In 1973, dozens of people were trapped inside a New Orleans gay bar as it burned down, most of them dying trying to escape. Both a new book and a new film tackled the tragedy recently, and the former has just been given top honors.
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities has selected the LGBT true crime history tome, The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar June 24, 1973, by Clayton Delery-Edwards, as one of its 2015 Books of the Year.
A chilling tale of arson, homophobia, and the deaths of 32 people, the book takes a look at the harrowing night that became the largest mass killing of LGBT people on American soil. But it also reveals the truly horrifying level of homophobia that turned a tragedy into something far worse by exposing the level of hatred, disdain, and sheer dehumanization that festered in the hearts of New Orleans’ religious and civic officials.
RELATED: Read The Advocate's award-winning feature on the Upstairs Lounge Fire
Delery-Edwards, a faculty member at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches, La., examines the aftermath of the fire, when firefighters joked about burning faggots and left corpses in plain sight, church leaders refused to bury the dead, and families wouldn’t claim their gay relatives. Even survivors were afraid to tell anyone they had been there in the fire; many recovered silently or returned to work the next day as if nothing had happened for fear of being outed, losing their jobs, or being ostracized from family. The impact of the fire on LGBT activism was swift, says Delery-Edwards, nearly snuffing the Big Easy’s nascent gay rights movement.
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities has long been recognizing the individuals and organizations that make "invaluable contributions to the culture of Louisiana," but The Up Stairs Lounge Arson marks the first time a book about LGBT life in New Orleans has been recognized by the organization. Delery-Edwards will be honored at an April awards ceremony alongside journalist Cokie Roberts, who was named LEH’s 2015 Humanist of the Year.
Delery-Edwards isn't the only chronicler of the Upstairs Lounge tragedy. Robert L. Camina's highly emotional documentary about the killings, Upstairs Inferno, will be making its way to theaters this summer. The most comprehensive and authoritative film on the fire, Upstairs Inferno talks with survivors and witnesses who have never discussed the fire until now, especially on camera.
Watch the film's trailer below, which includes a heart-wrenching interview with a survivor who lost her lover, Reggie Adams, in the blaze. As part of her long healing process, she legally changed her name to "Regina Adams" in honor of her "one true love." It's but one of the many sad stories from that night in 1973.