In New Orleans, Mardi Gras, long celebrated as a time of indulgence and revelry, holds a special significance for the LGBTQ community. Historically, the city’s LGBTQ individuals found solace and expression in the freedom granted during Mardi Gras festivities, which allowed them to defy societal norms and celebrate their identities openly.
During the mid-1800s, as New Orleans embraced the tradition of masquerade balls, the Krewe of Comus expanded public participation, sparking a cultural phenomenon. While cross-dressing remained illegal outside of Mardi Gras, the festivities provided a temporary reprieve from enforcement, allowing LGBTQ individuals to express themselves authentically.
The post-World War II era saw the emergence of gay organizing, coinciding with the Lavender Scare and increased police scrutiny. Despite hostility and discrimination, the 1950s introduced gay Mardi Gras balls, notably the Krewe of Yuga, which parodied traditional elite balls, elevating the role of the queen as a symbol of defiance and empowerment.
However, the 1962 police raid on the Krewe of Yuga’s ball underscored the fragile acceptance of LGBTQ culture. While the krewe dissolved, it inspired the formation of new gay krewes, expanding LGBTQ visibility and solidarity. These krewes took their celebrations to the streets, further integrating LGBTQ expression into public spaces.
In 1966, the Krewe of Petronius obtained a state charter, becoming the first official gay Mardi Gras krewe. While legal constraints tempered some aspects of expression, the krewe continued to thrive, embracing themes of resilience and flamboyance.
Throughout the 1980s, amid the AIDS crisis, gay krewes became pillars of support and fundraising within the LGBTQ community. Despite the epidemic’s toll, several krewes persevered, evolving to embrace diverse identities and histories, including female and Black krewes.
Today, Mardi Gras remains intertwined with LGBTQ history in New Orleans, embodying a spirit of defiance and celebration. While challenges persist, the sequined legacy of Mardi Gras endures, offering a space of acceptance and expression for LGBTQ individuals year after year.
Lily Lucas Hodges, a historian at Chapman University, explores the complex intersections of identity and tradition within New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras culture.
“Made by History” provides historical insights beyond the headlines, offering perspectives from professional historians. Explore more about “Made by History” at TIME, where opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.