How Should We Regard Southern Decadence?
This is Southern Decadence weekend in New Orleans. Decadence is a gay French Quarter festival. Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the gays? The AP asks:
Southern Decadence, meanwhile, gets a mention on the decidedly mainstream sites of the two New Orleans tourist promotion agencies, where it is sometimes referred to as the “gay Mardi Gras.”
While Decadence is welcomed by city officials, its popularity, obviously, its appeal isn’t universal. It still draws street preachers raging against homosexuality. And, even in the gay community, it has its critics, says John Hill, a longtime Louisiana journalist, a gay activist and past chairman of the Forum for Equality.
“There’s two lines of thought about this,” says Hill, “One is that Decadence is a very good thing because it’s a celebration of life. Another is that it plays to stereotypes.”
Hill is among those in the former category.
“We’re awfully glad that all of that money comes into this town.”
Take a look at the photo gallery accompanying the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s report. Stereotypes come from somewhere. Boy, do they. These sorts of photos are on the Southern Decadence site too; the organizers see it as a sign of liberation and joy. But if Pat Robertson (for example) showed the very same photos on his TV show as an example of the kind of chaotic hedonism gay culture stands for, he would be condemned by many for perpetuating negative stereotypes.
The way we feel about these photos depends on the cultural politics of the context in which they are highlighted. I can respect the view that interprets them as positive images and I can respect the view that interprets them as negative images. But I can’t respect the view that says their moral quality depends on their political utility.
I’ve been on lower Bourbon during Mardi Gras, and it looks exactly like Decadence, except it’s even more crowded. I’d wager that many bourgeois heteros who hold a sentimental outlook on gay male culture would find their own stereotypes severely challenged by such an experience.
UPDATE: To clarify, I don’t think the case for gay rights stands or falls on our reaction to the grossness of Southern Decadence. But I do think the rhetorical effectiveness of the case is affected by this sort of thing. Question to my gay readers, and to readers familiar with contemporary gay culture: is there any sort of pushback within the gay community to events like Decadence?