On a Sunday afternoon on June 24, 1973, around sixty patrons were drinking at the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. At 7:56pm, the buzzer that signaled a cab sounded. The man that opened the steel door was greeted by a hurling Molotov cocktail that quickly engulfed the staircase and spread in seconds. Thirty-two men were brutally murdered; most burned alive. It is the largest known massacre of gay people in our nation’s history.
The Upstairs Lounge was temporarily hosting the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the nation’s first gay church. The MCC churches in Los Angeles and Nashville were set aflame earlier that year, but no deaths occurred. During this time, New Orleans’ gay community mostly existed underground. The French Quarter had around two dozen gay bars, but they certainly never advertised as such. Open gay pride parades had not yet reached the city. Southern Decadence was merely a party of about forty friends that started just a year prior. Many gathered in bars that protected from outsiders – heavy doors, barred windows, minimal entrances. During the Upstairs Lounge attack, this security entrapped them.
When the fire started consuming the bar, Buddy Rasmussen, the bartender, quickly escorted many throughout an unmarked back door. One in particular was the MCC assistant pastor George Mitchell, who hurried back into the fiery chaos to save his partner, Louis Broussard. Their scorched corpses were found entwined together. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died attempting to escape between the window bars. His charred remains were inhumanely left untouched and visible throughout the initial investigation. Others who managed to squeeze through the bars fell stories below and sustained lifelong injuries. Witnesses reporting hearing helpless screams from those still trapped inside. An odor of rotten flesh permeated the block. Thirty-two of the sixty patrons did not survive. The casualties included over a third of the local MCC chapter.
The media reaction surrounding the event was harsh even through the lens of cultural relativism. The press quoted a cab driver who hoped “the fire burned their dresses off.” Another woman exclaimed “the Lord had something to do with this.” One radio host quipped, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” When questioned about the investigation, Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department, nonchalantly stated, “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.” The local media discussed the tragedy for a day.
That video is the only report concerning the attack to make national news. After that, it faded from the general collective memory of New Orleans.
Many churches refused to provide memorial services for the victims. Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist churches all denied requests by the MCC. Father Bill Richardson, a closeted rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church, allowed a prayer vigil to be held. The undisclosed service drew about 80 mourners. The very next day Richardson was reprimanded by the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans, Iveson Noland. Richardson received a plethora of hate mail.
No government officials issued any statements of sympathy or support. Phillip Hannan, the Catholic Archbishop at the time, ignored the event and offered no support or compassion. Some family members were too ashamed to claim their loved ones. Instead of giving the remains of some of the unidentified persons to the MCC, the city dumped them in unmarked graves at Holt Cemetery. Although leads were promising and a likely culprit was identified, the investigation quickly went cold and no arrests were ever made.
More recent reaction is starkly contrasted with the reaction of the time. A plaque was added to the building by the MCC during the 30th anniversary in 2003. Current Archbishop Gregory Aymond released a statement on the 40th anniversary in 2013, “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families… The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.” As recent as earlier this year, a family finally discovered what happened to their long lost uncle, Ferris Leblanc. Leblanc is the only victim of those scattered throughout Holt Cemetery to be identified.
Today, New Orleans is a more tolerant city. In 2014, Decadence Festival brought over 160,000 participants and generated over $192 million for the local economy. It is one of the largest events in New Orleans. According to a recent New York Times article, New Orleans has the 4th highest percentage of gay residents in the nation. The massacre is becoming more incorporated in the city’s history.
Despite progress, bigotry still exists. Politicians remain silent on the anniversaries of the attack. Marriage equality has not yet reached Louisiana. According to BreakOUT!, a local organization that fights the criminalization of LGBT youth in New Orleans, “at least 20% of youth in Louisiana’s detention centers are LGBTQ.” Homelessness remains pervasive and exponentially higher among LGBTQ youth. Young trans people, often of color, remain a target for violence.
Just this year, Governor Bobby Jindal passed an executive order that “lists ways businesses or individuals cannot be punished by the state for actions based on religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and woman.” The “religious freedom” order gives business owners carte blanche to deny service based on sexuality due to arbitrary religious objections.
Unsurprisingly, Jindal is expected to announce his bid for presidency today, on the exact anniversary of the largest LGBTQ massacre in American history.
Edit: The June 12, 2016 Orlando shooting is now the deadliest massacre against LGBTQ people in U.S. history.
Sources and Further Reading:
“Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire,” by Johnny Townsend.
“The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973,” by Clayton Delery-Edwards.