When New Orleans’ gay Carnival krewes were first formed in the late 1950s, they operated in almost complete secrecy.
Because of discriminatory laws, some of which banned people from cross-dressing, many of the krewes’ balls and members were being targeted by law enforcement and even by private citizens.
Still, the gay community persisted, and over the decades the popularity of the krewes and their extravagant, often outlandish balls ballooned, until there were as many as 13 organizations in the 1980s.
By then, invitations were highly sought after by members of all factions of society, according to Bill Woolley, founder of the Mystic Krewe of Celestial Knights and a founding member of Petronius, the oldest surviving gay krewe.
“I thought we were doing more than just having a Mardi Gras ball,” Woolley said Sunday. “I thought we were showing the world that the gay community was talented, and creative, and that we could do it.”
Woolley was among a dozen speakers during a panel discussion on “Pioneers of Gay Carnival: A Conversation with the Legends,” presented by the Louisiana State Museum before a packed audience at the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue.
The event was moderated by Howard Smith, a writer, photographer and Fulbright scholar whose work has been featured in the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center.
Smith has spent 15 years on a research project that will culminate in a book, “Unveiling the Muse: Gay Carnival in New Orleans,” to be published in 2017 by the University Press of Mississippi.
Sunday’s event also promoted a Louisiana State Museum exhibit, slated for 2019, that will feature the history and artistry of gay Carnival in New Orleans, with a focus on the artists who contributed to its design.
Co-curated by Smith and Wayne Phillips, the museum’s curator of costumes and textiles as well as curator of its Carnival collections, the display will feature “never-before-exhibited original artwork, costume sketches, poster designs, unique commemorative documents and commissioned paintings” from the scores of gay Mardi Gras balls that have taken place in the past 50 years, according to museum officials.
On Sunday, some of the founding members of the city’s gay Carnival scene shared memories of those intricately costumed, often lavish balls, some of which were put together on shoestring budgets but had costumes and theatrics that rivaled those of even the most established of the “straight” Mardi Gras krewes.
The balls featured traditional-looking ball gowns, sequins, jewels and feathers — used to mimic the balls held by established krewes — but the gay krewes often added something a little different.
Members of the Krewe of Petronius recalled a 1970 ball called “The Space Oddity,” when plastic utensils were used to create elaborate, space-age-mimicking headdresses. For Amon-Ra balls during what often was called “the golden age of gay Carnival,” members would go all-out, as seen in insect costumes like snails and butterflies made of foam rubber. For the first ball of Olympus, the theme was “Camelot,” with the set opening from the floor like a children’s pop-up book.
“To see men dress as women and to put so much effort and so much design in the costuming was just amazing,” said Michael Moreau, a costume designer for, and founding member of, the Krewe of Amon-Ra.
Sunday’s event, which was co-sponsored by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, didn’t focus solely on intricate costuming and memorable parties. The panelists also addressed gay culture generally both in New Orleans and nationally, the organization of gay groups and how AIDS affected the community.
There was the “Lavender Scare,” for example, a lesser-known movement than the Communist-targeting “Red Scare”; it sought to rid government of homosexual employees.
Panelists also talked about police raids, which happened frequently during the krewes’ balls and gatherings, when members would be thrown in jail. They showed photographs of the French Quarter on a Fat Tuesday in the 1960s, when men in flamboyant costumes defiantly gathered outside the gay-friendly bar Miss Dixie’s.
There also was discussion of AIDS, which wiped out two-thirds of the gay krewes by the 1990s.
All of the memories added up to a story with a complicated past and ultimately showed the resilience of a community insistent on openly celebrating their part of the city’s culture.
Smith and other panelists urged audience members to dig through their closets and attics and garages, searching for any and all memorabilia so that he could continue to share anecdotes about the rise of gay Carnival in New Orleans.
Although Smith said he had a long way to go before the museum would be able to tell a complete story about a scene that remained secretive for so long, he said he was taken aback by the amount of support he had seen for his project thus far.
“I’m overwhelmed, actually,” he said. “I never thought my research would end up with such grand results.”