(WM) Today marks 47 years since the UpStairs Lounge Fire, an arson incident that claimed the lives of 32 people and was the deadliest attack on the LGBT community in the U.S. up until the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
The UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar located in New Orleans, Louisiana. It opened on Halloween in 1970 and was created to serve a clientele of predominantly lower-class LGBT individuals, according to New Orleans Historical (NOH), an online project of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies in the History Department of the University of New Orleans.
However, the UpStairs Lounge quickly became a go-to venue for other LGBT-oriented social activities in the New Orleans community.
“The UpStairs Lounge was more of – I thought – a social club than it was a bar,” said Stewart Butler, a regular customer of the Upstairs Lounge, according to the NOH article. “All sorts of different activities took place there. They had occasion to sing, ‘We Shall Overcome’ with a ‘gay and straight together’ verse in it and that was sort of a rouser, if you will.”
The bar even became a communal space for the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which was “the first openly gay church in the United States.” Because of the discrimination often endured by church members, Rev. William R. Larson and Assistant Pastor Duane George Mitchell frequently held the church’s social events at the UpStairs Lounge.
On the night of June 24, 1973, MCC was hosting an event following the conclusion of a worship service. At some point during the night, someone had rung the buzzer at the entrance of the bar, since the entrance door downstairs always remained locked. This unsuspecting moment was the catalyst for what was to come.
“When the door was buzzed open from the upstairs bar, someone doused the wooden staircase with lighter fluid and then threw a lighted torch into the stairwell,” the NOH article states. “The flames rushed into the Lounge very quickly, and the entire bar was on fire within minutes.”
The UpStairs Lounge had a single emergency exit, which was unmarked, and the windows were barred, making it difficult for people to quickly escape the fire.
Local media coverage of the UpStairs Lounge Fire has been described as “insensitive and callous.” One local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, printed a photograph of Larson on its front page, his burned body stuck between the bars of a window. Other reporters described the bodies of victims as being “stacked up like pancakes" and [as] groups of "mass charred flesh.”
The media coverage also took on a homophobic tone at times. TV station WVUE Channel 8 reported the details of an anonymous call made about the hate group “Black Momma, White Momma,” who allegedly orchestrated the fire.
“[T]he bar was fire-bombed by a vigilante group that has declared war on homosexuals in New Orleans,” the caller said at the time.
Public interest in the incident quickly waned, however, as mainstream media shifted their attention and New Orleans residents investigating the fire “either largely disregarded the fire or refused to take it seriously.”
To this day, the exact details surrounding the UpStairs Lounge Fire remain unverified. One of the prime suspects in the original investigation, Roger Nunez, ended up committing suicide and no one has been officially prosecuted for the crime. Nunez was kicked out of the UpStairs Lounge the night of the fire for getting into an altercation with another patron. Reportedly, as he was leaving the bar, Nunez said “something to the effect of ‘I’m going to burn this place down’ or ‘I’m going to burn you out.’”
Of the 32 people who perished in the fire, four individuals’ bodies went unclaimed “because [their] families refused to identify them out of fear that others would find out that their loved ones were gay.” These four bodies ended up being buried together in a paupers’ grave.
In 2003, 30 years after the fire, a small plaque commemorating the victims was placed on the sidewalk outside the former front door of the UpStairs Lounge.
The tragedy has captured the fascination of some in recent years and reentered public consciousness. In 2015, Robert L. Camina wrote and directed a documentary on the incident entitled “UpStairs Inferno,” while in 2017 playwright Max Vernon introduced the production “The View UpStairs,” based on the events of that night, to the off-Broadway world.
Frank Perez, president of the LGBT & Archives Project of Louisiana, reflected on the tragedy at its 40-year mark in 2016 and less than two weeks after the Pulse shooting.
Others in the LGBT community have taken to Twitter to honor the memory of the UpStairs Lounge Fire. The Gulf Coast Equality Council posted a photo of what appears to be the commemorative sidewalk plaque from New Orleans, while Robert Fieseler — author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation” — remarked that the anniversary of the fire is an opportunity for introspection, in which white LGBT members can acknowledge how they have contributed to past discrimination against the Black LGBT community.
The list below provides the names of the victims who have been identified:
Joseph Henry Adams
Reginald Adams, Jr.
Guy D. Anderson
Joe William Bailey
Louis Horace Broussard
Herbert Dean Cooley
Donald Walter Dunbar
Adam Roland Fontenot
David Stuart Gary
Horace “Skip” Getchell
John Thomas Golding, Sr.
Gerald Hoyt Gordon
Glenn Richard “Dick” Green
James Walls Hambrick
Kenneth Paul Harrington
Rev. William R. Larson (MCC Pastor)
Robert “Bob” Lumpkin
Leon Richard Maples
George Steven Matyi
Clarence Josephy McCloskey, Jr.
Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell (MCC Assistant Pastor)
Mrs. Willie Inez Warren
Eddie Hosea Warren
James Curtis Warren
Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr.
Douglas Maxwell Williams