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

At left: Author Johnny Townsend (left, with filmmaker Royd Anderson) wrote about the fire 20 years ago. Because of the age of many survivors, Townsend is thought to have been the last person to really record many of the survivors’ stories.

And they were mourned. While Baptist, Catholic, and Lutheran congregations refused to allow memorials to be held in their churches, a closeted gay rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Father Bill Richardson, allowed a small prayer service be held there. It nearly cost him his job, as the local bishop forbade him to hold further services for these (mostly) gay victims. Eventually, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church allowed an official memorial service, which attracted about 250 people, though many LGBT people were too afraid to attend.

“From what I've been told by people who lived through the horror, the aftermath of the fire was very difficult,” says Camina. “Friends of the victims and community members could not grieve openly. They would risk outing themselves. Not only could they lose their job and their home, they could lose their family. Their thoughts were, Look what happened to these victims. If a parent could abandon their child even in death, what will my family do to me? The list of the victims expands far beyond those who were in the bar that tragic night. The fear it generated caused many people to stay in the closet, permanently altering their lives. The extent of indirect pain and damage caused by the fire is immeasurable.”

Self says, “The New Orleans gay community, though it was growing in numbers and political awareness, was not ready to turn this into a Stonewall moment. The tragedy was too swift, deadly, and profound to have it spun immediately into activism.”

Like others, Self argues that straight New Orleans had come to a “quiet acceptance of homosexuality as just another sin in Sin City, but was not yet ready to see LGBT people move from the back room to the streets.”

That is perhaps why civic leaders remained mum.

“The deplorable actions of the local politicians at the time was disgusting,” Anderson says. “Gov. Edwin Edwards and New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu made no statement of public sympathy for the victims. They chose politics over what was right.”

Self concurs: “The government’s silence was more problematic [than the media’s].” He says that Clay Delery’s upcoming historical book about the fire and its aftermath, The UpStairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973 (McFarland Publishing, 2014), “carefully compares state and local government reactions to the UpStairs Lounge Fire with their reactions to other fires or similar disasters that occurred that same summer. It’s a pretty damning portrait of a city government that had no interest in mourning the loss of its LGBT citizens. That has certainly changed. The city was a great ally in memorializing the victims this year, in conjunction with New Orleans Pride and with us.”

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