I pride myself on my knowledge of gay history, but I was unaware of this terrible incident until I saw an article on another gay website, QUEERTY.com. Judging from the comments in the comment section, I'm not alone in this ignorance. Indeed, it's rather boggling, even shameful, that we've apparently allowed ourselves to forget what happened on Sunday evening, June 24, 1973 at the Upstairs Lounge on the corner of Rue Chartres and Iberville in the "Gay Triangle" of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
In fact, with a total nod to QUEERTY's work on this story and acknowledging their copyright, I'm going to repost as much of it as I can here. These details must be preserved, these moments and other like them, never allowed to be forgotten.
June 24, 1973 marked a lively summer day at The UpStairs Lounge, a second floor gay bar in New Orleans’ Gay Triangle. The Lounge had just hosted its regular services for the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, then the bar held a free beer and all you can eat special for 125 people in the afternoon. Now that evening had come, about 60 patrons enjoyed David Gary’s piano playing and discussed the bar’s upcoming MCC fundraiser to help the Crippled Children’s Hospital.
Then, at 7:56PM the bartender Buddy Rasmussen heard the downstairs buzzer and asked Luther Boggs to go check the door. Normally cabbies would ring the buzzer to tell people that they had arrived, but when Boggs went to answer the door, he found no cab driver. Instead he found the flames of a molotov cocktail engulfing the wooden staircase and climbing towards the bar.
Rasmussen led about twenty or thirty people out through an unmarked exit behind the bar where they emerged onto the roof and hopped from roof to roof until they found a way down.
But the thirty others remaining in the lounge ran confusedly to the barred windows where they tried to escape. One man managed to squeeze through the fourteen-inch gap between the bars and the sill—he jumped onto the street, his entire body in flames, and died there. The Reverend Bill Larson clung to the bars and slowly melted into the window frame where his charred body stayed visible for hours afterwards.
MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped but when he realized that his boyfriend Louis Broussard was still in the bar, he went back to save him—workers would later find their charred bodies holding each other among the charred wreckage.
The fire only lasted 16-minutes. It killed 29 people and three more who later died from their burns, including Boggs the man who had answered the door. New Orleans had never seen a larger death toll by fire up to that time nor had the United States seen such a large mass murder of gays and lesbians. It remains the largest GL massacre ever to occur in our country—and now even as then, few people ever talk about it.
Initial newspaper reports left out any mention of homosexuality and delighted in grisly details about the fire workers “knee-deep in bodies” “stacked up like pancakes” and “literally cooked together.” One paper quoted a cab driver who said, “I hope the fire burned their dress off,” while radio talk show hosts joked, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” National TV stations covered the fire for one night and then never mentioned it again.
Four of the victims’ bodies were never identified; some thought their families felt too embarrassed to come forward to claim them. Their remains now rest in a paupers graves. Of the city’s public officials not one made a public statement about the fire. Of the city’s numerous churches only one clergy member, Episcopalian Reverend William Richardson agreed to hold a memorial service at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
Sometime during the investigation, police picked up a gay hustler named Roger Nunez. Nunez had been tossed out of The Upstairs Lounge earlier that day for starting a fight with a fellow hustler. Rumors say that after being ejected from the bar, Nunez went to Walgreen’s, purchased some lighter fluid, doused the bar’s wooden stairs with it, and then set the bar aflame. The cops questioned him for arson but immediately Nunez went into convulsions. They took him to Charity hospital where he disappeared and never got picked up again, despite his repeatedly appearances in the French Quarter afterwards.
One year later, Nunez killed himself. Five days after, a friend told an investigator that Nunez had drunkly admitted on four occasions, that he had started the fire.
Even though a gay man may have started the blaze and killed those of his own kind, the city’s response further dishonored the victims by keeping them closeted and unacknowledged for fear of their sexual identity.
In 1998, New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter lead a jazz funeral to the site of the blaze where mourners laid a memorial plaque at the foot of the building and placed flowers commemorating each of the 32 dead. May God rest their souls.
Thanks to Jim Hlavac for the story idea. Story pieced together via The Daily Mush, Gay World, Out And About, David Mixner, Soul Force, NOLA.com, HuffPo, and Motherboard TV
You can read the QUEERTY.com article at their site at http://www.queerty.com/not-to-ruin-your-pride-but-today-marks-the-deadliest-gay-massacre-in-us-history-20110624/, and there are some photos along with it. They are strong stuff. This story has bothered me since I read it yesterday.