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 4:07 PM ET UPDATED: June 05 2014 7:55 PM ET

GAY PRIDE IN THE ’70S

It was the swelteringly humid last day of gay pride in the South’s most tolerant city, and the fourth anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riots — an action thought unnecessary in New Orleans. As Clayton Delery, author of the upcoming book Nineteen Minutes of Hell, told The Huffington Post's Gay Voices, “Things on the surface weren't as bad as they had been in New York in 1969. It had been several years since there had been a mass raid of a bar or a gathering place. Gay people lived in relative peace. So, in some ways, people were comfortable.”

At right: Pianist George Matyi wasn’t a regular performer at the UpStairs Lounge, but the night of the fire he took the gig as a favor to a friend. He left behind a daughter and two sons who only recently learned the truth of his death.

But that night and ensuing weeks would prove the city was anything but comfortable with gays.

The UpStairs Lounge was always hopping on Sundays. There was a beer bust each week, and $1 admission got you unlimited free pitchers of beer. The jukebox rotated everything from rock star Elvis Presley to opera star Enrico Caruso. Cocktail pianist George Stephen Matyi, whose regular gig was at the nearby Marriott, was there playing his signature mix of show tunes and ragtime, filling in for a friend, and possibly leading bar patrons on a sing-along to one of their favorite anthems, the Brotherhood of Man's 1970 hit, “United We Stand.”

Phil Esteve opened the bar nearly three years earlier on Halloween with help from a friend, bartender Buddy Rasmussen, according to author Johnny Townsend, the only person to fully document the tragedy with survivor input in his book Let the Faggots Burn. Townsend writes that because the club was outside the gay area of the French Quarter, the men worked extra hard to draw people in with dancing, singing, and live piano by popular cocktail lounge musician David Gary. The place had red wallpaper and almost-girly curtains, creating a sanctuary that was both homier than modern bars and more welcoming than many of the patrons’ homes. There was an extra space in the bar, a theater of sorts, where they staged “nelly plays” and musicals. Esteve also let members of the Metropolitan Community Church, the only LGBT-affirming Christian church in the nation, use the space.

At left: Bartender Buddy Rasmussen (right, with a friend) led 20 people to safety but inadvertently locked the door behind them, closing off the only escape route.

It was a happy place for the members of MCC, the mainline Protestant church founded by Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968. As the denomination spread nationwide, fledgling MCC congregations formed in places like New Orleans where religion was a cornerstone of community life. Though the Christian worshippers were as devout as any flock in the South, a church run by gay, bi, and transgender people wasn’t wholeheartedly welcome in the local community. In fact, the UpStairs Lounge had served as its temporary place of worship for months because the church had been set ablaze three times, including, according to Townsend, a fire that destroyed its headquarters January 27, 1973.

But Esteve and bartender Rasmussen liked having churchgoers at the lounge. They added to the friendly environment of the club, a place where at least two patrons, brothers Jim and Eddie Warren, felt comfortable enough to bring their mother, Inez.

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