Why you should care
Because it’s time to unearth a dark moment in U.S. history.
It was a warm summer night in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and a crowd of 65 mostly regulars were enjoying the laid-back comfort of their favorite bar. Very quickly, that night turned dark. On June 24, 1973, the UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar, burned to the ground. But this wasn’t an anti-gay hate crime, at least not the kind you’re thinking of.
Stewart Butler remembers the “total shock” of knowing that he narrowly escaped being burned to death along with 32 others by just a matter of minutes. Butler and his partner, Alfred, were at the UpStairs Lounge when a mutual friend told them he heard a drunk patron say, after getting kicked out, something along the lines of “I’ll burn this place down.” They left and went to another bar a block away, where they heard a cacophony of sirens screaming by just minutes later. The patron had carried out his threat.
Butler returned to find a grisly scene and a NOLA institution scorched beyond recognition. A well-loved local reverend had been trapped mid-escape in the front window, where his body was left hanging for hours afterward.
While dozens perished in the flames, dozens of others were led to safety by the bartender, and former firefighter, Buddy Rasmussen, who brought them through the back door. And while only a handful of the gay community was involved in the incident, everyone was immediately thrust into the public spotlight. Some consider the UpStairs Lounge fire New Orleans’ equivalent of Stonewall. Others saw the community recede “deeper into the closet,” as Frank Perez, an author and historian on the incident, puts it. However it went down, as the deadliest attack on LGBT folks in U.S. history, and one that received little coverage, it’s one well worth remembering.
Indeed, the decades before the fire weren’t kind to the LGBT community either. In New Orleans and around the nation, gays were persecuted — they were arrested, fired from their jobs, stigmatized socially. While Louisiana’s largest city was known for its open-mindedness — cross-dressing during Mardi Gras was accepted, after all — the gay community was still forced underground, largely because the city thought visibility of the community would drive away tourists, says Perez. Bars that catered to gays were often raided or had to pay off cops to stay open, he says.
The French Quarter of New Orleans was home to a number of gay bars, specifically hustler bars frequented by male prostitutes, among others. UpStairs Lounge, though in the same neighborhood, was a different kind of place. The pro-LGBT Metropolitan Community Church used to hold services there before gaining a more permanent place. Even after finding another home, the church would hold meetings and have drinks at UpStairs after services. That’s exactly what was happening on June 24, 1973, the evening of the fire, which happened to be the final day of gay pride weekend. Among the 60 or so patrons that night was a local man named Rodger Nunez, an alcoholic who supposedly could often be found turning tricks at hustler bars in the area. He was allegedly stirring up trouble, causing bartender Rasmussen to give him the boot. Which is when Butler’s friend apparently heard Nunez threaten to burn down the lounge.
While Nunez was never tried in court — the police found it impossible to get his story straight — he admitted to multiple friends that he indeed had lit the stairs going up to the second-floor bar on fire with lighter fluid and rang the buzzer, according to Johnny Townsend, author of Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. Apparently, Nunez didn’t intend for a back draft to carry the flames to the doorstep, or for a fireball to erupt into the lounge when a patron opened the door. “He was a victim too,” says Butler of the arsonist. Nunez, apparently so distraught with what had happened, committed suicide a year and a half later.
Afterward, Butler and other survivors, family and friends had to hide their grief, because to show it would be admitting they were patrons. Butler remembers the next morning at work being “horrible.” A number of churches refused to hold services for the deceased because of their sexual orientation. St. George’s Episcopal Church held a small service a few nights later and eventually, St. Mark’s Methodist Church held a much larger one, attended by 250 people. At the end of the service, mourners were informed that the media had gathered outside the front entrance, and were offered undercover exit through the side of the building, says Butler.
Nobody went out the side door, he says. “It was a very courageous moment,” says Perez, outing themselves like that (though the media had left by the time they did exit the church).
“But it was a courageous moment that didn’t last,” continues Perez. The community wasn’t ready to confront those who pushed them to the social margins. The watershed moment — New Orleans’ real Stonewall Inn moment — was a few years later, when Anita Bryant, the widely recognized singer and anti-gay rights activist who prominently helped overturn anti-discriminatory legislature in Florida, came to the city. The gay community took to the street in large numbers, marking the first significant protest in the city, says Perez. And finally, more than 40 years later, the fire is getting attention after so much silence.
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