When Toby Lefort moved to New Orleans from Larose, La. in 1992, he saw his first Southern Decadence parade — the campy, trampy Labor Day celebration sometimes referred to as "gay Mardi Gras" — and "I wanted to be one of those grand marshals," he says. Eighteen years later, Lefort is getting his wish; he and friend Julien Artressia are the grand marshals of this year's Southern Decadence parade, which, per tradition, marches, staggers and otherwise sets off from the Golden Lantern Bar (1239 Royal St.) at 2 p.m. on Sun., Sept. 5.
Visitors to the city may see only a weekend-long costume celebration in the streets and bars of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. But months before revelers stuff their Samsonites with feather boas and leather chaps and head for Louis Armstrong International Airport, Lefort, Artressia and others have been planning, holding parties and raising funds for charity. For many in the gay community, Southern Decadence, like Carnival, is a season, not a day — and getting ready for it can be a second full-time job.
It's midweek at Big Daddy's, a Marigny corner bar well off the tourist path. There's a hamburger buffet, neighborhood folks holding down their regular stools, a Braves game on the TV and Bob Seger on the jukebox; if not for the adult novelties scattered among the stuffed animals in the claw machine, a casual visitor might not guess this was a gay bar at all. It's also the sixth of eight nights in a row that the grand marshals of the 39th annual Southern Decadence are coming out to meet their public and raise funds for their official charity, the NO/AIDS Task Force.
Artressia, a manager at the Bourbon Pub, has to work, so Lefort arrives solo in a black T-shirt, jeans and a powder-blue sash reading "SD 2010." (This year's theme, chosen by the marshals, is "Leather and Feathers," and the diminutive Lefort is the leather half of the equation; at the grand marshal press party a few weeks before, Artressia towered over him in high heels, accentuated with elaborate costume jewelry.) Tonight's location is fitting, because Decadence — as so many things do in New Orleans — began in a bar.
In 1972, Matassa's Market in the French Quarter had a small bar in back — "just boards on barrels, where we used to go because cocktails were 75 cents each," says Frederick Wright, who was at the first event that became Decadence in 1972, and became its first grand marshal in 1974. The originators, he says, were "black, white, straight, gay — really just rapidly aging hippies." The first party began as a going-away affair for a friend at the end of a dull summer, and — as New Orleanians are wont to do — people donned costumes. The dress code was "come as your favorite Southern decadent. Lots of Blanche Duboises," Wright adds. (The skimpy costumes and sometimes-raunchy behavior came later.)
Bohemian, populist and irreverent (much like Krewe du Vieux), the first Decadence revelers went barhopping in costume before escaping to a private home on Barracks Street in the Treme — partially to avoid 8th District police, who were suspicious of if not openly hostile toward the parade. Before too many years had passed, "Harry Connick Sr. followed us around personally with walkie-talkies," Wright says. Eventually so many strangers were joining the movable party that organizers didn't feel comfortable ending at someone's house, so Decadence morphed into a Sunday afternoon French Quarter bar crawl for locals — unpermitted, unplanned, spontaneous, led by the whim (and the gym whistle) of the grand marshal.
"We didn't want to have a permit," Wright says. "We modeled ourselves after Zulu, who used to lead the parade wherever he wanted to go."
From press accounts, the event stayed a largely local phenomenon for nearly two decades, even as it became known as a primarily gay holiday; a 1988 Associated Press story noted "hundreds of men of all ages feeding hangovers and wearing dresses this weekend." By the early 1990s, when RuPaul made an appearance, the festivities had grown to encompass all of Labor Day weekend — the Sunday parade became almost secondary to the many other parties — and so many tourists had begun to join the fun that things were forced to get more formal, at least marginally.
While no one could be said to be "in charge" of Decadence, the website www.southerndecadence.com was registered by Rip and Marsha Naquin-Delain, publishers of the bimonthly gay newspaper Ambush (where they still maintain a schedule of events and other information related to the festival) and in 1997, the Naquin-Delains applied for the first official parade permit; the grand marshal could not lead thousands through the Quarter at whim, as the rolling party had simply gotten too large. In 1998, according to press accounts, the crowd had grown from "hundreds" in 1988 to 60,000 revelers, the festival had become a vital late-summer shot in the arm for the hospitality industry, and Sidney Barthelemy became the first mayor to acknowledge the event with a proclamation.
New Orleans is, of course, famed for its laissez-faire attitude toward celebrations and bohemians. But, like other public events staged by minority groups — such as the St. Joseph's Night celebration of the Mardi Gras Indians — Southern Decadence and New Orleans have often had an uneasy relationship, even in recent times.
After the 2000 event, Vieux Carre homeowners complained about the amount of trash in the streets; though the event had grown enormously, the city had provided no extra garbage cans or public toilets, as is done for events like the French Quarter Festival. Due to the swelling crowds, the following year saw Mardi Gras-like street closures for traffic near Bourbon and St. Ann streets.
With the arrival of more tourists, the event had become more risque, with visitors expecting (and enacting) the same beads-for-body parts exchanges they'd heard of at Mardi Gras. With no official group in charge, the responsibility lay with the locals to spread the message that nudity and public urination were as illegal in New Orleans as they were in New Jersey. It was not always successful.
Others were just appalled at the whole spectacle, though the liquor-fueled partying wasn't much different than a regular weekend on the heterosexual end of Bourbon Street. (After The Times-Picayune ran a feature on Decadence in 2001, an aghast letter to the editor signed by a Kenner woman pleaded, "In the future, please spare us sickening trivia that only adds to our already depraved society.")
The lid came off completely one year later, when the Rev. Grant Storms, pastor of a small church, drew national media attention to the festival (and himself) when he squared off with partiers on Bourbon Street using bullhorns and condemnatory signs. Then-Archbishop Alfred Hughes issued his own statement condemning the celebration, saying "The commercialization of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual, does not promote respect for persons, family, or the common good." Storms — whose church was in Marrero — told ABC News he wanted the festival ended "utterly and totally. We want them out of town."
(Gambit's Chris Rose, then a columnist for The Times-Picayune, compared Storms to former state Rep. and Ku Klux Klansman David Duke in a contentious interview, and called him "a loudmouthed and bigoted publicity seeker.")
Storms' protest, which drew national attention far beyond its small turnout, did nothing to stop Decadence, but galvanized many in the city, both gay and straight, against the preacher; in 2004, a group of French Quarter business owners led by the Bourbon Street Alliance successfully obtained a restraining order against Storms and his protestors, and the City Council voted to bar the use of bullhorns during Decadence. It quieted down the furor, literally.
One year later came Hurricane Katrina.
The evacuation of the city resulted in Decadence being cancelled, but a ragtag crowd of holdouts estimated by the Associated Press at two dozen paraded down the empty streets of the French Quarter anyway, carrying a sign reading "LIFE GOES ON?" (2006's theme was "Rebirth.")
The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau placed Decadence 2007 fourth overall among the city's largest festivals, behind Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Essence Music Festival, bringing an estimated $150 million into the city. ("Two-income couples, no kids," explains "Irish" Mike Sheehan, a Rampart Street bar owner and the 2002 grand marshal.) Asked for an economic estimate from last year's event, Jennifer Day of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau referred Gambit to the Southern Decadence website, which estimated an "over $150 million impact." Still, no mayor or city councilperson has ever made an official appearance at the festival, organizers say — unlike other cities where political appearances at major gay events demonstrate the political muscle of the gay community.
"It's just the name — Decadence," Wright theorizes.
By the time tourists begin arriving a few days before Labor Day, Lefort and Artressia will have hosted several dozen events — parties, barbecues, raffles, a "gospel drag brunch" and a dinner for all the surviving previous grand marshals. Their plan is to visit every gay and lesbian bar in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes in the weeks before the event — "We're trying to bring the bars together," says Artressia. It's not much different than a krewe's activities in the weeks leading up to a Carnival parade; this year, in fact, for the first time, the grand marshals are introducing a "Decadence doubloon" to throw to the crowd. They're also adding a second Friday night parade ("Knights of Decadence") that will go through the Upper Quarter, in hopes that revelers will come to town even earlier. Most important, both men say, is their goal to raise more than $10,000 for NO/AIDS before the first tourist arrives.
Meanwhile, Lefort says he wouldn't mind having the city tip its hat to the estimated 100,000 people coming to town for Labor Day weekend. Nothing major — just an acknowledgement that fellows in size-12 heels and leather chaps spend money just as surely as do Mardi Gras frat boys and Jazz Fest threadheads.
"I'm going to issue an official invitation to (Mayor) Mitch Landrieu," he says. "And (City Council president) Arnie Fielkow came to gay pride with his family, so we'll invite him too. We'll invite them all."