Southern Decadence, New Orleans’ biggest gay party, is hotter than ever this year with record numbers of gay men heading south for the festivities over Labor Day weekend. For the first time ever, lesbians will join the party with their own signature events.
A party that traditionally has attracted mostly gay men since its humble beginnings as a going away event nearly 40 years ago, Southern Decadence now attracts up to an estimated 100,000 attendees yearly and is one of New Orleans’ top five tourist events, notes Robert “Bobby” Revere, one of the organizers and promoters, citing information from the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Gustav (2008) and the damage from breeched levees resulted in the ultimate party town becoming a distant memory for some travelers to the South’s largest gay bash. Southern Decadence should not be confused with New Orleans’ annual Pride or Gay Mardi Gras celebrations. In the years since Katrina, hotels continue to fill up in an upward swing after a few rough years for the weekend that embraces its gayness for an entire week, Revere said. He added that the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has barely affected the Big Easy.
Tommy Elias, general manager of Oz, one of the largest gay dance clubs in the French Quarter, agrees.
“It’s almost back to the way it was before Katrina … people are coming back in droves,” Tommy says.
Southern Decadence, with this year’s theme “Leather and Feathers,” takes place September 1-6 and events are quickly selling out, says Bobby.
A week of smash up entertainment is planned for partygoers, including recording superstar Deborah Cox, four-time Billboard #1 artist Erika Jayne, American Idol contestant Kimberley Locke, and disco diva Jeanie Tracy. Disk jockeys heading to the city promise to keep the dance floors grooving with hot bodies. The party culminates next Sunday with a masquerade parade through the French Quarter.
What isn’t as widely known is that queer women have leisurely discovered the party over the years.
That’s likely going to change this year. Los Angeles’ Girlbar and Palm Spring’s Dinah Shore Weekend’s dynamic duo Robin Gans and Sandy Sachs have created a host of ladies events for Southern Decadence, including a signature all-girl dance party, Sin.
The Girlbar experience follows last year’s first ever all-girl Southern Decadence event, Dykeadence, organized by New Orleans’ queer women’s artist community, that hosts events in conjunction with Southern Decadence. More than 300 women flocked to the queer girl drag show last year, said Sara Pic, one of the 12 founding Dykeadence collective members.
She estimated that half of the women who attended the show last year were from out of town, based on her informal survey of the women she met. Pic expects this year’s shows to be bigger and better. Also, for the first time Dykeadence will have a contingent for queer women, transgender individuals, and their allies in Southern Decadence’s parade.
“Women want to be out during Decadence,” says Sara, a queer woman who grew up in New Orleans and returned to help with the rebuilding of her hometown after Katrina. Her friends, who are coming from out of town to Southern Decadence, are more excited about this year because of Dykeadence, she adds.
“It’s a big fun party” that is a “huge wild debaucherous revelry” celebrating “all aspects of sexuality and gender expression,” says Sara, pondering the open sexuality on display in the French Quarter, one of the definite draws to the festivities.
Bobby says lesbians have long attended Decadence.
“There’s always been a good lesbian attendance,” says Bobby, who has observed the evolution of Southern Decadence for about 20 years, although exact numbers aren’t available. “[Girlbar] will simply make it much more visible to the lesbian market.”
Like Bobby, the Sapphic nightclub promoters hope Southern Decadence catches on with queer women.
“It’s a great city, it’s like a little bit of Europe in America,” says Robin.
Bobby is at least partly responsible for helping to bring the ladies to the party. An accountant and former owner of the Bourbon Pub and Parade, one of New Orleans’ largest gay bars in the heart of the gay section of the French Quarter, he officially handed down ownership of the bar and club to his longtime friend Sandy on August 15, 2010.
The bar, which locals affectionately call the “Fruit Loop,” and the upstairs nightclub, Parade, is one of the few New Orleans gay bars that welcomes women and is well-known for its popular “Girls Night Out” parties every Tuesday.
This coming Halloween the Parade will celebrate its 35th anniversary; and the pub just celebrated its 36th anniversary last month.
“I’m excited to be handing it off to Sandy,” says Bobby, who praises her creative ingenuity and skills as a nightclub promoter. He didn’t think of selling the historic venue, which wasn’t up for sale, to anyone else.
Sandy was a tennis scholarship co-ed at Tulane University in 1980 when she first stepped into the Bourbon Pub and Parade as a 19-year-old lesbian. It was the start of her nightlife career as the first woman to work at Menfees, the sister bar to the Bourbon Pub and Parade.
“I feel so passionate about this project … I’m going back to my roots … I’ve come full circle,” says Sandy about owning the first gay club that she ever walked into and returning and giving back to the city of her youth. “It’s very trippy. It’s wild.”
Sandy, who recently became co-chair of New Orleans Pride, hopes the Girlbar brand will attract LGBT tourists to the Big Easy.
LGBT travelers heading to New Orleans will always find a party. The southern town is truly the city that never sleeps and a wonderland for grownups looking to have a good time.
“New Orleans is a fun town. There is no last call. You can carry your cocktails in the street. It’s a really great adult playground,” Sandy says.
Southern Decadence, which is the largest of the three gay events, is only the beginning of New Orleans’ festivals, Bobby says. Nearly every week or weekend of the year the Big Easy is celebrating food, music, famous local artists, and more.
Travelers not planning on going to Southern Decadence, but who still want to head south to the bayou should check out the city’s list of festivals. One upcoming event in 2011: the Tennessee Williams Festival’s 25th anniversary March 23-27, 2011.
In spite of New Orleans’ cheerful demeanor, scars from Hurricane Katrina remain just beneath the surface. The French Quarter wasn’t as affected by the flooding after the levees broke as other parts of the city. The LGBT community, both businesses and residents, stayed relatively intact, according to locals. Some, whose families spanned generations, saw many of their relatives dispersed throughout the region not to return, but new faces appeared on the gay scene and in the community in general to help rebuild the city and some are making New Orleans their home.