Howard Philips Smith
has been investigating and writing about the gay history of New Orleans for over two decades. Raised on a small farm in rural Southern Mississippi, he studied French literature and taught English in a French lycée in Bordeaux thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship before moving to New Orleans in the 1980s. After a decade in the Crescent City, Smith moved to Los Angeles and completed his novel The Cult of the Mask
, based on the experiences of New Orleans’ gay community before the onslaught of AIDS. The research for this work resulted in two books: Unveiling the Muse
and Southern Decadence
. In this interview, we discuss Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans
(University Press of Mississippi, 2017) a thorough investigation of the history of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras krewes.
Gay Carnival krewes were first formed in New Orleans in the late 1950s, growing out of costume parties. Their balls were often held in clandestine locations to avoid harassment. Despite their rich history and important contribution to the city’s defining festival, gay New Orleans Carnival remained a hidden and almost lost history thanks in part to moments of crisis such as the AIDS epidemic and Hurricane Katrina. In Unveiling the Muse
Howard Philips Smith not only recovers the story of these organizations and the fascinating people behind it, but also compiles an impressive collection of information/documents/sources/images that will certainly be extremely useful to those investigating not only the history of New Orleans, but also of festivities and of queer urban experiences across the globe. The book contains a list of all the balls, themes, and royalty of each krewe, along with stunning images of the colorful ephemera associated with the gay Mardi Gras balls: posters, invitations, costume and stage set sketches, and programs. Also of note are the photographs of the everyday lives and celebrations of queer people in the city in the post-World War II era, which help Philips contextualize these stories.
Isabel Machado is a Brazilian historian, living and teaching in Mexico while finishing a book about Carnival in Mobile, Alabama. Her new project is an investigation of different generations of artists and performers who challenge gender normativity in Monterrey, Nuevo León. She also works as an Assistant Producer for the Sexing History podcast.