By CHEVEL JOHNSON
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — What started as a small costume party held to bid farewell to a friend has blossomed into a huge annual celebration of gay culture that’s headed into its 44th year.
More than 100 events are scheduled for Southern Decadence, the annual gay pride festival that started Wednesday and runs through Monday in various bars and clubs throughout metropolitan New Orleans, but primarily in the French Quarter.
“For many years it was just a small party, with mostly locals,” said Rip Naquin, one of the organizers and Grand Marshal XLI for this year’s celebration. “But, with the advent of the Internet, I guess it was in 1995 when we saw this big influx of people. There were about 25,000 that year. It was amazing and unbelievable. Now, every year, it seems to grow even more.”
Last year, about 160,000 people participated in the event, that has an estimated economic impact of about $192 million, he said.
Kristian Sonnier, a spokesman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said hotel occupancy was at 88 percent on Friday, 94 percent on Saturday and 81 percent on Sunday. Those numbers cover 33 hotels and 8,374 rooms, he said.
Tony Leggio, who has helped raise funds to cover the costs of some of the free public events including Sunday’s walking parade through the Quarter, describes Southern Decadence as “a big, gay version of Mardi Gras.”
“It’s a celebration of gay culture that’s fun and held in a city that’s very welcoming,” he said. “It’s a unique one-of-a-kind event. I don’t know if any other city could handle it.”
The event includes a float parade, which was held Friday, a walking parade on Sunday, several block parties and outdoor concerts and talent shows and costume contests. Most of the events are free; some held at area businesses may require a cover charge.
This year’s theme is “Swimming with the Gods and Goddesses.” But because it’s usually so hot in New Orleans, most who participate “don’t wear a whole lot,” Leggio said.
“Body paint is very popular,” he said, laughing. “Still you’re likely to see a lot of Greek gods or water-themed costumes.”
Not everything associated with the festival, however, is just for fun.
So far organizers have raised about $30,000 for charitable groups that support the gay community — the LBGT Plus Archives Project of Louisiana “to preserve the past,” the Louisiana Equality Foundation “to preserve the present” and the PFLAG New Orleans Scholarship Fund “to preserve the future,” Naquin said.
In addition, the NO-AIDS Task Force, which works to promote safe sex, will be out in force, he said.
Sunday’s parade will also include the flag that was at the Supreme Court, when the justices legalized same-sex marriage in June, he said.
“The plaintiffs in that case will walk that flag during the parade,” Naquin said. “That is so significant. My partner and I never dreamed that we would see (gay marriage) in our lifetimes. This couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate year.”
Naquin and his partner, who’ve been together for 42 years, are the first legally same-sex married couple to reign as grand marshals for the event.