“Drag was always a part of this celebration,” says the Krewe of Armeinius.
Historically, Mardi Gras day was the one day of the year when men could cross dress—provided they wore at least one male garment and had shed all women’s clothing by sunset. Despite this minimal level of openness, the LGBT community was technically prohibited from openly participating in Mardi Gras.
According to Howard Philips Smith in his book Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, late 1950s New Orleans policies to “clean up the moral corruption” saw hundreds of gay men arrested. Despite this, the local gay community thrived, particularly in the French Quarter where establishments like Dixie’s Bar of Music (today, the location of Cat’s Meow) acted as somewhat of a safe haven.
Gay carnival krewes began emerging in the 1950s as a kind of satire of the more traditional krewes which barred gay men from joining. The Steamboat Club and the Krewe of Yuga were two of the earliest, followed by the Krewe of Petronius, which was made up of some of the members of the Krewe of Yuga. In 1962, police raided the Krewe of Yuga ball, making approximately 100 arrests for what they later termed a “lewd stag party.” The Krewe of Yuga dissolved after that, but the tradition continued through the Krewe of Petronius and ultimately through many other gay carnival organizations.
The Krewe of Armeinius
The Krewe of Armeinius organized in 1968 and held its first ball in 1969. In the beginning, it was something of a fraternity for the gay community that also happened to make elaborate costumes and hold balls. As Armeinius grew, its balls began to entice non-members in New Orleans who tried to get their hands on invitations. The golden age for Gay Mardi Gras balls was in the early 1980s, before the AIDS epidemic took hold and decimated the krewes. Armeinius alone lost a dozen members, yet it persevered.
The Krewe of Armeinius’ ball has historically been, as Carnival tradition dictates, by invitation only. In recent years, however, particularly as societal acceptance toward the LGBT community has broadened, Armeinius has opened its ball to the general public. It started off as a test run and turned into a wild success.
The krewe teaches its members the art of large-scale costume creation, and some members create costumes using wire sculpting to create support structures. Throughout its history, Armeinius has built many breathtaking and exotic costumes and props for the tableau, or presentation, that occurs during the ball which is typically steeped in satire and humor.
This year’s ball, themed “Shh, It’s a Secret,” will take place Saturday, March 2 from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. at Mardi Gras World’s River City Venues. The dress code is simply to “dress beautifully” and is left open to interpretation—however that manifests for attendees—and can include formal wear. Drag personality Varla Jean Merman and the outlandish creative genius Ryan Landry host this year’s ball. Tickets start at $55 (plus fees).
The Krewe of Armeinius’ mission is to educate and preserve the traditions of Gay Mardi Gras, its traditions, art-form, and social impact on the community. Luckily, in today’s society with broader cultural acceptance of the LGBT community, the public can share in this unique Carnival tradition. And hopefully, as times continue to change, members won’t have to say, “Shh, It’s a Secret” for much longer.
Saturday, March 2
8:00 to 11:00 p.m.
River City Venues (Mardi Gras World)
1380 Port of New Orleans Place