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Blanche Debris as Queen of Armeinius in New Orleans.
On February 12, 2013, Mardi Gras will be celebrated in many parts of the world, but in some areas it is a holiday with distinct significance for glbtq people. In some Roman Catholic countries Carnival is observed with abandon. Some of the most famous sites of Mardi Gras celebrations are the weeks-long festivities in Rio de Janeiro, Cologne, Venice, and New Orleans. In contrast to these traditional Mardi Gras observances, Sydney's famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is rooted in the gay liberation movement and is decidedly secular.
Although Mardi Gras celebrations are known for sexual promiscuity, feasting, drinking, dancing, parading, and elaborate masquerade, but it is rooted in religious observances and has come to have particular significance for glbtq people.
Mardi Gras day, or "Fat Tuesday," is the last Tuesday before the penitential fasting season of Lent in the Christian calendar, and therefore the last opportunity for devotees to feast and frolic before Lenten solemnity and temperance begins.
The notion of disguising one's identity in order to carouse more fully has made elaborate costume and masquerade a traditional part of Mardi Gras. Since gay men and lesbians are frequently required to hide their identities in everyday life, they are often drawn to masquerade as a chance, for once, to dress flamboyantly in drag as their "real" selves.
The massive Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is unique among Mardi Gras festivals. It began in 1978 as a protest for gay rights and has since evolved into one of the largest gay cultural events in Australia. Only since 1981 has it been observed during the traditional Mardi Gras season. The celebration, which originated as a specifically gay event rather than as part of a religious celebration, is determinedly secular. And rather than participating in a "masquerade," its participants are defiantly and proudly open.
SGLMG includes a gay and lesbian film festival and the Sleaze Ball, among many other parties and parades. The event draws tens of thousands of natives and tourists and infuses tens of millions of dollars into the city's economy.
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is an important holiday and the culmination of a lavish social season. The months-long Carnival season commences on Twelfth Night, January 6, and continues until its Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, climax. Not only do hundreds of thousands of tourists, many of whom are gay or lesbian, flock to the city for the parades and rowdy public celebrations, but numerous private balls and parties are held by residents of the city.
Since the late 1950s, a significant feature of New Orleans's Mardi Gras observances has been the gay krewes and their carnival balls. After a shaky beginning, the gay krewes have become a familiar part of the holiday and their balls a center of glbtq social life in the city.
The ball is often a glittering bal masqué, featuring drag perfomances, tableaux vivants, and highly choreographed presentations of royalty. Usually unified by a theme, the ball is the culmination of months of work by members of the krewe.
The audience is made up of friends and family, usually dressed in formal attire, as well as other spectators who are there simply to experience the spectacle. As in the seventeenth-century masques at the Stuart Court in England, the krewe members are at once themselves and the representation of someone else. The ball usually opens with the presentation of the current royalty and ends with the coronation of the new monarchs.
The earliest of the New Orleans gay krewes were organized during a perilous time. The last years of the 1950s were difficult for gay men in New Orleans. Even within the liberal precincts of the French Quarter, life could be dangerous. Vice squad entrapment and charges of "Crimes against Nature," arrests for same-sex dancing and cross-dressing and subsequent exposure in newspapers, and gay-bashing were all routine aspects of gay life in those days.
It was in this oppressive atmosphere that, in 1958, a group of gay men decided to stage a mock carnival ball. This ball was intended to parody the strict rituals of the high society counterparts. This group called itself the Krewe of Yuga, whose initials were K.Y. The Krewe of Yuga was short-lived. A police raid in 1962 effectively destroyed it.
However, in 1961 a new group, the Krewe of Petronius, legally registered as an official Mardi Gras krewe. It received a charter from the state to stage a Mardi Gras ball. The krewe also hired a police detail for protection, thus making it safe from a raid or other harassment. Petronius's first ball was in 1962, the same year as the Yuga raid, and it set the standards for all of the balls that have followed.
As the gay krewes proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, they became less interested in mocking the mainstream krewes and more interested in establishing their own traditions. In short, they were becoming an important part of Mardi Gras celebrations within the gay community and, ultimately, within the city itself.
The history of the New Orleans gay krewes is the subject of Tim Wolff's documentary, The Sons of Tennessee Williams, which is available from Netflix. Combining extraordinary footage of forty years of Mardi Gras balls and interviews with members of the Krewes, including especially glbtq.com contributor Albert Carey, the film demonstrates the seriousness beneath the apparent frivolity of the gay balls.
Here is a trailer for Wolff's film.
Here is a video of the 2011 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras celebrations.