Shirtless men on a Bourbon Street balcony during Southern Decadence.
|Frequency||Annually, US Labor Day Weekend|
Southern Decadence is an annual six-day event held in New Orleans, Louisiana by the gay and lesbian community during Labor Day Weekend, climaxing with a parade through the French Quarter on the Sunday before Labor Day.
The event traces its beginnings to August 1972, as a party among a group of 40-50 friends both straight and gay. They billed their event as "Southern Decadence Party: Come As Your Favorite Southern Decadent." People who attended were required to dress as their favorite decadent Southerner. The first small "parade" occurred the following year, when the participants first met at Johnny Matassa's Bar in the French Quarter to show off their costumes and then walk back home in the Tremé neighborhood via Esplanade Avenue. This first group impersonated people and characters ranging from Belle Watling (the prostitute character in Gone With the Wind) and Mary Ann Mobley to Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Keller. The event expanded with Frederick Douglas Wright, an African American, appointed as the first Grand Marshal  by members of the original group in 1974, who would have complete control over the parade of incredible characters and costumes as they marched through the French Quarter.
Decadence, as it is commonly known by participants, is marked by parades, bead tossing, street parties and dance parties. In these ways it resembles New Orleans Mardi Gras, however, Southern Decadence tends to be more sexual in tone and is generally geared towards more upscale and mature revelers. Decadence crowds in the Quarter typically match or exceed Mardi Gras crowds. Most events take place in or around the French Quarter neighborhood centered at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann streets.
Crowds range from 100,000 to 300,000 revelers from across the nation and world. In 2017, there were over 200,000 participants and the positive economic impact on the City of New Orleans was estimated at over $250 million.
Themes were presented on and off from the beginning, but did not become a consistent fixture of the event until "Plagues, Pests, Parasites" theme in 1988. They have been featured every year that the Decadence has been held since then. They have ranged from themes as varied as "Voodoo That You Do", "Menage à Trois", "Ancient Truths, Lies, and Sacrifice", and "Hurricane: This Year, They Blow Back."
The theme for 2018 is "House of Bourbon -- Unleash Your Beast." The official colors are Royal Blue and Canary Yellow. 
In years past, religious and conservative groups have rallied against the festival. In 2003 there was a formal petition filed to have the event terminated, with video footage handed over to officials depicting dozens of men engaged in "public sex acts". There were examples of men exposing themselves to others for beads, similar to the way women have long exposed their breasts for the traditional Mardi Gras balcony bead toss. The complaints led to a vocal response from business owners and hoteliers in New Orleans, in support of the festival. Ultimately the police posted notices clarifying what constitutes public sex. The pastor who spearheaded, videotaped, and filed the petition, Grant Storms was arrested in February 2011 after being caught masturbating in a public park. He was convicted of obscenity on August 22, 2012.
The city later passed an ordinance that effectively banned the dissemination of any social, political, or religious message on Bourbon Street from sunrise to sunset, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who sponsored the ordinance, said the city "has a legitimate interest in protecting residents and visitors in the highly trafficked area of Bourbon Street at night. She said aggressive solicitation can be a crowd-control issue, and people are allowed under the law to speak their messages if they take five steps off Bourbon Street. This is really an issue of trying to protect public safety."
Nine preachers and activists were subsequently arrested on September 1, 2012, after they allegedly yelled slurs at people attending Southern Decadence on Bourbon Street. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union during the first round of their case, those arrested saw the law temporarily suspended via a restraining order that was granted by a federal judge.
In the year 2005, that year's edition of Southern Decadence was officially canceled in the wake of safety precautions against Hurricane Katrina. However, a very small group of residents who still remained in the French Quarter celebrated the event anyway. An abbreviated parade took place in the French Quarter with some two dozen participants. Most were French Quarter hold-outs; there were also at least a couple of people who had to wade in through flooded streets from other neighborhoods to get there. As the city was officially being evacuated at the time, a police officer at first attempted to stop the small observation of tradition, but one of the participants was able to produce the parade permit issued pre-Katrina showing it was a scheduled legal event, and the small procession was allowed to continue. National media reporters noted the event. It was the first parade in New Orleans after the hurricane, the most recent previous New Orleans parade having been the Krewe of OAK "Midsummer Mardi Gras" parade the night before the city's mandatory evacuation.
With the theme "Southern Decadence Rebirth", the event rebounded in 2006, attracting near-normal crowds.
Due to the approach of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and a mandatory evacuation notice, some events on Saturday and all official Southern Decadence events after Sunday, August 31 midday were canceled that year. As a result of Sunday's parade being canceled, the 2008 Southern Decadence Grand Marshals, Paloma (Samson Utley) and Tittie Toulouse (Gary Delaune), returned for 2009. However, as was the case with 2005, a small group of French Quarter residents still celebrated the 2008 event anyway with an "unofficial" parade taking place once again in the French Quarter. That parade had some two-dozen participants, just like three years earlier.
With the theme "Hurricane: This Year, They Blow Back", the event once again rebounded as a whole in 2009, attracting near-normal crowds.
Media related to Southern Decadence at Wikimedia Commons