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Southern Decadence 2006: A How-To Guide

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Decadence Revelers Parading in Costume
When people who have never spent Labor Day weekend in New Orleans ask me what Southern Decadence is, I usually take the easy way out and tell them that it's sort of like a gayer version of Mardi Gras, although Mardi Gras is pretty gay itself and Southern Decadence isn't really like any other celebration in New Orleans, or anywhere else. So maybe it's easier to explain what Southern Decadence isn't.

It's not a party to celebrate a particular holiday, like Halloween or New Year's Eve (or even Mardi Gras), although it has taken place every Labor Day weekend in New Orleans for nearly 35 years. It's not an event for the whole family. And it's definitely not for the easily shocked or faint of liver: if you're thinking of seeing out the summer in a starched polo shirt while sipping gin and tonics on an immaculately manicured lawn somewhere, don't come to New Orleans. (Or at least stay Uptown.)

First Decadence played out in 1972
According to various online histories of the event, the first Southern Decadence celebration took place in 1972 when a group of omnisexual downtown New Orleans residents - including several women and at least one Yankee - decided to hold an impromptu cocktail party and costume parade to break the late summer monotony and honor a friend who was leaving town. From such inauspicious beginnings, Southern Decadence has become one of the largest gay events in the country (the third largest, by most accounts, after Gay Pride in New York and San Francisco), with over 120,000 revelers converging on the French Quarter in some years.

Since usual standards of decorum in New Orleans (at least on this side of Canal Street) are never very high to begin with, especially where alcohol is involved (and what kind of celebration in New Orleans
doesn't involve alcohol?), you can expect things to get pretty wild
over Decadence weekend. First-time visitors to New Orleans are almost invariably surprised by two of our most notable civic institutions: 24 hour bars and permissive open container laws, which not only means that you'll never hear the words "last call", but that you'll be able to take the party (and your drinks) with you wherever you choose to wander.

No tickets necessary to enjoy the party
Unlike most gay and lesbian party weekends, Southern Decadence doesn't revolve around one single ticketed party, although multiday passes are sold by the two main gay dance bars (the Bourbon Pub and Oz) which flank either side of Bourbon Street and Saint Ann. If the weekend has a signature event, though, it's the Southern Decadence parade which begins at the Golden Lantern on Royal Street on Sunday afternoon and winds its way through the French Quarter on the whim of whoever happens to be the Grand Marshal that year. Since the Grand Marshals tend to be eminent figures from the city's bar and nightlife scenes, you can expect the parade to hit most of the main watering holes in the Lower Quarter before dispersing just as informally as it began. Even if you choose not to pack your favorite wig and pair of seven-inch showgirl pumps and be on display yourself (and you are highly encouraged to do so), the costumes worn by the Grand Marshall and his (or her) retinue are not to be missed.

Leave your prudish friends and family at home
Parades and non-stop parties aside, Southern Decadence may be most famous (or infamous) for the displays of naked flesh which characterize the event - which is only fitting, since New Orleans in early September is generally the closest thing you'll ever experience to walking around in a steambath outside of a health spa. While police have started to crack down on public lewdness and pressure from a local conservative religious organization has caused the five-day festival to become a little more sedate than it was in years past, the atmosphere of Southern Decadence has stayed true to its name and public displays of sexuality are pretty much everywhere you look. Like I said, you might want to leave your more prudish friends and family at home. However, if you're open-minded enough to plan on joining the crowds this year, it's not too late to find a place to stay; New Orleans is built around the hospitality industry, and there are usually plenty of accommodations available over Labor Day weekend in and near the French Quarter to suit every taste and budget. Don't just limit yourself to looking for places to stay in the French Quarter; there are plenty of lodgings available in the Central Business District and Faubourg Marigny, and you'll appreciate having somewhere quiet yet nearby to retire to when you need a break from the crowds.

After all, the party in New Orleans never really stops - during Southern Decadence weekend or any time of year.

Southern Decadence - August 30 - September 4, 2006.


Writer John d'Addario lives in New Orleans with his significant other, three dogs and a cat.




















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