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Remembering the Upstairs Lounge Fire
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/25/12
Last updated on: 06/25/12
 
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The Upstairs Lounge fire (CBS News video still).

Thirty-nine years ago, on June 24, 1973, a fire engulfed the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans's French Quarter. The deadliest fire in the city's history, it killed 32 people. Its horror was compounded by the undisguised homophobia of the time. Churches refused to allow funerals for the victims and some parents failed to claim the bodies of their children. At the same time, some heroes--including especially the Reverend Troy D. Perry--emerged to exemplify compassion and dignity in the face of contempt and derision.

The Upstairs Lounge fire was not only the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, but it may also constitute, as Brandon Thorp describes it in Towleroad, "the single largest mass murder of gays in the history of the United States."

The bar was located on the second floor of a building at Chartres and Iberville, just off Canal Street, in the French Quarter. It had only one entrance, up a wooden stairway. As Erik Ose observed in 2008 in Huffington Post, in 1973, June 24th fell on a Sunday, and many of the 60 or so patrons at the time of the fire were members of New Orleans' Metropolitan Community Church, which until earlier that month had held services in the bar.

As Ose wrote, "the bar was still a spiritual gathering place. There was a piano in one of the bar's three rooms, and a cabaret stage. Members would pray and sing in this room, and every Sunday night, they gathered around the piano for a song they had adopted as their anthem, 'United We Stand,' by The Brotherhood of Man.

"They sang the song that evening, with David Gary on the piano, a pianist who played regularly in the lounge of the Marriott Hotel across the street. The congregation members repeated the verses again and again, swaying back and forth, arm in arm, happy to be together at their former place of worship on Pride Sunday.

"At 7:56 pm a buzzer from downstairs sounded, the one that signaled a cab had arrived. No one had called a cab, but when someone opened the second floor steel door to the stairwell, flames rushed in. An arsonist had deliberately set the wooden stairs ablaze, and the oxygen starved fire exploded. The still-crowded bar became an inferno within seconds.

"The emergency exit was not marked, and the windows were boarded up or covered with iron bars. A few survivors managed to make it through, and jumped to the sidewalks, some in flames. Rev. Bill Larson, the local MCC pastor, got stuck halfway and burned to death wedged in a window, his corpse visible throughout the next day to witnesses below.

"Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led a group of fifteen to safety through the unmarked back door. One of them was MCC assistant pastor George 'Mitch' Mitchell. Then Mitch ran back into the burning building trying to save his partner, Louis Broussard. Their bodies were discovered lying together."

Once it became clear that the Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar, the reports in the New Orleans media became frankly homophobic and dehumanizing, and soon disappeared altogether.

New Orleans Police Department detective Major Henry Morris dismissed the importance of the arson investigation in an interview with the States-Item. Asked about identifying the victims, he said, "We don't even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."

No elected officials in Louisiana issued statements of sympathy or mourning. Some families refused to claim the bodies of their dead sons, too ashamed to admit they might be gay. The city would not release the remains of four unidentified persons for burial by the surviving MCC congregation members. They were dumped in mass graves at Potter's Field, New Orleans' pauper cemetery.

Reverend Troy Perry, the founder of MCC, flew in from Los Angeles. As Linda Rapp reports in her entry on the Metropolitan Community Church, in January 1973, the fledgling denomination's Mother Church had been torched, so it was not a stretch to fear that the arson in New Orleans was also directed at the MCC, particularly since the victims included the New Orleans MCC's pastor, assistant pastor, and ten members of the 22-member congregation.

Perry discovered that no church in the city would allow survivors to hold a memorial service for the victims on their premises.

William "Father Bill" Richardson, the closeted rector of St. George's Episcopal Church, had agreed to allow a small prayer service to be held the day after the fire. It was advertised only by word of mouth and drew about 80 mourners. The next day, however, Richardson was rebuked by his bishop, who forbade him to let the church be used again.

Finally, Perry convinced the minister of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in the French Quarter to permit the use of their building. It was here that Perry conducted a memorial service on July 1, 1973. It was attended by 250 people.

When Perry learned that news photographers had gathered outside St. Mark's, he offered mourners the option of leaving by a back way if they did not wish to be seen. He was gratified when all chose to go out through the front door.

A memorial plaque was installed in the sidewalk in front of the site of the Upstairs Lounge in 1998, when an interfaith memorial service was held to remember the victims on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fire.

The Upstairs Lounge is the subject of Skylar Fein's installation, "Remembering the Upstairs Lounge," which recreates the bar as it was in June 1973 in exquisite detail. The installation was first exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in 2008 and then at a gallery in New York in 2010. David Mixner comments on the installation here.

New Orleans mystery writer Greg Herren, in his Lambda Award-winning Murder in the Rue Chartres, also evokes the tragedy.

The video below records the only national coverage of the tragedy.

 
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