At the first Mardi Gras ball I attended in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, my host Ernest appeared in elaborate drag at the end of the event, debuting as the queen of the ball. His parents and siblings from rural Louisiana crowded at two tables to celebrate his entrance. They wore pins signifying that they were the parents of the queen, they wore crowns from their own experiences as royalty at Mardi Gras events. They stood and celebrated the entrance of Ernest onto the raised stage in a convention hall filled with over one thousand guests.
When I started my research on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) involvement in Mardi Gras in the Gulf South, I had no idea that family would be a central part of my research. Mardi Gras or Carnival season is celebrated throughout the Gulf South from mid-January to the start of Lent. Private organizations called krewes or social aid and pleasure clubs organize the festival by hosting parades and private balls. There is a long history of LGBTQ krewes throughout the Gulf South that dates back to the early 1960s. In my book Queer Carnival, I analyze how these festival events are central to how LGBTQ people make a place for themselves in the Southern city. I argue that involvement in Carnival is fundamentally about cultural citizenship, cultivating a sense of belonging in one’s own city.
But just as important is the way that these events are an opportunity for LGBTQ adult children to connect with their parents and other family members. Over two-thirds of the LGBTQ adults I spoke to in this research had family members who attended their festival event. Discussions about family involvement in krewe events were the most emotional parts of my interviews, as interviewees often cried when they talked about their parents attending. Largely, these family members were not “PFLAG parents” (i.e., Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) or people who identify as strong allies, yet they showed up to publicly support their LGBTQ children.
Parents were involved in many aspects of festival events. Several lesbian festival Queens and Kings received money from family to help with costs, particularly for their royalty expenses the year they were the queen or king of the ball. The mother of one white lesbian paid for her royalty gown and train with funds that had originally been put aside for her wedding. I was conducting this project as same-sex marriage was being legalized statewide, and so many interviewees described family support as equivalent to the money and attention they might have lavished on a wedding.
These connections can even be reconciliatory, repairing damage done to parent-child relationships in volatile reactions to coming out. The most dramatic story came from James, a younger white gay krewe member in Baton Rouge. James had an ambivalent relationship with his mother. When he came out at age eighteen, she kicked him out of the house. A tumultuous decade later, James was costuming for the first time and invited his mother to attend the ball. James bought her a ball gown, had her come early so that the krewe could do her hair and makeup, and made sure her favorite cocktail was on hand. “She had a day, it was nice,” James told me. He did what I have termed “comfort work” to make attendance at the ball comfortable for her. James reported that after the ball she was immediately enthusiastic and told him she wanted to help him decorate his table and making the food for the event next year. James’s mother attended his mostly-LGBTQ house party during a neighborhood festival parade the next weekend. His mother hung out in his kitchen during the party, making gumbo, and insisted later that James’s friends refer to her as “Mama Zee.”
Mardi Gras is just unexpected space that allows parents to show up for their LGBTQ children. This project pushed me to think more broadly about the ways that parents may support their LGBTQ adult children and youth. I think more about the myriad ways that parents show up (or don’t) for their children.
Amy L. Stone (they/them) is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Trinity University and author of Queer Carnival, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box and Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition, along with being co-editor of Out of the Closet, Into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories. They study lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) politics, urban life, and health. They co-lead two project, Family Housing & Me/Familia Casa e Yo and the community-based research project, Strengthening Colors of Pride, in San Antonio. You can follow them on Twitter @AmyLStone1