The Krewe of Apollo, New Orleans, made history last year when it named Andrea Sabillon Halstead as Queen at its Ball. Halstead was the first female person to hold a royalty position in the Krewe’s history, including Chapters in other cities. This year the Lords of Leather also shattered the royalty glass ceiling and the Radical Faeries named a Jewish lesbian as Empress at its ball, a first for that organization.
Elissa Millman was named the first Jewish lesbian Empress at the Faeries’ St. Brigid Ball. Millman, a retired social worker, says, “I moved to New Orleans in 1994 from the Bay Area because I found New Orleans as gay as the Bay Area and the women here were gorgeous. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was very easy to live here, and it was such a big difference from living in California. For example, one difference was being invited into the Radical Faeries by Tim Wolff back in the fall of 1999. In California it was an all men’s group.”
“For many years I was Brigid for our Brigid Ball,” Millman added. “When I first got involved I helped create an email list where we were having 25 to 40 people showing up for weekly potlucks. Unfortunately, Katrina diminished that and COVID has not helped. My goal as Empress is to bring back some of the fun and flair that we had before Katrina. We are going to have a fabulous ball next year (February 2, 2024). We hope to grow our potluck events too.”
The New Orleans Radical Faeries first hosted the Brigid Ball in 1990. The ball is always held on February 2, St. Brigid’s Feast Day. Milliman is not the first woman to be named Empress; the title went to Amy Wilson in 2009, Gail Kiefer in 2018, and Lady Susan del Guidice in 2020. The Empress is selected by the outgoing Empress.
According to The Paranormal Guide, “”Brigid is the goddess of all things perceived to be of relatively high dimensions such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas; and of activities and states conceived as psychologically lofty and elevated, such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare. In the living traditions, whether seen as goddess or saint, she is largely associated with the home and hearth and is a favorite of both Pagans and Christians.”
The Radical Faeries are a loosely affiliated worldwide network of individuals and communities characterized by a desire to raise queer consciousness through non-traditional forms of spirituality. Greatly influenced by the counter-cultural sensibilities of the 1960s and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, the Radical Faerie movement was founded in California in 1979. Strongly anti-establishment and very community-focused, the Faeries reject the capitalism and patriarchy that has come to define modern LGBT+ life.
According to Wikipedia, “Today Radical Faeries embody a wide range of genders, sexual orientations, and identities. Sanctuaries and gatherings are generally open to all, though several gatherings still focus on the particular spiritual experience of man-loving men co-creating temporary autonomous zones. Faerie sanctuaries adapt rural living and environmentally sustainable ways of using modern technologies as part of creative expression. Radical Faerie communities are sometimes inspired by indigenous, Native or traditional spiritualities, especially those that incorporate genderqueer sensibilities.”
The Lords of Leather, the world’s only leather Carnival krewe, made history when it named Christina Sailors to be Lord Consort, the first time a female has occupied a royalty position in the krewe. Sailors is bisexual and the proud mother of a trans son. She has degrees in Business and Education and is passionate about rescuing animals, especially birds and reptiles. Sailors joined the Lords of Leather in 2018 and currently serves as an officer in the Krewe. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana.
Reflecting on the title, Sailors observes, “If you would’ve ever asked me when I moved here from Wyoming in 2016, that I would be given the honor to represent my Krewe as the first female royalty at our 40th Ball, I would’ve said, ‘Not possible.’ Now here I am and it still feels like a dream as my Ball Captain, Joey Landry, created a badass warrior costume. I joined the Lords in 2018, because I love what they stand for and the brotherhood in the Krewe. I joined the Board 3-years ago as Lord Privy and I enjoy positively promoting the Krewe and our LGBTQ+ Community.”
The selection of a female Lord Consort is significant, especially considering the origins of the Krewe. The Lords of Leather was founded in 1983 by a group of friends (Wally Sherwood, Don “Eagle” DuBury, Daniel Hallock, Robert Ravoira, David Robertson, and Jerry Zachary) who wanted a truly distinctive krewe. At this time, there had already been fourteen gay carnival krewes, all of which followed the precedent set by the first gay krewe, Yuga (which began in 1958), namely, high camp and elaborate drag.
In an effort to be distinctive, the Lords of Leather Balls would be guided by a masculine, leather sensibility. For example, instead of a Queen, there would be a Lord Consort. In another departure from tradition, the royalty would be selected by secret ballot from the membership rather than appointed by the Krewe Captain. Before the first ball, there was even debate on whether or not to allow women to attend the ball. By a narrow margin (6 to 4), they voted to allow women to attend the ball. Drag performances by participants, however, were strictly prohibited.
The ascendancy of women to krewe royalty—a traditionally male occupied space—has not been without controversy. Some champion the development as a sign of progress whereas others see it as an erosion of traditional gay Carnival.
Rob Sanford with Armeinius observes, “Armeinius remains, as of now, a gay-men-only krewe and thus has not had female royalty. Interestingly, it was the youngest members who most recently voted down changing the by-laws, because they (I’m paraphrasing) ‘needed an all-male environment in which to feel safe to be themselves’.”
Other krewes’ membership is open to both men and women. Tom Merrill with Apollo notes, “From our revival of Apollo New Orleans, we have been firmly committed to being a fully inclusive krewe. So our membership includes members of the full spectrum of the GLBTQ+ community and our allies. We hope we continue to be a progressive force among not only the Apollo krewes but other krewes in our area.”
In closing it should be noted that historically, the only lesbian krewe was the Krewe of Ishtar, which held balls from 1981 to 1986. Also, the subject of trans/non-binary/gender fluid krewe royalty has not yet been broached, but is surely on the Carnival horizon.