In all its color, celebration, and controversy, the history of Southern Decadence over the past five decades is the history of New Orleans' LGBT community.
This month, a new book tells the raucous story of the event that started in 1972 as an intimate late summer get-together in a house on Barracks Street in the Tremé neighborhood and has since become what co-authors Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez describe as a “juggernaut,” attracting upward of 250,000 revelers to the French Quarter and environs over Labor Day weekend each year.
Published by LSU Press, “Southern Decadence in New Orleans” is an extraordinarily comprehensive history. Essays, timelines, interviews, photographs and archival material create a kaleidoscopic experience that reflects the dizzyingly creative, sexy and resilient spirit of Southern Decadence itself.
Far from being the hedonistic free-for-all it’s often seen as today, however, Decadence began as a quieter affair among a group of friends — “black, white, straight, gay — really just rapidly aging hippies," according to Frederick Wright, who reigned as the first Grand Marshal of Southern Decadence in 1974. (That’s also the year the book begins counting the annual festivities, as the earlier years were more loosely organized affairs; 2018 marks the 44th official celebration.)
As described by the authors, Decadence back then was less a specifically gay event than one celebrating the bohemian spirit of the French Quarter.
Things began to change in 1980, when a literal schism during the annual parade (the band leading the parade took one route while the Grand Marshal and his entourage took another) changed its character, leading to what Smith and Perez call “the gaying of Decadence” and the event as it’s become best known to its hundreds of thousands of participants today.
Along the way, Smith and Perez relate each year’s events in occasionally exhaustive detail (“Hordes of Southern Decadence revelers filled the Parade Discotheque for the Coronation Party, where Bud Light was announced as the festival’s official beer,” reads one entry for the 1998 festival.)
But the book isn’t merely a catalogue of names, numbers and trivia. Instead, Smith and Perez have done the admirable and important job of putting Decadence into the context of the history of the French Quarter and New Orleans as a whole, especially where bigger historical narratives like the AIDS epidemic and Hurricane Katrina are concerned — not to mention changing attitudes toward LGBT people and spaces over the years.
It’s telling, for instance, that despite its increasing presence and economic impact on New Orleans throughout its first two decades the city did not even grant the event an official parade permit until 1997.
And it wasn’t recognized by the city beyond that until an official proclamation was issued by the Mayor’s Office in 2002, which also was the year the event began to attract pushback from a few self-styled representatives of the religious right.
That pushback intensified in the weeks leading up to Southern Decadence in 2003, when the then-archbishop of New Orleans denounced the party for “cheapening” the reputation of New Orleans around the country.
And Labor Day weekend that year would see clashes between an anti-Decadence protest organized by West Bank-based Rev. Grant Storms and counterprotests by participants in the Decadence festivities. (In an almost too-good-to-be-true coda, Storms was arrested for public lewdness in a Metairie park in 2011 and later apologized for his anti-LGBT activities and rhetoric of the previous decade.)
The event would see other controversies over the years, including a 2012 scandal in which one of its grand marshals allegedly disappeared with several thousands of dollars that had been raised by Decadence-affiliated fundraisers for charity.
But the story also includes its happier and even inspiring moments — like the election of Rusty Laroux as the first transgender Southern Decadence Grand Marshal in 2003 and how a group of 30 French Quarter denizens gathered at the Golden Lantern on Royal Street and held a Decadence parade on Labor Day weekend in 2005, when most of the city remained under water post-Katrina.
Smith and Perez have collected hundreds of such details in the book, an impressive task because of the dispersed and ephemeral nature of their source material. It’s also a necessary one given the ways in which histories of LGBT people have been marginalized and erased.
Perez said the book project took nearly five years, during which time — and in a happy coincidence — he was named one of the co-grand marshals of the 2018 Southern Decadence parade scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 2.
“It took a lot of work, but I think the end result is worth it,” Perez said. “I think people are really going to be surprised and delighted by the story we’ve been able to tell.”
“Southern Decadence in New Orleans”
by Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez
280 pages / 6-by-9 inches / 97 halftones
Southern History | Gay and Lesbian Studies Hardcover / 9780807169537 / August 2018