[Here’s a slightly longer version (approximately a 4 minute read) of a short article (2 minute read) that you can read in The New Orleans Advocate this week]
Attendance eclipsing 210,000 people. Tourist revenue exceeding $250 Million. These aren’t statistics from Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. These are the estimates from last year’s Southern Decadence — the annual LGBTQ+ Labor Day weekend bonanza, now in its 47th rainbow-colored, glitter-studded, leather-covered year.
It’s not just one of New Orleans biggest events, says David Berni, general manager at Kajun’s Pub (a favorite spot for karaoke lovers of all gender self-determinations and sexual preferences). “It’s gotta be a top 10 — maybe top 5 — gay party in the world!”
But Southern Decadence wasn’t always one of the most popular queer pride events on the calendar. In fact, organizers wouldn’t have originally classified it as a queer pride event at all.
In August 1972, a diverse group of young adults sharing a French Quarter house, who — according to author James T. Spears, considered themselves a “motley crew of outcasts” — organized a going away party for one of their housemates. They agreed to hold it on the Sunday before Labor Day so they’d have that Monday to recoup (which is a pro tip all motley crews know). The gathering began Sunday afternoon with 40 or 50 guests — all encouraged to dress as their favorite “decadent Southerner” — and lasted well into the night.
It was such a success, the group decided to host a second “Southern Decadence Party” the following year, and this time a small, impromptu parade broke out through the Quarter and down Esplanade Avenue. By the third year a Grand Marshall was appointed to lead the parade, a tradition that’s continued to this day (though in the early years, the leader wasn’t always gay).
But how did an ambitious going away party turn into one of the most important LGBTQ+ events in the world? There are events celebrating queer pride in most major American cities. So why, exactly, do tourists fly across the country and around the world — many coming year after year — to this one?
Is It the Bars?
I asked Liz Watson, a Bostonian and Southern Decadence participant since 2016, what brings her all the way down to New Orleans for the event. “Well, one thing that makes the city such a uniquely good fit is that so many of the bars are open all night and are so much fun. That’s a pretty big draw.”
Many of the people I interviewed agreed with her, and increased sales confirm she’s not alone. “We can do an entire month’s business in five days,” says Tracy Deroche, owner of Phoenix Bar on Elysian Fields Avenue. “It’s the single most important weekend of the year for business.”
“Plus, so much of Decadence is outdoors,” Watson continues. “So many of my memories are outside, and being able to take your drinks out of the bars and into the street is a uniquely New Orleans addition.”
While the French Quarter is the center of attention for the weekend’s festivities, many visitors head outside the old city, as well. Michael Sayer, who’s been attending Southern Decadence with a group of approximately 10 friends traveling down from Kansas City since 2010 jokes, “We don’t want to feel like total drunks. So every year Friday is our ‘Culture Day.’”
Rand Myers, the de facto leader of Sayer’s annual group adds, “we dedicate a day each trip to a museum or a walking tour or a streetcar trip or a new bar or restaurant. This year we’ve set aside time for the Botanical Garden, the Museum of Death, Neyow’s and the Hermann-Grima House.”
Berni sees the bump down at Kajuns in the Marigny, as well. “We’re a little off the path, but the bump in business each year kind of signals the end of the summer doldrums for us.”
Is It the Size of the Event?
This side of Mardi Gras, there are very few weeks that bring more people into the city. And Sayer admits the size is a big part of the draw. “It’s huge,” he says, “people coming in from all over the world. There’s nothing like it in Kansas City. This many people in one place dedicated to a weekend of partying. We look forward to it all year.”
And, because of the large draw, impromptu reunions also become part of the charm. Oz, a major Bourbon Street stop on the Decadence circuit, famous for its dance floor and the world-renowned DJs the bar brings in for the event, is a common meeting spot. Greg, the bar’s general manager says, “It’s such a happy and fun event. The diversity of our guests, and watching them meet and re-meet at our bar is one of my favorite parts.”
Deroche says Phoenix Bar serves a similar purpose. “We’re such a popular spot for a certain segment of the Decadence crowd that many of our customers come back and run into friends they met during previous years. Plenty of folks are meeting for the first time, too, but watching the reunions as people hug and kiss and catch up on each other’s lives is really nice.”
Or Is It Something Else?
“We’ve been coming for years, but none of us had ever done drag before,” Myers told me a story about his Kansas City crew at the Decadence parade last year, “let alone march in a parade in drag. But this is a city that lets you be whatever you want to be. We all dressed up like we were ballerinas in the same dance company.” He paused before adding with pride, “My boobs only fell out one time. That’s pretty good, I think.”
That was the most common refrain I heard from each visitor I spoke with. “It’s a city where everyone can fit in,” Myers said. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels of his group, which he proudly calls, “a little odd, a little weird, a little unique,” and that original “motley crew of outcasts” from 1972.
Philadelphia native, James Thomas, told me about how he first came to New Orleans for Decadence in 2011, less than a year after he told his family he was gay. “To me, New Orleans is special because it can simultaneously feel so different from any place you’ve ever been before, but — at the same time — so welcoming, like you’ve always lived here.”
Maria Gallagher-Venable, New Orleans resident and longtime friend of Sayer, Myers, and the rest of the Kansas City contingent said of her incoming guests, “They’ve been here through hurricanes, tropical storms and the evacuation of hotels, but they keep coming back. I think it allows them to let loose and be a part of a community they might not have back at home. That’s why Southern Decadence is so important. And New Orleans is the perfect place for it — we tend to be okay with people letting their hair down a little more than most places.”
My college didn’t have much of a gay community, Thomas explained. I remember heading to the Quarter with my best friend, who was also gay, for our very first Southern Decadence. I just felt like, ‘Ok, yeah, this feels right. This finally feels like where I’m supposed to be.’”