Gilbreath donned a rainbow t-shirt and a captain's hat embellished with gold cord and pride colors. He sipped a beer he shared with his daughter, licked frosting off his fingers from a cupcake he shared with his granddaughter and chatted with young folks from the LGBTQ+ community. He sat in his wheelchair, parked on the front lawn of OUTMemphis facing Cooper Street, as dozens of friends and strangers stopped by or drove by honking and waving. "Getting to watch the man that I've loved and known all my life, getting that validation that he's always given me," Jones said. "I think this is going to be one of the things that I cherish for the rest of my life."
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in November, Meagan Jones tricked her grandfather.
Jones, a therapist based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, traveled back home to Memphis to spend time with Herschel Gilbreath—she calls him Pau Pau—as he recovered from a stroke he had on Nov. 1. After the stroke, his doctor told the family there was also a blood clot perilously residing in his brain, promising to cause grave problems.
"[His doctor] said that we were to expect the big stroke and that he may not survive that one," Jones said in an interview. "My heart, it broke into a million pieces."
Gilbreath is a gay man. He came out to his ex-wife and daughter (Jones's mother) in 1977. The following year he met Vincent Gonsoulin after moving to New Orleans. Gonsoulin was the love of Gilbreath's life, but back home in Covington, Tennessee, few outside of the immediate family knew that.
"I grew up knowing he was gay," Jones said. "It was not a big deal at all. It was just, sky is blue, sun comes up tomorrow, Pau Pau is gay.
Gonsoulin and Gilbreath were together for almost 40 years before they married in a small 2018 ceremony. Yet, throughout their relationship, he told some that they were friends or even brothers. The reality of living his truth fully was something Gilbreath wasn't ready for outside of New Orleans.
In 2020, Gonsoulin died after a battle with AIDS. Gilbreath moved back to Covington where he retreated from living out proudly. After losing her grandmother unexpectedly earlier last year, the call about Pau Pau's stroke shocked Jones into action. Jones told Gilbreath she had hired a photographer and that she was taking him to Midtown Memphis so they could get a few photos together on a beautiful day. The playful deception was a way to deal with the heartbreak. She hired local photographer Benton Huang for what she wanted to be a "flamboyantly gay" photo session to honor Gilbreath and his impact on her own identity. Huang was so moved by the story, he reached out to local contacts in the media and community to turn it into an occasion.
Above, left: To his surprise, Gilbreath, also known as Pau Pau, was greeted with a lawn full of rainbow flags, balloons, disco music and joyful supporters who wanted to celebrate him. Right: Liz Carlton waves a pride flag while waving to passing cars on Cooper Street. A passing car dropped off a gift bag for Pau Pau that included Elton John-themed socks, a greeting card and a paper crane.
Nathan Hull holds hands with Gilbreath while expressing gratitude to him during the celebration. "I can't believe how much easier it is to be out now," Gilbreath told him. A pair of strangers approached Gilbreath shortly after his arrival asking if this was the Pau Pau they had been hearing about on the news. Jones said she felt the tension building and was worried that this interaction was going to validate her grandfather's fears. Instead, they said they had been so touched by his story because they had a relative who was living in the closet. They thanked him.