While my phone rang repeatedly with calls from loved ones fearing for my safety from tropical storm Lee due to overzealous and tourism-damaging reporting, I enjoyed a Labor Day weekend in the French Quarter during the largest gay event in New Orleans,Southern Decadence. Just like you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy our St. Patricks celebrations, you don’t have to be part of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community to enjoy the parades, outdoor concerts and shear spectacle of Decadence.
Founded in 1972, Decadence started in a small home in Treme with a large group of roommates, including gays, straights, blacks and whites, throwing a going-away party for a friend. They called their inauspicious place Belle Reve after the Mississippi plantation Blanche DuBois’ refers to in A Streetcar Named Desire so decided on a costume party with the theme of coming as your favorite “Southern Decadent.” They placed the party on the Sunday before Labor Day to give themselves a day of recovery afterward. The following year, they repeated the party and added an informal march with no Grand Marshal.
Around 50 or 60 people reportedly went to the original party. Last year, over 125,000 attended.
Centering around the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann, this year’s theme was “Viva New Orleans: What Happens in New Orleans Stays in New Orleans.” Pink, black and silver were the official colors and the Grand Marshals were Tiffany Alexander and Misael Rubio.
Tropical storm Lee blew in as the LGBT revelers were arriving in full force. Bands of rain passed through, flags were torn by wind and people crowded into bars to avoid the wet bluster. The float parade rolled down Bourbon St. Friday night, but at a fairly good clip and with few beads thrown. The street concert went on as scheduled Saturday with little rain throughout the day and night. But, for me, the whole weekend was about the Sunday parade through the French Quarter.
Part Mardi Gras, part The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, part political rally and all good time, the parade was a spectacle of feathers, falsies, “bears” and buns. I’ve mentioned before that during Katrina, as I watched my TV in horror day after day, there was a moment of hope that stood out for me. My mother and I called each other right away celebrating that there was a parade in the streets of the French Quarter. It was small, poorly dressed, rag tag at best, but we both knew it was the pulse of the city beating. It was E.T.’s “heart-light” glowing under the blanket, letting us know rebirth was possible. What I didn’t know was that it was the Southern Decadence parade. Though Decadence had officially been cancelled, about 2 dozen paraders, mostly residents of the Quarter who’d refused to leave during the evacuation, decided to uphold the tradition. The police tried to shut it down, but they had their permit in hand, issued before the storm.
Given that the parade was the only light I could find in the tunnel of Katrina, it breaks my heart to hear that there are those who blame Southern Decadence for Katrina’s arrival in the city – especially since it is a matter of public record that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were responsible for the levee breaks that led to most of the death and destruction.
In 2003, pastor Grant Storms filed to have Decadence terminated. He submitted video of men exposing themselves for beads (like female tourists on Bourbon St. do with their boobs) and other more sexually explicit behaviors as evidence that the event should be ended. Pastor Grant Storms was arrested in 2011 for masturbating while watching children on a public playground.
The banner-carrying zealots still protest the event, walking through the crowded streets with signs announcing that Jesus Hates Homos, etc., but they just come off as party poopers who can’t stand a “gay old time” or people who most assuredly missed the part about judging not lest they be judged. Fun factoid – homosexual behavior has been observed in close to 1,500 species and well documented in over 500.
I was born straight and happy to be so, but I know a good time when I see one. With the fabulous costumes and non-stop revelry, Decadence is fun for anyone with a high tolerance for occasional bare butt cheeks, men in drag and lots of loud jokes. I’d love to take credit for “someone left their gay out in the rain,” but it came from the unending stream of witty commentary overheard in the street.