Before Orlando, There was the Upstairs Lounge Arson Fire

A similar massacre that happened 40 years ago was barely acknowledged by the media and has been somewhat lost to history.

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An evening of revelry at the Upstairs Lounge before the massacre.

As the world reels from yet another senseless mass shooting, the LGBT community is left wondering if our community was intentionally targeted. While many questions remain about the shooter’s motives—and some will never be answered—it’s worth remembering that the queer community has been the target of inhumane violence before.

Thanks to the visibility and progress our community has made, the shooting at Pulse in Orlando will horrify all decent people for decades to come. However, a similar massacre that happened 40 years ago was barely acknowledged by the media and was lost to history until only recently.

The Upstairs Lounge arson attack in took place on June 24, 1973 at a gay bar located in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Thirty-two people died. The official cause is still listed as “undetermined origin,” although unofficially, it has been designated as a hate crime.

The attack took place on a Sunday evening when the newly organized New Orleans congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church was holding services. It was the final day of Pride Weekend. Sixty people, most gay men, some straight, and many closeted were listening to pianist David Gary perform and discussing an upcoming MCC fundraiser for the local Crippled Children’s Hospital. One gay patron was there with his twin brother and their mother.

At 7:56 p.m., a buzzer from downstairs sounded, and bartender Buddy Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, asked Luther Boggs to answer the door, anticipating a taxi cab driver. Boggs opened the door to find the front staircase engulfed in flames, along with the smell of lighter fluid.

Rasmussen immediately led some thirty patrons out of the back exit to the roof, where the group could access a neighboring building’s roof and climb down to the ground floor. Some thirty others were accidentally locked inside the second-floor club, some attempting to escape by squeezing through barred windows.

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The tragic blaze at the Upstairs Lounge destroyed everything in its wake. (Times-Picayune/Landov)

One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap, only to fall to his death while burning. Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC clung to the bars of one window until he died, and his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards.

MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell managed to escape, but then returned to attempt to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, and their remains were found clinging to each other.

Firefighters arrived to find bar patrons struggling against the security bars. While they quickly brought the fire under control, witnesses related several humiliating and horrific tales of their indifference.

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.”

In all, 28 people died at the scene of the sixteen-minute fire, and one died en route to the hospital. Another 18 suffered injuries, of whom three, including Boggs, died.

During this era of rampant homophobia, several families refused to claim the bodies, and many churches refused to bury the dead. To this day, several of the victims remain unidentified and were buried in an unmarked potter’s field in New Orleans.

IThe aftermath of the Upstairs Lounge fire which claimed 29 lives. Reverend Larson’s charred body can be seen still left carelessly in the window. (Times-Picayune/Landov)
IThe aftermath of the Upstairs Lounge fire which claimed 29 lives. Reverend Larson’s charred body can be seen still left carelessly in the window. (Times-Picayune/Landov)

Within two days, the deadliest fire to hit New Orleans in nearly two centuries disappeared from the headlines. Officials and police seemed uninterested in solving the crime. As an ultimate act of disrespect, workers sifted through the charred remnants of Upstairs Lounge leaving the reverend’s body on display in the window for several hours. News reports undermined the importance of the incident at a “gay bar” while citizens joked on the streets about the victims being buried in “fruit jars.”

Many gay people had to bite their tongue in the face of extreme insults. Those 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.

No government officials made mention of the fire. As Robert L. Camina, writer/director of a documentary about the fire (Upstairs Inferno), said in 2013, “I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored.”

St. Mark’s Community Center finally allowed a quiet service offered to a few hundred mourners on Sunday, July 1. Reverend Troy Perry, head of the MCC, flew to New Orleans from Los Angeles to give the sermon. His closing words spurred on the LGBT community:

“As long as one brother or sister in this world is oppressed, it is our problem. Names such as faggot, queer, fruit, and fairy are the language of the bully and the bigot—insensitive, stupid labels that will never put us down. Those human beings—our friends—who died so horribly, have dignity now. It does not matter what unknowledgeable people have stooped to say; our friends will always have respect because they are forever in our hearts. The memory of our love ones is so viable that I can almost feel their presence. If they could speak they would tell us to hold out heads up high.”

In the end, the official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect for the attack was Rodger Dale Nunez, a local hustler and troublemaker who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the evening after fighting with another customer. However, officials later ruled him out, and in 1980, the state fire marshal’s office, lacking leads, closed the case.

Twenty-five years after this horrific event, the city of New Orleans began its first attempts to make peace with those affected by the fire. A memorial bronze plaque set in brickwork adorns the sidewalk of Chartres Street near Iberville Street. The silent peace offering and apologies of governmental members may have soothed some of the memories of this forgotten tragedy, but the tragedy and anger still haunts many who were directly affected by it.

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This plaque commemorating the massacre can be found at Chartres Street near Iberville Street.