ORGANIZED WALKING/SIGHTSEEING TOURS
Local gay historian Roberts Batson's Gay Heritage Tour (504-945-6789) thoroughly covers the events and personalities that have shaped the modern queer community in New Orleans. Haunted History Tours (504-861-2727), which comprises six historical and fun-filled walking tours, offers the most spook for your buck. The city's best mainstream walking tours are conducted by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Visitor Center (419 Decatur St.; 504-589-2133).
Marie Laveau is a name heard often here in reference to voodoo; she was a voodoo priestess -- part African, white and Native American -- who prepared spells and potions for a broad swath of New Orleans society in the 19th century. Her definitive gravesite is always in dispute, thought to be in either St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 or No. 2; each cemetery has a tomb with her name on it. Cemetery No. 1 (400 Basin Street, between Toulouse and St. Louis Streets) is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1788, and is appropriately craggy and mossy, filled with crumbling tombs and twisting paths. (Because New Orleans is below sea level, the deceased had to be buried above ground in mausoleums or tombs.)
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (Washington Avenue between Prytania and Coliseum Streets) in the Garden District, formerly called Lafayette prior to being incorporated as part of New Orleans, is where local scribe Anne Rice set many scenes of her "Vampire Chronicles." Note: Don't venture into the cemeteries alone, even during the day. Most of the city's tours make the cemetery rounds. Highly recommended is Historic New Orleans Tours (504-947-2120), run by local historian Rob Florence.
The New Orleans Opera Association, produces first-rate opera at the McAlister Auditorium (1010 Common St. # 1820; 504-529-2278). Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter; 504-522-2841) is a must for lovers of authentic, Dixieland jazz. The New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park; 504-658-4100) has wowed the art world, and is a must-see for museumgoers. Built in 1912 by Isaac Delgado, the museum's permanent exhibits contain works by European 20th-century masters and a fascinating survey of early Renaissance paintings comprising the Kress Collection. Open Wednesdays through Sundays.
MAJOR GAY EVENTS
There are three major gay holidays in New Orleans: Mardi Gras, Southern Decadence and Halloween. Mardi Gras takes place on Fat Tuesday, the eve of Ash Wednesday, at the end of February or early March. It's all that it's cracked up to be. Frenzied and gaudy, lurid and spectacular, almost macabre. Stand streetside and catch beads, "doubloons," and other favors thrown to the crowd from the passing "krewes," or secret societies that organize floats and costumed processions in the parade. Most of the parades go down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street. The event is preceded by a series of masked balls and other ancillary parades beginning in mid-January; for an insider look at Mardi Gras, pick up a general admission ticket to one of the gay balls (i.e. www.mystickreweofsatyricon.com).
Southern Decadence occurs annually on Labor Day Weekend. Dubbed "Gay Mardi Gras," this event draws gay men and lesbians from all over the country to the French Quarter for even harder partying than normal, if that's possible. A parade, led by a soused grand marshal (a different person every year chooses the theme, colors and anthem of the parade), begins at the Golden Lantern (1239 Royal St; 504-529-2860) and winds its way down Royal Street, with participants invading every gay bar in its path to knock down a few before charging down the street to the next watering hole. Pace yourself, to say the least! In an effort to add depth to the proceedings, a group of community-minded gay locals launched DecaFest in 2006 as a queer companion piece; events include theater, music, comedy, history tours, and film screenings.
While Halloween in New Orleans might seem redundant, it is still another reason for more masked balls, parades and club parties. This multi-day event benefits Project Lazarus, an AIDS hospice.
Should you happen to be in the area, watch the small gay parade that makes its way through the French Quarter on Easter Sunday -- with carriages of drag celebs tossing beads (of course) and locals in their finest bonnets. PrideFest, New Orleans' gay pride celebration, is held in June.