NEW ORLEANS -- Thousands of visitors roll into New Orleans this week for Southern Decadence: five days of celebration of gay culture in a city now being promoted by tourism officials as a honeymoon site for same-sex newlyweds -- despite the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage.
"It just shows the dichotomy between what business knows in the state and what our political leaders think," said gay rights activist John Hill. "Obviously, the business community in New Orleans knows that the gay travel market, the honeymoon destination, is a big market."
Southern Decadence runs through the Labor Day weekend and helps fill hotel rooms -- an estimated 37,000 in New Orleans and its suburbs -- at a typically slow time in the tourist season. This year's festival follows the Supreme Court's overturning of key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and coincides with a social media campaign by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau targeting 13 states where same-sex marriage is legal.
"Gay and lesbian couples want to do what everyone else wants to do, which is listen to great music, go to bars and night clubs, get some of the best food in the world and enjoy our culture," bureau spokeswoman Kelly Schulz said.
To let them know they are welcome, the bureau has launched a social media campaign.
"We are focusing on Facebook now because it is more targeted and cost-effective compared to magazines or TV," Schulz said. The campaign includes a contest, launching Sunday, giving away a trip for two to New Orleans. The only cost to the bureau is a one-month pay-per-click Facebook ad campaign for which it has budgeted $500, plus airfare for the winning couple to travel to New Orleans, bureau communications manager Rob Wilbanks said. Bureau members are donating the hotel stay, dinners and attraction tickets.
Meanwhile, the separate New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. is making pitches to gay couples as a honeymoon destination during the gay Halloween celebration in October. Jeff Hinson, with the NOTMC ad agency Dentsu America, estimates the marketing campaign at about $200,000 for an all-digital media effort, including social media pages and sponsored content on websites such as dot429 and OUT Traveler, a site that includes gay honeymoon content from New Orleans and other cities.
It's unclear whether there will be many -- or any -- honeymooners among visitors for Southern Decadence, a loosely organized conglomeration of street parties and music and entertainment events catering largely to gay men and centered in the French Quarter.
Sponsors and promoters of Southern Decadence events say the celebration evolved from a neighborhood going-away party in 1972. Attendance estimates for this year's festival range as high as 125,000. Promoters say it will have an economic impact of as much as $100 million on the city.
The promotion of the event by mainstream tourism organizations comes even as political, legal and social challenges for New Orleans' gay community linger.
For example, the Warehouse District home that Hill shares with his partner was recently vandalized by a man seen on security video using a ladder to gain access to a gay pride flag on the balcony, then spray-painting a derogatory term on the door. Police are investigating but no arrests have been made.
The festival itself also draws occasional anti-gay protests, some of whom take to the streets with bullhorns to preach against it.
The City Council tried to curb such protests with an "aggressive solicitation" ordinance forbidding the pushing of "any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise" on Bourbon Street, but voted to end that ban this year amid court challenges.
The Police Department, meanwhile, is under scrutiny for alleged bias in its treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. A 2011 report by the Justice Department took the scandal-plagued department to task on several fronts, including alleged discrimination against LGBT people.
Wesley Ware, director of BreakOUT, an organization of LGBT advocates, said the problems were numerous, and that transgender people were stopped frequently and searched inappropriately. Officers patted people down to try to determine their biological sex, Ware said.
Police say that's changing.
"We have been doing extensive yearly training during in-service that touches not only on the new `bias- based policing' policy and procedure, but also delves a bit into the history of difficulties that existed in the relationship between law enforcement and the New Orleans LGBT community," police Sgt. Nicole Barbe wrote in an email. "Sensitivity training focuses on recent efforts to improve that relationship."
Gay and straight officers attend gay pride events throughout the year and two LGBT liaisons are among the officers assigned to the event, 8th Police District commander Jeff Walls said in an email.
Ware said BreakOUT has begun surveying its members to see the effects of the new policies.
Hill said Forum for Equality officials working with Justice Department lawyers also heard evidence of mistreatment of transgender women by police officers and noted that is addressed in a federal reform plan for police. "But that's a very small part of what's going on," Hill said. "Generally, there's a very good relationship between the New Orleans Police Department and the LGBT community."
And, he notes, that relationship extends to the mayor's office and City Council.
"New Orleans is, basically, a very gay-friendly city in a state that is not gay friendly," he said.
Louisiana voters statewide overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.