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The UpStairs Lounge Fire – Insult Added to Ashes 50 Years Ago

By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.

Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was the single biggest loss of life in New Orleans.

Until the Pulse mass shooting in 2016, it was “The Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History.”

So why has the fire at the UpStairs Lounge on June 24, 1973, which lasted only 16 minutes but killed 32 LGBTQ people and injured dozens, been ignored, not only by the city of New Orleans but the LGBTQ Community for decades?

To reference a quote survivors, who had escaped the inferno, heard from onlookers out on the street,

“Let the faggots burn.”
Screen Capture: “UpStairs Inferno”

Fifty years ago, that was the prevailing sentiment towards LGBTQ people, even in a city with an “anything goes” reputation like the Big Easy.  It’s a sentiment whose echo is reverberating back today with the dramatic rise in anti-LGBTQ hate speech, violence and discriminatory laws being passed by Republican controlled statehouses.

The arsonist who started the inferno at the UpStairs Lounge wasn’t the only criminal involved in the murders of 32 racially diverse LGBTQ people gathered for the Sunday “Beer Bust” on that last Sunday of June.  Also criminally involved after the fact was the City of New Orleans for their lack of investigation and never charging anyone for the mass murder.  Additionally, the City mishandled four unidentified bodies by dumping them in unmarked graves at Resthaven Memorial Park cemetery; their exact location is still unknown today.

After the tremendous loss of life, the greatest tragedy about the UpStairs Lounge fire was the devastating stigma that existed 50 years ago of being outted as LGBTQ if identified with the incident or one’s family having to bear the stigma of a “faggot in the family.”  The latter caused, some victims never to be identified because families would rather not know.

From an article in TheNation.com,

“One of the most disturbing parts of the fire’s aftermath was the dumping of four bodies in a potter’s field at the Resthaven cemetery. The turning point in identifying one of these individuals, Fieseler says, occurred a year after the fire, in 1974. An anonymous caller informed the city that one of the bodies was World War II veteran Ferris LeBlanc, who could be identified by a ring he was wearing at the time of his death. Though the city of New Orleans claimed they tried to reach LeBlanc’s family, they were unaware of what happened to their son until 2015, when they would find out he was a victim of the fire after discovering it online.”

Read the full article: “50 Years Later, the UpStairs Lounge Fire Is More Important to Remember Than Ever” 

 

The 2015 award winning documentary, UpStairs Inferno tells the story of this all but forgotten piece of LGBTQ history.  Drawn from 20 interviews with survivors, historians, journalists, and witnesses, UpStairs Inferno is not just an emotional accounting of events, but an examination of the far-reaching effects this tragedy has had on those involved.  Producer/Director Robert L Camina also recounts one such effect that played out as recently as 2015 in the film’s gut-wrenching epilogue.

 

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A post shared by UPSTAIRS INFERNO (@upstairs_inferno)

 

Pride Month is the LGBTQ Community’s time to celebrate being joyously open and out.  To its allies, a time to more visibly show their support.  To right-wing haters and Christian persecutors, it’s a time to intensify their vitriol and attacks.  But to apathetic members of the Community and/or straight people who continue asking, “Why does there need to be a Pride Month?” what happen 50 years ago at the UpStairs Lounge and the grievous crimes which compound the tragedy for years and decades after are a stark reminder of the tremendous damage hate and shame can cause.

We must not let those same messages once again being blasted at us, about us, and to turn others against us by those in places of power drive us backwards.  We must stand up with pride, and walk proudly forward.

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” — Charles Bukowski

 

We remember the victims of the UpStairs Lounge Fire

  • Joseph Henry Adams
  • Reginald E. Adams
  • Guy D. Andersen
  • Joe William Bailey
  • Luther Boggs
  • Louis Horace Broussard
  • Herbert Dean Cooley
  • Donald Walter Dunbar
  • Adam Roland Fontenot
  • Larry Norman Frost
  • David Stuart Gary
  • Horace “Skip” Getchell
  • John Thomas Golding, Sr.
  • Gerald Hoyt Gordon
  • Glenn Richard “Dick” Green
  • James Wall Hambrick
  • Kenneth Paul Harrington
  • Rev. William R. Larson
  • Ferris LeBlanc
  • Robert “Bob” Lumpkin
  • Leon Richard Maples
  • George Steven “Bud” Matyi
  • Clarence Joseph McCloskey, Jr.
  • Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell
  • Larry Stratton

 

Read our previous Pride Month 2023 posts:

“Pride 2023 – Proud Out Loud and Fighting Back” 

“’Save The Rainbow Flag” Our Call to Action”

“‘Night Of A Thousand Judys’ Pride Concert to Benefit LGBTQ Homeless Youth” 

“Matthew Shepard – A Saint For Our Times 2023”

“Elton John Launches The Rocket Fund to End AIDS For All”

“Teachers Have Had Enough of “Don’t Say Gay” And Are Fighting Back”

“Broadway Sings With Pride – Video Celebration”

“Honoring The Pulse Massacre 7th Anniversary”

“‘See the Queens’ Your Ultimate Guide To Drag”  

“Podcast: Rock Hudson Doc-Film, RuPaul Honored + More” 

“Take Pride in Fighting Book Bans” 

“With Love & Pride to Gay Dads on Father’s Day” 

“Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations’ A Proud Juneteenth Celebration: VIDEO” 

“’Pride Across America’ A LGBTQ Celebration Streaming Sunday”  

“Teaser Video: Lady Bunny’s “Groomer Is it” from ‘Don’t Bring the Kids’” 

 

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