In New Orleans, like in many other cities and towns, it was once a crime for men to dress as women in public. But in New Orleans, an exception was often made on one special day. During Mardi Gras, police looked the way and audiences cheered if someone cross-dressed.
Traditionally, Mardi Gras is celebrated as a time of indulgence, especially in food, drink, dancing, and pageantry. Participants revel in excess to mark the time before Ash Wednesday begins the fasting and repentance observed during the period of Lent.
In New Orleans, a historically Catholic city, Mardi Gras has also provided a rare opportunity for LGBTQ folks to freely express themselves. With costuming so key to the festivities, these celebrations created space for people to transgress many traditions, including those tied to gender norms. Over time, LGBTQ people in New Orleans subverted Mardi Gras customs to strengthen community in the face of discrimination and death.
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In the mid-1800s, the elite of New Orleans, a former colonial outpost of Catholic empires, began adopting the European trend of masquerade balls and incorporating them into Mardi Gras festivities. High society men organized secretive, all-white social clubs called krewes. In 1857, the Krewe of Comus expanded their private costume ball into a public night parade, bringing the spectacle to the streets.
That same year, a city ordinance attempted to limit rowdy, masked parades by making it illegal “to appear masked or disguised in the streets, or in any public place.” While cities across the country were beginning to enact laws specifically outlawing cross-dressing, New Orleans police used its own city ordinance to regulate gender expression, even on Halloween. In other words, anti-cross-dressing laws enabled the state to surveil peoples’ gender expressions, upholding traditional gender norms by punishing “indecent” dress. But New Orleans police looked the other way during one time of the year: the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras. Thus, through the late 19th century and well into the 20th, cross-dressing during Mardi Gras posed less of a risk and was a common choice for men joining the parade-watching crowds.
Bolstered by these traditions, gay organizing around Mardi Gras gained momentum as the LGBTQ community in New Orleans grew. Nationwide, World War II introduced new same-sex spaces for people to explore their sexuality in military bases and camps. Then, the postwar economic boom allowed people to depend less on their families for financial and emotional support, which led more gay people to organize around their LGBTQ identity instead. In New Orleans specifically, Bourbon Street became an anchor for gay life, and near there, in 1949, gay men began the Fat Monday Luncheon at a popular French Quarter Restaurant.
Hostility remained a problem and a danger, however. In a post-war period marked by the “Lavender Scare”—repression spurred by fears of communism and anxiety over sexual “perverts”—the New Orleans police criminalized public signs of gay culture, for example arresting gays and lesbians for dancing together or drinking in any establishment they deemed “immoral.” Local business owners added to the environment of discrimination by pressuring city officials to “drive out the deviates.” Police ramped up charges against LGBTQ people, turning an Obstruction of Free Passage law, meant to prohibit people from blocking the sidewalks, into a way of arresting LGBTQ people who socialized outside bars on Bourbon Street. The 1958 acquittal of students from nearby Tulane University after they confessed to the murder of a gay man near Bourbon Street further highlighted how the judicial system devalued gay lives, even in a city where gay subcultures were beginning to thrive.
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In spite of all that—and in many ways in response to it—the 1950s also marked the introduction of the gay Mardi Gras balls that would become the highlight of social calendars in New Orleans. In fact, it was 1958, the same year of the Tulane acquittals, when the Krewe of Yuga’s first mock ball marked the advent of gay Mardi Gras krewes.
Like the city’s straight krewes, the Krewe of Yuga was mostly run by elite, white men. And their mock ball largely adhered to the structure of old-line Mardi Gras balls. The difference was that members of Yuga used camp to parody—and poke fun at—the straight elite’s tradition of cosplaying European royalty. For example, the Krewe of Yuga created the role of “debutramps,” a drag parody of the debutantes, the young aristocratic women who are formally presented to society when they come of age. And while the role of king was of importance to old-line balls, the Krewe of Yuga highlighted the presentation of the queen, which provided a way to add more drag performance to the ball while also paying tribute to the colloquial word “queen,” a term of endearment among gay men.
As the Krewe of Yuga drag ball grew more elaborate each year, the queen became the centerpiece of the event. The first Queen of Yuga stepped out in a gown seeped in golden sequins as the crowd cried at midnight: “All hail Queen Yuga the First, the fabulous Yuga Regina!” The queen of the ball was sometimes elaborately dressed with a historical theme in mind, as was the case at the fifth annual Yuga ball, where the Queen of Yuga wore a bedazzled Mary, Queen of Scots outfit for the occasion. It was the queen’s costume, often adorned with a feathery, feminine defiance of masculine norms, that always stole the show.
The Yuga balls escaped police harassment for five years, until the infamous 1962 ball. Rather than finding protection under the cloak of Mardi Gras, a local complaint sparked a police raid of the supposedly “very lewd” “stag party” and led to almost 100 arrests. The raid showed the precarious limits of the police and city government’s acceptance of LGBTQ culture. The Krewe of Yuga dissolved that year. It spawned, however, several other gay krewes in the early 1960s, all of which took on the mantle of the Yuga ball, making the queen the focal point of the balls.
These new krewes also took the ball costumes outside, into the streets. In 1963, when a business owner in the gay section of Bourbon Street decided to host a Mardi Gras costume contest, some contestants competed in their drag ball outfits. The contest drew together gay men from the krewes and the ball tradition as well as those who weren’t members of krewes, turning a costume contest into an all-welcoming social event incorporating the celebration of gay expression.
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In 1966, Krewe of Petronius, a successor of Yuga, tactically obtained a state charter providing legal protection and making it the first official gay Mardi Gras krewe. However, the state charter also tempered some of the more flamboyant and queer aspects of this tradition. Friends attending the ball were required to dress formally and in line with gender conventions written into the law. There was no drag for the partygoers; only members of the krewe could parade on stage in the dazzling tableaux. The response to these legal guardrails was to go bigger on stage. That year, the Wizard of Oz served as the theme of the Petronius ball, and John Casper Dodt III, who had escaped the 1962 Yuga raid, reigned now as Queen Petronius VI, dazzling the audience in her green, sequined showgirl outfit and heels, and donning a spectacular miniature replica of the Emerald City atop her feathered headpiece.
The ranks of queer krewes blossomed by the 1980s, including female krewes, and Black krewes (formed in resistance to racism within the white gay community). Through the decade, krewes became a site of community fundraising and support during the AIDS crisis. Tragically, the epidemic took its toll on the balls, and the prominence of gay krewes in New Orleans declined. But several gay krewes have survived to this day, like the Krewe of Petronius, which still holds an annual ball and is working to incorporate the next gay generation into the tradition.
Mardi Gras is an inseparable part of LGBTQ history in New Orleans, and the community is a rich thread in the tapestry of revelry that draws over a million people to the Big Easy each winter. Although discrimination against the LGBTQ community persists, the sequined tenacity to challenge the status quo created a measure of social acceptance and provided a space of public expression for LGBTQ people unlike the other 364 days of the year.
Lily Lucas Hodges is a historian who teaches courses LGBTQ America and on the AIDS epidemic at Chapman University.
Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.