On June 24, 1973, a fire that started in the stairwell of a New Orleans gay bar called the Upstairs Lounge killed 29 patrons within minutes. Fifteen more victims went to the hospital, where three would later die. Arson was suspected, and the principal suspect in the case, which was never officially solved, was a young man of 26.
The Upstairs Lounge fire became the deadliest suspected arson New Orleans has ever seen, and it left the largest single death toll of gay men in American history.
That record, which should never have existed, was broken on June 12 of this year. A young man of 29 went into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with an assault rifle.
The death toll is currently at 49, but many other victims are hospitalized, with six in critical condition. The final death toll remains to be seen. The Pulse nightclub shootings instantly achieved two ghastly distinctions in American history: the largest mass killing of gay men, and the largest mass shooting perpetrated by a single individual.
The comparisons between the Uptstairs Lounge fire and the Pulse nightclub shootings were soon evident and undeniable. Both incidents involved nightclubs with a gay clientele.
Both resulted in the almost unimaginably horrific loss of many lives. And it’s possible that both incidents were perpetrated by young men striking out in anger and hatred, and probably fear as well.
Immediately, the Orlando shootings became politicized, with everyone wanting to claim the crime as their own: It was a homophobic hate crime! No — it was a crime against humanity! No — it was radical Islam! No — it was an act of gun violence!
What this intramural bickering overlooks is that nobody needs to have exclusive title to this crime because these are not mutually exclusive categories. Some Muslim men are homophobic. So are some Christian, Jewish and atheist men. LGBT people are part of humanity. And there is no reason why a hate crime cannot be committed with an assault rifle. Indeed, as Dylan Roof demonstrated in Charleston, South Carolina, an assault rifle may be ideally suited to the occasion.
But when we compare the Orlando shootings with the Boston Marathon bombings, the Charleston church shootings, the Lafayette movie theater shootings, and dozens of other mass murders — including the Upstairs Lounge arson attack — the one thing they all have in common, after questions of weaponry, ideology, religion and motive are swept aside, is that they are committed by men. Mass murders are virtually never committed by women, and FBI crime statistics show that men commit 90 percent of murders as a whole.
Rather than quarrel about gun control vs. Second Amendment rights or the merits of Muslims vs. Christians (who can be pretty violent themselves — as various abortion clinic bombings and shootings have shown), perhaps we should be looking at the reasons why too many men in America feel as they have no choice in life except to kill.
Mass killers are overwhelmingly, though not entirely, white. They are overwhelmingly, though not entirely, straight. They are overwhelmingly, though not entirely, young.
It is easy to resort to gender stereotypes and say that men are naturally more aggressive and bellicose than women. But biology does not equal destiny. Canada has experienced only the tiniest fraction of the number of mass killings that we have, even after adjusting for the difference in population. Clearly our culture, not testosterone, is at the root of the problem. We can issue gun control laws ad nauseum, but people will still find guns.
If they can’t, fire accelerants and homemade bombs have proven to be excellent substitutes. Similarly, we can condemn this or that religion or this or that subset of the population until there is no breath left to issue condemnations. But if we don’t ask ourselves why so many boys grow up to devote their lives to destruction, we won’t be solving any problems.
The best way to honor those who died in Orlando last week, or in New Orleans 43 years ago, is to find a way to find a way to make sure there are no more such deaths, and that means taking a hard look at what values we instill in our young men.
Clayton Delery-Edwards is the author of “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson” (McFarland, 2014). He is currently at work on a book about a hate crime committed in New Orleans in the 1950s.