As LGBTQ people we are not strangers to adversity and suffering. That isn’t to say we are the only ones, but we are one of the few minorities that still live with laws that criminalize our behaviors. Turning on the television or reading the news we see our trans brothers and sisters being killed. We see the very government that is charged with protecting the welfare of the citizens, pushing to revoke our rights. And many of us live with a false impression that we live in better times and that the majority of people are more accepting. I say false, because that tolerance still bears the same price it always has, if we are not pushing our “agenda.” When that is usually just holding hands with our lovers or showing the same public affection that our heterosexuals counterparts take for granted. Most recently, June 12, 2016, we watched in horror as Omar Marteen walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and killed 49 people and injuring 53 more. And then we listened in revulsion as the FBI failed to categorize it as a hate crime. What many do not know is that this is not the first time that someone has focused acts of hate and rage against a gay bar.
On June 24, 1973, the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA was celebrating the last day of national Pride weekend and the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It was a night filled with joyous celebration and spirits were high. The celebration happened even though in 73 it was time where violence was common against the LGBT community. For our community to party, we often had to go places in the city where people were happy to leave us alone. This was the case of the second-floor bar on Iberville and Chartes street, called Upstairs Lounge. It was a Sunday, like many others. Dozens of members of the Metropolitan Community Church had come to the bar, two gay brothers that brought their mother for the first time, and the regular crowd was in attendance. In the 70s, as it wasn’t a safe time, there were precautions put in place so that only gay men could enter the bar. You had a doorbell that you had to ring and when you got to the top of the steps there was a steel door that a bouncer on the other side to verify who you were, to be let in.
At about 8pm pm this night, someone has started ringing the doorbell over and over again. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen had been expecting a taxi driver and asked his friend Luthor Boggs to open the door and let the person in. Boggs, buzzed to let the person in and when he opened the door, a short time after, was wrapped in the heat of the flames burning and the smell of Ronsonol lighter fluid. Boggs quickly reacted and gathered about 20 patrons and headed to the roof so they could escape to the neighboring buildings. The remaining people in attendance of the bar became locked inside the inferno that ensued. As fear overtook the patrons, many tried to escape any way they could. One man managed to squeeze through a fourteen-inch gap in the bars that covered the window but died as he fell to the ground below while on fire. The sounds of panicked screams and breaking glass filled the night as fire and smoke billowed out of the building.
MCC assistant Pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell had managed to escape the fire but quickly returned to try and save his boyfriend, both fell victim to the fire. The barred windows served as a barrier for most people, including MCC Reverend Bill Larson, Larson tried to escape through the bars as the fire took him and passersby on the street heard him screaming “Oh God, No!” As he died and the fire raged, his body became fused to the bars and became a haunting image to newspapers that covered the story. The local firehouse was only two blocks away but was unable to get to the scene quickly. Once they were on scene, the fire was quickly put under control and they were able to access the bar to survey the damage. Once inside they found the bodies of Mitch and his boyfriend holding each other. They also found the bodies of two gay brothers and their mother and many others of the patrons. In total, 32 had lost their lives in the fifteen minutes that the fire raged. Many who died remained unknown, as their families did not come forward to identify their bodies due to being ashamed of them being gay. Local churches did not hold services for those that died and buried their bodies in unmarked pauper’s graves.
The fire at Upstairs Lounge was the most deadly in New Orleans history and the largest massacre of gay people, at that time. Even as such, this fire barely gained newsworthy coverage and the few places covered it left out that it was a gay bar. Many of the radio programs that covered it did so with veiled and not so veiled gay jokes. One such radio personality joked about the incident saying, “What do we bury them in? Fruit jars.” Even investigation into the fire was less than thorough. The fire was classified as “of unknown origin” instead of investigated as arson. Police had taken on person into custody as a suspect that set the fire and had released him. Witnesses said that the person of interest had admitted on several occasions that he had used Ronsonol to light the fire but did not think it would have engulfed the entire building. He later went on to commit suicide a year later. With no further leads or witnesses to pursue, the police and fire marshal closed the case in 1980.
Prior to Pulse, this was the single most largest massacre of LGBTQ people in US history. Neither should be forgotten and we should use the memories of those that perished in these horrors to push for the needed protections we should have. Neither of these were pursued as hate crimes. The authorities shrugged each off for varying reasons. Upstairs Lounge from shitty investigation and Pulse because they claim that Mateen had researched other spots before Pulse and supposedly had no idea of it being a gay club. As is the case for our community, these tragedies bring us together. We celebrate their memories and we use their loss as the steel for our courage to fight for the basic rights to be who we are without fear of reprisal. Let not their sacrifice be for nothing, let us honor their memories by telling their story.