Weeks before their ball, Krewe of Armeinius members congregated in their 5,000-square-foot Mid-City den, putting finishing touches on 25-plus large-scale costumes. Featuring wood superstructures, wirework, foam, tape, hot glue, glitter, wire and rods, the costumes’ glittering proportions rival those of some krewe’s floats.
“Anything you can find at the Dollar Tree, we’ve made into something fabulous,” said krewe captain Barrett DeLong-Church.
Armeinius is one of New Orleans’ largest, oldest gay krewes. Fifty members create its tableau bals masques, which take cues partly from old-line Carnival balls, partly from Broadway productions. This year, Armeinius celebrates its 50th anniversary at Mardi Gras World with more costumes than ever before.
“I don’t think anything of this size and scale has been done in many years,” Hemenger said.
“This year’s theme is 300 Years of Fabulous,” said captain Chad Brickley. “We’re rewriting New Orleans history to feature gay history. And of course, we camp it up a little bit.”
That history includes the history of gay krewes, which launched in the 1950s. Then, LGBTQ people were barred from participating openly in Carnival.
“Not only was it illegal for the gay population to parade and dance together, we weren’t allowed to convene in the same area,” says Kevin Hemenger, president of the Krewe of Armeinius.
Even in New Orleans, a bohemian mecca, LGBTQ people endured frequent gay bashing, as well as entrapment and harassment from police. Cross-dressing was permitted on Mardi Gras day only. This loophole — and the fact that most krewes met in secrecy and were all male — permitted gay men to form their own krewes, eventually obtaining state charters. Their clandestine gatherings became sites for both celebration and political resistance.
“It was a complete protest movement to even have a gay krewe at all,” DeLong-Church said.
Photographer Jack Robinson captured the dual nature of 1950s-era gay Carnival in a photograph the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. used for its national “One Time, in New Orleans” tricentennial campaign.
In the early 1950s, before Robinson shot portraits and fashion editorials for Vogue, The New York Times and Life magazine, he photographed his friends. Like Robinson, they were mostly gay men who’d found refuge in New Orleans. His photo depicts a man dressed in drag — complete with beauty marks and a padded bustier. Lounging against a car, the man appears both flirtatious and defiant.
In addition to ribbons and lace, Robinson’s subject wears a masculine wristwatch. Men could legally cross-dress on Mardi Gras day as long as they wore at least one article of men’s clothing. And in the frame’s right, a white-gloved mother and daughter look on with disdain.
“It wasn’t safe for these citizens to express their Mardi Gras in public,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the NOTMC. “Mardi Gras takes on many shapes and forms — and one little-known story we felt we could bring out was the story of gay Mardi Gras. It’s such a rich piece of our heritage.”
Over the 60-some years that have passed since Robinson took his photograph, the gay rights movement has seen great progress. Many historians cite New York’s Stonewall riots as the impetus for the LGBT rights movement, but Krewe of Armeinius members say it started much earlier.
“A lot of what enabled Stonewall was gay Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” Hemenger said.
Ray Durand, historian for the Krewe of Armeinius, remembers when police raided the Krewe of Yuga ball in 1962 on charges of lewd behavior.
“I was in Miss Dixie’s Bar of Music that night,” Durand said. “Miss Dixie said, ‘Open that register; our boys are in jail, and I want them here.’ She sent (a bag of money) to the police station. Immediately after, her boys came to see her and say they were OK.”
Though Yuga disbanded after the raid, former members continued to fight for their right to party. One of the men arrested, Tracy M. Hendrix, went on to help form the Krewe of Armeinius in 1968, along with its four founders, Jerry Loner, Don Stratton, Wendell Stipelcovich and Scott Morvant. After the Krewe of Petronius secured a state charter, becoming an officially sanctioned krewe, others followed suit, including Amon-Ra, Apollo and Lords of Leather.
“More balls began, and people started taking more chances,” Durand said.
“It wasn’t made to be a protest, but it became a protest,” DeLong-Church said.
Over the years, balls became more and more grand.
“The early 1980s was the gay Carnival golden age, the end of our grandest period,” Hemenger said. “The balls would fill the Civic Center. It was all by invitation, and every seat was sold out.”
By the mid-1980s, AIDS had decimated New Orleans’ gay population.
“Fifteen gay krewes went down to four instantaneously,” Hemenger said. “People were scared, and people were dead.”
Despite losing 12 members to AIDS, Armeinius presented balls throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, the krewe experienced a surge of vitality when it opened balls up to the general public. Table seating is sold out for this year’s event, and krewe members expect 1,200 people to attend.
“Straight people want to go to gay balls because they’re stunning,” Durand said. “The guys are fantastic — most of them do absolutely fabulous miming, singing, dancing and performing, but the costumes cannot be touched.”
Established krewe members teach newer members their specific style of costume tableau for free, ensuring that the art is continued by future generations. Artist Fredrick Guess teaches foam work, and Fred Arocho builds wood superstructures.
Though the superstructures, headpieces and backpieces are cumbersome, Durand says that when he steps out in costume before an appreciative crowd, he feels like he’s won an Oscar.
“When it was our turn, I said, ‘Guys, this is for all of you who have gone before us, who did not get to do this, for all (who are) here, and for the ones yet to come,’” Durand said. “I went flying down that ramp, and everyone screamed. For me, that’s a Mardi Gras feeling.”
Mardi Gras World River City Complex (1380 Port of New Orleans Place) hosts the Krewe of Armeinius 50th Anniversary Bal Masque from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10. Standing tickets are $20 and can be purchased at www.armeinius.org.