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Remembering the UpStairs Lounge

Over at The Friendly Atheist, Terry Firma points out that today is the 40th anniversary of one of the deadliest hate crimes in recent U.S. history: the deliberate arson of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.

It was a horrible murderous act, with 32 people dead, and Terry’s post is really hard to read. Not only for the description of the suffering (with a grotesque photo of the body of Metropolitan Community Church pastor Bill Larson, be warned) but also for the description of the reaction of locals after the event.

Tough reading, but do it anyway if you can. The victims at the UpStairs Lounge have been all but forgotten. They fucking well deserve better, and so do we.

Comments

  1. timberwoof says

    Though it is an important part of my “gay heritage”, I had never heard of this event until this week. That’s disturbing.

    Call me a wimp; I do not wish to be horrified by such descriptions, just as I turn off the incessant background noise about what the Nazis did. I have learned the lessons. The question is, have enough Americans? Clearly not.

  2. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I didn’t know of this either—which goes to show how much of our history is washed away and silenced. Warning for those who read the article: the picture is awful, but worse for me is the recounting of the jokes told about the dead gays by local radio talk show hosts.

    I just can’t.

  3. says

    It made me sick and left me with a face wet with tears in ’73. I wasn’t in school at the time, if I had been, I would have cut class. I huddled with a group of friends that day, and it was one day that getting stoned did not help. At all.

  4. madknitter says

    I have always prided myself on knowing Queer history. This is the first time I’ve read or heard about this fire. Thanks, PZ, for posting this. Hard and horrific as it was to read, it’s important not to forget.

  5. says

    When I tell you you aren’t welcome to comment in my threads anymore, I mean it. Don’t make me hit the spam button on you and keep you from commenting elsewhere here. — CC

    [What Chris said. You've been told to stay out of his threads, if you continue to violate that request, I'll keep you from commenting anywhere on this blog. --pzm]

  6. says

    Like many others have mentioned, this is the first time I have heard of this. I am surprised I had never come across the incident before. I have been reading a bit about it since seeing this and I wish I was shocked at the reactions published in some of the local media at the time, but I am sadly not.

    The Jimani Lounge has a page on their site dealing with the fire and includes a number of quotes from the press at the time:

    The press ran quotes from one New Orleans cab driver who said, “I hope the fire burned their dress off,” and a local woman who claimed “the Lord had something to do with this.” The fire disappeared from headlines after the second day.

    A joke made the rounds and was repeated by talk radio hosts asking, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” Official statements by police were similarly offensive. Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department, dismissed the importance of the 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.”

    It amazes me that people could say these things without feeling ashamed of themselves, or worried about what other people think. Forty years is not that long ago and sadly I imagine it would be quite easy to find people with a similar mindset even now. Hopefully they would now be too embarrassed to say these things out loud to a reporter though, but I doubt it would be that difficult to find someone willing to do it.

  7. Scientismist says

    In her 2008 history, “Queer America, a People’s GLBT History of the United States”, Vicki Eaklor places the arson at the UpStairs in the context of other arson attacks on the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Nashville, all in the same year as the New Orleans fire (1973). The UpStairs was also used as the meeting place for the New Orleans MCC.

  8. Eristae says

    You know, it’s times like these when I realize that I don’t understand people.

    My father sexually abused me when I was a child. It was awful. I am crippled by it. I loathe him.

    And if this happened to him, I would still be horrified beyond all words. This is the person I despise above all others, the only person I feel actual hate for, and I still can’t tolerate the thought of something this terrible happening to him. I quite literally do not wish this upon my worst enemy.

    Yet all those radio hosts, all those clergymen, all those regular, everyday people could not only tolerate this happening to a group that had done them no harm, but they lauded it, joked about it, facilitated it.

    What the hell?

  9. madknitter says

    Oops My apologies.
    All I can say is there are days when one shouldn’t get out of bed.

  10. PDX_Greg says

    Wow, I had never heard of this before. Horrifying. Sad to think how many sick monsters like the people happy about this still walk among us today.

  11. says

    PDX_Greg:

    Sad to think how many sick monsters like the people happy about this still walk among us today.

    They. Are. Not. Monsters. Othering does not help, so don’t do it. These were and are people. People like your neighbours, acquaintances, relatives, friends and co-workers. Plain old people are capable of terrible things. You do no one any service by attempting to distance yourself through othering.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Caine @14:

    Othering does not help, so don’t do it.

    Yes. In fact, it was othering by these people which gave them permission (in their own minds) to say and do terrible things.

  13. says

    I never knew about this horrific act. Reading the linked post was difficult. As I read, I could not shake this undercurrent of fear I felt. Though decades have passed and acceptance of homosexuals has grown dramatically, there are still people more than willing to commit such abominable acts of cruelty aginst LGBT individuals and a part of me, for the first time in my life feels scared. For my friends. For my family. For myself. I just…dammit.

  14. says

    They. Are. Not. Monsters. Othering does not help, so don’t do it. These were and are people. People like your neighbours, acquaintances, relatives, friends and co-workers. Plain old people are capable of terrible things. You do no one any service by attempting to distance yourself through othering.

    Indeed. I am tired of people immediately jumping on the “monster” bandwagon whenever other people exhibit terrible behavior. No, they are people, people that do terrible things, or think terrible things, but they are people. Honestly, I do not understand why people want to distance themselves from these people, if you are not doing or thinking the same way, or actively fighting against them, they do not taint you and there is no need to pretend they are some other. It does not perform any sort of service, it does not help you understand them any better to do that.

  15. says

    Yes. In fact, it was othering by these people which gave them permission (in their own minds) to say and do terrible things.

    In fact, the victims were mainly members of a religious congregation that someone decided needed to suffer horribly for what they espoused.

  16. mythbri says

    Just so that people are forewarned, there is a graphic photo of one of the victims of the fire in that post at the Friendly Atheist. It is incredibly sad.

  17. says

    Just so that people are forewarned, there is a graphic photo of one of the victims of the fire in that post at the Friendly Atheist. It is incredibly sad.

    I said so in the post, but it’s not like another warning would hurt.

  18. says

    I was going to say that I’m surprised people have not heard about it before; then I remembered I know of it only because I spent several of my theist years in MCC. When learning about the denomination’s history as part of my membership classes, the various arson attacks were mentioned. This was one; there were earlier firebombings at the Mother Church in Los Angeles and in San Francisco.

    All in all, nearly a third of the denomination’s 340 or so congregations have faced threats of violence, or actual violence ranging from congregants being pelted with rocks to windows being smashed to buildings burned down, at some point in their history. There is just something about LGBT Christians that really brings out the hate.

  19. Sili says

    In fact, the victims were mainly members of a religious congregation that someone decided needed to suffer horribly for what they espoused.

    Well, I’ll be damned.

    I guess Christians really are persecuted in the US.

  20. PDX_Greg says

    Okay, I see the point about othering. I have knee-jerk reactions to people who do terrible things to other people. I can understand the critical difference between calling their actions monstrous and calling them monsters. I’ll try to train my brain to always focus on the former.

  21. timberwoof says

    PDX_Greg, it’s an important point. It is the lesson I was referring to in my post. It’s only by recognizing that ordinary nice people can be turned to do such horrible things that we can hope to prevent this sort of thing happening again … though it probably will.

  22. zibble says

    They. Are. Not. Monsters. These were and are people.

    I don’t think one precludes the other.

  23. ekwhite says

    Chris:

    Thank you for posting this. I had never heard of this horrific crime until now. I wish I could say I can’t believe the reactions to the fire, but I lived in the South at the time, and that kind of bigotry was common at the time. If the people who did this were “monsters,” as someone above posted, we were all monsters at the time. Some just acted out the bigotry we all had back then.

  24. says

    They. Are. Not. Monsters. These were and are people.

    I don’t think one precludes the other.

    it does in the minds of most folks. monsters are the exceptionally evil, the “deranged”, the “psychopaths”, the “not like us”; people are everyone else, your neighbors, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends from college, etc.

    guess which category all those who were joking about this and otherwise dismissing it belong to.

  25. Pteryxx says

    Terry Firma linked to an article that gives more accounts, and commemoration of the UpStairs Lounge in an art exhibit and a new musical.

    Fire at the UpStairs Lounge – A Musical

    When artist Skylar Fein opened his installation Remember The UpStairs Lounge at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Prospect.1 biennial in November 2008, he didn’t know what to expect. Fein learned about the fire by chance when he noticed the plaque on the sidewalk below the former bar. As he started researching, he met resistance from some in the gay community. One person who found the memories difficult asked him why he was choosing to “dredge up” the story.

      Fein contacted Townsend and read a draft of Townsend’s then-unpublished manuscript (Townsend published it himself in 2011). Townsend also shared photos of the lounge and victims that he had collected while researching his book, and Fein used many in his re-creation of the lounge.

      ”I didn’t know what it was going to be,” Fein says. “I thought no one would care. I thought it would just be me and three or four older gay men who lived through the time. Then we’d walk out and that’d be it. I was totally unprepared for the thousands of people coming through that first weekend.”

      He also couldn’t have predicted the response.

      ”The angriest people in the exhibit were the Catholics,” Fein says. “They were way angrier than the gay and lesbian community. A group of older straight couples from the Northshore were very affected by it. They sought me out — I was in the installation. This one woman said, ‘We remember this. We remember the fire. We remember that our church refused to bury the dead. We knew it was wrong.’ They all nodded gravely.

      ”That moment, more than any other moment, I felt like the city had shifted.”

  26. mikee says

    Thanks for posting this Chris. It is painful to read and I am surprised I’ve never heard about this before but it valuable to read, as a gay man, because
    1) it reminds me of the sacrifices of those who have come before
    2) it reminds me that we can’t be complacent when it comes to issues of equality and human rights

    Even if it makes me cry when I read about such horrible acts

  27. Robert B. says

    That… they left him…

    I probably shouldn’t describe it, there’s a reason there’s a warning in the OP and another in the comments, but…

    holy FUCKING shit that photo.

    I didn’t know before, but now I do.

  28. chigau (aaarrgh) says

    Add me to the list of those who have never heard of this.
    I was 18 at the time and in the midst of major conscienceness-raising.
    and I still did not hear of this.
    Canada, eh?

  29. DLC says

    Yes, sickening. you can be killed in a most horrifying way for the sin of being different. For the sin of accepting the different. Because somehow the lifestyle of the man who lives down the street is of some concern. I wish I could say I was surprised as well as horrified, but I am not. Just angry.

  30. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    You can add another one to the list of commenters who’ve never heard of this incident. And that in itself is a fucking travesty.

    I am continually amazed by humanity’s capacity for hate and violence. To burn people to death, just for being gay? I can’t get over how fucked up that is.

  31. Moggie says

    It saddens me to say that the burning people to death is not what shocked me most about this. But the comments, and the police reaction… These were people who, at best, shrugged it off, with many openly celebrating the murders. That they felt secure in doing so, confident in the approval or at least silence of those around them, is suggestive of an appalling level of dehumanisation. Those of us, in particular, who are privileged not to fear violence because of who we are, should always push back against such callous disregard for human life.

    Damn, now I have to immerse myself in The Better Angels of our Nature, tell myself things are getting better.

  32. zibble says

    @28 Jadehawk

    it does in the minds of most folks. monsters are the exceptionally evil, the “deranged”, the “psychopaths”, the “not like us”; people are everyone else, your neighbors, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends from college, etc.

    And I think people care a lot more about being your neighbor, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, etc than they care about the people they’ve been raised to hate. Shaming people as monsters is always going to be more effective than any moral argument.

    We ought to have a society where people recognize that when they laugh about things like burning faggots (or casually support bombing innocents in the third world, or any other kind of passive murderousness), they let themselves become something truly repulsive; and the world and even their closest loved ones will see this and despise them.

  33. qwerty says

    I read about this in the book “Out for Good” by Dudley Clendenen & Adam Nagourney.

    It is covered in chapter 12 New Orleans: Fire Upstairs.

    The worst thing about this event is the reaction of the community after the event when the victims couldn’t get a decent burial.

    It saddens me now that many young gays and lesbians do not know the history of the glbt movement and struggle. For an excellent overall view of this event in the context of gay history, I recomment this book highly.