City of pride: Large gay crowds call Natchez home

Published 11:48 am Thursday, February 5, 2009

Natchez is more than 2,000 miles from San Francisco. But for some local residents, life in Natchez is just so gay they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Though it’s seen, and not often discussed in proper company, there’s a grand gay scene in Natchez.

Thom Miller and Shawyn Mars have been together nearly 18 years and have had Natchez as part of their dual residency since the 1990s.

Miller said he and Mars make up one of just many gay couples that call Franklin Street home.

“It’s like the Natchez Castro,” Miller said laughing.

The Castro, in San Francisco, is one of the largest gay communities in the country.

“And there are so many (gays in Natchez,)” Miller said. “It’s like a little Castro.”

But for Mars, Miller and an untold number of gays around the city, they’re content to leave the Castro alone — Natchez is just fine for them.

“It’s just a great town,” Mars said. “We love it here.”

Mars and Miller moved to Natchez fulltime from New Orleans in an effort to escape the city’s post-Katrina crime epidemic.

“We wanted to get out of there,” Miller said. “And this is where we wanted to be.”

Both Mars and Miller said it was the slower pace of life and quiet streets of Natchez that attracted them.

While Mars and Miller said they can’t speak for all gay couples in Natchez, they do know that the city has some unique offerings that are attractive to those in the gay community.

“The antebellum homes are amazing,” Miller said.

Miller said the old homes coupled with the almost unending pick of antiques shops, gays working in the antiques business and general grandeur of the area makes for an ideal living situation for many gay men.

And Miller admits it does sound a bit stereotypical.

“But gay men like pretty things,” he said.

Another attractive aspect of the area for many is the lower cost of living.

Mars said since many of the area’s gays came from California, which has high home prices, enormous homes in Natchez look cheap by comparison.

Mars and Miller’s home on Franklin Street is huge and decked out in wall-to-wall antiques.

And Natchez’s low home prices aren’t just the couple’s secret.

It’s almost like a running joke.

“A modest gay man can live like a queen here,” Miller said smiling.

Mars and Miller said one unique aspect of Natchez’s gay life is the high number of men that are married with children that lead both gay and straight lives.

But they’re not naming names.

Miller, by his own non-scientific estimation, said he believes at least 25 percent of Natchez is openly gay or are in a gay relationship.

“All the men are gay after midnight in in Natchez,” he said.

Miller also said another unique aspect of Natchez is that many of the men in the area are couples and have been in a relationship for long periods of time.

And while Miller and Mars both said Natchez isn’t the type of town that welcomes gay hand holding in the street — it’s an open community.

“It’s very tolerant,” Miller said. “People here are very accepting.”

And for some, that tolerance is directly linked to the city’s history.

Layne Taylor and his partner, Don Vesterse, have been together for 11 years — and they love Natchez.

Taylor said he believes that accepting attitude has to do with some of Natchez’s earliest residents.

Taylor said he feels the vacationing plantation owners that were traveling from Natchez to locations all over the East Coast and Europe contributed to a more sophisticated social climate in Natchez.

“People in Natchez are more sophisticated than in any other place in Mississippi,” Taylor said. “This is a very different place than the rest of the state. Natchez is just very unique and people know that.”

And while Taylor said not everyone in the gay community is a best friend, Mars said there is some camaraderie in the community.

Even a few years back the Natchez gay community hosted parties meant to mimic pilgrimage — it was basically a gay pilgrimage.

Gay men would come from out of town and attend lavish parties thrown by locals that owned old antebellum homes.

The parties had their own names, the Pink Camellia Tour and the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof party.

“They were great,” Miller said.

And they weren’t bad for boosting revenues at local B&Bs in the off-season.

While those parties aren’t around now, Mars said when they were, they were popular.

“It was something people wanted to be invited to,” he said. “Even the straight people wanted to come.”

While the parties, antiques and memories of the Old South are fun, Mars, Miller and Taylor said the gay community isn’t really any different than any other community.

“A person’s sexuality shouldn’t be an issue,” Taylor said. “There’s an ability to be yourself here, and be appreciated for what you bring to the community.”