The Saturday afternoon before Fat Tuesday, Puddin’ Tain is near freak-out in the backstage of Mardi Gras World, a warehouse right next to the Mississippi River in New Orleans. She, like many Krewe of Armeinius members, hasn’t slept much these past few days.

It’s the krewe’s 50th ball, their golden year, and there’s a lot on the line. This year’s theme is “300 Years of Gay New Orleans” and many krewe have worked almost year-round on their costumes for their few minutes in the bal spotlight. It’s a labor of love and art that isn’t cheap or as Puddin’ Tain said “I could’ve gone to Europe with all that money.”

“But honey, when you walk out in front of that crowd, it’s a special moment,” she says. “You’re really a part of New Orleans Mardi Gras and shine on that stage.”

Mardi Gras used to be the one day of the year crossdressing was legal in New Orleans, so gay krewes would put on parades and balls to form support networks. “Krewes” began as New Orleans social clubs that organized formal balls at which debutantes would “come out” to high society. Some krewes also paraded as costumed riders and throw beads plus other trinkets to spectators. Historically, krewes excluded gay (and black and poor) people, so underground gay krewes began to form pre-Stonewall to satirize the elitist tradition.

“We need to keep our cultural traditions and heritage alive. We need to remember those girls who had bricks thrown at them for dressing up.”

“We’ve never had a lame ball,” says Vonda Kaye, 61. “Lamé, yes, but lame, never.”

Kaye, who worked in the oil industry for 35 years, helps two longtime friends with pre-ball makeup: white glitter and pink eyelashes. Drag at a ball is a given, but not all krewe members do it regularly—some just for the balls, others not really at all.

Three men in their 60s pass around powder. They’ve been Armeinius members since the 1980s, and they call the krewe a support system.

“The online apps don’t allow for the same camaraderie,” says Kaye’s friend David Schu, 66, who goes by Debbie in drag. “That’s what I like about the krewe.”

Apps and online spaces have changed how queer men interact with each other. The internet once provided an alternative space for community, but with the decline of gay bars, bookstores and other LGBT-specific places, it has become a primary social outlet. The line of thinking follows that as LGBT people find more mainstream acceptance, the less specifically gay traditions such as these krewes become necessary.

But the acceptance found on the internet doesn’t always reflect people’s everyday realities.

Brent Durnin, 2018 Krewe queen Photo courtesy of author

As Puddin’ Tain says, “Honey, it’s still the South.”

Puddin’ Tain—who’s not out to some members of her family but wanted her legal name, Jobie Jacomine, mentioned in this article—said her Louisiana middle school kicked her out for being gay.

New krewe member, Tack, 27, said he too, got bullied in his small Texas hometown. Tack, dressed in a red glitter beard made by “Elmer’s glue and cheap hairspray,” says he didn’t feel he could come out until 20. “Krewes like this provide a social gathering of gays that you wouldn’t get anywhere else,” he tells me.

At one time in the city’s history, there were nearly 18 gay krewes. Today, there are eight: Lords of Leather, Krewe of Amon-Ra, Mwindo, Patronius (the oldest gay krewe still in existence), Krewe of Stars, Satyricon and Narcissus. Armeinius is currently the largest gay krewe at 55 members and is the sole krewe to completely own a den—a warehouse space to construct gigantic, genre-defining costumes.

Some members worry the krewe needs more young members to survive.

“We do have this cross-generational social club and that just astounds me,” says Brickley, “but it’s hard to find a way to stay relevant and afloat.”

Puddin’ Tain went to her first ball at age 22, and she immediately fell in love with Armeinius. To honor the krewe, she planned a 50th year costume—shrimp queen in martini glass—as homage to founder Wendell Stipelcovich, who did the original costume back in the early ‘70s.

“We need to keep our cultural traditions and heritage alive,” says Puddin’ Tain. “We need to remember those girls who had bricks thrown at them for dressing up.”

A few weeks before the ball, Armeinius founder Wendell Stipelcovich sat among leopard print pillows in his French Quarter apartment. He fell in love with the city as a six-year-old on a family trip from his 400-person Louisiana hometown. He moved to New Orleans at 25 and a few years later founded Armeinius, which formed after the very first gay krewe disbanded.

“I did balls in secret,” says Stipelcovich. “It was a totally different time then. You couldn’t dance with other men at bars.”  

The former business owner currently looks like Willie Nelson. He rocks a head scarf and white beard (but, he says, unlike Nelson he doesn’t smoke pot). On his apartment wall hangs a photo of his former Navy lover, several crosses and a framed copy of a lifetime Armeinius membership.

“New Orleans people never objected to us,” he says. “The city embraces everybody.”

The people may have embraced the early gay krewes, but the city’s laws most certainly did not. At the time, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder, and it was illegal to show same-sex affection or cross-dress in public. Police often raided same-sex joints in New Orleans, and the city’s newspaper printed the names of those arrested.

“It was scary to be gay then,” says Albert Carey, an Armeinius charter member. “Prior to the first krewe, there was nothing for gay people in New Orleans.”

Carey, who recently moved to Provincetown, remembers the early 1950s when three Tulane fraternity brothers set out to “roll a queer” in the French Quarter and then jumped young tour guide Fernando Rios and beat him to death. A coroner testified that Rios had an “eggshell cranium,” and this diagnosis, Carey says, implied Rios would’ve survived if he’d been a “normal” man. The jury found the brothers innocent.

“The krewes made it a little safer to be gay in New Orleans,” says Carey. “Once you were in a group of people they wouldn’t pick on you so much.”

The first gay ball was then thrown by the Krewe of Yuga. This ball took place in a private home, but in 1962, Yuga found a venue in Jefferson Parish. Police raided that ball, and members ran. One scaled a tree. Branches shimmered when police lights hit his costume.  

Vonda Kaye, Krewe member Courtesy of author

After the Yuga raid, Stipelcovich decided to create his own krewe with six friends, including Carey. To avoid a potential raid, he procured a permit from the city, so they’d have protection from the law.

“We didn’t realize we were making history as our own,” Carey tells me.

In the early days, Armeinius held balls in African American labor unions because no one else would rent to them.

“We started on a shoestring budget,” says Carey, “and you had to be very careful.”

The costumes for those first balls, Stipelcovich says, were put together with paper and had themes such as “year of the queen” and, years later, “I never met a cunt I didn’t like.”

Soon, Armeinius got to be big news. Then, Stipelcovich says, the “straights started coming.”

Still, the guest list had to be approved to protect those who weren’t out, and members could veto people they thought might prove a problem. The gay krewe balls weren’t stuffy like the traditional ones, so everyone wanted to attend, eventually even city officials.

It was the 1980s, and the gay krewes were thriving. But then a strange pneumonia that would later be known as the AIDS virus began sweeping across vulnerable communities all over the United States. Gay krewes soon found their numbers decimated. Armeinius, Carey says, lost at least half its members, and Stipelcovich says he stopped keeping count after 30 of his friends died.

Members began to raise money for the AIDS hospice. The krewes had fundraisers for the balls, and as the years passed and HIV became less of a death sentence, membership slowly rebounded.

“We were doing really well. Then Katrina hit,” says Carey, “and it took out the roof of our building with the costumes in it.”

“The krewes made it a little safer to be gay in New Orleans. Once you were in a group of people they wouldn’t pick on you so much.”

The hurricane hurt the city’s krewes, and they didn’t know if they could once again bounce back. But the krewe—like New Orleans—pulled through and did its best to adapt.

“We continued,” says Carey, “that was the only thing that we could do.”

This year, the krewe chose Stipelcovich—who says he’s made thousands of ball costumes over the past 50 years—as their king. For the first time in a whiile, though, he chose not to attend.

Carey, picked as the 50th queen, made the same choice because he “couldn’t do it without Wendell.”

Stipelcovich had already designed his costume, the Mississippi River, but lately he hasn’t felt much like socializing because of his prostate cancer.

“I would’ve wanted to be at the ball,” he says, “but I just can’t.”

Ned Pitre and Brent Durnin were chosen as ascending surrogates for king and queen, respectively.

Both Carey and Stipelcovich have hopes for the krewe’s future. There’s been a recent changing of the guard, so to speak, in which newer members have become more active.

“Young people knew how to use the internet,” says Carey. “We were the old farts, and you have to change with the time.”

Some former members quit because they didn’t want to go through this change. Stipelcovich says he embraces it because change is the only way for this history to continue.

“A new group has taken over,” he says, “and we need that for the krewe to move on.”  

One of these younger krewe members has just brought the crowd at the 50th ball to its feet. About mid-way through the ball, Chad Brickley, who performs as Dragzilla, gyrates out as a bright yellow, shimmery tree to honor the Krewe of Yuga ball that police raided back in the ‘60s. Brickley, 33, joined shortly after Hurricane Katrina and has been a member for the past 10 years.

Katrina was a turning point for the entire city. After the storm, investors bought up properties, and it’s becoming increasingly more expensive to live in the city.  

“People being able to afford housing and food, that’s one thing you have to pay attention to,” says Paul Meteor, last year’s king. “If it’s difficult to make a living, then it will squash creativity.”

The night’s opulence proved a respite from everyday issues. People expect a show. Brickley might be pretty laidback, but Dragzilla is fierce. She originally wanted a scissor lift from the ceiling but ultimately decided against it. Many in the krewe said his wire work helped push the krewe’s costumes.

“The artwork of gay carnival is completely different from what you see anywhere else in Mardi Gras,” says Brickley. “It’s very distinct—more whimsical than traditional—and has evolved over the years in its use of materials.”  

The costumes touch on themes and aide the tableau, a performance that incorporates elements of lip sync, dance and other theatrics.

Wendell Stipelcovich, first Captain of the Krewe of Armeinius, 1969 Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

“They’ve spent all year working on these gorgeous costumes, and this is their moment,” says Bianca del Rio, season six winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She has hosted the Armeinius balls for about 12 years and now has a new comedy tour, Blame It On Bianca. “It’s a big deal.”

Artist and co-captain Freddie Guess remembers one of his first ball costumes, a coral reef. He had nerves, but the stage made him feel like a star.

“That was my first experience of upstaging,” he says, “and I’ve been trying to do it ever since.”

The balls have gone from small venues to Mardi Gras World, and the costumes from paper to costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars (upstaging someone isn’t always cheap). President Kevin Hemenger explained Armeinius is a nonprofit “civic organization” allowed to engage in political satire. Balls highlight the season, but the krewe functions year-round with fundraisers and parties. About a month after Mardi Gras, they’ll recruit new members.

“Every penny we bring in goes to the ball,” Hemenger tells me.  “It’s truly grassroots. It isn’t corporate.”

Table tickets cost $130 and upstairs standing room tickets, $20.  

Throughout the night, real-life candelabras, dripping in jewels, walked the runway, and costumed krewe members stomped through the hall of at-capacity 700 downstairs attendees. A Streetcar Named Disaster raced around the hall, and the ball’s debu-tramps, a satirical version of debutantes, trotted out as insect queens.

“I always wanted to be a debu-tramp,” says Puddin’ Tain, “and now I am one.”

Puddin’ Tain had held out hope that founder Wendell Stipelcovich would change his mind and come to the ball in time to see her shrimp queen homage. But he kept true to his word and stayed home. Still, as red confetti floated from the ceiling, the night seemed full of endless possibilities.

“Darling, this is so important to us,” says Puddin’ Tain. “We’re really fighting to keep this alive.”