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How Should We Regard Southern Decadence?

This is Southern Decadence [1] 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. [2] 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.

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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?

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57 Comments To "How Should We Regard Southern Decadence?"

#1 Comment By Philosikung On September 3, 2013 @ 10:44 am

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.

Well, if we judged heterosexual culture based on Bourbon Street, we’d be unable to maintain any remotely sentimental or bourgeois view of heterosexuality, that’s for darn sure.

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?

Yes, of course. And there’s ample eye-rolling and simple non-participation. But just as Irish-American people need not get all hand-wringy over the excesses of St. Patrick’s Day, or Americans writ large over the excesses of Halloween in a college town, many bourgeois gay folk view such hedonistic festivals as a silly carnival, and not too much more.

In any case, I’m not sure gay folk would gain much by, say, getting the Grand High Gay Soviet to abolish Southern Decadence, or abolish pride festivals, or close down gay bars. If they did, would Rod suddenly support civil marriage, or bans on employment discrimination? Of course not. Rod believes that gays are morally offensive because of scripture and tradition, not parades and colored beads. The latter things are fodder for his opposition, but not the root of it.

[NFR: “Gays” are not morally offensive to me. Stop lying. — RD]

#2 Comment By Philosikung On September 3, 2013 @ 11:15 am

[NFR: “Gays” are not morally offensive to me. Stop lying. — RD]

I was trying to fairly but briefly summarize your views. How about “Rod believes that homosexuality is morally offensive”? Or “Rod believes that homosexuality is evil”? Or “Rod believes that homosexual acts are evil”? Regardless of the precise formula used, my overall point stands: You’re not going to change your policy positions on gay rights based on the presence or absence of Southern Decadence from the New Orleans festival lineup.

[NFR: That’s true, and that’s why I said in my update that the case for gay rights doesn’t stand or fall based on Southern Decadence. But events like that are important rhetorically, which makes them politically consequential, though less so now than they would have been five, ten years ago. — RD]

#3 Comment By Rbaron321 On September 3, 2013 @ 11:18 am

I would not say there is any push back against going to New Orleans for a street party, any more than going on Spring Break or to Vegas. The linked pictures certainly make it seem you can go to this celebration and have a good (abet silly) time without going overboard.

I have never seen anything nearly as extreme or horrific as what Rod describes in his 3:38 post at any gay event/club. I don’t doubt these things still happen but I doubt they happen often.

The community has very strong pushes against drug use and unsafe sex. It is a constant message, although a little hindered by the community’s touche relationship with shame. In the end, there is only so much you can do for addicts and and people acting out.

#4 Comment By Scott S On September 3, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

“Chaotic hedonism”? All I see are pictures of fully clothed drag queens. What is there to get outraged about? The Mardi Gras version would have women baring their breasts to the public in exchange for cheap trinkets, which seems to me like it might be more offensive to a socon…

#5 Comment By Jon On September 3, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

I know that there are definitely gay people who push back against the anonymous sex culture that you mentioned in the comments – Rod. See, e.g. Dan Savage.

However, the aspects of Southern Decadence that the article showed seemed pretty tame.

I think the larger issue is that Southern Decadence and the like are seen by the broader culture as a reflection on gays in general, whereas analogous conduct by straight people (Mardi Gras, Halloween, the Folsom Street Fair) is not seen as some sort of representation of straight people in general.

#6 Comment By S Hill On December 23, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

I am curious how this whole Duck Dynasty thing will play out. I was searching to learn about the history of homosexuality in the South and stumbled on your article concerning the Decadence Festival.

There has been a tremendous crescendo in society to recognize sexual freedom. It is in the news daily.

My company announced this year that they would provide benefits to same sex spouses. I am heterosexual but was pleased that people that I knew would see improvement in their lives and be able to provide health benefits to the people they love.

I never knew about Decadence before I read the blog. From the photos it looks like the activity generates a lot of business and must be good for the community. Not that I would put it on vacation destination list… but again I am acquainted with people who might really enjoy that kind of thing. They are not hurting anyone, they are peaceful, and they are having fun. I am not one to judge what is happiness for another.

So I don’t push back.. and find the stories where people do push back amusing. It is definitely not cool to be anti-gay.

I am

#7 Comment By CJ in the Quarter On December 27, 2015 @ 1:54 am

I know some of the previous commenters coyly wrote “gee what do you mean?”

I’m a raging gay Hillary lovin liberal who lives in the Quarter and I HATE this nastiness fest. It’s embarrassing. Those who are pretending it’s a simple “costume party” are obtusely omitting the obvious.

I may be criticized for being self hating, or internally homophobic. Not at all. I just prefer to have sex where the only people seeing it are me and the other party, not half the Quarter and every tourist in the country.