Walking the French Quarter with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans

This LGBTQ+ history tour spills some ghostly tea.

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans French Quarter
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans; design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans; design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Notorious for voodoo lore, above-ground tombs, and timeworn taverns, New Orleans is often regarded as a mystical destination with no shortage of allegedly haunted places. Capitalizing on such mythos, ghost tours are a dime a dozen here, taking guests on strolls through morbid history with varying levels of camp, creepiness, and debauchery.

But there’s only one tour in town that combines ghost stories with jockstraps, and that’s Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans, a weekly tour through the French Quarter that’s as saucy as it is illuminating.

I’ve done ghost tours in New Orleans before, but never like this. My husband and I, in town for Southern Decadence, convened at the meeting point at Cafe Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the country. Even amidst the merry melee of Decadence, our guide was easy to spot, thanks to his hot-pink jockstrap and giant flag of Britney Spears and Madonna kissing. To-go cups in hand, Marcus Shacknow wrangled our gaggle of gays and paraded us around the French Quarter to stops both familiar and unexpected, pausing every couple blocks or so to spill some ghostly tea.

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans reveals a new side of this storied city—a side that, as Shacknow describes it, bridges gay history with gay smut—and showcases New Orleans as an epicenter of queer culture. I expected it to be funny, campy, and crass, with some horny hearsay sprinkled in here and there. It’s all of those things—but it’s also heartwarming and illuminating, leaving us with a newfound adoration for a city we all love for different reasons.

Growing up in New York City and working on Broadway, history and theatrics have always been in Shacknow’s blood. It wasn’t until a fortuitous trip to New Orleans, which was supposed to be a brief sabbatical but turned into four ongoing years due to the pandemic, that those passions inspired him to create a new kind of ghost tour in a city teeming with them. “I was already a nerd, so when I first moved here, I took every walking tour I could possibly take,” Shacknow recalls. “And when my friends would come visit, I would give them an unofficial tour.”

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans

His tours evolved from unofficial to a full-fledged business two years ago when Shacknow got his tour guide license and offered his first gay tour of the Quarter. He later put a haunted spin on the itinerary for Halloween and to help broaden the interest for a city inherently rapt by ghosts.

While the tours aren’t ghostly in a scary sense, they scratch that eerie itch through salacious folklore and sordid infamy. Now held once a week, they highlight everything from homoerotic vampires who may or may not have been locked away in a French Quarter building to the commissioning of Jackson Square by Baroness Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, who may or may not have been a lesbian.

Some elements are saucy, like tales of Marlon Brando’s alleged bisexual hookups in the French Quarter during the filming of A Streetcar Named Desire. Other stories are wrenching, like the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge gay bar 50 years ago—the deadliest tragedy in LGBTQ+ American history until the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

These tours are as much about community as they are about scandalous storytelling—a sentiment we felt strongly on the tour, and one that lingered all weekend, as we ran into newly familiar faces at rainbow-clad block parties and gay bars.

“These tours are so fun because gay history is not written down, and it’s all folklore,” Shacknow explains. “I’ll be on the tour and this old queen will interrupt with something that they heard when they came to New Orleans in the ‘70s, so these history tours become super communal.”

For Shacknow, Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans is an opportunity to show New Orleans in a new light, as a city that’s long been integral to queer culture, and one that rivals the gayest of metropolitan meccas.

“I grew up in Manhattan, and Manhattan people have this superpower of thinking New York City is the only city in the country,” he proclaimed at the start of our tour. “So I grew up thinking gay history was just Manhattan with a little San Francisco sprinkled in, but when I came here, I realized that wasn’t the case. Now I believe fully that New Orleans is the gayest city in the country.”

It’s also an opportunity to give visitors and locals alike something to be proud of, unified over untold New Orleans stories from someone who lives and breathes it. “Something I take a lot of pride in with this tour is that it’s run by a gay person, for gay people,” adds Shacknow. “It’s about New Orleans and it’s of New Orleans.”

That sentiment is on full, unabashed display on Shacknow’s tours as guests walk with the “gay ghosts” who paved the way and alongside those who continue to honor them.

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans tours are held once a week, all year long. Tickets can be purchased online.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for sharing queer stories, exploring national parks, and visiting Disney World. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacyork.