Back in the 1950s, gays in New Orleans were persecuted as they were in the rest of the country. Homosexuality was not only taboo, it was against the law. Gays who congregated were subject to pubic humiliation, harassment and arrest. Never-the-less, in January 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to form their own Mardi Gras krewe, stage a parade and their own ball, crown their own Mardi Gras Queen -- and do it all in drag.
These Southern gents were brave, determined, revolutionary, and a lot of fun. As you'll see in this documentary, their actions mark a huge step forward in the fight for gay rights.
The First All Gay Krewe
In 1962, the first all gay krewe -- the Krewe of YUGA, or "KY," for short -- was officially recognized officially as a Mardi Gras social club, sanctioned to stage a parade and a ball. The men rented a school cafeteria in a very conservative New Orleans parish for their coronation ball. Risking a police raid and arrest, they arrived in full drag and crowned their Mardi Gras Queen, who was in monumental drag. And, they got away with it! Even conservative Jefferson Parish must have been caught up in the celebratory mood of Mardi Gras, and been convinced that on this special day, when costuming is customary, gay men have the right to dress up, too.
In effect, this all gay Mardi Gras ball marked a significant advance in gay rights. It was, according to the documentary, the first openly gay celebration that wasn't shut down by authorities.
With "KY's" success, other gay men formed krewes and they followed suit with drag celebrations. By 1969, there were four gay krewes holding annual coronation balls in various sections of New Orleans, and the drag celebrations were widely considered -- by both gays and straights -- to be the most entertaining Mardi Gras events. Everyone was clamoring -- or bribing their hairdressers -- to get a ticket to the gay galas.
Documenting Gay History
For his first documentary feature, filmmaker Tom Wolfe has done a great job of digging up a cache of rare home videos, photographs and other archival items showing the earliest gay Mardi Gras celebrations. The images reveal the pride and commitment with which costumes and floats were made. Preparations took many months and much money. The costumes were amazingly elaborate and extravagant, with huge headdresses and body frames that could be up to six feet in width. Feathers, beads, glitter and sumptuous fabrics were used in the construction of costumes for the Queen and the entire court. The balls were great extravaganzas, with the various gay krewes striving to out do each other. The archival material is terrific.
Additionally, there are many telling interviews with the founders of the gay krewes, with subjects ranging from aesthetics to downright political intent. It's clear that the Southern gentlemen who founded the gay krewes were not only smartly irreverent. They were brilliantly subversive. They created venues where gays and straights could openly congregate. They made New Orleans the first city in the US where that sort of social event wasn't shut down by authorities. And, all before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York galvanized public attention on issues concerning the rights of gays to congregate openly.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a fascinating documentary about the struggle for gay rights. It is also a very colorful and fun glimpse at New Orleans' Mardi Gras, which is arguably one of America's biggest and most flamboyant annual parties.
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- Title: The Sons of Tennessee Williams
- Director: Tm Wolfe
- Release date: October 7, 2011
- Running time: 75 minutes
- Parents Guide: Add content advisory for parents
- Country: USA
- Language: English
- Filming Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
- Distribution Company: First Run Features