Like the massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and dozens injured, it was a hot and humid night in June when 32 people were burned alive — allegedly by an arsonist — in a New Orleans gay bar, the Upstairs Lounge, 43 years ago. The fire was the deadliest in New Orleans history and, until the shooting at Pulse, the deadliest incident for on gay people in U.S. history.
The atmosphere at the Upstairs Lounge, on the second floor of a building at Chartres and Iberville streets, was similar to that at Pulse. People, mostly gay, went to the Upstairs to drink, sing and dance and have fun with friends. The victims were gathered around a baby grand piano after a beer bust when they were engulfed in an inferno.
The killer in Orlando was a disgruntled anti-gay terrorist whom witnesses say they saw in the bar several times previously. The suspected Upstairs Lounge arsonist was thought to have been an angry customer who was ejected from the bar minutes before the fire. A flammable liquid believed to be lighter fluid was tossed in the stairwell and ignited, filling the bar with a blast of flames.
As in Orlando, there were heroes in the Upstairs Lounge fire, like bartender Buddy Rasmussen, who managed to lead about 20 people to safety through a back exit.
But the aftermaths of the two tragedies are far from similar. The nationwide outpouring of sympathy for the Orlando victims by religious leaders, politicians, celebrities and others was non-existent in New Orleans after the June 24, 1973, attack on the Upstairs Lounge.
As a reporter for the afternoon States-Item, I spent most of that Sunday night and the early hours of Monday morning outside the emergency room of Charity Hospital, interviewing injured survivors and witnesses who huddled on a bench in a hallway. Some talked and were willing to be identified. Others were too traumatized and feared having their names linked to a gay bar.
Gay life in New Orleans in 1973 was low-key. No gay rights organizations existed. Gay people, for the most part, remained inconspicuous, afraid of being “outed” in the straight world. Prejudice against gay people was widespread. “Queer” was the commonly used offensive adjective. Police hassled customers in gay bars. The failure of the community to publicly express concern and race to the aid of the Upstairs victims and their loved ones was shameful. There was no public outpouring of grief, locally or nationally. No New Orleans church would allow a memorial service or extend a helping hand to victims. The Archdiocese of New Orleans did not offer condolences, although it apologized for its inaction years later. A small candlelight memorial was held. A memorial service was held at St. Mark’s United Methodist in the French Quarter a week after the fire.
Sympathy for the victims was hard to find among government leaders, most of whom were indifferent. No flags were flown at half-staff. People made disgusting off-color jokes. Police Maj. Henry Morris, the chief detective, made the most appalling comment of all by referring to the Upstairs Lounge as a “queer bar” and a hangout for “thieves.” The police search for the arsonist withered after a few weeks. Police had their eyes on a suspect but maintained there was a lack of evidence to prosecute him and dropped the investigation. Police did not seem to make a serious attempt to arrest the suspect. He committed suicide a year later.
Local newspaper and television coverage was intense days after the fire, but after a few weeks, the story slipped onto the back burner. National media coverage was minimal. Critics of the news coverage accused local media, mainly the newspapers, of sensationalism, lacking sensitivity and failing to dig deeper into the story. The States-Item was singled out when it reported the day after the fire that bodies were “stacked like pancakes.”
Some of the criticism was justified. The media certainly should have been more aggressive with investigative reporting in the weeks and months that followed.
The victims received a long-deserved memorial in 2008 when artist Skylar Fein mounted a sobering display of news photographs and artifacts from the fire at the Contemporary Arts Center during the Prospect.1 international art exhibit.
In recent years, a new interest in the fire has appeared in books, magazines, news articles and a film documentary as friends of victims have been more open to talk about the tragedy.
More than four decades after the fire, there is a world of difference in the New Orleans gay scene. The attitude of police toward gay people has changed for the better. Though prejudice still simmers, gay New Orleanians have made strides in achieving acceptance at many levels. Unashamed of their lifestyle, they parade in the streets, stage fundraisers for charities, have sports teams and work unafraid of losing their jobs.
The struggle continues for the day when gay people in New Orleans and elsewhere will achieve equal acceptance. The heartwarming support lavished in Orlando is perhaps an indication that the day is getting closer.
Lanny Thomas is a former New Orleans newspaper reporter.