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social sciences

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New Orleans  
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The first gay Carnival club, the Krewe of Yuga, began in 1958 as a lark, a party spoofing traditional society balls. Yuga flourished until a police raid of their 1962 ball abruptly destroyed it. But that same year a second gay club, the Krewe of Petronius, debuted, to be followed by the Krewe of Armeinius and a dozen or so others. These balls, which are part drag show and part bal masqué, remain an important aspect of the gay and lesbian social scene, though AIDS took a very heavy toll on the membership of many krewes and led to the disbanding of several.

As the new millennium dawned, seven gay clubs were presenting elaborate balls each carnival season, including the Krewe of Mwindo, a predominantly African-American club that debuted in 1999. In 2003, the Krewe of Satyricon presented its first ball.

Sponsor Message.

Gay Liberation Arrives

Although New Orleans had long been home to a large gay population, it was slower than most other American cities to produce a gay political movement. Partly this was due to being a rather small, conservative city dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

But there was another factor that had a chilling effect on gay visibility. For New York, 1969 was the year of the Stonewall riots. For New Orleans, 1969 was the year District Attorney Jim Garrison brought prominent gay businessman Clay Shaw to trial, charging him with conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Shaw was perceived as a particularly vulnerable target because of his homosexuality.

Although Shaw was eventually acquitted of all charges, the experience destroyed his life. The targeting of Shaw had the effect of reminding gay and lesbian citizens of their vulnerability even in a place as famous for its live-and-let-live attitude as New Orleans.

Local gay political activism nevertheless emerged in 1970 with the short-lived Gay Liberation Front of New Orleans. Although the group fell apart by mid-1971, in that brief span it had produced the first gay public action, a demonstration at City Hall protesting police harassment. It also published the first gay-identified publication, a newsletter entitled Sunflower, and presented the first Stonewall commemoration, a June 1971 "Gay-In" in City Park.

Out of this organizing effort, individuals soon founded a Metropolitan Community Church congregation, a Gay Services Center, a Daughters of Bilitis chapter, and a gay student organization at Tulane University.

Southern Decadence

A small costume party in 1972, given because, as one of the original hosts explained, "We thought Mardi Gras was too good an idea to do only once a year," has grown into one of the city's most important gay events. Guests at the original party were invited to come as their favorite Southern decadent character, real or fictional. Hence the birth of the huge annual Labor Day extravaganza called Southern Decadence, which rivals Mardi Gras in terms of the number of gay tourists it attracts.

A later party to entertain out-of-town guests mushroomed into the grand "Halloween in New Orleans" circuit party that raises money for Lazarus House, an AIDS hospice.

Tragedy and Protest

Two years after the Gay Liberation Front came and went, very little visible community structure was in place when, on June 24, 1973, a fire engulfed the Upstairs Lounge, a French Quarter gay bar. The deadliest fire in the city's long history, it killed 32 people.

The horror of the Upstairs fire was compounded by the undisguised of the time. Some churches refused to allow funerals for the victims, and some parents refused to claim the bodies of their children for burial.

The tragedy, however, did motivate a handful of activists who launched another publication, Causeway, and established a Gay Crisis Phone Line.

But gay activism in New Orleans did not mobilize substantial numbers until June 1977, when Anita Bryant arrived to perform in concert. It was the homophobic singer's first public appearance after her successful overturn of the gay rights ordinance in Miami.

A small group called the Gertrude Stein Society announced a protest rally and hoped that a hundred people would venture out of their closets and into the bright light of day. The organizers were astonished at the turn-out. Several thousand demonstrators rallied in Jackson Square and marched through the French Quarter to the Municipal Auditorium where Bryant was performing.

A Modern Community Emerges

This explosive energy triggered the rapid expansion of a visible gay and lesbian civic infrastructure. A newspaper, Impact, began publication in October 1977. The following year author Tom Horner opened the Faubourg Marigny Bookstore, the first gay/feminist bookstore in the South.

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