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Gay Mardi Gras

From Debutramps to Lords of Leather: A Brief History

When a successful Mardi Gras is often measured in terms like sequins, feathers, rhinestones and flamboyance, it is no surprise that gay culture flourishes during the Carnival Season.


Since the late 1950s gay Krewes have been a significant feature of the city’s biggest holiday celebration. Though they don't enjoy the spotlight of the parading krewes on St. Charles Ave., these Carnival groups have proven influential in the development of the mordern Mardi Gras celebration, and continue to go strong to this day.


The most visible celebrating and beating heart of the Gay Mardi Gras can of course be found at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann where the Annual Bourbon Street Awards, the “Ultimate Costume Contest,” is held. This year’s show, beginning at noon on Mardi Gras Day, will be emceed by Circuit star Bianca Del Rio and Blanche Debris from Oz. As always prizes will be awarded in categories such as Best Drag, Best Leather, and the grandest, Best in Show. A parade of costumes will precede the contest starting at Bourbon and Dumaine and ending in front of Oz. After the Bourbon Street Awards and just a few steps away, the reigning King Cake Queen from the Krewe of Queentateenas will host the Official Gay Mardi Gras Bead Toss from the balcony of Ambush Magazine headquarters.


While the Bourbon Street Awards and the Official Gay Mardi Gras Bead Toss may get the most attention, there are numerous distinctively gay Mardi Gras Krewes who host some of the season’s most extravagant and elaborate balls. As of 2012 the list of currently existing New Orleans gay Mardi Gras krewes includes the Krewe of Petronius founded in 1961, the Krewe of Amon Ra (1965), the Krewe of Armeinius (1969), the Mystic Krewe of The Lords of Leather (1984), the Krewe of Queenateenas (1987), the Krewe of Mwindo (1998), and the Krewe of Satyricon (2001). While technically not a krewe, the organization “Friday Night Before Mardi Gras,” founded in 2000 can be grouped with the others as their annual “Extavaganza” benefitting HIV and AIDs charities follows many Mardi Gras Traditions. In addition, the Mystic Krewe of Apollo was founded in New Orleans 1969 but exists today in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Birmingham. Also founded in New Orleans in 1970, the Krewe of Olympus thrives today in Houston, Texas.


The first ever gay Mardi Gras Krewe, the Krewe of Yuga, tounge-in-cheekly abbreviated the Krewe of “KY,” was founded in 1958 predating many of today’s most well known krewes such as Bacchus and Endymion. Like many grassroots krewes, the Krewe of KY was formed to satirize the straight, aristocratic traditions of the more established and high society krewes. The Krewe of KY staged its first ball in 1962 at a private elementary school in Jeffreson Parish complete with a Queen, Maids of the Court, and “Debutramps” instead of Debutantes. The poor choice of venue, however, resulted in the ball being raided by local police and many of its attendees thrown in jail. While that krewe did not survive the incident, that first ball opened the door for all other gay krewes.


The oldest existing gay Mardi Gras Krewe, the Krewe of Petronius, held their ball, “Petronius’ Bal Masque LI,” earlier this year on January 28 at the Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center. Also at the Sigur Center, the Krewe of Amon Ra held their “Mardi Gras Ball XLVII” on January 21st. Again, the Sigur Center hosted the Mystic Krewe of the Lords of Leather’s “Bal Masque XXIX- The Sci Fi Ball” on Feb. 17 and the Krewe of Armeinius’s “Tableau Ball XLIV” on Feb. 18.


The Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center’s strong connection to Gay Mardi Gras may seem a little bizarre at first glance, as St. Bernard isn’t exactly a refuge for the gay community. However, it has boasted over 40 years of tradition as ‘the place’ for gay balls. In the early years, most gay Mardi Gras balls were held at Black Labor Union Halls because, at the time, African Americans were the only people who would rent space to gays. It wasn’t until 1970 that the Krewe of Olympus, looking for a larger venue, convinced St. Bernard Parish politicians to rent out the newly constructed civic auditorium to the krewe by assuring a Broadway quality show. In the following years many gay krewes followed Olympus to the tolerant environment the Sigur Center provided thus making Chalmette the epicenter of Gay Mardi Gras to this day.


Gay Mardi Gras krewes really flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. There existed dozens of gay Mardi Gras krewes that boasted hundreds of members. Notable krewes during this time included the Celestial Knights, David, Polythemus, and the lesbian Krewe of Ishtar. Balls were beyond extravagant during those years and invites to them were highly coveted. Tragically though the emergence of AIDS in the gay community during the 1980s devastated the Gay Mardi Gras tradition. Many of the most prominent krewe members were lost to AIDS and membership drastically declined as resources were diverted towards HIV and AIDS research and awareness. Sadly, numerous Gay Mardi Gras krewes disappeared during those trying times, as did their unique traditions.


In the 1990s, interest in Gay Mardi Gras krewes rose once again. Many of the members of extinct krewes joined those which survived the AIDs crisis. In 1998 the Krewe of Mwindo was formed as a predominantly gay African American krewe. Gay Mardi Gras krewes experienced a rebirth and continue to grow today.


Upcoming events in the gay Mardi Gras community not mentioned above include the Krewe of Satyricon’s Bal Masque “The Armageddon Ball” which was held on Friday, February 10 at the Sugar Mill and the Friday Night Before Mardi Gras Extravaganza “The Immortals Ball at the Tea Room” on Friday, February 17 at the Audubon Tea Room. Also, the Krewe of Apollo’s Bal Masque XXVI “Apollo’s Big Toy Box, held earlier this month in Lafayette, was a huge success.


The history and prominence of Gay Mardi Gras has recently become popular with the release of Tim Wolff’s documentary “The Sons of Tennessee Williams.” In it, the filmmaker sheds light on the birth and growth of the Gay Mardi Gras balls and even asserts that Gay Mardi Gras in New Orleans was the first established push for gay civil rights in America as many of the krewes predate the revolutionary Stonewall riots of 1969.  

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