Grand marshal Frank Perez will lead the 2018 Southern Decadence parade on Sunday, Sept. 2, dressed as Louis XIV, for whom Louisiana is named. More participants than ever before have registered to walk in the parade, which typically features revelers in anything from drag to barely-there outfits. But Perez knows that’s not important to many Decadence attendees.
“Decadence has outgrown its humble origins,” Perez says. “The core is the parade, that’s the [historical] continuity. Most of the 250,000 people who are coming to town for Decadence don’t even know there’s a parade.”
For the past 20 years, since Southern Decadence websites were created, the annual Labor Day weekend festival has grown from attracting a few thousand to a couple hundred thousand visitors for a week of parties and events at LGBT bars and businesses, mostly in the French Quarter and Fauboug Marigny.
Perez notes that there have been many changes since the original party thrown by the so-called Southern Decadents. He and Howard Philips Smith, author of Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, co-wrote Southern Decadence in New Orleans (LSU Press) to document the event’s history. Perez is the founder and president of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana.
“In many ways, the LGBT history of New Orleans is not unlike other cities — in visibility, the closet, police harassment,” Perez says. “But there are a couple of things that make it different. (Southern Decadence) has gotten so huge, there’s so much misunderstanding. We did not want the core — the grand marshal tradition — to be lost. We felt writing the book was important to preserve that history.”
Southern Decadence in New Orleans is out this month, and it follows the history of Decadence from a costume party held among friends living in Treme in 1972 to the current nationally known festival.
The original party was a farewell party for David Randolph, who was leaving town. The group printed an invitation for the event, which was held at a home in Treme that they referred to as Belle Reve (the name of the plantation Blanche Dubois loses in A Streetcar Named Desire). In following years, the event repeated itself, with the addition of a French Quarter pre-party bar crawl.
The social group at Decadence’s core changed over time, and by the early 1980s, the event had become a costumed bar crawl without the house party. New leaders ushered in an era of drag, which marked the Decadence parade through the 1990s.
Smith and Perez’s book documents the year-to-year evolution, much of it through interviews with the founders and parade grand marshals. Decadence has resisted centralized control and organization, and it follows a succession of grand marshals choosing their successors. The event has changed with the personalities and whims of the people who’ve planned its annual installments. It was born in friendship and hedonism in the same way New Orleanians embrace the excesses of Carnival in costuming and laissez-faire attitudes. Since the early 1980s, it has been an LGBT event, Perez says.
“As a historian, it’s thrilling for me to walk in parade and to have so much community support and have a police escort,” Perez says. “When it started, police raids on gay bars were still common.”
Frank Perez discusses Southern Decadence in New Orleans
2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28, 1850 House, 523 St. Ann St.
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, Beauregard-Keyes House, 1113 Chartres St.