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


THE AFTERMATH

“Louisiana does a pretty good job of keeping its tragedies a secret,” says Anderson, who became an expert on the killings when he spent six years filming his award-winning documentary The UpStairs Lounge Fire, which aired this summer on television in New Orleans and continues to tour festivals and universities. Next up is a November 21 showing at New Orleans's Loyola University and then a collegiate screening tour that'll take Anderson to Penn State, Louisiana State University, Yale, and Princeton.

The Cuban-American filmmaker has produced documentaries about several forgotten Louisiana tragedies: the 1976 Luling Ferry disaster (the worst ferry disaster in U.S. history, with 77 fatalities), the 1977 Continental Grain Elevator explosion (the deadliest grain dust explosion of the modern era, with 36 fatalities), the 1982 Pan Am Flight 759 crash (the worst aircraft crash in Louisiana history and the fifth worst in U.S. history, with 153 fatalities). The UpStairs Lounge fire fits among them: It remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.

At left: Filmmaker Robert L. Camina in front of the plaque memorializing the UpStairs Lounge massacre.

“All of these tragedies, in addition to the UpStairs Lounge fire, aren't in textbooks," he says. “Plus, a lot of LGBT history is not that well publicized in the Bayou State. There's a small plaque on the sidewalk outside of the former door of the UpStairs, commemorating the victims. If you're not looking down when you're walking, you won't even notice it. Thousands of tourists step on it every day and don't realize it's there.”

Anderson learned about the fire as a kid. His dad, a French Quarter tour guide, would take Anderson on long walks in the Quarter, and he would point out the building and tell the story. 

“Being a social studies middle school teacher, I thought it was imperative to remember this forgotten tragedy and lost history,” he says.

The teacher-turned-filmmaker is not alone. Gay author Townsend, who wrote about the tragedy two decades ago, was able to talk with many survivors of the fire, no easy feat, says Anderson, who admits getting people to talk about it today is difficult.

“Most of them didn't want to get in front of the camera and talk, due to mental strife,” Anderson says. “Also, many folks from that generation don't want to be known to be gay to the public; the peer pressure is still evident today.”

Toni Pizanie, who authors a column called Sapphos Psalm for Ambush, the local gay paper, wasn’t at the UpStairs Lounge that night but says it happened while she was still in the closet and it made an impact on her. “I refused to attend the memorials,” she writes. “I told gay acquaintances, I didn’t know anyone that died. Why attend? The truth is that I was frightened. There was my great job as department head of accounting for a national firm. And, I was purchasing my first house. I didn’t want my being a lesbian to mess up my future.”

In 1998 she helped organize the 25th anniversary memorial. She had come out by then. But 1998 was a far cry from 1973.

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