The Forgotten Tragedy: Before Pulse, there was the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans

In New Orleans’ French Quarter, countless people walk the intersection of Iberville Street and Chartres Street, perhaps to grab a drink at The Jimani, a bite at the Backspace Bar & Kitchen, or breakfast at Daisy Dukes.

But look down, and a bronze plaque is embedded in the brick sidewalk, one with a flame and the names of 32 perished souls. Beneath a neon sign reading Dixie Divas, it sits at the feet of a burgundy door that houses the story of the UpStairs Lounge.

It was June 24, 1973 — nearly four years to the day of the infamous raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, when a gathering of LGBT people and their allies were laughing over drinks. By the end of the night, 29 were dead and another three would later die from their injuries.

The next day, The Times-Picayune devoted its front page to the fire, headlined “29 KILLED IN QUARTER BLAZE” and printed a photo of onlookers in front of the charred building, as well as a portrait of a man in horror as he took in the damage.

“I was 11 years old and I saw the front page of the newspaper,” remembers Johnny Townsend.  “There was that picture of Rusty Quinton on the front cover looking up in horror at the bar. The expression on his face really struck me deeply.”

To this day, no one has been arrested for the fire, and until recently, the tragedy disappeared into history.

Townsend didn’t know the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar until he came out. He was curious to learn more, and found that the newspapers didn’t print too much on the incident — even a lecture on New Orleans’ devastating fires left out the tragedy.

“It killed more people than any other fire [in New Orleans], including the two that almost wiped out the city altogether,” he said.

People recommended he speak to one person after another who was there that night, motivating him to write his book, “Let the Faggots Burn.” It took more than two decades before he found a publisher who thought it was a story worth telling.

Filmmaker Robert Camina learned about the fire after he completed his documentary on the Rainbow Room raid, an incident eerily similar to that at Stonewall. As he looked into the fire, he decided to make a film and released “Upstairs Inferno” in 2015.

It took three years of poring over records buried in archives, interviews, and multiple trips to New Orleans to complete the documentary.

“It is as significant as Stonewall and Harvey Milk and other benchmark moments of LGBT history, yet no one talks about it, no one knows about it,” he said. “I felt that the story needed to be told.”

The Upstairs Lounge was located on the second floor of a three-story building that still stands today. A gay bar and also the home of gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church services, a gathering of LGBT people and their allies were laughing over drinks. Just before 8 p.m., a buzzer at the door alerted patrons that someone’s cab had arrived. When a man opened the door, a wall of fire exploded into the bar.

Patrons were trapped — some attempted to jump out of the windows, but they were blocked by steel bars while others were able to escape through a back door with the help of a bar employee. Outside, people looked on as the flames engulfed the building. The body of the Rev. Bob Larson hung out the front window in his attempt to escape, his hair and clothing burning. He would remain there for hours, no one bothering to cover him.

Thirty-two people in all were killed by smoke inhalation or burns and 15 were injured. Three of the deceased are still listed simply as “unknown white male;” they may have been in town visiting or their families may have refused to claim their bodies. It was the largest massacre of LGBT people until the Orlando nightclub shooting earlier this year. To this day, no one has been arrested for the arson — the general consensus is that Rodger Nunez, who was thrown out of the bar just before the fire, did it. He killed himself a year later.

“There might have been some embarrassment and shame that the probable suspect was a member of the LGBT community, that it was possibly perpetrated by one of our own,” Camina said.

The next day, newspapers published graphic details and photographs from the blaze, as was customary in journalism at the time. The photo of Larson’s body in the window was published on the front page of The Times-Picayune and the writer described a man begging for help from someone to remove a nickel from his pocket to make a phone call, his fingers too badly injured to do it himself, the moans of victims in the hospital as nurses mopped up blood, and a doctor removing dead skin from a patient.

On the radio, DJs joked that the ashes of the dead could be stored in fruit jars. Passersby made comments like “I hope it burned their dresses off.” Neither the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana acknowledged the tragedy.

The Rev. Troy Perry traveled to the city from Los Angeles to aid the victims. He told NPR that one man, a schoolteacher, was fired from his job as he lay in the burn ward — he died the next day. The reverend called multiple churches asking for them to host the funeral services. He received laughs or hang ups until finally a Methodist church agreed.

“The main point of my book was that … I wanted to give a little capsule of what each person was like, I wanted people to know that these were real people. They may not have been the most interesting or wonderful, but they were real,” Townsend said.

In terms of its impact on LGBT history, the plaque on the site of the fire proclaims that the tragedy gave rise to the equality movement in the Crescent City. Not everyone agrees with that sentiment — the LGBT community in the city just wasn’t ready to stand up yet.

“There wasn’t a bright silver lining in the wake of the fire, like after Stonewall,” Camina said of the motivation to fight after the iconic raid. “There wasn’t like this huge community emerging and digging their heels into the ground saying, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore.’ There wasn’t just this big activist uprising.”

Townsend agrees.

“The fire itself didn’t do it,” he said. “Gay people were still just too pressed down … I don’t know that the great community noticed anything, and it was probably just a small thing in the gay community, but it was a certainly noticed.”

Now, decades after the arson at the UpStairs Lounge, more and more people are becoming aware of what happened. In the world premiere of “Upstairs Inferno,” on the 42rd anniversary of the fire, Camina brought together survivors, witnesses, first responders, and the fire marshal for the screening. Many had not seen each other in decades.

The film has been accepted into its 35th film festival and has received rave reviews from both mainstream and LGBT festivals.

“This story was hidden for so long and the question is often asked of me, why don’t we know about it? Why was it hidden for so long?” Camina said. “It’s important to preserve our history. Because if we don’t tell our stories, who will?”


Originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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