Decades of Decadence: How New Orleans’ ‘gay Mardi Gras’ got started
August 1972: It was hot, and a group of self-proclaimed outcasts who lived together in the whimsically named Belle Reve cottage (after Blanche Dubois’ home in “A Streetcar Named Desire“) in the Tremé neighborhood decided to throw a party, both to distract them from the heat and to bid farewell to a friend moving to New York. The theme was “Southern Decadence: Come As Your Favorite Southern Decadent.” On the night before Labor Day, the friends costumed at home; about 50 people attended the party, which consisted largely of drinking and smoking under a large fig tree. The next year, the friends decided to throw another party, so they met at a French Quarter bar in costumes and paraded back home. Southern Decadence was born.
Billing itself today as “the largest gay event in New Orleans,” Southern Decadence has a come a long way from its humble beginnings. Every year, tens of thousands of people venture to the French Quarter to take part in the five-day celebration, which includes events ranging from costume contests and drag shows to parades and concerts. The theme for the 2017 party, which is scheduled to run Aug. 30 to Sept. 4, is “Electrified.” Most of the party is free; anyone who is in the spirit can put on a costume and romp around the Quarter.
- Southern Decadence is known for being the biggest LGBTQ event in the South, but the original event was simply a party among of friends, some gay and some not. In 1981, the only active participant from the original group was Grand Marshal Robert King. When he and his friends from the Golden Lantern Bar took over, the event became a predominantly gay event.
- Southern Decadence is recognized as one of the biggest annual events in the city, bringing in more than $250 million in revenue for the city.
- Originally, the founding members chose the marshal, but in the 1980s it was decided that the sitting marshal would choose his or her successor.
- Three grand marshals will lead the 2017 Decadence: Princess Stephaney, Coca J Mesa, and Persana Shoulders.
- Only twice have the grand marshals reigned for more than one year – in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, both times due to hurricanes.
- Because of Hurricane Katrina, Southern Decadence was cancelled in 2005, though some French Quarter holdouts led a small parade through the Quarter, despite the mandatory evacuation then in effect.
- Every year since 1990, the festival has boasted an annual theme and color. The themes have ranged from the subversive to the downright silly to the more innocuous New Orleans-esque themes like “Voodoo That You Do.”
- To go with the theme “Electrified,” the 2017 color is “All Colors Neon.”
- The party isn’t without its detractors. In 2016, nine preachers were arrested for yelling anti-gay slurs over bullhorns during the Saturday parade. A city ordinance prohibits “any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.”
New Orleans has long been recognized as a city where you can be who you want to be, and that goes beyond cross-dressing. Here’s a French and Spanish city in an English colony, a blue city in a red state, a refuge city for the gay community in the Deep South — and a place in which costuming, parading and partying are sewn into the fabric of this city. Southern Decadence is perhaps New Orleans at its most accepting: people celebrating what makes them them, with extra sequins sewn on.