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New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewes  
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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, which falls sometime between middle February and early March. 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.

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The Krewe

A krewe is simply a highly organized social group, usually bound by ties of family or neighborhood or ethnicity or other shared interest, that stages a parade or party or ball during the carnival season. The gay krewes, or clubs, are generally organized along the same lines as the mainstream social organizations. Although one gay krewe has attempted to present a parade, most gay krewes stage balls.

In most krewes, a board of governors is elected annually to run the day to day activities of the club, collect dues, raise money, and maintain order. The krewe also elects a Captain to organize the ball. He is a board member but is autonomous and makes all of the creative decisions as long as the club's bylaws are maintained.

The Captain chooses the Queen and King based on krewe longevity and participation. Although they are "mock royalty," the positions are regarded as high honors.

Costumes for the ball are elaborate and are paid for by each member. While drag is usually an important feature of the ball, what is most important is the costume itself.

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.

But if the ball is the culmination of the krewe's Mardi Gras celebration, it is by no means the only social activity that binds the members together. Since it is very expensive to stage the annual ball, most krewes help defray the cost by holding fundraisers. These events, which may range from theater parties to casino trips, are held all year long and are a source of interaction among the gay community and their straight friends.

The Background

The last years of the 1950s were especially hard for gay men in New Orleans. Even within the liberal precincts of the French Quarter, life could be dangerous. Even the few gay bars, such as Dixie's Bar of Music and Café Lafitte In Exile, could be perilous as well. The vice squad regularly sent young, handsome undercover policemen to the bars as bait and, once outside the bar, the man who took the bait would usually be beaten, arrested, and charged with attempted crimes against nature.

The following day, the city's principal newspaper, the Times-Picayune, would publish his name and address in the police reports under the heading, "Crimes against Nature." This column was must reading in New Orleans, and families were destroyed and careers lost as a result of arrest reports.

Same-sex dancing and cross-dressing were also jailable offenses at this time, and bashing was a favorite college sport.

In one notorious incident, three Tulane University students went to the Quarter to "roll a queer." They set upon a young Hispanic man, whom they killed. At the autopsy, the coroner discovered that the man's skull was an "eggshell cranium," that is, thinner than normal. This discovery inspired the killers' defense. They freely admitted to the bashing, but claimed that it was the man's cranium that killed him. They were acquitted.

The Krewe of Yuga

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. There would be a queen, maids of the court, even debutantes (affectionately dubbed "debutramps"). This group called itself the Krewe of Yuga, whose initials were K.Y.

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Blanche Debris as Queen of the Krewe of Armeinius in 2004.
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