Public Festivals, Parties, and Holidays

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In LGBT communities across the United States, festivals and holidays mark events of historical and cultural importance. At the turn of the twenty-first century, LGBT people in every state of the United States mark Pride Month in June—near the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots—with some type of celebration, and pride marches, parties, and festivities can be found in large urban centers as well as small towns and communities. Across the twentieth century, LGBT sexuality was celebrated in a variety of ways through parties, balls, pride festivals, and the adoption of holidays as LGBT events. Through these celebrations LGBT people and their allies create public space to construct, negotiate, and challenge dominant conceptions and practices of gender and sexuality.

History of Public Festivities

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of entertainment, LGBT and straight worlds overlapped and collided, creating social and cultural space for various festivities and balls. The earliest balls were peopled by female impersonators and cross-dressing entertainers who enjoyed celebrity status in such large urban centers as New York City and Chicago. In New York City, the Hamilton Lodge Ball was the most famous and largest drag ball, an annual event started in 1869. The event had always been a female impersonators' event and was known by the late 1920s as the Faggots' Ball. This Harlem-based spectacle attracted a diverse crowd and was a place where working-and middle-class black and white LGBT persons (including lesbian male impersonators) and straight people frolicked. During the 1920s antivice crusaders set out to do away with gay subcultures in Chicago, New York City, and other cities around the United States, working in concert with city police departments to raid LGBT establishments, arrest cross-dressed people, and censor plays and films that depicted same-sex sexuality.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, LGBT culture went underground in New York City. In Harlem, for example, house parties became central to LGBT culture. In San Francisco, by contrast, the tourist industry took advantage of the city's reputation for open sexuality, and LGBT people continued to enjoy public parties and drag performances at such clubs as Mona's and Finnochio's. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, those states that established liquor control boards had more government control over establishments that served alcohol, which ironically gave rise to the exclusively gay bar. Boards controlled not only the serving of liquor but also attempted to control the clientele; in response, gay bar owners opened private bars to cater exclusively to gay and lesbian clients. Indeed, from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, bars and restaurants emerged as vital social spaces for gay men and lesbians. From New York City and Philadelphia to Memphis and San Francisco, such establishments usually catered to both male and female patrons. In many cities, such as Memphis, these early bars were single-race, but Philadelphia and other locales boasted multiracial gay bars and restaurants. Women in particular also gathered publicly on softball fields, using the sport as a social venue.

After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a new mood swept across LGBT communities, promoting liberation in place of patience and pride in place of shame. Public celebration of LGBT life became an important sign of liberation, and LGBT festivals, parades, and holidays became central places in which LGBT identities were affirmed and celebrated.

Mardi Gras

One of the oldest public festivals in the United States is Mardi Gras. The original home of Mardi Gras in the United States is Mobile, Alabama, but the grandest and most elaborate celebration is in New Orleans. Mardi Gras was traditionally the day to slaughter a fatted calf on the Tuesday before the beginning of the Lenten fast—thus, the coining of the phrase "Fat Tuesday." However, the celebration in New Orleans has developed into an epic festival and is considered by many to be an LGBT holiday. Mardi Gras krewes—local clubs that sponsor parades and events during the season—hold elaborate balls and parties where each one's king, queen, and other royalty are announced for the year. Mardi Gras royalty are elected because of their contributions and standing in the community, and among LGBT krewes, election is a testament of dedication and activism on the part of the LGBT community in New Orleans.

The roots of Gay Mardi Gras tradition go back to the 1950s. The first Gay Mardi Gras krewe was the Krewe of

Yuga, also known as KY. It was formed in 1958 to spoof the straight, aristocratic Mardi Gras traditions. In 1962 the Krewe of Yuga held its initial ball at a private children's school, a poor choice. As the queen and maids awaited the adoration of the spectators, the ball was raided by police, and people were taken to jail. Despite this, however, Gay Mardi Gras developed in the lower French Quarter with krewes, balls, and parties. While many LGBT krewes developed later, only five remained at the turn of the twenty-first century—Amon Ra, Mwindo, Petronius, Armenius, and the Lords of Leather.


New Orleans also boasts Gay Halloween, an event that began in 1984 and has developed into one of the largest and most celebrated weekends. Historically, Halloween was a time when police who normally enforced municipal bans on cross-dressing turned a blind eye to celebrations that were little more than gay drag balls. In more recent years, however, Halloween has become an important celebration for LGBT communities, serving as a close to National Coming Out Day on 11 October in many cities as well as an important festival in its own respect. In locations as diverse as Greenwich Village in New York City, Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco, queer Halloween parades and parties take over the streets in late October. Revelers and observers alike have referred to Halloween as a "great gay holiday" and a holiday for cross-dressers of all persuasions.

Festivals, Circuit Parties, and Pride Events

Other LGBT festivals and celebrations abound in cities across the United States. In Key West, Florida, Fantasy Fest emerged in 1979 as a way to draw LGBT tourists to the Keys. Local businesspeople proposed an "anything goes" adult costume party similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, complete with private and public parties, dances, and a decadent parade down Duval Street. In late July and early August, Atlanta, Georgia, becomes Hotlanta, a four-day celebration of LGBT life, culture, and community in the city. The event began in 1978 and over the next twenty-five years developed into a long weekend of circuit parties, fund-raisers, and parades that draws over 100,000 people to downtown and midtown Atlanta. Wigstock, billed as New York City's legendary "dragstravaganza," was a yearly drag festival that took place in Tompkins Square from its beginning in 1984 until, in 1991, it became so large that the event moved to Union Square. Transgender people, drag queens, and cross-dressers converged to create a public festival celebrating drag, music, and LGBT culture in a festival that raised public consciousness about drag and transgender identity. No Wigstock was held in 2002, but the gala event was revived in 2003 as part of the East Village's HOWL festival.

Merging a party atmosphere with political activism, many events surrounding these festivals and parties serve as fund-raisers for LGBT groups and AIDS activist organizations. Circuit parties in particular serve not only as weekend-long parties and festivities but also as significant fund-raisers for AIDS awareness and activist organizations. The Red Party was the most popular circuit party. Corbett Reynolds initiated it in 1977, and gay communities across the United States (and the world) hosted Red Parties in their cities. When Reynolds died in 2002, the official Red Party was no longer a formal event, but circuit parties continue as important social events and fundraisers. Held in cities across the globe, circuit parties in the United States include Salt Lake City's Ski Pass; Honolulu's Hurricane Party; Miami's White Party; Atlanta's Hotlanta; San Francisco's Hell Ball; Philadelphia's Blue Ball Weekend; and in Alabama, Huntsville's Moonshot. Such events are so popular and widespread that the magazine Circuit Noize provides details on upcoming circuit party events and describes past events. These parties often receive corporate sponsorship, engendering criticism among some that these events, and by extension the gay community, are more about commercialism and profit and less about queer cultural politics of claiming space.

Many companies have turned to hosting LGBT-only events. Since 1991, Disney World in Orlando, Florida, has been home to Gay Day at Walt Disney World, a weekend-long event that attracts over 100,000 people from around the United States and the world. In recent years such events have expanded to include Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, and Sea World. Near Cincinnati, Ohio, hundreds of LGBT people converge on King's Island amusement park for their Gay Pride celebration. Although many queer activists criticize these events as overly commercial, such festivals demonstrate the economic and cultural power of the LGBT community nationwide and illustrate growing LGBT cultural presence and influence.

Pride festivals, often held in June—Gay Pride Month—are probably the most common type of LGBT festival in cities across the United States, where LGBT community leaders organize parades and public demonstrations and celebrate LGBT sexuality. These events commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots, affirming the sense of gay pride and liberation that accompanied these riots and sparked a revolution. Some cities replaced former events with official "gay pride" events. For example, in Philadelphia, the 1969 Annual Reminder at Independence Hall gave way to the city's first gay pride march in 1972, but other cities, such as Memphis, organized specifically gay pride events in the mid-1970s after the concept had taken hold in the country. In some cities, communities organize additional demonstrations that recognize differences within LGBT communities. In Atlanta and Chicago, for example, there are dyke marches that attract thousands of lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender women as participants and spectators. Other cities boast marches for people of color, including New York City's Black Pride, an event that brings thousands of black LGBT people together for social and cultural celebration. Atlanta's West End is home to Black Gay Pride, a parade and social event that celebrates same-sex sexuality and confronts perceived and real homophobia in Atlanta's African American communities. In some cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, alternative proms and graduations have emerged as a way to recognize LGBT youth and provide space for young people to be recognized for their accomplishments as well as for their relationships in LGBT-identified space.

Festivals, holidays, and parties have served and continue to serve an important function in building LGBT communities. In addition to raising funds for explicitly political organizations, LGBT communities use festivals and celebrations to create a cultural space that challenges dominant discourse about gender and sexuality and sustains social life beyond formal political activism. Just as LGBT bars have been key sites in which LGBT people have created and asserted public identities, so have festivals, parties, and holidays served as the social context in which LGBT members have interacted, networked, and built a sense of solidarity.


McGarry, Molly, and Fred Wasserman. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Studio, 1998.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Stephanie Gilmore,

Elizabeth Kaminski

see alsofilm and video festivals; house parties; music: women's festivals.

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Public Festivals, Parties, and Holidays

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