In New Orleans, like in lots of different cities and cities, it was as soon as against the law for males to decorate as girls in public. However in New Orleans, an exception was typically made on one special occasion. Throughout Mardi Gras, police seemed the way in which and audiences cheered if somebody cross-dressed.
Historically, Mardi Gras is widely known as a time of indulgence, particularly in meals, drink, dancing, and pageantry. Individuals experience extra to mark the time earlier than Ash Wednesday begins the fasting and repentance noticed through the interval of Lent.
In New Orleans, a traditionally Catholic metropolis, Mardi Gras has additionally supplied a uncommon alternative for LGBTQ of us to freely categorical themselves. With costuming so key to the festivities, these celebrations created house for individuals to transgress many traditions, together with these tied to gender norms. Over time, LGBTQ individuals in New Orleans subverted Mardi Gras customs to strengthen group within the face of discrimination and demise.
Within the mid-1800s, the elite of New Orleans, a former colonial outpost of Catholic empires, started adopting the European pattern of masquerade balls and incorporating them into Mardi Gras festivities. Excessive society males organized secretive, all-white social golf equipment known as krewes. In 1857, the Krewe of Comus expanded their personal costume ball right into a public evening parade, bringing the spectacle to the streets.
That very same 12 months, a metropolis ordinance tried to restrict rowdy, masked parades by making it unlawful “to seem masked or disguised within the streets, or in any public place.” Whereas cities throughout the nation had been starting to enact legal guidelines particularly outlawing cross-dressing, New Orleans police used its personal metropolis ordinance to manage gender expression, even on Halloween. In different phrases, anti-cross-dressing legal guidelines enabled the state to surveil peoples’ gender expressions, upholding conventional gender norms by punishing “indecent” costume. However New Orleans police seemed the opposite manner throughout one time of the 12 months: the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras. Thus, by way of the late nineteenth century and nicely into the twentieth, cross-dressing throughout Mardi Gras posed much less of a threat and was a common choice for men becoming a member of the parade-watching crowds.
Bolstered by these traditions, homosexual organizing round Mardi Gras gained momentum because the LGBTQ group in New Orleans grew. Nationwide, World War II introduced new same-sex areas for individuals to discover their sexuality in navy bases and camps. Then, the postwar financial growth allowed individuals to rely much less on their households for monetary and emotional assist, which led extra homosexual individuals to prepare round their LGBTQ id as a substitute. In New Orleans particularly, Bourbon Avenue grew to become an anchor for homosexual life, and close to there, in 1949, homosexual males started the Fat Monday Luncheon at a well-liked French Quarter Restaurant.
Hostility remained an issue and a hazard, nevertheless. In a post-war interval marked by the “Lavender Scare”—repression spurred by fears of communism and nervousness over sexual “perverts”—the New Orleans police criminalized public indicators of homosexual tradition, for instance arresting gays and lesbians for dancing collectively or consuming in any institution they deemed “immoral.” Native enterprise house owners added to the setting of discrimination by pressuring metropolis officers to “drive out the deviates.” Police ramped up expenses towards LGBTQ individuals, turning an Obstruction of Free Passage legislation, meant to ban individuals from blocking the sidewalks, into a way of arresting LGBTQ people who socialized exterior bars on Bourbon Avenue. The 1958 acquittal of scholars from close by Tulane College after they confessed to the homicide of a homosexual man close to Bourbon Avenue additional highlighted how the judicial system devalued homosexual lives, even in a metropolis the place homosexual subcultures had been starting to thrive.
Regardless of all that—and in some ways in response to it—the Fifties additionally marked the introduction of the homosexual Mardi Gras balls that might turn out to be the spotlight of social calendars in New Orleans. Actually, it was 1958, the identical 12 months of the Tulane acquittals, when the Krewe of Yuga’s first mock ball marked the arrival of gay Mardi Gras krewes.
Like town’s straight krewes, the Krewe of Yuga was principally run by elite, white males. And their mock ball largely adhered to the construction of old-line Mardi Gras balls. The distinction was that members of Yuga used camp to parody—and poke enjoyable at—the straight elite’s custom of cosplaying European royalty. For instance, the Krewe of Yuga created the function of “debutramps,” a drag parody of the debutantes, the younger aristocratic girls who’re formally introduced to society after they come of age. And whereas the function of king was of significance to old-line balls, the Krewe of Yuga highlighted the presentation of the queen, which supplied a manner so as to add extra drag efficiency to the ball whereas additionally paying tribute to the colloquial phrase “queen,” a time period of endearment amongst homosexual males.
Because the Krewe of Yuga drag ball grew more elaborate each year, the queen grew to become the centerpiece of the occasion. The primary Queen of Yuga stepped out in a robe seeped in golden sequins as the group cried at midnight: “All hail Queen Yuga the First, the fabulous Yuga Regina!” The queen of the ball was generally elaborately dressed with a historic theme in thoughts, as was the case on the fifth annual Yuga ball, the place the Queen of Yuga wore a bedazzled Mary, Queen of Scots outfit for the event. It was the queen’s costume, typically adorned with a feathery, female defiance of masculine norms, that all the time stole the present.
The Yuga balls escaped police harassment for 5 years, till the notorious 1962 ball. Somewhat than discovering safety below the cloak of Mardi Gras, a neighborhood criticism sparked a police raid of the supposedly “very lewd” “stag party” and led to virtually 100 arrests. The raid confirmed the precarious limits of the police and metropolis authorities’s acceptance of LGBTQ tradition. The Krewe of Yuga dissolved that 12 months. It spawned, nevertheless, several other gay krewes within the early Nineteen Sixties, all of which took on the mantle of the Yuga ball, making the queen the point of interest of the balls.
These new krewes additionally took the ball costumes exterior, into the streets. In 1963, when a enterprise proprietor within the homosexual part of Bourbon Avenue determined to host a Mardi Gras costume contest, some contestants competed of their drag ball outfits. The competition drew collectively homosexual males from the krewes and the ball custom in addition to those that weren’t members of krewes, turning a dressing up contest into an all-welcoming social occasion incorporating the celebration of homosexual expression.
In 1966, Krewe of Petronius, a successor of Yuga, tactically obtained a state constitution offering authorized safety and making it the primary official homosexual Mardi Gras krewe. Nevertheless, the state constitution additionally tempered a number of the extra flamboyant and queer elements of this custom. Associates attending the ball had been required to decorate formally and according to gender conventions written into the legislation. There was no drag for the partygoers; solely members of the krewe might parade on stage within the dazzling tableaux. The response to those authorized guardrails was to go larger on stage. That 12 months, the Wizard of Oz served because the theme of the Petronius ball, and John Casper Dodt III, who had escaped the 1962 Yuga raid, reigned now as Queen Petronius VI, dazzling the viewers in her inexperienced, sequined showgirl outfit and heels, and donning a spectacular miniature duplicate of the Emerald Metropolis atop her feathered headpiece.
The ranks of queer krewes blossomed by the Eighties, together with feminine krewes, and Black krewes (fashioned in resistance to racism within the white gay community). By means of the last decade, krewes grew to become a website of group fundraising and assist through the AIDS disaster. Tragically, the epidemic took its toll on the balls, and the prominence of homosexual krewes in New Orleans declined. However a number of homosexual krewes have survived to today, just like the Krewe of Petronius, which nonetheless holds an annual ball and is working to incorporate the next gay generation into the custom.
Mardi Gras is an inseparable a part of LGBTQ historical past in New Orleans, and the group is a wealthy thread within the tapestry of revelry that attracts over one million individuals to the Massive Simple every winter. Though discrimination towards the LGBTQ group persists, the sequined tenacity to problem the established order created a measure of social acceptance and supplied an area of public expression for LGBTQ individuals in contrast to the opposite 364 days of the 12 months.
Lily Lucas Hodges is a historian who teaches programs LGBTQ America and on the AIDS epidemic at Chapman College.
Made by Historical past takes readers past the headlines with articles written and edited by skilled historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed don’t essentially replicate the views of TIME editors.