Pride flags once again adorn the neutral ground along N. Rampart Street on the edge of the French Quarter. Many people reasonably assume the flags are there because June is Pride month, but that’s not entirely true. Originally, the rainbow flags on N. Rampart grew not out of Pride, but rather out of Southern Decadence. To be more specific, the flags trace their origin to a blowjob. And a preacher.
In 2002, the city of New Orleans for the first time bestowed official recognition on Southern Decadence. Larry Bagneris, Executive Director of the city’s Human Relations Commission at the time, proclaimed August 28 through September 2 “Southern Decadence Festival Days in the City of New Orleans.” On the Friday night of Decadence weekend, during a drag show hosted by Lucille’s Golden Lantern, Bagneris presented Grand Marshal Irish Mike Sheehan with an official mayoral certificate; Mayor Ray Nagin also issued a letter welcoming the more than 100,000 people expected to attend.
However, 2002 also marked another milestone for Southern Decadence: the first time it came under direct attack from the religious right as an expression of the “sin” of homosexuality. The crusade was led by Grant Storms, the minister of a small fundamentalist church in Marrero, Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Storms claimed that the Lord had instructed him to protest Southern Decadence, so he went to the festivities and videotaped people engaging in sex acts in the streets and in bars. A handful of incidents of this type occurred every year, generally involving out-of-town visitors: in 2002, twelve people had been arrested on charges of engaging in lewd conduct.
Storms showed his tapes to the police, New Orleans politicians, state legislators, and various media outlets, declaring, “There’s no economic gain that justifies an orgy in the streets. That’s all it is, a three-day orgy in the streets,” and stressing that public sex was not merely inappropriate but illegal. Storms met with Mayor Ray Nagin and demanded that he shut down Southern Decadence, but the mayor refused, well aware of the event’s importance not only to the gay community but also to the city’s economy. Storms’ campaign did, however, gain some traction with a few Republican members of the state legislature, most notably Daniel Martiny, who blamed New Orleans’s “anything goes mentality” for the crime that plagued the city. Martiny introduced and the legislature passed a measure toughening the penalties for people convicted of having sex in public.
But New Orleans residents were much more concerned about violent crimes—murders, rapes, and offenses involving guns or other weapons—and about drugs than about “moral” crimes. In a letter to the editor published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Susan Mole Shelley flayed Martiny and Storms: “Crime in New Orleans is bred by poverty and drugs. These so-called religious groups should set up their video cameras, not in the middle of Bourbon Street, but in and around public housing projects at night if they want to see some real crime.” Others dismissed Storms as a self-righteous rabble-rouser or simply found him annoying.
Still others saw the attack on Southern Decadence as homophobia, citing politicians’ and religious leaders’ double standard regarding lewd behavior by straight visitors to the Quarter: And Rip Naquin (founder and publisher of Ambush Magazine) spoke up for the gay community as well when he said, “This is just all gay-bashing, and we’re easy targets. He thinks we’re going to run and hide. We’re not. Southern Decadence will go on.”
Nevertheless, Bagneris and others felt the gay community needed a better image. Hence the Pride flags on N. Rampart were the brainchild of Larry Bagneris. He, Naquin, and others organized a team of volunteers and a campaign to warn Decadence attendees that they would be arrested if they participated in public sex. Moreover, New Orleanians well knew that straight tourists on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras flouted the laws regarding lewd conduct. But, by highlighting the few incidents that occurred during Southern Decadence, Storms hoped to incite a public outcry that would “utterly and totally” shut down the summer festival.
Tensions remained high in the run-up to the 2003 festival. The Louisiana legislature had already increased the penalties for lewd behavior, and in mid-August, Roman Catholic archbishop Alfred Hughes denounced Southern Decadence on the grounds that it “promotes and glorifies” gay and lesbian sex. He went on to declare that the “city’s image is marred by the celebration” and that “the glamorizing of such behavior diminishes the moral fabric of our community and cheapens our reputation around the country.” The archdiocese asked the city to deny permits for the festival, but officials demurred because they refused to give credence to such exaggeration and for the simple fact that they needed the revenue it produced.
Emboldened by the Archbishop’s condemnation, Storms planned several protests against the festival, including a rally at City Hall and a march from Armstrong Park through the French Quarter to Jackson Square on Friday night and a gathering of “one thousand Christians” on Sunday afternoon to block the parade and ensure that “the French Quarter does not turn into Sodom and Gomorrah.”
The gay community fought back, not only working to increase awareness of the new law against public sex and nudity but also, as Rip Naquin recalled, organizing “forty volunteers who had flashlights and wore bright yellow T-shirts for the newly formed Southern Decadence Security Team,” which provided information, directions, and general assistance to visitors. In addition, a group of “Stormwatchers” gathered on the balconies of French Quarter gay bars with bags of glitter, cans of Silly String, confetti, noisemakers, signs, and streamers, vowing to “drown out [protesters’] hate with our own cheers and laughter and music.”
On Friday night, Storms and a few hundred followers paraded from N. Rampart Street to St. Louis Cathedral. Though the police prepared for violence, none occurred. Storms and his crew yelled and preached, while the Decadents jeered and poured bucketfuls of confetti on the marchers. Storms’ effort to block the parade also failed; although his supporters gathered at various points in the French Quarter with placards that denounced homosexuality and sodomy, police largely kept the protesters away from the celebrants. When members of the two groups did come into contact, festival attendees limited their weapons to sharp tongues and flicks of the wrist, and violence was avoided.
The controversy certainly did not harm Southern Decadence, which set a new record with more than 120,000 participants and added almost $100,000,000 to the New Orleans economy. In addition, the gay community capitalized on the protests as a fund-raising tool, as “leaders of three gay support organizations began an email campaign asking backers to pledge money based on the number of hours Storms and his followers protested.” The effort raised an estimated $2,000 for the groups.
Much of the credit for the festival’s success went to Grand Marshal Rusty LaRoux. LaRoux and the gay community worked closely with the city of New Orleans and the New Orleans Police Department to ensure that visitors and locals alike had a safe and fun Southern Decadence. Writing in Ambush, Phyllis Denmark reflected, “The crowds in the street were something to see. I have not seen this many people at Decadence in years. I think all the drama in the news only served to bring more people to town.”
Storms did not stage any further protests against Southern Decadence and faded into obscurity, only to resurface nine years later when he was arrested at Metairie’s LaFreniere Park and charged with public masturbation. Convicted on obscenity charges in 2012, Storms was sentenced to three years’ probation. His erstwhile targets had no sympathy for him. Longtime French Quarter business mogul and founder of Tropical Isle Earl Bernhardt found Storms “just repulsive” and was “not surprised at all that he got caught doing that. Serves him right.”
Ironically, in a very real sense, the Pride flags on N. Rampart might have never been placed were it not for Grant Storms.
The flags are subsidized by the generosity of businesses and individuals throughout the community. The current flags were paid for by the following: Ambush Magazine, American Townhouse, Bourbon Pub, Corner Pocket, Crossing, Four Seasons, Golden Lantern, GrandPre’s, Kajun’s Pub, Lisa & Jo Ann Guidos, Mag’s 940, Oz, R.L. Redmann, Edward Moreno, The Page, Phoenix, and Wood Enterprises.