United States – Dawn Wheat is able to remember the exact minute the van passed until today. Earlier this month, the 51-year-old with a warm smile and boundless enthusiasm was helping his wife Lori organize the annual Southwest Louisiana Pride Festival at their bar and event site located in the outskirts of Lake Charles. The truck driver then hurled an anti-gay slur while continuing to drive the truck.
“As I looked at Lori, the question immediately came to mind: ‘Did they talk to us?'” Wheat was brought up with a chuckle. It was a rare moment of overt and real antagonism, but it was a moment that highlighted something the couple had understood for some time: they were no longer in New Orleans.
Lake Charles and the surrounding region of southwest Louisiana are known for their strong conservative leanings. As a result, the town of around 80,000 no longer has any gay pubs or clubs. Crystal’s, the last official hangout and a longtime favorite of the local LGBTQ+ community, closed just before Hurricane Laura landed in 2020 and hasn’t reopened since. Castaways, the facility owned and operated by The Wheats, is only accessible for private functions and gatherings.
Even though LGBTQ+ topics such as gender-affirming care have become the subject of controversial legislation and heated political debate in Louisiana and abroad, that hasn’t stopped those who identify as part of this community to create places to come together and celebrate Pride month this June.
When the couple chose to move to her family’s land on the border of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, which is a 20-minute drive from central Lake Charles and is surrounded by marshes, Lori Wheat was aware of this in what she was getting into and had prepared accordingly. The couple first moved to the area to care for their late grandmother, but eventually decided to build Castaways, a self-built restaurant that is perched on wooden stilts above the swamp. Since 2021, this place has been the site of the SWLA Pride Fest, which is now the busiest pride festival around.