Equal parts festival, parade, free concert and circuit party, Southern Decadence is New Orleans’ biggest LGBTQ event — and it’s getting bigger.
This year, organizers expect the celebration to attract a record-breaking 250,000 people to the French Quarter during Labor Day weekend (Thursday, Aug. 31 to Monday, Sept. 4).
“Southern Decadence has grown every year over the last 14 years,” said Chuck Robinson, who owns Napoleon’s Itch. “It’s going to attract record crowds this year. It’s a phenomenon; it really is. It has a major economic impact — over $250 million taxable income to New Orleans last year — and the city totally supports it.”
Southern Decadence, the city’s largest annual LGBTQ celebration, is a freewheeling fest that…
Launched by six men in 1972 as a campy sendoff to their friend, Southern Decadence’s attendance grew steadily over the years until 2001, when the Archdiocese of New Orleans asked city officials to ban the celebration. Attendance dwindled, so Robinson came up with the idea of a public concert funded by Southern Decadence organizers.
“I said, ‘We’re going to do a concert, and we’ll do it for free,’ ” said Robinson, who has produced the Bourbon Street Extravaganza concert every year since 2004. “And it’s quite the 3½-hour show.”
In 2016, Bourbon Street Extravaganza drew 20,000 attendees. This year, headliners include Deborah Cox, Zoe Badwi, Rowetta and Jeanie Tracy. The concert starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann streets — the “epicenter of all Southern Decadence activity,” Robinson says.
More than 15 French Quarter bars host official events ranging from parties and contests to drag shows and celebrity appearances.
“Each bar has their own unique thing they do,” said Darren Mills, event planner for Bourbon Pub and Parade. “People wear costumes sort of randomly all weekend long. It’s really quite incredible.”
The celebration extends beyond Bourbon Street, as many area hotels and venues develop special Southern Decadence programming. For example, Ace Hotel hosts local, national and international performers including JD Samson, a founding member of Le Tigre, and producer and DJ Jasmine Infiniti.
“Southern Decadence is a huge part of New Orleans’ fabric — it’s something we want to make sure we’re part of,” said Jocelyne Ninneman, Three Keys Programmer at Ace Hotel. “Our goal is to amplify more and more voices within the LGBTQ community.”
Grand Marshals Coca Mesa, Princesse Stephaney and Persana Shoulders lead the walking parade, which starts at the intersection of Barracks and Decatur streets at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3. Tapped for the role by her partner Jeffrey Palmquist, a 2016 Grand Marshal, Mesa was tasked with gathering a team of “entourages” and planning fundraising events.
“Once we’ve covered the expenses of putting Southern Decadence together — the parade, insurance, police officers, cleaning crew, and other stuff the city says we need — we divide the money up between our charities,” Mesa said.
This year’s festivities benefit NOAGE: New Orleans Advocates for GLBT Elders, and Dodwell House at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church. In 2015, Southern Decadence organizers donated $39,000 to charity, thanks in part to Rip Naquin. The Southern Decadence organizer and Ambush Magazine co-founder died Aug. 9 at age 65. He will be honored during the walking parade.
“It was more difficult without him, but we did the best we can,” Mesa said. “He was definitely huge.”
Robinson says Southern Decadence’s success is a testament to the reputation of Naquin and everyone else who makes the festival happen year after year.
“We have people coming from all over the world for Southern Decadence, as they do for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest,” he said. “We put our best foot forward, because these people could go anywhere, and they continue to choose New Orleans and Southern Decadence.”
Southern Decadence Highlights
WELCOME PARTY: midnight Thursday, Bourbon Pub and Parade, 801 Bourbon St.
SÉANCE: 9 p.m. Friday, featuring DJ Jasmine Infinit at Three Keys at the Ace Hotel, 600 Carondelet St.
BOURBON STREET EXTRAVAGANZA: 6:30 p.m. Bourbon and St. Ann streets
WALKING PARADE: 2 p.m. Sunday, the Golden Lantern, 1239 Barracks St.
HUNG OVER AND BROKE: 8 p.m. Monday, Closing Party at Bourbon Pub and Parade, 801 Bourbon St.
For a complete schedule of events, visit southerndecadence.net.