Gay Mardi Gras History
Every year, New Orleans shuts down and throws the party of parties. Everywhere else in the country, it's just another Tuesday, but, in New Orleans it's Mardi Gras! Mardi Gras is more than a single day of celebration. It's a state of mind. Mardi Gras reflects and defines the cultural traditions of New Orleans. Most "outsiders" assume Mardi Gras takes place on a single day. This is true. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. Some time ago, the tradition was to slaughter a fatted calf on the Tuesday before the beginning of the Lenten 40 day fast. Thus, the coining of the phrase "Fat Tuesday."
There is a distinction, however, between Mardi Gras and Carnival. Mardi Gras is a single day that is the climax for the Carnival season. The Carnival season begins on January 6th or Twelfth Night (Kings Night) and runs until the beginning of Lent - the Easter season (Ash Wednesday). Carnival can run as long as two months, depending on the church calendar.
Mardi Gras day or Fat Tuesday is the traditional day for masking. However, you'll find people enjoying this tradition beginning the Friday before Mardi Gras day. Mardi Gras costumes are elaborate. Sequins and feathers rule the day. Families and friends often mask as a group. It's not unusual to see a marching box of Crayola Crayons or a studly herd of bare chested firemen carrying a ten foot hose. Anything goes on Mardi Gras day. Even though the obscenity laws are still on the books, it's amazing what people get away with wearing or, should we say, NOT wearing.
The French Quarter is often called the "adult" Mardi Gras. Costumes can be more than revealing and there are some Carnival traditions (i.e. The chant "Show me your "insert preferred body part here" !) that would land a person in jail on any other day of the year. Police tend to look the other way at most of the stuff that goes on Mardi Gras day.
The lower French Quarter is the center for Gay Mardi Gras. This is where you'll find the more extravagant costumes. People come from all over the world just to strut around in costumes of their own design. Of course, going home with a prestigious Bourbon Street Award is often the motivation for their sequined madness.
Although parades roll for weeks before Fat Tuesday, on the Day of Days - parades begin early in the morning with the ever popular Zulu and don't stop until the last float passes late in the night. The highlight of the parades is the toast between the King of Carnival - Rex - and the mayor of New Orleans. This is the official proclamation and beginning of Mardi Gras. During the toast, Rex gives all city workers the day off and commands everyone to have a good time.
The Carnival season is the highlight of the New Orleans social calendar. The season officially begins on Twelfth Night or "Kings Night." Many New Orleanians with artificial Christmas trees will leave them up and replace the Christmas decor with purple, gold and green ornaments. These are the official colors of Carnival. Legend has it that green represents faith; gold, power; and purple, justice. Most people believe these colors were chosen simply because they look good together.
Another Carnival tradition that begins on Twelfth Night is the King Cake. A King Cake is a ring cake decorated with sweet purple, gold and green frosting. In every King Cake there is a little plastic baby representing the baby Jesus. The person who is lucky enough to bite into the piece of King Cake with the plastic baby gets to buy the next King Cake for the next King Cake party.
During the Carnival season, Mardi Gras Krewes - local clubs that sponsor parades and Carnival events - hold elaborate balls and parties where their King, Queen and other Royalty are announced for the year. On its surface, the election of Royalty may seem comical. However, being chosen is a very special honor and is taken very seriously by New Orleanians. Mardi Gras Royalty are elected because of their contributions and standing in the community. Being chosen to represent a Krewe as a King or Queen is an honor that announces to the community at large that these people have made our city a better place and we recognize their hard work and dedication.
So be sure to raise your cup and toast every King and Queen! If you don't live in New Orleans, it is impossible to understand all the planning, hard work and expense that go into Carnival. Most krewes begin planning for Carnival a year or more in advance. People belonging to a krewe pay dues and spend their own money to stage their parades and to buy throws. This is not an inexpensive venture.
The average Mardi Gras krewe spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of donated time to parade for just a few hours. Why do it? New Orleanians love their city and you just have to ride in a Mardi Gras parade to understand the thrill of throwing stuff to a hungry crowd.
Although every King and Queen deserve respect, the true King of Carnival is Rex. The identity of Rex is a secret until the day before Mardi Gras. People anxiously await the announcement of the King of Carnival. Being chosen as the King of Rex is the highest honor New Orleans can bestow. The King of Rex is chosen because of his prominent standing in the community. It's a really big deal.
The Queen of Rex is always a young debutante. It's all very aristocratic. Carnival officially ends when the King and Queen of Rex meet, at midnight on Fat Tuesday, the Queen and King of Comus. When they meet, the traditional "Whenever I Cease To Love" theme is played and true New Orleanians' eyes fill with tears from memories of Mardi Gras past and the fact that they have to wait another year to have this much fun.
Once the Royalty of Comus and Rex meet, police take to the streets on horseback - followed by street sweepers - announcing that Mardi Gras is over and people should "clear the streets." By this time, most people have had enough and are ready to rest. As soon as the last parade passes, the city begins the incredible task of cleaning up. All the garbage is weighed and this is how New Orleans estimates how many people came to Mardi Gras.
How Mardi Gras started is not really clear. There are plenty of legends and stories about early Carnival. It's not certain which are myth and which are fact. Legend has it that the first Mardi Gras came to be because the early Christian church adopted and reformed the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a decadent three days of celebration, in order to convert the pagans. The early church renamed the holiday to "carnelevamen," meaning "farewell to the flesh."
The French coined the phrase Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday, and brought the holiday with them when they settled New Orleans. In fact, in 1699 the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville landed near the mouth of the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras Day and named the plot of ground "Pointe du Mardi Gras."
Early Mardi Gras was not an organized, community event. The holiday was basically celebrated by throwing private, wild parties. After all, New Orleans was and still is a port city - and you know those sailors!
On February 24th, 1857, Mardi Gras was changed forever. This was the year that the first true Mardi Gras krewe was formed. The club called themselves the Mystick Krewe of Comus, after the Greek god of revelry. Comus began the tradition of the elaborate ball and carnival parade.
Over the years, many more krewes were founded. It wasn't until the 1950's, however, that the Mardi Gras we know today came into fruition.
Probably as a result of the post-war baby boom, many more carnival krewes were formed in the fifties and sixties. Ask any local and they're bound to have fond memories of riding on a float with their family. Mardi Gras became a holiday for families to celebrate and spend time with each other. Today, Mardi Gras remains a time to gather with family and friends. In fact, people are expected to open their homes to friends and family if they live within walking distance of the parades.
In New Orleans, the more family oriented carnival has moved into the suburb of Metairie. The rise in the number of krewes and the population shift to the suburbs has created, really, two distinct carnival traditions. Parades roll in New Orleans and in Metairie. The parades that roll in New Orleans are either "old line" krewes like Rex, or what have come to be known as "superkrewes." The "superkrewes" began in 1969 with the founding of Bacchus - named for the god of wine. The city was stunned by the enormous floats designed by Blaine Kern (now a world famous designer of floats and other ornaments). In addition, this krewe allowed anyone who paid dues to be a member. It didn't matter if you could trace your ancestry back to the buccaneers. The first King of Bacchus broke the most serious tradition. The King wasn't a community leader but Danny Kaye, a Hollywood star.
Today, Bacchus has become one of the largest and best parades in New Orleans and rolls the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Every year a different celebrity is made King and rides a special float. Last year, Luke Perry rode as Royalty.
The founding of Bacchus started a new tradition. Soon after the debut of this incredible parade, other superkrewes were founded. Endymion, which rolls on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras, was established in 1974. Endymion throws a party called the "Extravaganza" and tickets to this event are cherished and hard to come by. The Extravaganza is a party held in the Superdome for some 10,000 people. Entertainment is provided by some of the top names in the business. In 1995, the 1,500 member Krewe of Endymion introduced the largest Mardi Gras float ever! With the theme Welcome To The New Orleans Mardi Gras this float rolled with 150 maskers on board.
In 1994, Harry Connick Jr., a national celebrity and New Orleans native, began a new superkrewe called Orpheus that rolls on Lundi Gras - the Monday before Fat Tuesday. This Krewe has now become one of New Orleans favorites. In Metairie, the krewes that parade are usually groups of people that started clubs for their families. The parades in Metairie have become more sophisticated and larger over the years and some of them rival the best New Orleans parade. However, most of the parades in Metairie rent their floats and you tend to see the same floats (modified a little) rolling night after night. If you want to keep away from the rowdier New Orleans crowd, Metairie is a nice alternative.
The traditions of Gay Mardi Gras came into being in the 1950s. The first Gay Mardi Gras krewe was the Krewe of Yuga or "KY." This krewe was formed to satirize the straight, aristocratic Mardi Gras traditions in 1958. In 1962, the Krewe of Yuga threw its first ball at a badly chosen sight, a private children's school. No sooner had the tableau begun with Queen and Maids expectantly waiting the adoration of the spectators when police cars roared up and the ball was raided. Doors were locked and people were unceremoniously hauled to jail.
Taking a deep breath, the Gay community soon reorganized and new Gay Mardi Gras krewes began to flourish. Peaking in the early 1980s, there were dozens of Gay krewes that were the highlight of the Carnival season. Local matrons would beg for tickets from their hairdresser. They were quite the event.
The Gay balls required formal attire and the tableaus were a sight to behold. Many a cocktailed queen was seen to fall over from the weight of a bigger than life costume. It was all wonderful - cherished Carnival memories.
Why past tense? AIDS has taken many of the best and most talented people from New Orleans. It would be easy to blame a weak economy and apathy for the decline of the Gay krewes. It's not that. It was AIDS that almost destroyed this fine tradition. But the krewes are picking up members, and new krewes have formed. Today, there are eight Gay krewes in New Orleans - Amon Ra, Armeinius, Mwindo, Lords of Leather, People of Substance, Petronius, Queenateenas and Satyricon. See the schedule of events for information about the balls. Attire is formal and the balls are invitation only.
The Night of the Black Mask is held the Friday before Mardi Gras drawing thousands to the South's Oldest Leather Block Party. Sponsored by the Phoenix/Eagle and Lords of Leather, the event is hosted at the corner of Elysian Fields and N. Rampart Streets.
One Gay tradition that flourishes and attracts participants and an audience from across the globe is the Bourbon Street Awards. 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Bourbon Street Awards. Presented by Oz New Orleans and sponsored by Bud Light, these awards are one of the highlights of Gay carnival. The Bourbon Street Awards were originally held on Bourbon and Dumaine, then moved to St. Ann and Burgundy. Today, the Awards are held on the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann in front of Oz and beginning at 12noon.
At 2pm every Mardi Gras, revelers head on over to Ambush Headquarters, 828 Bourbon Street, for the annual Krewe of Queenateenas [KOQ] Official Gay Mardi Gras Bead Toss. Now in its 27th year, the bead toss is led by the KOQ's reigning King Cake Queen [KCQ], complete with changing balcony theme. For the best pearls on Bourbon Street, join the crowds in front of the balcony!
Symbolism of Carnival Colors
PURPLE represents Justice
GREEN stands for Faith
GOLD signifies Power
Historical Gay Mardi Gras Events:
1949, Fat Monday Luncheon debuts at Brennan’s Restaurant/New Orleans
1958, Krewe of Yuga/New Orleans, 1st gay Carnival club debuts
1962, Krewe of Petronius/New Orleans debuts
1962, Yuga/New Orleans ball raided
1963, Bourbon Street Awards/New Orleans debuts presented by Arthur Jacobs, Bourbon at Dumaine Streets
1966, Krewe of Amon-Ra/New Orleans debuts
1969, Krewe of Armeinius/New Orleans debuts
1969, Amon-Ra/New Orleans presents 1st Miss America Pageant
1970, Mystick Krewe of Apollo/New Orleans debuts at Monteleone, 1st gay ball presented in a hotel
1971, Krewe of Olympus/New Orleans debuts, 1st gay ball presented at St. Bernard Civic Auditorium
1972, Mystick Krewe of Apollo/New Orleans, 1st gay ball to debuts at Municipal Auditorium,
1976, Mystick Krewe of Apollo de Lafayette debuts
1977, Mystick Krewe of Apollo/Birmingham debuts
1977, Mystic Krewe of Celestial Knights/New Orleans debuts
1977, Academy of the Golden Goddess, Inc. (AGGI)/New Orleans debuts presenting annual awards show celebrating gay Carnival clubs
1978, Mystick Krewe of Apollo/Shreveport debuts
1979, police strike cancels parades/New Orleans; Charlene’s & the Golden Lantern group takes to the street as the Krewe of Cancellation
1980, Police cancel Krewe of Cancellation parade/New Orleans, no parade permit
1981, Mystick Krewe of Apollo/Baton Rouge debuts
1981, Krewe of Ishtar/New Orleans, 1st all-lesbian club debuts
1982-3, Edd Smith hosts Bourbon & St. Ann St. Awards/New Orleans, no Bourbon Street Awards held
1983, the Krewe of Polyphemus/New Orleans debuts
1984, Lords of Leather/New Orleans, 1st leather Carnival club debuts
1984, 11 gay Carnival krewes present balls, a record/New Orleans
1984, no Edd Smith or Bourbon Street Awards/New Orleans
1986, Bourbon Street Awards/New Orleans returns & moves to St. Ann & Burgundy
1987, Krewe of Queenateenas/New Orleans debuts presenting 1st Official Gay Mardi Gras Bead Toss, 828 Bourbon St.
1991, AGGIs/New Orleans end
1992, Petronius, Amon-Ra, Armeinius & Lords of Leather present only gay balls/New Orleans
1993, Krewe of Barkus/New Orleans parade hits the streets of the French Quarter
1994, Krewe of Queenateenas/New Orleans crown 1st King Cake Queen of Gay Mardi Gras
1999, 1st new gay Carnival Club since 1984, Krewe of Mwindo/New Orleans debuts
1999, Fat Monday Luncheon/New Orleans, celebrates 50th anniversary
2000, le Vendredi de Nuit Mardi Gras Avant/New Orleans debuts benefiting AIDS service organizations
2001, People of Substance's Krewe of Anubis/New Orleans debuts
2001, Petronius/New Orleans celebrates 40th anniversary
2002, Bourbon Street Awards/New Orleans returns to Bourbon & St. Ann Streets presented by Oz & Bud Light
2003, Krewe of Satyricon/New Orleans debuts
2003, Queenateenas/New Orleans celebrates 10th King Cake Queen of Gay Mardi Gras Coronation
2004, 40th Bourbon Street Awards presented
2005, Amon-Ra/New Orleans celebrates 40th anniversary
2006, Petronius/New Orleans celebrates 45th anniversary
2007, Queenateenas/New Orleans celebrate 20th Official Gay Mardi Gras Bead Toss
2008, Armeinius/New Orleans celebrates 40th anniversary
2008, Lords of Leather/New Orleans celebrates 25th anniversary
2008, Queenateenas/New Orleans celebrates 15th King Cake Queen of Gay Mardi Gras Coronation
2009, Bourbon Street Awards/New Orleans returns to Bourbon Street (800 block) presented by Oz & Bud Light
2010, Amon-Ra/New Orleans celebrates 45th anniversary
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