2 min

Southern Decadence in New Orleans

Annual event is the 'gayer cousin' of Mardi Gras

Credit: (Richard Burnett)

It may be too late to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras on Feb 5 but there’s plenty of time to plan to be there for its gayer cousin, Southern Decadence, held every Labour-Day weekend.

Originally organized in 1972 by six roommates as a going away party for a friend Southern Decadence quickly took off, attracting queer participants who felt unwelcome at Mardi Gras celebrations. Since then the annual event has grown into one of New Orleans’ largest tourism events, generating more than $100 million in economic spinoffs for local businesses each year.

I unintentionally arrived in N’Awlins on Aug 29, the second anniversary of Katrina, alongside Anderson Cooper who was returning to the Lower Ninth Ward ruins that made him America’s TV emo hero. The week I was there 642 lawsuits were filed ahead of the US District Court’s cut-off date, raising Katrina-related lawsuits to 7,124 — thousands of them citing the Army Corps of Engineers who built the levees.

Despite the 700,000 spectators who attended Mardi Gras last year, 375,000 concertgoers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and 125,000 tourists at Southern Decadence the owners of the Astor Crowne Plaza sold their famed five-star hotel at Canal and Bourbon Sts claiming they can no longer handle the financial drain of the post-Katrina hospitality market.

But there’s so much for tourists to see and do. The French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans’ gay scene, was practically untouched by Katrina. In fact it’s cleaner and smells better than it did when I was last there five years ago.

It was here, at the Bourbon Pub, that I saw famed drag queen/porn director Chi Chi LaRue host her raucous Big Dick Contest and suck face with porn actor Chad Hunt. Another night at the Bourbon I saw the hugely controversial 300-pound drag queen Shirley Q Liquor, whose no-holds-barred stand-up act in blackface deserves a showcase at the Just for Laughs Festival.

The highlight of Southern Decadence is its outrageous parade, a 36-year-old annual pubcrawl that winds its way through the French Quarter.

Each year my dear friends Dan and Dave, who own a B’n’B in the Quarter, organize a parade contingent. We went as “Whores for Vitter,” in honour of David Vitter, Louisiana senator and “family values” hypocrite recently caught patronizing a DC madam.

I was dolled up in an Esther Williams bathing suit and Marilyn Monroe wig and our group thrilled the cheering throngs snapping pictures and lining the streets in what was the longest red carpet of my life.

The most recent installment of Southern Decadence also hosted the second annual DecaFest — five days of queer film, theatre and comedy — at New Orleans’ gorgeous Cultural Arts Centre.

“The open secret about Southern Decadence is there is no one organizing committee,” says DecaFest founder Roberts Batson. “People were just standing around drinking on Bourbon St so we created DecaFest.”

Located in New Orlean’s warehouse/arts district the centre was just four blocks away from the historic Lafayette Hotel where my lushly appointed suite was bigger than my Montreal apartment. Built in 1916 the small luxury hotel was renovated in 2003 and has all modern-day amenities, notably plush ottomans, marble bathrooms and triple sheets for my huge four-poster bed.

And I put that bed to good use.