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

THE FUNERALS

“Sadly, the gay community was used to being ostracized. It was a way of life back then,” says Anderson of the atmosphere after the fire. “The early 1970s were dripping with homophobia. Homosexuality was removed from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in December of 1973 — six months after the UpStairs Lounge fire. Louisiana had a Crime Against Nature statue passed in 1974, making sexual acts between gay couples illegal.”

It was amid this atmosphere that LGBT people in the city had to grieve and bury their dead, something that became difficult in the days after the tragedy.

Rev. Troy Perry flew in from Los Angeles, reeling from the fact that the fire had decimated the local congregation of his church. He was joined by Morris Kight from the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, Morty Manford from New York’s Gay Activists Alliance, and two other MCC leaders, John Gill and Paul Breton. Their appearance in the city marked the first time national gay leaders gathered to mourn a tragedy, something that could have been galvanizing or healing.

They were turned away by every church in the city, however, and finding a place to hold memorial services was a unexpected battle.

“I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government,” says Robert L. Camina, writer and director of the upcoming feature film Upstairs Inferno. “The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored. The city didn't declare a day of mourning. They were silent. I was also shocked at the religious response. Some said the response revealed the moral bankruptcy of churches. I can't imagine a church, much less several churches, turning away mourners or victims. I was also sickened by the callous nature in which the press covered the fire, if they covered it at all.”

Indeed, as Perry and others searched for a church to hold services for the 32 victims, the LGBT community looked to local politicians, the mayor, religious officials, and civic leaders to at least recognize the tragedy. None did. The CBS Evening News was the only national mainstream news outlet to cover the story (The Advocate’s following issue featured the tragedy on the cover, with reporting from New Orleans).

“This was before the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of social media,” says Wayne Self, writer and composer of the musical about the killing, Upstairs, which made its debut in New Orleans last summer. “Today, there is simply more airtime to fill. I talked to people who had actually covered the fire and the sense I got was that they wanted the coverage to be on par with any coverage of any fire, which was a fair-minded approach. But that approach failed [to take] into account the social ramifications and the larger context of this particular fire. Of course, this early in the LGBT movement, I think it’s understandable that the media would seek fairness in coverage over a social context that was barely visible to anyone.”

New Orleans local media covered the story on day one without mentioning that the lounge was a gay bar. When that fact was discovered, the reporting turned ugly at times.

One local radio jockey joked, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” The joke was retold countless times around “respectable” offices in the city. The newspapers printed quotes from ordinary citizens riddled with homophobia, including “I hope the fire burned their dress off,” and “The Lord had something to do with this.” 

Police say they did their jobs, but even the chief detective on the case, Henry Morris, told the local States-Item newspaper there wasn’t a lot of hope for identifying the victims, saying, “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 was true some gay men did carry false identification at the time — that way, if they were arrested their real names wouldn't go on the public record, something that would get you fired — but almost all the victims were identified in the following weeks.

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