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 PROBLEM WITH RECOVERY
Bouncing back from a tragedy like this isn’t easy for anyone. Although most of the victims were identified (four remain unnamed), some victims were never claimed by family members, generally out of shame and stigma, and buried in unmarked pauper's graves. Some of the survivors had repercussions in their lives after local newspapers published their names, essentially outing them to their families and employers. According to Time magazine's Elizabeth Dias, one man, who later died of his injuries, was fired from his teaching job while he was still in the hospital, and others “had to go to work on Monday morning” — the very next day — as if “nothing happened.”

At right: Mourners gathered outside the bar for the 40th anniversary memorial last June.

Some say police bungled the investigation, or worse, didn’t bother to investigate much because it was a “queer bar.” Local officials disagree; at one point 50 officers were assigned to the case. Either way, a suspect was never caught or punished, though Rodger Nunez, that hustler who was booted that night, drunkenly confessed to friends on more than one occasion that he started the fire. There was even some circumstantial evidence that pointed in his direction.

As he was booted from the building, Nunez shouted a threat, though the exact wording has been reported different ways over the years, so knowing exactly what he said is difficult to ascertain. This year Time magazine reported that he said he would “burn this place down,” while the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, reported that he said, “I’ll come back and burn you all out.” Either way, most agree that Nunez had threatened the patrons and bartender Rasmussen, who fingered Nunez from his hospital bed the next day.

Police knew early on this was a case of arson, started with a small can of lighter fluid that was probably purchased from the nearby Walgreens moments before the fireball shot into the building. The Walgreens clerk could tell police the buyer was a gay man who seemed distraught, but couldn’t identify him clearly. Nunez’s alcohol abuse continued unabated after the fire. When he was drunk he would talk about the killing, the fire. Sober he’d deny it. A year after the UpStairs Lounge fire claimed 32 lives and ruined countless others, it claimed yet one more: Rodger Nunez killed himself.

Camina says that from the people he’s interviewed, it’s clear that some gay people “were embarrassed or ashamed” in the days after the fire. “The fire did not launch a revolution, and the little activism that was spawned from the tragedy fizzled out very quickly. Also, you have families that didn't claim their dead children. As a collective community, that is shameful and embarrassing. You also have a prime suspect who is a member of the LGBT community. Evidence points to the fact that this horrific crime was committed by one of our own. Furthermore, there isn't any official closure. Police weren't able to charge anyone with the crime. While the evidence points to Nunez committing the crime, there is no justice. Lastly, I think few people know about the story because it is still too painful for people to talk about.”

Indeed, Duane Mitchell, now a grown man in Rainsville, Ark., who calls his dad a “hero” for going back in to save his partner, says the fact that no one has ever been charged with the killing makes this a tragedy without closure for many of the families of the dead — and no doubt for the few living survivors.

At left: George Mitchell dressed up as Queen Victoria, in happier times.

“It was very emotional, sitting across from this gentleman who experienced such immense trauma as a child,” says Anderson, who showed Duane photos of his father he’d never seen before, including one of him dressed as Queen Victoria.

“Duane called his dad a hero — that was so poignant to me," Anderson says. "A son acknowledging his father's last selfless act, in a time when too many people turned their backs and walked away.”

If the lovers entwined, dying in a blaze together doesn’t gut-punch you, it’s the stories of the victims’ children, many who didn’t know what had happened to their fathers until recently. TinaMarie Matyi lost her dad, Buddy (George) Stephen Matyi, that affable and handsome piano player.

“I just recently found out the whole truth about what happened to my own dad,” Matyi wrote on Back2Stonewall. “He was asked to play by one of his friends. It really upset me on how someone can kill someone. My dad was trying to provide for his family and be a part of his friends. Was he gay? I don't know and if he was I really don't care. This jerk took away my dad. My dad had two sons and myself. We have lost our dad, my grandmother lost a son, and my mom lost her husband. I pray every night that nothing like this happens to my son because he is gay and I could not be prouder.”

Thanks to the anniversary media coverage, people like Matyi are connecting with others like Mary Mihalyfi, who lost her favorite uncle, Glenn R. Green, in the fire. Skylar Fein's haunting art installation, Remember the Upstairs Lounge, which was acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art this year, riveted people with a 90-piece exhibition that included a reproduction of the bar and faux artifacts, along with photographs and video about the tragedy. It helped others grieve in public, something no one could do in 1973.

An episode of Ghost Hunters on Syfy even tried to connect the living with the dead by visiting the bar, now named Jimini Lounge. All the recent media attention has combined with work by New Orleans’s LGBT community, which hosted an anniversary memorial in June, to increase the visibility of the fire far beyond the recognition it mever got in 1973.

The stigma and horror of it all, says Self, surely held folks back in 1973.

“Shame cuts both ways, and shame is an important theme throughout the play,” Self says. “Were the unidentified victims a lesson for gays and their families on the perils of the closet? Or did the reaction of some of the more hateful people in the community only serve to make people feel even more ashamed? The community as a whole was victimized and abused by the fire and its aftermath. The emotion surrounding the fire, these 40 years later, is a testament to the fire’s impact on the city.”

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