The Southern Decadence celebration has a theme, but it isn't the most obvious or necessary thing to revelers at what's become one of the nation's largest festivals for the LGBTQ community.
Chosen by the event's grand marshals — including Jeffrey Palmquist, Felicia Philips, Tony Leggio and Derek Penton-Robicheaux this year — the theme is for the Sunday afternoon drag and costume parade, a highlight of the 45-year-old Labor Day weekend event.
The grand marshals chose "Decadence Takes the World" as the theme for 2016 event, and it is meant to be open to interpretation, Penton-Robicheaux says.
"(The LGBT community) is more integrated now," Penton-Robicheaux says. "We're including the world because the world is more inclusive of us."
Penton-Robicheaux is the executive director of the Louisiana Equality Foundation, a statewide organization that advocates for the LGBT community on issues ranging from bullying and homelessness to substance abuse. (He's also a longtime Decadence attendee.) Along with his husband Jon Penton-Robicheaux, he was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged a Louisiana law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. Though they were married in Iowa, their union wasn't recognized by Louisiana. (The U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, just before their case was decided by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
There were many married couples in the 2015 Decadence parade, says longtime Decadence organizer and Ambush Magazine publisher Rip Naquin-Delain, who served as one of that year's grand marshals.
Decadence is not a political event, though some of the satirical costumes in the parade (2 p.m. Sunday) address political topics (New Orleans' PRIDE, which is more politically grounded, takes place in June).
"Decadence is about people being out and having a good time," Penton-Robicheaux says. "It's like Mardi Gras. You can come out and be yourself."
The grand marshals and their entourages march in front of the parade, which starts at the Golden Lantern and snakes around the French Quarter. Anyone can march in the procession and it typically includes people in drag, outrageous costumes and large costuming groups.
"There's one group of 50 or 60 that comes from San Francisco every year," Naquin-Delain says. "One year they all dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. They were great."
In recent years, Carnival marching groups have joined the parade.
Southern Decadence has grown despite starting nearly from scratch each year. Organizers counted more than 200,000 attendees at 2015 events. By tradition, the grand marshals choose the following year's grand marshals, and in April, the new leaders start planning their event. Their primary duty is to organize fundraisers to put on the parade. In recent years, a nonprofit started by Naquin-Delain and others has provided continuity and support for organizing the parade. After expenses, leftover funds are donated to charities chosen by the grand marshals. In 2015, more than $39,000 was donated to three charities, Naquin-Delain says.
During Decadence, the grand marshals attend a Friday night drag show at the Golden Lantern, toss beads from the balcony over Ambush's offices following the parade and go to the "survivors'" brunch on Labor Day. They also try to make appearances at as many events as possible. There's a long list of themed parties and events on the Southern Decadence website (www.southerndecadence.com).
The grand marshals also choose a theme song (Ariana Grande's "Break Free"), colors (amethyst, ruby, sapphire and pearl white) and the year's charities (New Orleans Advocates for GLBT Elders, Animal Rescue New Orleans). This year's grand marshals also introduced a new feature: an official shot (Skyy 42).
"We wanted to leave something behind," Penton-Robicheaux says.