The History of
Southern Decadence

New Orleans' Largest Gay Event

 

 

Since it was founded in 1718, 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.

Frederick WrightIn 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 40th year, it has mushroomed from a small gathering of friends to a Labor Day weekend tradition, attracting over 110,000 participants, predominantly gay and lesbian, and generating almost $125 million in tourist revenue.  This annual economic impact ranks it among the city's top five tourist events.

Southern Decadence Grand Marshals XXXIII Lisa Beaumann and Regina AdamsDescribed by one reporter as "a happening of haberdashery fit for an LSD Alice in Wonderland," Southern Decadence 2011 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.


Want to read more about the "Crescent City"?
Click on the following link:

New Orleans History

 

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