Enough Fabulous For All
Gay Mardi Gras krewes are starting to come out of the shadows and embrace a new economic model designed to preserve their artistry and keep the party going.
Clarence Jackson (a.k.a. Ms. Ebony) struts her stuff for the Krewe of Armeinius in 2014.
If you’re not familiar with the vibrant gay Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, there’s good reason for that. From the time the first gay krewes emerged in the late 1950s, they often operated in the shadows of a society that was largely unwelcoming. In fact, due to the dangers, the krewes have never (and still do not) parade publicly. Instead, they celebrate with their own annual bal masques, decked out in elaborate costumes that in essence become more like personal floats.
Today, however, those shadows have lifed and there are currently seven active traditional gay Mardi Gras krewes, many of which are following a trend toward openness and integration into Carnival’s mainstream. The largest of these organizations, the Krewe of Armeinius, is leading this charge, in response to both demand from carnival-goers eager to share in their festivities, and the economic necessity of reaching a broader base outside of the city’s gay community.
A History of Perseverance
The first gay krewe, the Krewe of Yuga, was formed by a group of friends in 1958. While it was an early hit among the gay community, the organization’s success was short lived. The krewe’s 1962 ball, held in secret at a Metairie site, was raided by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s department. Nearly 100 attendees were arrested.
During that period, New Orleans authorities were cracking down hard on the gay community. Arrests were common, and the Times-Picayune regularly published a list of individuals arrested for suspicion of homosexuality. “It was a dangerous time to be gay,” says Albert Carey, who joined Armeinius in 1970. “The police were always vigilant… having your name printed in the paper meant you lost your job or your apartment or your family.” Violence against members of the gay community was common as well, so discretion was a top priority.
After the Yuga debacle, the next gay krewe to form took a different approach. The Krewe of Petronius figured out that obtaining a legal charter from the state of Louisiana would make them a legitimate carnival organization and protect them from prosecution. Using this tactic, subsequent krewes including Amon-Ra (founded in 1965) and Armeinius (founded in 1969) and those that followed were able to avoid Yuga’s fate, though they still operated under the radar of a society that criminalized their lifestyle.
TOP LEFT- Albert Carey, Armeinius member since 1970 TOP RIGHT- Barrett DeLong-Church, Armeinius krewe
member and event coordinator BOTTOM LEFT- Bob Rooney, Armeinius 2015 BOTTOM RIGHT- Queen and King AmonRa at Armeinius 2015, Opal Masters and Darwin Reed
According to city law, Fat Tuesday was the only day of the year on which cross-dressing was permitted in public, though the law required the costume to contain one article of male clothing. But “it wasn’t just a group of happy homosexuals wanting to wear wigs,” emphasizes Carey. “That wasn’t it at all, though that’s what it kind of looks like now. We were in danger of our lives in many cases. That’s the context of the time we were living in.”
In that climate, the krewes became a sort of protective network for the gay community, places where they could develop and share the art that came to characterize their elaborate tableau bal masque celebrations. They also took on an unexpected function – coalescing as a political voice for the city’s gay community. When Harry Connick Sr. ran for election as district attorney in 1969 against the incumbent Jim Garrison — who was staunchly anti-gay and responsible for the tough enforcement of the city’s restrictive laws — the gay community realized that the krewes could serve as a convening mechanism and platform for change.
“I never imagined a political side of it at the time until certain things started happening in New Orleans,” says Carey. “We realized there was no political gay leadership in New Orleans. None. All we had were the krewes. So the krewes stepped up and became the gay leadership.” The first political meeting was held by the Krewe of Amon-Ra to support Connick’s candidacy. “He promised us that he would stop the arrests of the vice squad…That’s how the political part came — we were just answering the needs of the time.”
Though Connick’s first bid failed, he did succeed in defeating Garrison in 1973, and this changed life considerably for gay men and women in New Orleans. According to Carey, this easing trend continued with the election of African-American mayors, as the city’s black community had long offered support to the gay community. In the early days of Armeinius, says Carey, “it was only the African-American labor organizations, like the longshoremen’s union on Claiborne and the laborers union hall on Tchoupitoulas, that were even interested in renting us a space.” He also points out that Armeinius has always been open to African-American members.
LEFT- Joel Haas, Armeinius 2015 RIGHT- Brent Durnin, Armeinius 2015
The changes in the city’s political landscape helped usher in a period of prosperity for the gay krewes, whose numbers flourished in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Unfortunately, that popularity was short lived as the AIDS epidemic decimated the city’s gay community and forced many krewes to disband, while others withered to only a handful of members.
According to Armeinius krewe member and event coordinator Barrett DeLong-Church, as the tide slowly turned in the fight against AIDS, “the confidence of the public came back, and the krewes have grown from there.”
Preservation and Education
With the growing integration of the gay community into mainstream society, the mission of the gay Mardi Gras krewes has shifted from one of protection and necessity to preservation of an art form. “We want the art form to continue, but make it our mission to preserve those incredible costumes and honor the people who made this krewe,” says DeLong-Church.
The krewes have received support from the Louisiana State Museum, which has been collecting and cataloguing historic materials related to the evolution and culture of gay Mardi Gras in preparation for a 2019 exhibit. There is also a book underway by Howard Smith, who has worked for 15 years to research “Unveiling the Muse: Gay Carnival in New Orleans,” slated for publication this year by the University Press of Mississippi. Most notable, however, has been the 2010 documentary film “Sons of Tennessee Williams” by Tim Wolff, which played at festivals around the world and brought the story of gay Mardi Gras to an entirely new audience.
The Krewe of Armeinius has begun offering public classes on the craft of costuming in an effort to share this knowledge more broadly. “We want to make sure the public knows how to be part of it,” says DeLong-Church. “It was always meant for gay men to learn, but as time goes on, we’re finding the straight community wants to help us and learn too.” Armeinius has set up an auxiliary for women who want to be involved, and they have also revamped their website to share more information about the history and tradition of gay Mardi Gras. “We’re kind of out there fishing because we want our craft to be known about. It’s the only way we can gain fans.”
Seeking Fresh Faces
Sustaining these traditions requires a dedicated krewe membership. And while the greater acceptance of gay men and women into mainstream society has been a positive change for the gay krewes and their members, it means that many gay men no longer view them as a social or political necessity. As such, some of the traditional gay Carnival krewes (which today include Petronius, Amon-Ra, Armeinius, Lords of Leather, Mwindo, Narcissus and Mystik Krewe of Satyricon) are exploring new ways of attracting members with an interest in preserving the art of costuming, particularly the painstaking construction of the elaborate back pieces that are the highlight of several krewes’ annual bal masques.
TOP LEFT- Josh Arnaville and Jobie Jacomine, Armeinius 2014 TOP RIGHT- King and Consort Lord’s 2015 BOTTOM- Kent Roby, Satyricon 2013
“The key is to get young members,” says Carey. “My generation has passed away. It’s important to keep young people interested in this.” This push has paid off for Armeinius, which is currently the largest gay Mardi Gras krewe, with more than 50 members spanning a broad range of ages.
DeLong-Church notes that each krewe has a distinct personality that attracts different kinds of members. “Ours is primarily entrepreneurial people who are skilled professionals — doctors, lawyers, photographers, architects.” Another krewe might attract florists, interior decorators, and designers, and another the theater community. Many people join more than one krewe as well.
Building a Sustainable Economic Model
Armeinius owes some of its organizational stability to the fact that it is the only gay krewe to own its den. When the krewe purchased the run-down furniture store and warehouse on Broad Street a few years before Katrina, they “never dreamed that this area of the city would become as popular as it is now,” says Carey. Today, the krewe uses the den throughout the year for costume construction and storage (they display their costumes in big picture windows facing Broad Street) and for monthly meetings, parties and fundraisers.
“We’re always in fundraising mode,” says Carey. “It costs a lot nowadays to put on these things. People want more and more — good lighting, good sets and good music. And the prices of those things have gone up astronomically over the years.”
Most krewes rely heavily on fundraising events (Armeinius’ main events include the art-focused event “Glitter and Be Gay” as well as “Cocktoberfest”), which attract many straight attendees. Both DeLong-Church and Carey believe that krewes will need to seek broader support outside the city’s gay community to remain viable in coming years.
They have received a valuable boost from the New Orleans Tourism & New Orleans LGBT Hospitality Alliance (NOLHA) — a network of hotels, Mardi Gras krewes, and other gay organizations seeking to attract gay tourism to the city. Several members of gay Mardi Gras krewes were featured in a television ad as part of the ‘Follow Your Nola campaign,’ an appearance that generated both revenue and publicity for Armeinius.
Armeinius is also making other changes to attract broader attention to their art. They have ended the longstanding practice of making their annual bal masque an invitation-only affair that was free for invited attendees: the krewe now offers balcony tickets to the paying public and allows members to donate their tables to be sold. This shift has ruffled some feathers (or sequins) among krewe members who are reluctant to open the festivities, but many believe such changes are necessary to keep the krewes viable for the long term. DeLong-Church compares the efforts to those of the Krewe of Endymion, which has also made a strong (and successful) push to expand its audience and attract visitors.
TOP LEFT- Pertronius 2016 TOP RIGHT- Lord’s 2015 BOTTOM LEFT- Tony Leggio, Satyricon 2013 BOTTOM RIGHT- King Nick Olivares and Queen Kitty, Petronius 2016
To bring more attendees to its ball, Armeinius has relaxed the formal dress code for balcony seats, as visitors often don’t come to town equipped with a tux or gown. “We needed people to come and learn about the craft and the art. It wasn’t worth losing people to have someone looking a little fancier at the door,” says DeLong-Church. The krewe’s advertising drives to fill the balconies for last year’s ball as well as table sales brought in approximately $15,000, which helped offset the rising costs of staging the event.
DeLong-Church also believes sponsorships will play a greater role in the future — advertisers currently pay for space in the krewe’s ball book, which has been revamped to make it more appealing to readers and advertisers alike. As ad sales have increased, Armeinius is broadening its sponsor search to regional businesses who are taking a greater interest in the event.
“A gay organization always depended on the kindness of the gay community,” says DeLong-Church. “We can’t do that any further — we have to open these organizations up.”
“All sorts of tourist organizations are approaching us to buy tickets to the ball,” adds Carey. “We need to reach out to these sources of income. We can’t just rely on the same people buying tickets to all our functions. We hope the ball will pay for itself one day — there’s no reason why it can’t.”
As the Krewe of Armeinius prepares for its 50th anniversary in 2018, Carey reflects on how far they have come. “We never dreamed of having a publicity director, and now we do because people want to know about these things, and we want people to know…Our days of hiding are long over with. We want people to enjoy and see everything that we’ve done over the years.”
The 4th Gayest Metropolitan Area in America
U.S. Metropolitan Areas with the Highest LGBT(lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) percentage of population (2012-2014).
1. San Francicso/Oakland/Hayward, Calif. 6.2 %
2. Portland/Vancouver/Hillsboro, Ore. and Wash. 5.4%
3. Austin/Round Rock, Texas 5.3 %
4. New Orleans 5.1 %
5. (tie) Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, Wash.
Boston/Cambridge/Newton, Mass. and New Hampshire 4.8 %
Source: Gallup Poll
Southern Decadence Dollars
• This annual, six-day-long Labor Day weekend festival that started 46 years ago has grown so large — the fifth largest annual event in New Orleans — that it is now referred to as “Gay Mardi Gras.”
• According to the event’s website, “Attendance in 2016 broke all records, with over 180,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender participants, and an economic impact estimated to be in excess of $215 million.”