Tuesday, August 19, 2014
April 2-15, 2013, Ambush Magazine, page 12, Remembering the Upstairs Lounge Fire, by Frank Perez,
Ambush Mag, Remembering the Upstaits Lounge Fire, by Frank Perez,
On Sunday evening, June 24, 1973, the deadliest crime against gays and lesbians in the history of the United States occurred at the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter. On that night an arsonist set the gay bar on fire killing 32 people and injuring still more. Many people, then and now, mistakenly believe the fire was a hate crime motivated by homophobia. It wasn’t. Rather, the crime was motivated by anger and revenge.
On that fateful evening, an unruly hustler, Rodger Dale Nunez, was thrown out of the bar for badgering and fighting with a regular customer, Mike Scarborough. Scarborough was in the bathroom when Nunez, who was in the next stall, started harassing him through the glory hole. Scarborough complained to the bartender. As he was being escorted out of the bar, Nunez threatened to "burn you all out." About thirty minutes later, a fire broke out on the stairwell. Then the buzzer in the bar rang which usually meant a cab had arrived. Luther Boggs, a regular at the lounge, opened the door to the stairwell to be greeted by roaring flames. As the fire spread, panic ensued. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led about twenty people through a rear fire exit which was not clearly marked. Many dashed for the windows but the windows had burglar bars. A few were skinny enough to squeeze through but the others were doomed.
Katherine Kirsch was on her way to buy cigarettes around 7:45pm when she smelled smoke at the corner of Iberville and Chartres. She opened the stairwell, saw the flames and immediately ran to the Midship Bar next door to call the police. Fire trucks arrived about two minutes later. They were met by a grizzly, horrific scene. The lifeless body of Bill Larson, Pastor of the local Metropolitan Community Church, was wedged in the window, his face and right arm protruding stiffly over the street. Buddy Rasmussen saw his boyfriend, Adam Fontenot, knocked off his feet with a blast from a fire hose while he flayed around on fire. George Mitchell escaped the fire but ran back in to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard; their bodies were found intertwined, thereby occupying in death a position they saw often occupied in life. Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition but were ultimately identified through the dental records of local dentist Perry Waters, who also perished in the fire.
Thirty men and two women died as a result of the arson. Nunez, who drunkenly confessed to the crime to friends on more than one occasion, committed suicide the following year. Some believe Nunez killed himself because he was so filled with remorse. Initial media reports and the police response to the fire were less than sympathetic. Some family members of the deceased refused to claim the ashes of their "loved" ones. Radio commentators joked the remains should be buried in fruit jars. The States-Item graphically described the aftermath of the fire: "workers stood knee deep in bodies . . . the heat had been so intense, many were cooked together." On the issue of identifying the victims, Major Henry Morris, a detective with the New Orleans Police Department said, "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." At the time, many gay men routinely carried false identification to gay bars in order to avoid being outed in the newspapers in the event they were arrested during a police raid.
While the media coverage was cruel and the police response was nonchalant, the religious establishment’s reaction was downright hateful. Church after church after church refused the use of their facilities for a memorial service. Father Bill Richardson (himself believed to be a closeted gay man) of St. George’s Episcopal Church, however, believed the dead should have a service and graciously allowed, over the protest of many parishioners, the use of St. George’s sanctuary for a prayer service on Monday night which was attended by roughly 80 people. He was subsequently chastised by his bishop and received no small amount of hate mail. Days later a Unitarian Church also held a small memorial service. A larger service was held on July 1 at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on the edge of the French Quarter. Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, officiated the service at St. Mark’s along with Methodist Bishop Finis Crutchfield, who would die 14 years later from AIDS. After the service, Reverend Perry pointed out a side entrance for those who wished to avoid the television cameras which waited outside the main entrance. Of the estimated 250 people in attendance, no one took his offer.
The Upstairs Lounge arson attracted gay activists from all over the country to New Orleans. Reverend Troy Perry and others criticized the gay community of New Orleans for its apathetic attitude and general lethargy regarding the gay liberation movement so much in vogue in other American cities at the time. Local bar owners concerned about how all the attention might affect their businesses and prominent gay men who had grown comfortable with their place in the order of things responded by calling Perry and the other activists "carpetbaggers" and "outside agitators."
Despite these objections, the fire motivated a handful of activists to form the Gay People’s Coalition (GPC). The GPC launched a publication, Causeway, and established a Gay Crisis Phone Line. Causeway was edited anonymously by Bill Rushton, then a student at Tulane University, who also edited the Vieux Carre’ Courier. An editorial from the January 1974 edition of Causeway boldly declared, "There are enough gay men and women in N.O. who are able to do anything they wish—be it swinging an election or electing a gay city councilman." This clarion call, while certainly true, fell on deaf ears. As the embers of the fire cooled, so did the ire of the gay community. In what was to become the dominant pattern of gay activism in New Orleans, the GPC, and Causeway, eventually faded away. Former Baptist minister Mike Stark formed the Gay Services Center, located on Burgundy in the Marigny, in 1974. Initially the group enjoyed a flurry of activity, including the publication of a newsletter, the Closet Door. But the group’s promise was never fulfilled; in a familiar pattern, the newsletter and the group were soon moribund.
The Upstairs Lounge fire was a seminal moment in the history of gay New Orleans, the significance of which was even noticed by the arch-conservative Times-Picayune. A month and a half after the fire, the paper published a week-long series of six articles, all written by Joan Treadway, concerning homosexuality, the first of which was titled, "Gay Community Surfaces in Tragedy of N.O. Fire." The tone of the article is surprisingly objective and Treadway even quotes local gay activists who succinctly summarized the multitude of dilemmas facing gay New Orleanians, namely police harassment, job and housing discrimination, and general societal alienation.
In addition to forcing straight New Orleans to acknowledge its gay community, the fire also forced the gay community in New Orleans to confront itself. In this regard, the fire was our Stonewall—a wake-up call that sparked the activism of the 1970s and caused gays and lesbians in New Orleans to mature as a community. Now, 40 years later, our community is planning to commemorate the victims of the fire.
Ambush Mag presents 40th Anniversary Upstairs Lounge Fire Memorial Weekend
NOLA Pride 2012 Information
Ambush Magazine, Volume 15/Issue 18, Worship Service In Park After NO/AIDS WALK".
Ambush Magazine, Volume 16 /Issue 14, Upstairs Fire 25th Anniversary Memorial, by Rip and Marsha Naquin-Delain,
Moments in Gay New Orleans History,
column in Ambush Magazine.
Click for list of articles.
Perez, Frank. The Gay Bashing Murder of Fernando Rios, Ambush Magazine 30.23 2012.
Perez, Frank, Climate of Hostility, Ambush Magazine 30.24 2012.
Perez, Frank. Entertainingly Out: Tony Jackson & Patsy Valdelar, Ambush Magazine 30.25 2012.
Perez, Frank. Here Cums Mr. Bingle, Ambush Magazine 30.26 2012.
Perez, Frank. Remembering Clay Shaw, Ambush Magazine 31.1 2013.
Perez, Frank. Jeanne Manford & New Orleans PFLAG, Ambush Magazine 31.2 2013.
Perez, Frank. A Brief History of Gay Carnival, Ambush Magazine 31.3 2013.
Perez, Frank. James Booker: The Black Liberace, Ambush Magazine 31.4 2013.
Perez, Frank. My O My! The Most Interesting Women Aren't Women at All, Ambush Magazine 31.5 2013.
Perez, Frank. Tennessee Williams: Out in the Quarter; In On the Stage.” Ambush Magazine 31.6 2013.
Perez, Frank. The Gay Lens: Francis Benjamin Johnston & Joseph “Pops” Whitesell.” Ambush Magazine 31.7 2013.
Perez, Frank. “The Persecution of Tony Bacino’s Bar.” Ambush Magazine 31.8 2013.
Perez, Frank. “The Historical Closet: Mid-19th Century Gay New Orleans.” Ambush Magazine 31.9 2013.
Perez, Frank. “Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.” Ambush Magazine 31.10 2013.
Perez, Frank. Project Lazarus, Ambush Magazine 31.11 2013.
Perez, Frank. Rich Magill Exposes Hatred, Ambush Magazine 31.12 2013.
Perez, Frank. William Ratcliffe Irby: A Gay Man of Consequence, Ambush Magazine 31.13 2013.
Perez, Frank. The Gay Liberation Front Marches on City Hall, Ambush Magazine 31.14 2013.
Perez, Frank. BreakOUT! A Transgender Voice, Ambush Magazine 31.15 2013.
Perez, Frank. FAB: Faubourg Marigny Arts and Books, Ambush Magazine 31.16 2013.
Perez, Frank. A Little decadence Goes a Long Way, Ambush Magazine 31.17 2013.
Perez, Frank. Recently Discovered Document Sheds Light on the Aftermath of the UpStairs Lounge Fire, Ambush Magazine 31.18 2013.
Perez, Frank. Killer Tricks, Ambush Magazine 31.19 2013.
Perez, Frank. Bourbon Street Gets Its First Gay Bar.” Ambush Magazine 31.20 2013.
Perez, Frank. Mike Moreau Makes History, Ambush Magazine 31.21 2013.
Perez, Frank. George Dureau, Ambush Magazine 31.22 2013.
Perez, Frank. Anita Bryant Comes to New Orleans, Ambush Magazine 31.23 2013.
Perez, Frank, Stewart Butler: Lion in Winter, Ambush Magazine 31.24 2013.
Perez, Frank, The History and Future of a Louisiana Homophobe, Ambush Magazine 31.25 2013.
Perez, Frank, Activism & Ink, Ambush Magazine 32.1 2014.
Perez, Frank, Interest in the UpStairs Lounge Fire at an All Time High, Ambush Magazine 32.2 2014.
Perez, Frank, Boys on the Bar: The Corner Pocket, Ambush Magazine 32.3 2014.
Perez, Frank, The Krewe of Yuga, Ambush Magazine 32.4 2014.
Perez, Frank, Ricky Everett Recalls the Night He Escaped the UpStairs Lounge Fire, Ambush Magazine 32.5 2014.
Perez, Frank, LGBT Community Center of New Orleans, Ambush Magazine 32.6 2014.
Perez, Frank, The LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, Ambush Magazine 32.7 2014.
Perez, Frank, Pioneering Lesbian Barbara Scott Was Ahead of Her Time, Ambush Magazine 32.8 2014.
Perez, Frank, Crimes Against Nature, Ambush Magazine 32.9 2014.
Perez, Frank, NO/AIDS Task Force, Ambush Magazine 32.10 2014.
Perez, Frank, Alice Brady, Ambush Magazine. 32.11 2014.
Perez, Frank. Storme DeLarverie: The New Orleans Connection to Stonewall, Ambush Magazine. 32.12 2014.
Perez, Frank, Book Review: The Upstairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Dead in a New Orleans Gay Bar. June 24, 1973, Ambush Magazine. 32.12 2014.