For one Southern Decadence virgin — and thousands of other gay men descending on NOLA — Tropical Storm Lee couldn’t steal their thunder
JEF TINGLEY | Contributing Writer
Gay culture has a longstanding symbiotic relationship with low-pressure fronts. Chanteuses and drag queens alike sing about it in “Stormy Weather,” it’s H20 that ultimately does in the Wicked Witch of the West and the post-shower rainbow has become synonymous with LGBT Pride. It seems like we’ll find any angle to work the adage “Every dark cloud has a silver lining.”
So when it came time for my virgin voyage to New Orleans’ “Gay Mardi Gras” known as Southern Decadence, I wasn’t about to let a little rain (or even massive Tropical Storm Lee) steal my thunder — even if Lee’s thunder was more than impressive.
As it turned out, I wasn’t alone.
Clad in soggy leather, feathers and outfits slightly less revealing than a birthday suit, partygoers from across the nation braved the storm that flooded others parts of city to make sure that this 41st annual event lived up to its indulgent namesake. Organizers estimate Decadence brought about $125 million in economic impact to New Orleans and a crowd of nearly 80,000 people (down from an 110,000 in previous years).
But beyond the loyal fans, what made Decadence really shine was its all-inclusive embrace throughout the French Quarter. The sense of notorious southern hospitality was almost palpable.
The hub of the activities began near Bourbon and Saint Ann streets, home of NOLA’s largest resident gay bars — Oz and the Bourbon Pub/Parade — which were festooned in this year’s official colors of fuchsia pink, black and silver for the occasion. Their crowded balconies provided great people watching, but there was plenty to see on the street below, too — like Miss Ashley. This self-proclaimed “traffic trannie” works the intersection with her best “Stop In The Name Of Love” moves along with a whistle and a whip to keep partygoers safe from passing cars. (She even has a Traffic Trannie Facebook page.)
Strolling along Bourbon Street, you’ll note how clubs that usually cater to the heterosexual set during other times of the year ramp up their Kinsey Scale rating to 6.5 over Labor Day weekend, adding rainbow flags, hunky bartenders and drink specials to lure in the gays. It worked for our group, which made repeat appearances at a little-known bar called Bourbon Heat (711 Bourbon St.) that offered more breathing room, three-for-one drinks and front row seats to the action on the street.
Decadence is the kind of party that goes from morning-to-night — or morning-to-morning if you choose (throughout the year, there is no “last call” in New Orleans — bars stay open 24/7). But there are less crazy options if you need respite from dancing in the rain (or searching for your pants).
Places like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.) is one such example. The bar is decked out like an old-fashioned carousel and your bar stool literally goes round-and-round to give you an ever-changing vantage point. The setting was very relaxed with background music as eclectic as the crowd.
And while the temptation at Decadence can be to live on a “liquid diet” or simple street foods like pizza and Lucky Dogs, we opted for one night of elegance at the world famous Arnaud’s Restaurant (813 Rue Bienville). It’s the Big Easy equivalent of dinner and a show. Before your meal, tour the upstairs Mardis Gras Museum. Some of the elaborately beaded and feathered costumes on display date back to the 1940s, almost resembling cave drawings that Bob Mackie might later turn into a gown for Cher. The real star, however, is Arnaud’s extensive menu of Creole belly-rubbing goodness. And for true dramatic flair, make sure to order up the flamin’ Bananas Foster for dessert (its presentation will have everyone in the room looking your way).
I’m sure that any other year, Southern Decadence might have received a much different report of dignity exchanged for beads and moral codes left in the gutter, but in this case the rain seemed to bring just some good clean fun. And as the talented Katy Perry was once paraphrased as saying: “After you [drink a] Hurricane, comes a rainbow.”
Southern Decadence 2012, I’ll be back. So get those blue skies and shirtless boys ready.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.