According to Robert Laurent and Frederick Wright (two of the co-founders of Southern Decadence), during the 1970s, New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. followed the Southern Decadence parade down Esplanade Avenue with a raised eyebrow, wondering what was going on—a sentiment echoed by other city authorities.
In 1990, police officers approached parade participants and asked who was in charge.
And in 1997, parade organizers decided that it was time to seek an official city permit. Though many people believed that the City of New Orleans had required Southern Decadence to obtain a parade permit, such was not the case.
Obtaining the permit would ensure police monitoring and protection of the marchers, but it also meant that the parade would have to follow a more-or-less fixed plan. The grand marshal would no longer be able to change the route on a whim or surprise participants with an unanticipated stop.
The member of the New Orleans City Council whose district included the French Quarter, Troy Carter (now a congressman), had personally witnessed public sex acts on Bourbon Street during a previous Decadence weekend. As the 1997 festival approached, Carter called Larry Bagneris, a social and political activist in the African American and gay communities, and suggested that he reach out to the gay community to work on preventing such incidents. Bagneris agreed and contacted that year’s grand marshal, Greg Manogue (Miss Love), and arranged a meeting with Carter to discuss the issues. Bagneris also suggested the idea of securing a permit for the parade. Both Bagneris and Miss Love accepted that some public nudity had always accompanied Southern Decadence, but the increased crowds and exposure also increased the consequences of such displays and the likelihood that things could get completely out of hand.
Some of Miss Love’s friends and others connected with Southern Decadence vehemently opposed any changes, in general, and the meeting with the Councilman in particular. The opponents included former grand marshal Michael “Fish” Hickerson, who told Miss Love, “Don’t do it. It should stay like it always has been.” Opponents believed that city recognition, a parade permit, and the attendant fees and police scrutiny would strip Southern Decadence of the informality and spontaneity that had always characterized the event.
Southern Decadence, however, had already changed immensely, leaving behind its origins as a small, intimate jaunt through the French Quarter and becoming an uncontrollable mess.
Nostalgia for a bygone time was useless on a practical level; some city involvement was inevitable, and Miss Love’s pragmatic approach probably saved the festival. She and Ms. Fly, who was eager to spar with any city official because of the police raids of her bars, met with Carter and were pleased that he expressed no opposition on moral grounds. When he bluntly told the Southern Decadence representatives, “I don’t want Joe Blow coming down from Iowa sticking his dick out and getting it sucked on the street. We have to get a little control over this,” they were astonished.
Miss Love then applied for a parade permit, paying the twenty-five-dollar fee. The permit, however, did not arrive until three weeks after parade day. Nevertheless, the parade went on as planned; that morning, before it started, Miss Love handed the officer in charge of the police detail a check for two hundred dollars to cover fees, and said, “Here you go. Hope it doesn’t bounce.”
The parade itself was a huge success. As Ambush Magazine reported at the time, “The 25th Anniversary of Southern Decadence brought in over 50,000 revelers setting an all time record for the annual end of summer blowout. Hosted Labor Day Weekend, the event had a $25 million impact on the New Orleans community. Bars, delis, restaurants, and retail outlets boasted record sales doing 14% all the way up to 50% over last year’s holiday weekend. Many businesses did better than even Mardi Gras this year. Miss Love as Grand Marshal XXV led the festivities, “A Wedding to Remember.” . . . The Parade saw thousands of costumed participants, many reflecting Love’s chosen theme. There were brides, bridesmaids and grooms, in every shape and size, as well as many participants doing their own thing.”
Twenty-six years later, the Southern Decadence parade is still going strong and is as popular as ever. But it has changed. Lost is the spontaneity and subversiveness that characterized the pre-permit parades. And except for the Grand Marshals and their entourages, the parade can no longer be described as queer; rather, it has become just another parade for every straight marching club in New Orleans. And of course Southern Decadence has, in a very real sense, outgrown the parade at its core.