On June 24, 1973, the LGBTQI+ community was hit with one of its biggest tragedies of all time. The place was New Orleans, in a small bar called the UpStairs Lounge. This bar was located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. The attack involved a clear case of arson, and the entire bar and building went up in flames. As a result, 32 people died of smoke inhalation or intense burns. A further 15 people were hospitalized for non-fatal injuries, some incredibly serious. This incident still lives on today, burned into the collective memory of the gay community, and they will never, ever forget it.
Because of its importance in gay history, people still talk about it often even today. We usually revisit the incident right around the time of Pride Month, throughout June, where we look back on the gay community’s long struggle. While Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate, it’s also an opportunity to mourn. This is just another reminder that gay rights were not won without blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a shame that people actually had to die for the world to wake up to the fact that queer people are human beings too.
15. They Still Don’t Know Who Did It
One of the things that continues to be a talking point surrounding this incident is the fact that police still aren’t sure who caused this fire. It’s almost 100% proved that the fire was caused on purpose, and so it’s considered one of the most high-profile cases of arson in history. Despite the authority’s surety that this was indeed a case of arson, no one was ever formally charged for the crime.
This is a huge deal, because without some guilty party getting punished for this crime, the wounds that it caused may never truly heal. It’s all about closure. It may seem crude that we need a scapegoat in order to move past this horrible crime, but anyone who has suffered will tell you that it helps move on when you know what caused the suffering in the first place. There is one suspect, and we will talk about him more later in this article.
14. It Was After A Service By The First Ever Gay Church
What made this crime so horrible was the fact that the people who were attacked were making real progress in the fight for gay rights. All of these people were gathering for a service by the first ever “gay church,” which was the MCC. Also known by its full name, the Metropolitan Community Church, this protestant church was the first ever church that was supportive of the LGBT community.
It was founded only 5 years prior to this attack, in 1968, by Troy Perry, a resident of Los Angeles. It spread quickly, and the MCC service in New Orleans on the night of the attack in the UpStairs Lounge was an outgrowth of that church. The 60 people in attendance that night had just listened to the service, and had then gone upstairs for free beer and dinner. It was during these festivities that the fire claimed so many lives.
13. Many People Were Accidentally Locked Inside
The deaths occurred on such a large scale because of a freak accident that left many people trapped inside. At 7:56 PM, the bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, heard the buzzer from downstairs ringing insistently. He asked Luther Boggs to answer the door, and that was when all hell broke loose, literally. Boggs opened a heavy steel door to the stairs, and immediately a fireball rushed into the bar, drawn in by the air vacuum created by the bar.
Buddy Rasmussen immediately sprang to action, leading about twenty patrons to an exit at the back of the bar that led to the roof, where they could safely climb down to the ground level of the street. But for some reason, the rest of the patrons were stuck inside the bar, penned in on both sides by the fire on one side and a locked door to the exit that would have saved their lives. It’s probably because of this that so many people lost their lives.
12. The Firefighters Got Stuck In Traffic
Another factor that led to the huge number of deaths was another freak accident that happened with the firetrucks who were responding to the call. What makes this almost impossible to understand is that the fire trucks were stationed just two blocks away. When they tried to respond to the call, they found themselves blocked off by cars. One firetruck tried to maneuver onto the sidewalk, only to collide with a parked taxi, sending it flying into an adjacent furniture store.
This wasted precious time, and meanwhile there were people trapped inside that second-story bar, slowly dying from smoke inhalation or from burns. Some say that the fire trucks didn’t try hard enough to get to the fiery building because they knew that it involved mostly gay individuals. That’s a subject we will explore more in this article. The general consensus and the official story is that the fire trucks couldn’t get to the building because of traffic jams, not out of a lack of determination on their part.
11. Everyone Ignored The Tragedy
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this tragedy was the lack of exposure it got from mainstream news. There was very little time dedicated towards it, and it got barely a mention in the newspapers or on the television and radio. This was extremely suspect, especially given the fact that it involved so many deaths, and the fact that by this time it was clear that the deaths were caused by an arsonist. It wasn’t until many years later that it started to be talked about by the mainstream media. Ask yourself this: Have you ever heard about this tragedy? Not many people have, because it wasn’t talked about then, and it isn’t really talked about now. That’s a topic we will explore in greater detail later in the article.
Even more disturbing was the fact that when it was talked about, it was discussed in a snide and very dismissive way. Talk radio show hosts joked and chuckled about the deaths, arguing among themselves whether the dead should be buried in coffins or “fruit jars.” This was only a day after the tragedy had occurred. And this wasn’t just the odd radio host or far-right commentators, this was the general consensus throughout the entire community and the rest of America as a whole. The attitude was basically that it didn’t matter because those killed were “only gays.” As shocking as this may sound, it was the common and accepted point of view back in this time.
10. The Church Was Hit With Hate Mail After The Funeral
If that wasn’t disgusting enough, there’s also the matter of the funeral services that were held after the tragedy. Many churches closed their doors to those seeking a proper burial for their loved ones who had died tragically in the fires. They wanted nothing to do with burying dead gay people. But they found hope at last at the hands of Reverend William P. Richardson. He was a reverend for St. George’s Episcopal Church, and he agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims. This seems like a decent, human thing to do, but it seems even the decision to hold a funeral service for these victims was not allowed, on the basis that they were gay.
The very next morning, Iveson B. Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans was furious at Reverend William P. Richardson for daring to hold the service for gay people. You have to remember, at this point in time, being gay was considered a mental disorder by scientists and doctors, and blasphemy of the highest degree by the church. I’m not an expert on Christianity, but I think that Jesus would have accepted people from all walks of life. There’s also the fact that Christianity clearly states that anyone can be accepted into heaven as long as they repent, and since every one of these victims died after attending a protestant service, they were clearly in line with Christianity’s teachings. Reverend William P. Richardson was bombarded with hate mail as a result of his decision to hold the prayer service.
9. There Were Reports Of Hate From The First Responders
It wasn’t just the church that was guilty of being hateful towards the victims and the survivors. May eyewitnesses overheard first responders – firefighters, police officers, and paramedics – speaking ill of the people they were tasked with saving on the basis of their sexual orientation. This is almost unthinkable in today’s world. If one person had overheard a firefighter making homophobic comments, it would be a national scandal. They would probably have to resign. But back in the day, these kinds of comments were commonplace, as the point of view held by most people was that gay people were worthless.
One eyewitness reported that a firefighter saying,“That’s good enough for them, that’s what they deserve.” The same witness confessed to hearing a police officer saying, “Burn, fruit, burn.” Another witness heard a police officer ask his boss, “Did you hear about the weenie roast?” To which his superior officer replied, “Sorry y’all missed the company barbecue.” A third witness, who had just survived the flames after managing to escape, said that he heard two firefighters arguing. The first said, “We can’t get up there,” to which the other firefighter replied, “Oh f**k it. It’s only f*ggots. Let them burn.”
8. One Injured Straight Woman Was Deserted By Her Friends
Another shocking fact about this incident was the case of a straight woman whose only crime was having gay friends. She was there at the UpStairs Lounge at the time of the arson, and she suffered serious injuries. She needed to pay her hospital bills, but when she reached out to her friends, no one wanted anything to do with her. She had been seen fraternizing with gays, and for all they knew, she was a lesbian herself. Thankfully, her gay friends came to her side and helped her when her other friends would not. Read the full account for yourself, taken from Johnny Townsend’s book, Let the F*ggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire:
“Most of her straight friends deserted her, some because they were surprised to learn she was a lesbian. But she wasn’t a lesbian. ‘I’m straight. I can’t help it, I was born that way,’ she would tell gays, but her straight friends were not convinced, since she had been injured at a gay bar. And those who were uncomfortable about her doubtful sexuality were uncomfortable about how to deal with a seriously injured friend. But her gay friends rallied around her. While not one straight friend offered to help her with bills, her gay friends and the memorial fund helped her pay not only her hospital bills, an incredibly low $300 for six months because the government paid for all but $1.75 a day, but also helped her pay two [assistants] that she needed before regaining the use of her hands.”
7. The City Of New Orleans Still Doesn’t Like To Talk About It
Probably one of the most shocking things about this incident is that even today, American politicians, the media, and especially the people of New Orleans like to sweep this attack under the rug, pretending it never happened. This may seem a little harsh, but consider this: In 1990, the Louisiana State Museum opened an exhibit detailing all the major fires that have hit New Orleans throughout history. Amazingly, the UpStairs Lounge arson was not included.
This is almost unthinkable, not just because the victims were gay, but because more people died during this fire than many of the fires that were detailed in the exhibit from previous centuries and modern times. We like to think that we’ve become much more civilized in our attitudes towards gay people, but judging from things like this, it seems like we still have a long way to go. Many people were probably unaware that it even happened before reading this article.
6. The Main Suspect Committed Suicide 1 Year After The Attack
Now let’s revisit the mystery of who actually set the fire that fateful night. Although the police never actually charged anyone with the crime of arson in connection with the attack, there was one suspect who was always on their radar. This man was Rodger D. Nunez, a frequent patron of the UpStairs Lounge, and a known troublemaker. He had been kicked out of the bar on more than one occasion for unruly behavior, and in fact he had been thrown out that very evening after fighting with another customer. He was mentally unstable, and had been diagnosed with Conversion Disorder, a psychological disorder whose symptoms are triggered by stress. He was released from a treatment facility just one year before the arson.
When police questioned him, he could not respond due to a broken jaw from a fight. But when the police questioned him later, they found that he was very relaxed. This was why they deemed him to be innocent. A friend of Nunez later came forward and told investigators that Nunez had confessed to starting the fire with lighter fluid on the bottom of the stairs, but did not intend to set fire to the entire building. One year after the arson, Nunez committed suicide.
5. It Was On The Fourth Anniversary Of The Stonewall Uprising
This attack had an even greater impact seeing as how it was around the time of the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. This was part of the reason the group of friends were celebrating at the lounge that night – they were remembering those who had fought so hard for gay rights just 4 years prior. The Stonewall Uprising was a monumental moment for gay rights, and it was one of the most important dates in gay history. At this time, LGBT people decided to take a stand and fight for their rights, much in the same way black people and women fought for their rights at certain points in American history.
The basic aim of the uprising was to make it legal for homosexual and lesbian US citizens to socialize without fear of being arrested. The uprising is named after Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City set up by the mafia, who paid off police with bribes in order to keep it secret. Eventually, the police raided the inn, sparking the uprising.
4. George Mitchell And Louis Broussard Died In Each Other’s Arms
There are so many tragic details to come out of the UpStairs Lounge Arson attack. And it’s the details that really make tragedies sink in for people. When you hear that 32 people died, that just seems like a number. Numbers don’t have beating hearts, lovers, or dreams and desires. When you break down the stories of the individual victims, that’s when you start to realize just how much was lost in this horrible fire. And perhaps one of the most tragic stories to come out of this incident concerns George Mitchell and Louis Broussard, two lovers who both lost their lives that night.
George “Mitch” Mitchell was actually an assistant pastor that night for the MCC service, and he was one of the lucky ones that made it out almost immediately through the escape exit for the roof. But before he descended to safety, he realized that his boyfriend, Louis Broussard, was still trapped inside. That’s when he made the incredible decision to go back inside, where he then tried to rescue Broussard. But there was no way out, and they both died, charred to ash by the fire. When they found the couple, they were still holding each other in an embrace, like some kind of scene from the aftermath of Hiroshima.
3. Bill Larson Got Stuck In The Window And Burned To Death
Another detail that gives life to the now deceased victims of this horrible tragedy concerns the death of Bill Larson. This was perhaps one of the most horrific deaths associated with this tragedy, mostly because it was completely visible to onlookers on street level. As previously mentioned, the main reason for such a high casualty rate was the fact that a large number of people were accidentally locked inside the second-story of the building. Immediately, many people ran to the windows, which were barred to stop people from falling out.
But what was intended as a safety measure became the cause of death for many people, including Bill Larson. The bars had a 14 inch gap, and while many people were able to squeeze through the bars, Larson became stuck. It was there that he stayed, slowly burning to death in plain view of everyone on the street, where he cried out, “Oh, God, no!” Bill Larson was a reverend for the MCC. His body was left by police in that window until morning.
2. Three Victims’ Bodies Were Never Claimed Because Their Families Were Too Ashamed Of Them
When the dust had settled, there were heaps of bodies lying outside, all which needed to be identified and buried. But that led to another problem. Many family members of the deceased wanted nothing to do with their sons and daughters who had died in that fire. They were too ashamed of the fact that they were gay. Many simply left their bodies, unclaimed, and refused to even accept that they were dead.
Many of the people at the bar that night had long since been “disowned” by their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and other relatives. That’s why three victims’ bodies were never claimed, and had to be buried in the local Potter’s Field. This may seem unthinkable today, but this was the reality of the situation when it came to gay people back then. Nobody cared about “just another dead gay,” and some even saw it as a blessing, or a sign that God had wrought his punishment upon them.
1. It Was The Worst Attack On A Gay Nightclub In US History – Until The 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting
Until 2016, the UpStairs Lounge was the attack on a gay bar with the most deaths in US history. That’s why old wounds such as these were opened up when Omar Mateen entered a gay bar in Orlando, Florida and killed 49 people. Many of the same issues were brought up, but the response from the mainstream media and political leaders was very much different than it had been all those years ago in New Orleans. On the one hand, it’s a sign of the progress we’ve made, but on the other hand, similar opinions were raised within certain extremist groups. These groups once again saw this as a blessing, and stated that it was a good thing that ISIS had taken out so many gay people.
Certain people also dismissed the severity of the attack, since it was “only gays that died.” The incident was also used for political means in the presidential election campaign, and it highlighted the severity of America’s terror problem and our struggle against Islamic extremism and gun violence.
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