or relatively lower number of evangelical protestants compared to north Louisiana.

“I think that generally people in Lafayette are more laid back and accepting, and the Bible Belt does not have a huge foothold in Lafayette like it does in other areas of the state,” observes Miller. “I do think it has a lot to do with our heritage, and our Catholic history, which tends to be a little more ‘live and let live’ than the fundamentalist-protestant history.”

But while the LGBT community is a bellwether for how progressive and tolerant our community is, and Lafayette’s ranking within the state should be a point of pride for us, the gay population is also a canary in our coal mine. The vitality of our LGBT community, its willingness to stitch itself into the fabric of Lafayette and to be a player in our civic life, depends on our continued embrace of those things that make us attractive to creative spirits. If our gay population retracts it reflects an abandonment of part of what makes Lafayette such a great place to live and raise a family. Witness the recent budget amendment aimed at cutting off funding to the arts. It will fail thanks to a coalition of Republicans and Democrats on the council that values our culture, but it’s a sign that we must remain vigilant against Tea Party pablum and its know-nothing imperatives.

I draw one other conclusion from the data: Louisiana Family Forum is blowing an opportunity to rail against the gay horde hacking feverishly at the monolith, because if my wife discovers how many gay couples Lafayette is home to, she’ll divorce my sorry ass and become a lesbian.

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