The more you dig into gay history, the more you realize the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 wasn't the only watershed moment for the gay rights movement in the United States.
Take the drag balls in New Orleans of the early 1960s, a story that's been made into the documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams, which is premiering in Los Angeles on Friday at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theater in Hollywood.
“It's a 50-year culture that nobody really knows about,” Tim Wolff, the film's director, tells L.A. Weekly. “It's one of the first times gay people and straight people came together to celebrate gay culture.”
The Sons of Tennessee Williams tells the story of young gay men who wanted to dress up in drag and throw a party during Mardi Gras season — in direct defiance of local laws that prohibited same-sex dancing, serving liquor to gays, and the public assembly of gays.
“It wasn't politically motivated,” says Wolff. “It was just that time of year, and they wanted to take part in it.”
And so they did.
In February, 1959, a gay Carnival krewe, or social club, was created called “Krewe of Yuga” — also known as “KY.” A drag ball was thrown under the radar of law enforcement authorities, and it continued into 1962.
By that year, though, the KY party was no longer an unknown bash. Police in New Orleans had been alerted and a raid ensued. Men in drag were arrested, jailed, and identified by name in the local newspaper.
It could have been the end of the krewe, but with the help of straight socialites who loved the party, the gay drag ball prevailed.
Gay krewes realized that if they gained legal status by getting the state to recognize them as official Mardi Gras organizations, the police would probably back off. In 1963, that's exactly what happened. By 1969, there were four gay krewes with state-charted status.
“It was really magical that such strides were made just for the reason to have a party,” says Wolff, who first considered making the documentary in 1992 when he attended a gay Mardi Gras ball.
Nineteen years later, Wolff has been touring the festival circuit to appreciative audiences.
“Whenever I get an audience,” says Wolff, who's in Los Angeles for the Friday premiere, “the film always gets lots of laughs. They love it.”
Five gay krewes still exist in New Orleans — at one time, there were over 20 — with twenty-somethings learning the costuming techniques and the drag ball traditions. Wolff hopes the film will be an inspiration.
“I wanted to educate young people about what happened back in the day,” says Wolff, “but to also inspire them to do their own thing in their own towns.”
The Sons of Tennessee Williams starts its engagement at the Sunset 5 on Friday, October 14.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.