Since it was founded in 1781, New Orleans has marched to the beat of its own drum. For two centuries, those in control of the Louisiana state government have tried in vain to impose their prejudices on a city that is French, Spanish, Creole, African, Catholic, pagan and very gay (in both senses of the word). If nothing else, New Orleans knows how to throw a party, from the world-famous Mardi Gras to other, more specialized celebrations.
One of these celebrations began quite inauspiciously in August of 1972, by a group of friends living in a ramshackle cottage house at 2110 Barracks Street in the Treme section of New Orleans, just outside of the French Quarter. It was in desperate need of repair, and the rent was $100 per month. At any given time the residents numbered anywhere from six to ten, and it was still sometimes difficult to come up with the rent.
The large bathroom became a natural gathering place in the house. It had no shower, only a clawfoot tub, but it also had a sofa. With from six to ten residents, and one bathtub, everyone became close friends. While one soaked in the tub, another would recline on the couch and read A Streetcar Named Desire aloud. The Tennessee Williams play inspired the residents to fondly name the house “Belle Reve” in honor of Blanche DuBois’ Mississippi plantation.
And so it was, on a sultry August afternoon in 1972, that this band of friends decided to plan an amusement. According to author James T. Spears, writing in Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, this “motley crew of outcasts” began Southern Decadence as a going away party for a friend named Michael Evers, and to shut up a new “Belle Reve” tenant (from New York) who kept complaining about the New Orleans heat. As a riff on the “Belle Reve” theme, the group named the event a “Southern Decadence Party: Come As Your Favorite Southern Decadent,” requiring all participants to dress in costume as their favorite “decadent Southern” character. According to Spears, “The party began late that Sunday afternoon, with the expectation that the next day (Labor Day) would allow for recovery. Forty or fifty people drank, smoked, and carried on near the big fig tree … even though Maureen (the New Yorker) still complained about the heat.”
The following year the group decided to throw another Southern Decadence Party. They met at Matassa’s bar in the French Quarter to show off their costumes, then they walked back to “Belle Reve.” This first “parade” included only about 15 people impersonating such “decadent Southern” icons as Belle Watling, Mary Ann Mobley, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Keller, and New Orleans’ own Ruthie the Duck Lady. This impromptu parade through the French Quarter and along Esplanade Avenue laid the groundwork for future events, and the group decided to repeat the party again the following year.
In 1974, the Southern Decadence visionaries named Frederick Wright as the first Grand Marshal, hoping to provide at least a modicum of order. For the next six years, the format of the celebration changed little. The founding group continued to appoint each year’s Grand Marshal by consensus. Some were gay, some were not. But all were members of the founding group.
By 1981, most of the original organizers had moved on with their lives. Many felt that the event had become so big that it was no longer the intimate party they had started nine years earlier. Of the original group, only Grand Marshal V Robert King was actively participating. He, along with some of his friends that hung out at the Golden Lantern bar, thought it was worth continuing and they took over the festivities. It was at this point that Southern Decadence became primarily a gay event. Other protocol changes made in 1981 included moving the starting point of the annual parade from Matassa’s to the Golden Lantern bar, and allowing Grand Marshals to personally name their own successors. Both of these traditions continue today. And in 1987, the Grand Marshal began to make a proclamation of the official theme, color and song.
Because the 2005 celebration was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina, Southern Decadence 2005 Grand Marshals Lisa Beaumann and Regina Adams reigned for both 2005 and 2006, making the very first time in Southern Decadence history that grand marshals ruled for two years. And keeping with the unpredictability of Decadence, the Grand Marshals from 2008 reigned once again in 2009.
The rest, as they say, is history. What began as a little costume party is now a world-famous gay celebration. In the 39th year, it has mushroomed from a small gathering of friends to a Labor Day weekend tradition, attracting over 100,000 participants, predominantly gay and lesbian, and generating almost $100 million in tourist revenue. This annual economic impact ranks it among the city’s top five most significant tourist events. The mayor has even welcomed the event with an Official Proclamation.
Described by one reporter as “a happening of haberdashery fit for an LSD Alice in Wonderland,” Southern Decadence 2010 will be as outrageous as ever and live up to its reputation as New Orleans’ largest gay street fair. It all begins in earnest six weeks before Labor Day. However, the real party starts on the Wednesday before Labor Day, and the events are non-stop. It picks up steam daily as it nears Sunday’s big street parade, which rivals New Orleans’ gay Mardi Gras in scope, with the party lasting well into the day on Monday.
If you’ve never been to Southern Decadence, and sadly I haven’t, here are some tips to know before you go. What follows are some thoughts gathered from locals that will help you get the most out of your experience.
Pass by the NO/AIDS Task Force’s information tables located on the St. Ann Street sidewalk in front of Hit Parade Gift and Clothing, at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann Streets. You’ll find lots of community information and details of the weekend’s events. The literature racks inside of Hit Parade are another great source for all of the Southern Decadence information that you will need.
During Southern Decadence, some streets of the French Quarter do not allow parking – look for, and heed, no parking signs. Plan on doing a lot of walking. Comfortable shoes are a must. Always walk where it is well lit and there are a lot of people. New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods. Like all large cities, the Big Easy does have some trouble spots. Always walk with others, never alone if possible. Don’t wander about the city. In New Orleans the neighborhoods can change, literally, when you cross a street. Always carry a map. If you’re drinking, don’t go stumbling about the French Quarter. Locals know that the people who encounter trouble are usually the ones who have been drinking.
And a bit of urban common sense is in order. When you walk the streets, don’t bring your wallet. Take the cash you need and possibly a credit card, along with some sort of identification, and put them in a pocket that no one can slip their hand into. Don’t wear expensive jewelry. Basically, don’t take anything with you that you would have a hard time replacing if it were lost.
If your car is impounded, it will cost you over $100 plus whatever else the city decides to tack on. Your car can be retrieved from the City Auto Pound, located in a dangerous area of the city, 400 N. Claiborne Ave., (504.565.7236). This will spoil a good time. Cabs are not difficult to get during Southern Decadence. If you are going to take a cab, try UNITED CABS: 504.522.9771 or 504.524.9606. Write these numbers down and put them in your wallet. This cab company can be trusted. United Cabs has a sound reputation with the New Orleans gay community.
People are allowed to drink on the streets in New Orleans — that large 24-oz Southern Decadence cup that you’ll see people walking with and drinking from likely contains several shots of alcohol! However, if your drink isn’t already in a plastic cup, please ask for one before leaving your favorite watering hole. Glass and cans are not allowed on the streets for safety reasons.
Most bars in New Orleans are open twenty-four hours a day. Pace yourself. Most important, it’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement and forget to eat. If you want to make it through the weekend, solid food is a necessity. Of course, New Orleans is world famous for its food and indulging is part of a complete New Orleans experience.
Clean bathrooms can be difficult to find during Southern Decadence. Most businesses close their facilities to everyone but paying customers. If your hotel is far from the action, take care of the more important business before you hit the streets. If you need to, plan on buying lunch or dinner and using the restaurant’s bathroom before you pay the check!
The French Quarter is an historic neighborhood. Please respect it. No matter how “bad” you have to go, do not urinate in the streets or on door steps or through iron gates. This is a good way to end up in central lock-up, and people who are arrested sit in jail until the courts re-open after Labor Day. It will cost you about $200. And it’s not polite. Listen to your body. Get in line before you really have to go. By the time you’re crossing your legs, you might be at the front of the line.
During Southern Decadence weekend, you’re guaranteed to get an eyeful of great costumes and fabulous bodies. Officially, public nudity is not allowed and there are obscenity laws on the books. Better judgment should be the rule of the day.
Southern Decadence is a BIG non-stop party. People drink and are having a good time. It’s easy to forget that there is a real world out there. Free condoms are available from the NO/AIDS Task Force station located near the Bourbon Pub / Parade. Don’t allow the party to overwhelm your better judgment. We want you to come again. Have fun and play safe!
Photos from vjbrendan.com.