Forty-two years ago today, an almost unimaginable inferno, caused by arson, burned and suffocated 32 people to death. All were patrons of New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar. I wrote about it in 2013 here.
Over the past few days, I’ve been reading Johnny Townsend‘s 2011 book about the massacre, Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. For all its shortcomings, including a disjointed narrative structure, it’s a gripping account of the horrors that transpired that night, as well as a respectful remembrance of the victims, all of whom get a dedicated chapter.
Here, in direct quotes from Townsend’s tome, are ten things I learned about the UpStairs Lounge fire:
1. The Catholic Church wasn’t any more decent in 1973 than it is now.
The human relations committee for the Roman Catholic Church, even with proof that at least one of the dead was Catholic, would not even issue a statement of regret about the fire.
2. Many gay people had to bite their tongue in the face of extreme insults.
Gays who heard comments on the street or at work like, “I hope they burned their dresses off” and “It was only faggots — why worry?” had to pretend not to take offense. Many did argue or fight, but many more were afraid to lose their jobs if their sexuality became suspect over criticizing those who made light of the fire. So they’d hear jokes such as, “What major tragedy happened in New Orleans on June 24? That only 32 faggots died and not more!” or jokes that began, “Did you hear the one about the flaming queens?” and try desperately to keep the rage inside.
3. Even first responders couldn’t leave their awful prejudice at home.
Witnesses at the scene of the fire overheard a firefighter saying, “That’s good enough for them, that’s what they deserve,” and a police officer saying “Burn, fruit, burn.”
“Did you hear about the weenie roast?” someone overheard a police officer say. “Sorry y’all missed the company barbecue,” another heard his boss say.
A man who had just escaped the bar overheard two firefighters talking. “We can’t get up there,” said the first in frustration. “Oh fuck it,” said the other. “It’s only faggots. Let them burn.”
4. Brian Williams didn’t invent inventing stories.
There were many who claimed to have been on their way to the bar or who said they’d just left before the fire. [Bar owner] Phil Esteve estimated that there would have been from 500-1,000 people at the bar if all of their stories were true.
5. Gay lives were cheap, and so was medical care. Also, tragedy has a way of clearing up who your real friends are.
[About Jean Gosnell, who survived with severe burns] “Most of her straight friends deserted her, some because they were surprised to learn she was a lesbian. But she wasn’t a lesbian. ‘I’m straight. I can’t help it, I was born that way,’ she would tell gays, but her straight friends were not convinced, since she been injured at a gay bar. And those who were uncomfortable about her doubtful sexuality were uncomfortable about how to deal with a seriously injured friend. But her gay friends rallied around her. While not one straight friend offered to help her with bills, her gay friends and the memorial fund helped her pay not only her hospital bills, an incredibly low $300 for six months because the government paid for all but $1.75 a day, but also helped her pay two [assistants] that she needed before regaining the use of her hands.
Among the donors to the National New Orleans Memorial Fund were the Bonfire Lounge in Anchorage, Alaska, which contributed $140, and friends of Smokey’s Den in Springfield, Illinois, which contributed $310.
7. Even doctors often saw being gay as a sign of mental illness.
Just a month before the fire, in May, the American psychological Association met in Honolulu, the Board of Trustees voting unanimously to abolish homosexuality from the category of mental disorders. Those results were not released until December 1973, however, so during the time of the fire and its aftermath, most people still officially claimed that to be gay meant that a person was mentally ill.
8. In 1973, the bonds of family love couldn’t necessarily transcend the mortal shame of having a gay son.
So many bodies remained unclaimed in Charity Hospital’s morgue even after they were identified that several funeral homes about the city … volunteered to take two, three, or even four bodies each. Jim Roberts, the mortician who embalmed and prepared Jayne Mansfield’s body several years earlier, … said that the various funeral homes donated their time and services for many of the unclaimed bodies, embalming them, and donating coffins and burial plots for those whose families refused to claim them.
9. The credible suspects in the arson, including a man with known mental problems named Rodger Nunez, were all customers or former customers of the UpStairs Lounge.
For years, many gays across the country, unaware of any of the suspects, believed the bar had been torched by some right wing homophobe, and though it seems unlikely in this case, the belief still shaped their lives, adding another layer of oppression that might have been avoided if the police could at least have tried to prosecute [Nunez].
10. Seventeen years after the fire, the city of New Orleans was still trying to sweep the massacre under the rug.
In 1990, the Louisiana State Museum displayed an exhibit noting all the major fires in the city’s history, but the UpStairs was not included; though as far as can be determined from historical records, more people died in that fire than in the fires which swept through the [French] Quarter in earlier centuries.
You can order Townsend’s book here.