Remembering the Worst Mass Killing of LGBT People in U.S. History

Forty years ago, dozens of people were trapped inside a New Orleans gay bar as it burned down. Now a new book, two films, an art installation, and a musical revisit the tragedy.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

November 15 2013 3:07 PM ET UPDATED: June 05 2014 6:55 PM ET


Above: For patrons of the UpStairs Lounge, the place wasn’t just a bar. It was a theater, a place of worship, and a community center all in one; most important, it was a place for folks to call home when the rest of New Orleans wasn’t so welcoming.

 

When Duane Mitchell was 11 years old, he and his 8-year-old brother, Steve, loved visiting their dad, George, then a divorced beauty supply salesman in New Orleans. The Big Easy in the 1970s was a different world compared to where they lived with their mom in northeast Alabama. Though the divorce was amicable, it was always hard for the boys to get enough time with their dad during the school year.

Sunday, June 24, 1973, started out like any other day for the boys, who were eager to see a Disney movie, The World’s Greatest Athlete, starring Jan-Michael Vincent as a Tarzan-like runner over a decade before his TV series, Airwolf, would make him a household name. George Mitchell dropped the boys off at the theater like he often did. Despite the recession, gas shortage, and racial tensions that dominated that summer, it was still a more innocent time. Kids could go to movie theaters alone with a handful of cash for popcorn, candy, and sodas, armed only with the admonition to stay there until their parents came back to pick them up. Dad was going to hang out wherever it is that adults hang out, with friends and his roommate, Horace, a barber. Duane gave it little thought — until the movie was over. And over again.

Duane says he and Steve watched that movie seven times and Dad just never came back. Finally, George’s landlady picked the boys up that night, and the next day a neighbor took them to the airport to fly home to Alabama, all the while not telling them the ugly truth of why Dad never returned.

How do you tell an 11-year-old that his father was burned alive, his body wrapped about his boyfriend, the two men charred and clinging to each other, lovers in life and death, while trying to escape the worst mass killing of gays in American history?

 

Photo: George Mitchell (left) and his boyfriend, Horace Broussard, in happier times. George initially escaped the fire but went back in to save Horace; the two died together. George’s son Duane didn’t know his dad was gay but calls him a hero today.

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