Remembering New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack
If you’re familiar with LGBT history, you may know that the 40th anniversary of the largest mass murder of gay people in America just took place on Monday, June 24. New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack, the Big Easy fire that occurred in 1973 and took the lives of 32 people, most of whom were gay. Though the tragic event will never be forgotten (especially in New Orleans), there has been to be a lack of mainstream media coverage on the fire and on the forty-year milestone since it happened.
The UpStairs Lounge was a second floor bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter that served as a spot for gay men and women to meet up, have a drink, and hang out without being bothered. On Sunday, June 24, 1973, the last evening of national Pride Week, members of a local chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBT inclusive Protestant congregation founded in 1969, gathered in the Lounge to hold services: To eat, drink, and discuss an upcoming church fundraiser. According to reports it was a lively bunch; people were engaged in laughter and conversation. Just before 8 p.m. the doorbell rang but when Lounge regular Luther Boggs opened the steel door to the bar, a blaze was set off and an explosion of fire engulfed the staircase and then the Lounge.
Bartender Bobby Rasmussen led about 30 people out the back exit and onto the rooftop, where they could escape to another building. For the rest of the patrons left in the burning building, the options were slim and outcomes bleak. Metal bars, only fourteen inches apart from one another and installed to keep people from jumping or falling, enclosed the windows and provided one more barrier for the victims trying to escape the blaze. Some were able to squeeze through but some got stuck, most notably Reverend Bill Larson, whose burned body remained clinging to the bars of the window until the next day. Twenty-eight people lost their lives in the 16-minute fire, one died on the way to the hospital and three more died in hospital from injuries they sustained. This made it the deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history.
Many of the victims’ bodies weren’t claimed because their families were ashamed of their loved ones being killed in a gay bar. No one was ever convicted of the crime, although it is widely believed to have been Rodger Dale Nunez, a sometimes visitor to the UpStairs Lounge who ended up committing suicide in 1974. The fire was not initially investigated as arson and was deemed to be caused by "undetermined causes" although it was obvious from the evidence and eyewitness accounts what had happened.
While this devastating event was broadcast all over the news, little mention was made of the fact that most of the victims were gay. Co-Political Director for Forum For Equality, Kenny Tucker, told EDGE that at the time of the incident media coverage was not extensive.
"The tragedy that resulted in 32 deaths wasn’t given the epic tragedy status that it should have in New Orleans," he said. "Part of this has to do with the fact that all the victims were gay and that at the time it wasn’t widely accepted and part of it is due to a horrible coincidence of having had two other events involving fire in the previous year."
Tucker is talking about the Rault Center Fire, in which the top floors of a 16-story skyscraper set fire, forcing women to jump out the windows to try to escape. The second was the racially motivated Howard Johnson sniper attack in which a disgruntled black man shot multiple white employees, guests and police officers and set fire to a New Orleans Howard Johnson’s hotel. The Rault fire resulted in five fatalities and the Howard Johnson sniper took nine lives, including those of five police officers.
While the UpStairs Lounge fire claimed more than double the number of lives of the two previous incidents combined, at the time it lacked the media frenzy that the other two garnered.
"I wouldn’t say the lack of coverage was cruelty directed," said Tucker, "but that was the reality. These two incidents were sensational media stories and really seared into the minds of New Orlenians."
The coverage that did highlight the fact that almost all of the victims were gay tended to be insensitive at best and disrespectful and slanderous at worst.
While the mention of Stonewall evokes emotion from LGBT people, straight allies, and the general population, the UpStairs Lounge Attack has never received the same amount of publicity or remembrance. Hopefully all of that is changing. It is in Louisiana, says Tucker.
Forty years later, New Orleans has really stepped up to the task of commemorating victims of the UpStairs Lounge attack. This year for the anniversary a march was held to pay homage. Additionally, in June, the city’s residents got to see the debut of the musical "Upstairs," written by Wayne Self and directed by Zach McCallum which documents the little-known moment in history and pays tribute to the victims and raising awareness of the cruel brutality of what happened.
"In no way shape or form does New Orleans or the New Orleans media view this as an afterthought," said Tucker.
The coverage leading up to the 40th anniversary of this dark day in U.S. history was extensive in Louisiana, but still lacked luster in mainstream print and broadcast. It is shocking, given the current climate in the LGBT movement, the recent strides made for marriage equality and the tremendous amount of media attention gay rights issues attract.
Hopefully with the help of creative outlets like the "Upstairs" musical, this is changing. A documentary by Royd Anderson called "The UpStairs Lounge Fire: A Remembrance" premiered in New Orleans on June 24. Another documentary, to be called "Upstairs Inferno," is in the works to be premiered in 2014 and its creator, Robert Camino, is using the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to make it happen. These personalized and emotional examinations of the deadly event should help to increase awareness in the LGBT community and in the general population about a moment in history that should never be forgotten.
Organizations like the Forum For Equality, which works to eradicate discrimination and foster equality through advocacy and the legislative process, also help to keep the memory alive. The group was formed in 1989 and Tucker says that one of the positive outcomes of the UpStairs Lounge fire was that it sparked the beginning of New Orleans activism.
"Many blame the fire and lack of respect given to victims as cause for LGBT people to come together for change," he said.
New Orleans and Forum For Equality have been making strides since the incident. In 1991, they helped to get the first Human Rights Ordinance to prevent discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace passed, and they have continue to rally and advocate for equality and LGBT rights to this day. When Ken Tucker was asked if he thought that one day the UpStairs Lounge fire would be found in text books, he said, "It’s good to educate people who don’t know about it. We’re never going to completely eradicate prejudice or ignorance from society, but we’re all on the right path to treating every human life equally. Our society continues to grow more compassionate."
Below are the names of the victims of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge massacre:
Joseph Henry Adams, Reginald Adams, Jr., Guy D. Anderson, Joe William Bailey, Luther Boggs, Louise Horace Broussard, Herbert Dean Cooley, Donald Walter Dunbar, Adam Roland Fontenot, David Stuart Gary, Horace "Skip" Gatchell, John Thomas Golding, Sr., Gerald Hoyt Gordon, Kenneth Paul Harrington, Glenn Richard "Dick" Green, James Walls Hambrick, Reverend William B. Larson, Ferris Leblanc, Robert Lumpkin, Leon Richard Maples, George Steven Matayi, Clarence Joseph McClosky, Jr., Duane George Mitchell, Larry Stratton, Mrs. Willie Inez Warren, Eddie Hosea Warren, James Curtis Warren, Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., Douglas Maxwell Williams, Unidentified white male, unidentified white male, unidentified white male.