Sorry Charleston, Atlanta, and Memphis, but there's only one city where a wild gay Labor Day party weekend called Southern Decadence can best live up to its name, and that's the ribald, 24/7 life's-a-celebration, ethnically diverse, and culturally one-of-a-kind melting pot, New Orleans, Louisiana.
In fact, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears was so taken by the Crescent City's eccentricity, queerness, Cajun spice, Creole populace, nightlife, love of music, and endless creative inspiration that he permanently moved there in 2015. His 2018 solo album track, the Elton John-esque romp "Good Friends," is a tribute to his favorite gay French Quarter haunt, Good Friends Bar. And RuPaul's Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio is a Louisiana native who spent over a decade working in New Orleans' clubs and frequently returns to perform.
Of course, New Orleans, NOLA for short, keeps the fun going all year round and draws in growing numbers of tourists every year. Nearly 20 million revelry-ready visitors arrived in 2019, and quite a few during winter's famed Mardi Gras, when the local Krewes parade in outrageous costumes (the 2022 edition is scheduled for March 1st) and host a slew of flamboyant balls, including LGBTQ-specific ones. Some of the LGBTQ Krewes and balls to look out for during Mardi Gras and its Carnival season, via their respective websites, including the 60-year-old Petronius, Armeinius, the largely POC Krewe of Mwindo, leather and fetish-centric Lords of Leather, and fresh-faced 4-year-old Krewe of Stars.
Although New Orleans Pride's future remains in limbo at the moment—the organization dissolved in 2020—the five-year-old NOLA Black Pride takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend. There's also an annual Gay Easter Parade, an LGBT Halloween, and of course, Labor Day weekend's Southern Decadence—the next edition is scheduled for Sept. 2-6, 2021.
New Orleans' official tourism office is certainly happy to welcome LGBTQ visitors and features a wealth of relevant information, resources, and updates on its official website. Meanwhile, the website and smartphone app gayNOLA is jam-packed with up-to-date gay intel, including nightlife events and LGBTQ businesses. For other queer what's ons, including arts and entertainment, check out the local 40-year-old LGBTQ Ambush Magazine and OffBeat Magazine.
The Best Things To Do
For a tour of the city with a sassy, queer twist, Tennessee-born, NOLA-based drag queen and self-professed history buff Quinn Laroux's NOLA Drag Tours offers several themed walks (plus private bookings): NOLA's "History of Queer Nightlife," the deliciously seedy "Brothels and Burlesque," and, "Doomstroll: A History of Epidemics," the latter chronicling the many epidemics and illnesses—like syphilis—that have plagued yet never stopped the city. Laroux also performs at local bars and hosts the sex-and-vice-themed podcast, Loose. On Saturdays, gay historian and writer Glenn Louis DeVilliers leads "The Twirl, a Gay Heritage and Drinks Tour," through his namesake company, while tour company New Orleans Secrets also boasts a two-hour "Queer History Tour" walk of the French Quarter from Wednesdays-Sundays.
For more immersion in deeply unique, queer-inclusive elements of New Orleans culture, there are a decent number of museums to check out. Start with the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture. Its collection included elaborate, sassy getups of Gay Carnival "Krewes" (Krewes are clubs, basically representing themselves in the Mardi Gras parade and organize balls/parties), their respective Kings & Queens, and Treme sidewalk steppers.
The Louisiana State Museum also boasts plenty of Mardi Gras-related items. Last year, it featured an exhibition titled "Grand Illusions: The History And Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans," which you can enjoy a virtual video tour of with curator Wayne Phillips on YouTube. Albeit small, the nearly 50-year-old French Quarter's New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum takes a big dive into its rituals, culture, and of course, zombies.
The gay-owned Arthur Roger Gallery features contemporary art exhibitions by many local artists and group shows, and Roger himself is a major mover and shaker in Nola's art scene and LGBTQ-related philanthropy. Also contemporary-minded and gay-owned, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery represents a diverse roster of creators. If feeling the retail therapy urge, check out Bourbon Street's Bourbon Pride for an array totally queer NOLA-centric clothing accessories, campy cards, gifts, novelties, and some naughty adults-only stuff (it's the Big Easy, after all).
If wanting to relax, swim, soak in a hot tub, mingle with locals, or have some food, the Bywater district's 40-year-old The Country Club entails a fabulous, revamped 19th-century home turned gay favorite hangout.
The Best LGBTQ Bars & Clubs
The French Quarter is New Orleans' pulsing nightlife heart, with a zone dubbed the "Fruit Loop" entailing plenty of 24/7 LGBTQ bars and clubs for a boozy drink-always-in-hand crawl (the city's open container law specifies that alcoholic beverages can be enjoyed outdoors in a plastic cup, and local favorites include the Milk Punch and Sazerac). Before stepping out, you can consult the gay website and phone app gayNOLA for nightly events at bars, clubs, and other venues.
The country's oldest, continuously operating gay bar, since 1933 specifically, The Cafe Lafitte in Exile has welcomed and spiked the livers of gay luminaries including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams over the decades. With two levels and, of course, balcony space, Opened during pre-Stonewall 1964, Golden Lantern Bar lays claim to being the birthplace of Southern Decadence and continues to be the kickoff point for its Grand Marshall Parade. A two-level Fruit Loop anchor for over 40 years with see and be seen balcony on the iconic Bourbon Street, Bourbon Pub Parade features plenty of space to drink, dance, watch go-go boys, and enjoy drag queen entertainment. Speaking of, keep an eye out for outrageous, provocative Queen Quan, a.k.a. Daquine J Herbert, a body-positive black queen who sports a beard.
Just across Bourbon Street, slick, pulsing modern dance club Oz New Orleans keeps things lively with weekly events including Tuesday's Bourbon Boylesque revue, Wednesday drag shows (Bianca Del Rio worked here for a decade!), Thursdays' sexy go-go boy competition ("Strip Off") and comedy cabaret, and drag queen bingo on Saturday and Sundays from 6 to 8 p.m. If you're a craft cocktail fan, Napoleon's Itch lounge will scratch that, well, itch, while it famously presents Southern Decadence's free annual Bourbon Street Extravaganza outdoor concert and street party. A black-owned LGBTQ bar, The Page NOLA is a relaxed, welcoming space with drag shows every other Thursday.
Keep an eye out for local resident Jake Shears at Good Friends Bar, which is open 24 hours, and he paid tribute to in a 2018 solo album track, "Good Friends." Also open 24 hours, The Corner Pocket features nightly go-go boy action with a Friday night "new meat" amateur dance contest (and celebrated its 39th anniversary in 2021).
Outside the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny district's AllWays Lounge & Theatre serves up drag, cabaret, and dancing, while the leather and bear communities converge at The Phoenix, which, open since 1983, was renovated in 2019. The bar's Jock Sundays and Wrestling Wednesdays see all-night happy hour prices for those wearing a jockstrap and wrestling singlet/athletic gear, respectively. The French Quarter's RawHide 2010 is another leather crowd favorite with an annual Mr. Rawhide Leather contest, the winner of which gets to compete at the International Mr. Leather competition.
Lesbians should try to time their visit to GrrlSpot, a monthly pop-up dance party at different NOLA venues, usually on third Saturdays.
The Best Places To Eat
James Beard Award-winning chef and owner Kelly Fields opened her casual yet sleek and modern restaurant and bakery Willa Jean, which opened in 2015. Here she showcases Lowcountry-Southern dishes like BBQ shrimp and grits and the divine baked goods that won her Outstanding Pastry Chef 2019, including a banana pudding and sweet and savory biscuits.
There are plenty of gay-owned and LGBTQ-friendly spots to take in everything from breakfast to dinner and drinks. Creole breakfast, brunch, lunch, and a full bar await at Who Dat Coffee Cafe, while modern Louisiana fare rules at Eat (which also spotlights delicious Wayne Jacobs barbecue).
Where To Stay
The 97-room W New Orleans - French Quarter blends the brand's clubby modern vibe with New Orleans' essence and iconography, including tarot-inspired graphics and jazz flourishes like bowtie-shaped pillows. Some rooms feature outdoor balconies, plus there's a lovely courtyard and outdoor pool for cooling off during sweltering, swampy weather days.
High-end hipster brand Ace Hotel opened its 234-room New Orleans property in March 2016. Located in downtown Nola's artsy Warehouse District, rooms feature plenty of light yet dark leather and wood deco, while the on-site restaurant Josephine Estelle fuses Italian and Southern flavors thanks to James Beard Award-nominated chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. In 2019, Ace's parent company, Atelier Ace, open a 67-room, stunningly design-centric high-end guesthouse styled, Maison de la Luz, in the same district.
For classic New Orleans accommodations, the Garden District's 106-room Pontchartrain Hotel dates back to the 1920s (initially as an apartment building) and has played host to Truman Capote, The Doors, Rita Hayworth, and Tennessee Williams. While history is embedded in its walls, 2016 saw the debut of a major renovation to add modern tech and amenities, including the city's first panoramic rooftop bar, Hot Tin, while other food and beverage outlets include the tavern-style Bayou Bar (where Capote imbibed), and morning coffee spot The Silver Whistle Cafe.
Meanwhile, those preferring a cozy and personable (and more budget-friendly) gay-owned B&B can opt for the Faubourg Marigny district's (about 20 minutes by foot to the French Quarter) five-room Mag's 940 Guesthouse, which features an in-house gay bar; six-suite Blue60 Guesthouse (which features a garden, sun deck, and hot tub for guests); four-room The Burgundy; and LGBT-friendly Elysian Fields Inn.