Oral History – Stewart Butler

Painting of Stewart Butler by J.B. Harter

Stewart Butler was born on August 21, 1930, in Mobile, Alabama. He graduated from high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and attended Louisiana State University. Before finishing his degree program, Butler enlisted in the U.S. Army. He achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant at the time of his discharge in 1954. He then moved to Alaska where he finished his education by earning bachelor degrees in geology and business administration from University of Alaska. He remained in Alaska for ten years and became involved in labor politics. Butler returned to New Orleans in 1964 and embraced his sexual identity as gay. In 1980, with the financial support of his life-partner Alfred Doolittle, Butler became a full-time queer activist. He was involved in the Gertrude Stein Society, became a founding member of the Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus (LAGPAC), the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans, served on the board of the New Orleans chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). He also advocated on behalf transgender rights and criminal justice reform. In the last decade of his life, he co-founded the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana. Butler passed away in his sleep at the Faerie Playhouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 5, 2020, at the age of 89.

Stewart Butler Oral History Interview

by Interviewer: Frank Perez | Audio Engineer: Mark Gonzalez

Interviewee: Stewart Butler
Interviewer: Frank Perez
Audio Engineer: [Mark Gonzalez?]Transcriber: Kaley Fisher

Collection # and Tape 4996
Session I
August 6, 2019

[Begin Tape 4996. Begin Session I.]

Mark Gonzalez: Stewart, Frank is going to introduce you and himself. I need to just check the recording levels and they seem to be good. It says it’s recording.

FRANK PEREZ: [00:14] Okay this is Frank Perez here at the home of Stewart Butler, who is the subject of our interview today. Mark Gonzalez is the audio tech, and we will be chatting with Stewart for about an hour about his involvement with PFLAG, which is the “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” in New Orleans. Stewart, hello. How are you this afternoon?

STEWART BUTLER: I am wonderful. And now I am ready to go.

PEREZ: Well, very good.

BUTLER: [00:47] I was interested in PFLAG because I was a chairperson of LAGPAC membership committee. And I, in that… from that position kind of wandered around the community a bit because I was after names for LAGPAC’s mailing list. Now, PFLAG in New Orleans started in 1981, and it was founded by Niki Kearby and Betty Caldwell, and Molly and Dr. Douglas Webster. And they had their first meeting at the St. Louis Community Center, which was a Catholic community center, but they didn’t know that they had a faggot in charge of running the place. And so, we were able to have quite a few different sorts of gay gatherings there. And in time PFLAG started having monthly board meetings on the first Thursdays and membership on the second. Board meetings were usually in some member’s home or office, but membership meetings requiring more space were usually held in one of the larger meeting rooms of a church. And some of those churches were, after they left the St. Louis Community Center, were Rayne Memorial Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue, and then St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, and then St. Mark’s Methodist Church on South Carrollton Avenue.

PEREZ: [03:30] Stewart, you had mentioned LAGPAC, and that you were very involved with that, what made you shift your time and energy and efforts over to PFLAG?

BUTLER: I didn’t interfere with my LAGPAC work. I was fortunate in that I had a soul mate of 35 years who was very wealthy, and, in fact, his name was Alfred McLaughlin Doolittle. And, in fact, I was able to retire at the age of 48 when we moved out to California for… because Alfred thought he wanted to go, but in eight months he changed his mind and we had to come back and find another place to live, which we found at 1308 Esplanade Avenue. And… Did that answer your question?

PEREZ: Sort of, you… When you came back from California you got very involved with LAGPAC…

BUTLER: Primarily.

PEREZ: …primarily, but then eventually you became more and more involved with PFLAG. How did that happen? Why did that happen?

BUTLER: [05:04] It was… I was involved with LAGPAC as long as it… just about as long as it was active. Which was [pauses] close to 20 years. It was founded in 1980. And I… You want me to talk?

PEREZ: Yep, sure.

BUTLER: And PFLAG… Not only was I able to meet more people, some of whom I was eventually able to get onto LAGPAC’s mailing list… But I became interested in PFLAG for what it was doing, and I [pauses] am so grateful that I did, because some of it led back around to my political agenda. Some pretty funny things happened along the way. For example, … And good things… Francis Monnier who was from Raceland, Louisiana, came up here to New Orleans, or over here to New Orleans, for a PFLAG meeting. But he was so nervous about being in the big city, and so he did not come to New Orleans again. But we were able to still use him as a contact for whatever we might need. And sometimes he was able to do it. Of course, from a practical point of view it wasn’t a whole lot, but he ran across a young man, 17 years old, who was dyslexic and epileptic. He was just coming out even though he had a very, very rough juvenile life, and [pauses]…

PEREZ: [. . . ?]

BUTLER: [08:14] And Francis thought he should send him to us, which was a wonderful thing.

PEREZ: Do you remember his name?

BUTLER: Of course, I remember his name. It was Pierre [Delante?], but we called him Peter. And it’s just one of the funny things, and wonderful things, he only lived for 10 years.

PEREZ: Was he sick?

BUTLER: Somewhere along the line I think he got AIDS, and he spent his last days here, well we called our home the Faerie Playhouse, at the Faerie Playhouse.

PEREZ: [09:13] So, you and Alfred sort of adopted him unofficially?

BUTLER: Yes, and tried to send him down to [pauses]… What’s that Catholic place that takes in young people?

PEREZ: Project Lazarus, or…

BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Oh, no, they called that…

PEREZ: Covenant House?

BUTLER: Covenant House. And he just didn’t fit in and came back.

PEREZ: [?]

BUTLER: [09:54] I took him to the Southeastern conference in Atlanta that year. When I say Southeastern conference, for lesbians and gay men. It was an organization that, again, lasted quite a number of years and did an awful lot of good work.

PEREZ: What year would that have been, Stewart? Or roughly?

BUTLER: Peter would come in ’88. He died in ’98.

PEREZ: Okay. If we could get back to PFLAG…

BUTLER: But I have… You interested in anything about Peter or not?

PEREZ: What do you have more to say about Peter? We’d love to hear about it.

BUTLER: Well, I hope this isn’t too rough for some people, but he had a humongous penis.

PEREZ: [laughs] Okay.

BUTLER: It was so long that one Mardi Gras somebody put it in a stocking and just let it hang out hidden by the stocking so that he wasn’t totally nude. [laughs] I thought that was pretty funny. But [pauses]…

PEREZ: [11:46] So you met Peter through the gentleman Francis, who had come to a PFLAG meeting. What other people did you meet through PFLAG that became a pretty significant part of your life?

BUTLER: Well, Joe Melcher, who taught hearing at Delgado, and I knew that my hearing was getting bad, but it’s kind of scary to think about trying to do anything about it. But he finally told me that I needed to go, and that he knew the doctor in charge of audiology at the veteran’s hospital, where I could be treated, and hearing aids bought at minimal expense to me. And these hearing aids are, well, they are a lifesaver. My regular insurance did not cover dental or hearing, and so it had been awfully expensive for me, especially in those days, to try to do it.

PEREZ: And Joe Melcher had served as the president of PFLAG for a number of years?

BUTLER: [13:59] He very well may have. I was going to [pauses]… Well, in PFLAG not only did I know the founders, but also, more importantly, I met Sandra Pailet and Steve Freeman, who were living together. And they became, for me, crucial friends. When I was having some difficult times, which we don’t need to go into, they were an important buffer for me. Also, there’s another little story. I learned an awful lot at PFLAG meetings, some of which were pretty interesting and educational for me. And that in one case this man, who was married, was feeling like he was gay, and that’s why he came to PFLAG, and he even divorced his wife first. But she came also with him because she wanted to know what the fuck was going on. And her husband is still on the board of PFLAG today, but his wife, after being away for about eight months, she came back and she says, “I figured it out. I’m a lesbian.” [laughs]

PEREZ: Oh, wow. Wow.

BUTLER: Which was a wonderful thing.

PEREZ: And he is still on the board today?


PEREZ: [16:50] I wanted to ask you about Courtney Sharp. How did you meet…

BUTLER: Well, we’re going to get to that in a minute. But another thing I was going to [pauses] well that I thought was absolutely amazing was that this seven-year-old boy came to a meeting with his father. And he had, prior to coming to the meeting with his father, gotten on the internet and one thing and another, and found out all about transgenders. And when he explained it to his father, he was one hundred percent supportive. And that to me was just amazing, about transgenders, and […?] let’s see [pauses]… [18:24] How’d I meet Courtney Sharp? […?] gotten involved with transgendered… I’m not sure how I met Courtney. But when I met her, she was… Well, she was a… started out as a guy, and she was already going full time as a female, but she had not had the surgery. That would seal it, so to speak. And for some reason I had already, and I don’t remember how, got vaguely involved, or at least met some transgendered people. And I thought, that talking about LGBTQ, transgender should be included, obviously. But people were against it.

PEREZ: [20:02] So, originally PFLAG did not include transgender?

BUTLER: No, but Courtney and I became very, very close during her physical transition, and we’re still very dear to each other today. And, of course, that’s how I got to know Courtney. And [pauses]

PEREZ: Courtney told me that you and her are the ones who brought the issue up with the local PFLAG chapter and began that gradual process.

BUTLER: Before that we went to the local HRC and spoke with them, and the answer was… Or maybe we contacted the national HRC, I’m not sure, but the answer was “they’re not covered in our bylaws.” And so that was the reason, that was an excuse…

PEREZ: “They” meaning transgender?

BUTLER: [21:40] Yes. The real reason that HRC was so hesitant about doing anything was because of the fact that they were very, very close to Barney Frank, who was the openly gay senator from Massachusetts. And he had introduced, in the Congress, a nondiscrimination motion for gays and lesbians, perhaps bisexuals. HRC did not want to go against Barney Frank, and the reason Barney Frank did not want to include them was that he thought that he already had a tough enough class without including transgendered people, which would just complicate matters so much more for him. So, Courtney and I decided that we would try to get the local chapter of PFLAG involved. We had a board meeting… I was on the board, and [pauses] at the time, and [pauses] and I’m hesitant because my poor old 88-year-old brain don’t work like it used to, I’m sorry.

PEREZ: It’s okay. Take your time.

BUTLER: [24:29] When we went before the PFLAG board here, they were rather hesitant. But when we went before them, we were able to talk them into supporting it. But they couldn’t actually do it without the support of the action of PFLAG national. I am [pauses]… Oh, so our local chapter went to the PFLAG national to get their authorization and were able to sell it. And so when that happened other national gay organizations started getting on board, and we just kind of surrounded HRC, and I still can’t support them.

PEREZ: So, it would be fair to say that the local PFLAG chapter was responsible for persuading the national PFLAG organization to include transgender people in their mission statement?

BUTLER: And, as I said, I don’t know if they sold it or if the other organizations did happen to come around on their own or what, but the fact of the matter is that HRC was surrounded.

PEREZ: Yeah.

BUTLER: It took a long, long, long time for them to finally get the message. Perhaps maybe after Barney Frank was [laughs] not around…

PEREZ: Right.

BUTLER: …anymore, I’m not quite sure. But, I feel, to be honest with you, that it was Courtney and I that started that shit.

PEREZ: [27:16] Well, that’s a pretty amazing contribution that I think has gone unrecognized by a lot of people and historians.


PEREZ: So that would have taken place at the national PFLAG convention, which was in a different city each year, and…

BUTLER: Well, it’s not a convention, it’s a conference.

PEREZ: Conference. And the national PFLAG conference was in New Orleans…

BUTLER: Their being in New Orleans in 1993 had nothing to do with [pauses]… with their…

PEREZ: [28:11] The transgender inclusion? That would have been in ’98, but PFLAG did have its national conference in New Orleans in ’93.


PEREZ: So, we’re kind of shifting topics a little bit here.


PEREZ: You, along with two other people I believe, were the co-chairs of the host committee for that conference.

BUTLER: Well, actually it was me and Sandra Pailet representing the local chapter, even though I was not… I was in charge of the membership committee, as I was for LAGPAC, and… But I wasn’t [pauses]… well maybe I was on the board, I don’t remember. But in any event… Oh, Sandra Pailet and me, and we thought that we needed more help [?] in running the thing, and so being aware of the fact that Billy Henry was [pauses]… had a lot of contacts because of his funeral service business of the primarily AIDS people, when he saw to it that they had a funeral without necessarily any cost if necessary. And so, we asked him to be a [try?] person running it, so there were three of us running it.

PEREZ: [?]

BUTLER: [30:13] And we had that ’93 conference for PFLAG here in New Orleans in the [pauses]… I think the Marriot hotel. In any event, Billy and Sandra decided that for the formal dinner that was part of the conference, that the dress code would be formal. In other words, tuxedos, which I’d given up on years and years before, costume optional. So, I said obviously I have to wear a costume. And [pauses] Alfred had a good friend by the name of [pauses]… From San Francisco, I think his name was… Oh, I’m having trouble with that, but [pauses] yeah, but he was a well-known drag queen in San Francisco and became quite a show person, sometimes known as the Mad Countess. And she started coming… or he, he never was transgendered by any means, came to… started coming to New Orleans and joined what was then our family circle of friends. And he went to a national march on Washington, I think for AIDS, because I had the quilt out that day. It was hard to find a reasonable hotel during that conference, but we did, in any case Freddy and I were out one night having a cocktail or two, and I said, “Fred,” but Freddy was his name, I said, “Fred, I’ve got to come up with a costume for this thing coming up later on this year.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you go in drag?” Well, no decision was made but we were out again, and, just to add onto that idea, Freddy says, “Why don’t you go as Dame Edna?” And Alfred’s sister was there at this point, and she said, and know we were just joking kind of, “I have the perfect gown for you:” Alfred’s grandmother’s. Well, that kind of sealed it but nothing definite was decided, until a few days later here comes this gown in the mail. That sealed it. So, when the night came for the dinner, I had a few hours of free time, and I… Robbie was there, and he’s rather effeminate to say the least…

PEREZ: [36:20] And who is this? DiGiacomo?

BUTLER: DiGiacomo, yeah. In fact, he came a year before Peter did, at the age of 17. But he lived a whole lot longer and was an alcoholic, and he could sober up on special occasions. He put together my 85th and I think my 89th birthdays. Not 80, 70. 75 and 78 or something. At any rate [microphone feedback] there we were up in the hotel room. I’m laying out there on the floor spread eagle so that they could put makeup on me. All I had on was a pair of pantyhose. And there was my sister there in the room and a whole bunch of other people, close friends, who were in on it. My sister came over way down from [?] for Christ’s sake. And when the time came to make my appearance, and I stepped in that dining room, and Sandra Pailet was right there greeting people, and she absolutely howled. And I had quite a night to say the very least. Except I had a big problem: I had to wear high heels for God’s sakes to that thing.

PEREZ: [39:06] Those are painful, huh?

BUTLER: Oh, God, are they painful.

PEREZ: Did most people recognize you or not?

BUTLER: Well it didn’t take long for them to. Maybe, I mean, you know the ones from here or whatever. Some of the people who came in from out of town, of course, didn’t know me in or out of costume. But on one or two occasions, even with those high heels on, I managed to get out and circulate a little bit for one or two reasons that I don’t remember. But I’ve got to tell you, [pauses] I was so glad when I could get rid of those high heels. Also, at that particular conference Davell Crawford, who had been the choirmaster at more than one Catholic church, and he was very, very accomplished on the piano, and so we got him to come as part of the entertainment. Anyway, I got back to my room and kicked those shoes off. I wanted to keep the dress on though because I wanted to show Alfred when I got home. He didn’t go.

PEREZ: Alfred did not go?

BUTLER: You never knew. Sometimes Alfred went to some rather big things, other times he just…

PEREZ: [41:44] Well, earlier at the beginning of the interview you mentioned that it was Alfred’s money that enabled you to retire and devote yourself to activism, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about Alfred and that?

BUTLER: [laughs] You mean how I met Alfred?

PEREZ: Sure.

BUTLER: I don’t have the date in front of me, but it was in 1973, I think. No, it couldn’t have been. Oh, yeah, it was. Absolutely. The way I met Alfred is that one night I was out in the beach bar, cruising, with my friend Steven Duplantis who came in from Lake Charles, and I don’t think you want to hear about how I met Steven Duplantis, but we were very, very good friends. Where was I?

PEREZ: [43:19] You and Steven Duplantis were cruising at Lafitte’s on the night you met Alfred.

BUTLER: Yeah, well Steven Duplantis was with me on that night, and it was raining, and Steven went outside for some reason, you know, under the shed, and he saw Alfred. Alfred was broke. And Steven talked him into coming into [clacking sound] the bar. And I was 42, he was 36, but he was a young looking 36. And he came onto me like GangBusters after I bought him a drink. He said, and here I’m using some bad language I guess, like, “Why don’t you take me home with you? I’ll suck you and you can fuck me as much as you want.” What’s a poor guy who’s half loaded, not too loaded to drive, but is going to say, “Yeah,” I said, “Yeah, you want to come home with me and smoke a joint or whatever?” And we were out of that bar in a flash, and on the way to the car Alfred says, “You’ll probably throw me out tomorrow like everybody else does.” I said to myself, “What have I gotten myself into this time?” [laughs] But we got home and did our thing, and I felt like he wasn’t going to rob me or anything, so I went on to work, and he just started staying there. And after a while [pauses] I think a friend of mine by the name of [Wells Backo?], which we won’t get into, said, “Why don’t you just live here?” [laughs] I saw no reason not to. Oh, because in the meantime, a few days after he was here, he says, “I’m going to get some money tomorrow or in a couple of days.” And I said to myself, “Yeah, you think that John is going to pay you what he owes you,” to myself. But sure enough, here comes his monthly check for $300, which was a good amount of money in those days, especially considering the fact that where I was living then cost me $65 for a furnished apartment even with the landlady’s, she had lived there as a child, and some of her books were still there. How…

PEREZ: [48:26] So, Alfred… Alfred’s family had money and…

BUTLER: Oh, yeah. So that was enough money to take care of him in those days, and so fine. I was still working though, don’t misunderstand.

PEREZ: Where were you working?

BUTLER: I was working for Johnny Walker, a land surveyor. I had a [pauses] degree in geological engineering and business administration [laughs] which, somehow or another, I got this staff person’s job with his land surveyor. And, of course, I didn’t say anything about being gay, in time they found out and it didn’t bother them, because I guess I was doing a good enough job even though I was a… It was an… a surveying […?] so they just had… they would bring in the notes from the field and I was supposed to draw them up, and that didn’t take barely any time. And I managed to keep that job for [pauses]… Well the reason I got it was because I had been working as a waiter out at some restaurant on Canal Boulevard that is no longer there, but I decided I wanted to go to law school [pauses] at nighttime, not […?] a job. And so, I had to find a place that was between work and the law school. And so, we moved to 2115 Prytania Street. I did. That’s where I was living when I met Alfred. How much more do you want me to go on about Alfred? This is PFLAG, Alfred had nothing…

PEREZ: [51:35] Well, I guess what I was getting at with the question was, when Alfred told you that he wanted you to retire and become an activist, it was his…

BUTLER: He didn’t say “and become an activist.”

PEREZ: Well, what did he say? What made you become an activist?

BUTLER: Well, because Alfred wanted to put in a swimming pool at the house on Prytania Street. I said, “Alfred, we can’t put in a swimming pool. We don’t own the place.” He said, “Buy it.” [laughs] And I asked… went to see the landlady, Mrs. Edna Connelly, who was a wonderful woman and who I became good friends with. In fact, when I first moved there she was in the front parlor and my bedroom was back in the back, but I had to go through the second parlor to get to the bathroom. Had to go through the dining room […?] the dining room was part of what I was renting: dining room, kitchen, pantry, serving room, and bathroom. The hallway to that house, though, was big enough she could have shoved a 50-foot house trailer in it. They were living high on the hog. And I said, well… I went to her and I said, “Alfred wants me to buy the house and I came over, and I understand that even though you didn’t actually have it on the market that you would take $100,000?” And she to me, “Well, Mr. B, since it’s you, you can have it for $90,000 and you’ll have to take everything in house.” Which was the house she and her family lived in. And, well, obviously we bought it. We had a… Alfred didn’t like the shape of the swimming pool and whatever, but 1978 he got the idea that he wanted to move back to Hollywood. North Hollywood. No, Hollywood. So that he could relive his youth. So that he could go to the chicken bars and he could go surfing, but he’d have to know how to drive and so had a ’69 VW van and I said, “Well, without a […?] learning, or relearning, he hadn’t driven for years before we applied for our licenses. Well, Alfred could not get that van parked. In fact, he wanted to buy a Rolls Royce convertible [laughs] and that’s when I said, “You have to learn how to drive,” and I said, “Well, [?]” and finally he just fucking gave up. And even though we’d had some good times there, Freddy came down to visit us from San Francisco a few times and he was always great company and fun, and we’d go out to eat. Oh, and when we went to one restaurant by the name of The Numbers, which was […?] restaurant, and it was downstairs, and we went and got served and everything, everything was fine, but on the way out Alfred went over to this guy, he says, “I remember you.” [laughs] “You used to fuck me.” [laughs] Everybody could overhear him and the place just fucking howled. Freddy and I were up on a landing. Oh, God. That’s when Alfred said he wanted to come back to New Orleans. [laughs] That was after eight months, but we had to arrange so that we would be able to sell that house and be complete with the sale before coming back to New Orleans with all that furniture Alfred had… family had send him, with a moving van. Coordinated with having the money to buy what we found in New Orleans, to buy ahead of time and have it so we could just [pauses]

PEREZ: [59:26] So when you arrived back in New Orleans with Alfred, after living briefly in California, why didn’t you go back to work full time? Why did you get involved with LAGPAC?

BUTLER: Oh, because when he wanted me to move to California I was 48 years old then, we’d been together six years, and I said, “Well,” I said, “You know, I don’t want to go out there and look for a fucking job right away or whatever.” We had to borrow money from his family to do the finances on selling one house and have another one already waiting for us. And [pounding sounds] that’s when we moved here. And when I was 48 and he wanted to move out there I said, “But I’m not working anymore.” “Oh, that’s okay.” [laughs]

PEREZ: [1:00:43] So, when you got back here…

BUTLER: Yeah, we were only gone eight months. […?] You know who I got my marijuana from out there?


BUTLER: The person who sold us the house we bought out there.


BUTLER: [laughs] Like I said we had a good time while we were there.

PEREZ: Stewart, we’re getting close to time. I wanted to maybe bring it back to PFLAG a little bit and ask you, in your involvement with PFLAG going to the scholarship announcement meetings and just knowing some of the people that PFLAG has benefitted, does it ever make you think how your life might have been different had there had been an organization like PFLAG when you were young?

BUTLER: [1:01:46] I’ll say this. I look back upon my life and I’ll have to tell you there were some hard times, but, overall, I’ve had a magnificent adventuresome, and I hope did a little good work in this world while I’ve been here. I don’t know if that’s what you were looking for.

PEREZ: That’s fine. Is there anything else you want to add?

BUTLER: Let’s see [pauses] [pounding sounds]. Well, also, after Sandra Pailet and [pauses] Steve Freeman both died, Julie Thompson became the new co-chairperson of PFLAG. And even though I was no longer active with it we became good friends and I still know a lot of people that are still on the board.

PEREZ: Very good.

BUTLER: Those who were… came on in my younger days and they were younger [laughs] and I grew older, so a lot of them are still alive.

PEREZ: Thank you, Stewart.

BUTLER: Well, you’re welcome. God bless you all.

[End Tape 4996. End Session I.]