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: November 15 2013 6:12 PM ET

Even each of these men — Self, Anderson, Camina — who have worked on the projects surrounding the UpStairs Lounge massacre have been profoundly affected, with a sort of creative PTSD that may never go away.

“I think a lingering issue that is rarely talked about is the mystery surrounding the unknown victims,” Camina says. “These men went missing and no one claimed them? I can't wrap my head around it. It's unfathomable. I grieve for the unidentified victims of the fire. I don't believe they have found peace yet. I am shocked and sickened that the families never claimed them and that their bodies were dumped into a pauper's grave.”

At left: Upstairs writer-composer Wayne Self says the story of the fire will never leave him.

Looking into people's eyes as they experience pain and anguish did not come easy, Camina says. “When I stood outside the bar on the morning of June 25, I stared at the building and tried to imagine what it must have been like 40 years ago, the morning after the fire. I imagined the smell of soot and death in air and the suffocating amount of grief. I got chills. When I returned to New Orleans in September, the site was no less chilling. My tour through the bar was equally as emotional. I stood at the second-story window and peered down the fire escape to the pavement below. This was one of the last sights people saw before they died. I stood next to the infamous window: the one which Reverend Larson got wedged in and was burned alive. I was standing in the footprints where these people died. It was heart-wrenching. We walked through the rear exit door where Buddy led the few survivors to the roof. We were walking in their footsteps. It was surreal. You can't help but cry.”

For Anderson, six years of his life devoted to documenting this story, the tragedy still lingers. “There was one photo of a dead patron deceased underneath a couple of barstools, with his T-shirt pulled up, showing his stomach,” he recalls. “He probably was using the shirt to cover his mouth from the smoke. The look on his soot-covered face was awful. It's a disturbing photo, one that can't be erased from my memory.”

Making the musical Upstairs was a challenge unlike anything he’s ever faced says Self, a GLAAD media spokesman as well as a playwright and composer: “I’m still affected by it, to the extent that I’m not yet working on anything else. In order to treat the topic fairly and sensitively, I had to face the victims head-on and try to know them as best as I could.”

At right: Varla Jean Merman (right) and Charles Romaine in Upstairs, the musical.

His play doesn’t trade in the morbidity of the night, as would be so easy to do, but the people, the victims, the horror is there in the subtext. As with Camina, his ride is just beginning. The musical will be playing in conjunction with Acadiana Pride in Lafayette, La., next June, the city’s inaugural Pride festival. 

He’s in talks with various theaters around the country to have them produce and present the play and he’s fundraising to put on a national tour. It’s the love of the people of New Orleans, their desire to see this story come alive, that has kept him going. 

“It’s not often that you get to work on a project that has such political, social, and emotional resonance with people,” he says. “This is the sort of work that a lot of us got into theatre to do, but rarely get to do. It fulfills that promise, and allows us to share something with a whole community.”

The show focuses tightly on the night of the fire and its relatively immediate aftermath. The themes are broad and relevant to the LGBT experience today: pride, shame, alienation, acceptance, forgiveness, rage, religion, family, survival, and death. The fire and its victims speak to us today because their experience presages our own experience with family struggles, with spiritual struggles, with AIDS, with a long, slow march from shame to acceptance to public celebration of our relationships — a march that saw a lot of losses along the way. Yes, the mayors and religious leaders would comment today, and nearly all of those comments would be supportive and kind. And we owe it to those who didn’t live in these conditions to remember them and celebrate their contributions.

Camina looks forward to 2014, but knows he’ll never stop thinking about 1973.

“The story and the victims will always be a part of me,” he says. “These people are more than statistics and more than plot points. The people that were there were sons, dads, brothers, uncles, moms, sisters. I will never leave them behind. I want to do all I can to help educate future leaders and find a way to turn this tragedy into teachable moments. We should never allow ourselves to forget them — again.”


Editor's note: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Religious Archives Network has a comprehensive digital exhibit on the UpStairs Lounge fire with personal essays, old photos and media clippings, and excerpts from Townsend's compendium.

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