Part of Pride Month is learning about historical events and how they have shaped the lives and experiences of LGBTQ communities and influenced action and activism in their wake. One such event that heavily impacted LGBTQ communities in New Orleans that should be more widely known is the arson fire at the popular gay bar, the UpStairs Lounge, in New Orleans' French Quarter. Almost 50 years ago, on June 24, 1973, an arsonist set flame to the UpStairs Lounge and started a fire that killed 32 people either that night or in the immediate aftermath because of burns or injuries sustained. Victims were trapped inside the bar and couldn't easily escape through the windows (because they had safety bars) or out through the rooftop (because once the back door slammed shut, it locked and couldn't be opened). Some of the victims of the arson were never identified. Others included members of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church (the first gay church in America), as well as two MCC clergy. The MCC regularly used the Lounge to hold church services because their former church had been set on fire by arsonists several times in the previous few years.
As horrifying as the actual fire was, the aftermath was utterly tragic as well. Matt Hanes, in a recent article from VeryLocal.com, explains the utter callousness with which the tragedy, the victims, their families, and their supporters were treated:
Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George's Episcopal Church was one leader who agreed to hold a small prayer service. He was rebuked the next day by the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, Iveson B. Noland, who received more than 100 complaints from parishioners. Hate mail filled Richardon's mailbox.
The day after the fire, Major Henry Morris, New Orleans' chief of detectives, explained to the States-Item how difficult identification will be due to the extensive burns victims suffered. Still, he couldn't resist taking a dig at the victims. "We don't even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on," Morris said. "Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar."
In the almost 50 years since this event activists and allies have been instrumental in changing cultural norms through forwarding LGBTQ+ lived experiences, and securing legislation that protects LGBTQ+ rights, although these protections are currently very much under attack. It's important to place these current successes and struggles in historical context, and to remember both how far the movement has come, and how much more work needs to be done.
If you want to learn more about the UpStairs Lounge arson attack, the story has been told in numerous ways in the last decade or so, through art exhibits, books, documentaries, dance performances, and musicals. Here are a few resources to check out:
The musical Upstairs (2013), created by playwright and composer Wayne Self, which debuted in New Orleans on the 40th anniversary of the event. A revival of the musical in New Orleans is currently in the works.
The book The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973 (2014), which was selected as one of the 2015 Books of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and which you can buy from McFarland books.