Southern Decadence in New Orleans by Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez

Top Books on New Orleans’ LGBTQ+ History and Culture: Recommendations from Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez

This summer, we asked Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez, authors of Southern Decadence in New Orleans, to suggest some informative books on the culture and history of the New Orleans LGBTQ+ community. With Southern Decadence Festival just around the corner, we are excited to share their recommendations with our readers.

Southern Decadence in New Orleans by Howard Philips Smith and Frank PerezThe LGBTQ+ community in New Orleans is alive, thriving, and at a crossroads. In the midst of annual celebrations like gay pride, carnival, and Southern Decadence, there is a group of gay historians who are actively chronicling, some for the first time, our past, heritage, and history.

To understand the history of traditional carnival, the best book to start with is Henri Schindler’s Mardi Gras New Orleans (Flammarion, 1997). This book traces the carnival celebrations from ancient times up to the present with an emphasis on the first traditional krewes of the 19th century. Schindler focuses on the early old-line krewes, such as Comus, Rex, Proteus and Momus and he lavishly illustrates his book with color invitations allongside costume and float sketches.

To learn more about gay carnival, there is only one book: Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans by Howard Philips Smith (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

For a more general look at the LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans and its recent history, we think the most important book on the subject is In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar by Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist (LL-Publications, 2012). This book explores the French Quarter and its important gay bars, including many personal stories about journeying to New Orleans and coming out.

However, the history of the gay community in New Orleans is not without tragedy, as evidenced by the UpStairs Lounge Fire of 1973, when a popular gay bar in the French Quarter was engulfed in flames, killing over thirty people. Three books are essential for understanding not only the devastating event—which was the largest mass killing of gay people in American history until the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida—but also for historical context. Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend (, 2011) was the first publication on the subject; followed by The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973 by Clayton Delery (McFarland, 2014); and then the recent Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert Fieseler (Liveright, 2018). Also important to this list is Delery’s Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice (Exposit Books, 2017), which was just released last year.

For a more general understanding of the LGBTQ+ history of New Orleans, Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist’s My Gay New Orleans: 28 Reminiscences on LGBT+ Life in New Orleans (LL-Publications, 2016) is a compendium of various stories, all dealing with gay culture in the city. Stories by Clayton Delery, Robert Fieseler, Johnny Townsend, Jack Sullivan, Scott Ellis, and Howard Philips Smith are included. Scott Ellis also has captured the zeitgeist of the French Quarter in his Madame Vieux Carré: The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2009). We are also eagerly awaiting his new history, The Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans, forthcoming from LSU Press this October.

Our new book, Southern Decadence in New Orleans provides the first comprehensive, historical look at this popular summer festival, which accounts for over 300 million dollars of revenue for the city and covers a week of events, including parties, drag contests, dancing, drinking, and bead tosses, which culminates with a boisterous parade through the French Quarter.

The Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge this November will feature many of the authors cited in this blog post. The event is Saturday, November 10th at the State Capital. We also invite readers to attend our upcoming book signings in New Orleans during the week Southern Decadence Festival:

Howard Philips Smith is art director at the University of Southern California Libraries and the author of Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans.

Frank Perez is president of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana.