He was a fashion designer, father, and founder of a Mardi Gras krewe that became a home to gay men a few decades ago.
His name was Roland Dobson. Many still remember him as an icon that paved the way to what the Krewe of Apollo is today.
“You talk to anyone who’s been around in gay carnival, you ask, ‘Who’s Roland? Roland Dobson? Of course. Of course, I knew Roland,'” states Wayne Phillips, a curator at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.
For nearly a decade, Phillips has curated a collection revolving around the world of gay Mardi Gras, of which Dobson was a focal point.
“I hit upon the story of Roland Dobson, it really kind of stopped me,” says Phillips. “I became slightly obsessed with his story because it wasn’t just your every day story. It was a story about a unique man who lived at a unique time in the 1960s and 1970s, did a very unusual thing in founding a gay Mardi Gras organization in 1969, and contributed in ways that we’re still seeing the legacy of today.”
Roland’s son, D’Lon Dobson, remembers his father always wanting the best for the krewe.
“His idea was to bring the gay krewes up to the level of major krewes,” says Dobson.
He and Phillips say that Roland always intended the krewe to be over the top.
“He founded it to be in some ways a somewhat socially elite gay Mardi Gras krewe,” explains Phillips.
The aristocratic feel of the balls is still present today.
In and out of the world of Mardi Gras and LGBTQ liberation, Roland Dobson was a respected, well-known man.
“He always dressed in a suit and tie,” remembers his son. “Everybody seems to know him. He was like a celebrity almost, walking around New Orleans.”
But to D’Lon, Roland was always dad.
“He was a great dad, absolutely great dad.”
After studying and observing Mardi Gras for two decades, Phillips says there has been a movement to make Mardi Gras more comprehensive.
“How it has become more inclusive and how there have been new Mardi Gras krewes for women, for members of the LGBTQ community, for children, for members of the black community. There’s a way that everybody can kind of belong within this bigger picture of Mardi Gras."
He says Roland lived a double life, tiptoeing between straight and gay Mardi Gras krewes, even being crowned king several times.
“His participation in very big, open, honest ways sort of in two sides of society. Now that these two sides are starting to blend into one,” adds Phillips. ”I think that if Roland was around, he would be kind of a torchbearer for this story about the evolution of the gay community.”
Phillips says a lot of the gay Mardi Gras organizations founded prior to the 1980s suffered a lot because of the AIDS epidemic or even disappeared.
Like Apollo, many krewes decided to switch priorities from being social organizations to being more philanthropic and helping HIV and AIDS efforts.
The Mystic Krewe of Apollo de Lafayette is still active today – and honoring Roland Dobson’s vision.
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