It was the largest fire in New Orleans’s history and the largest massacre within the LGBT community in the nation, but it was largely ignored and the perpetrator was never brought to justice. June 24 marked the 40th anniversary of the arson attack on the gay club the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter.
It was not quite 8pm on a Sunday night and over 60 parishioners and friends of the Metropolitan Community Church, the first gay church in the nation, were gathered for free beer and pizza following a service at the MCC. The three story building was one of the few with a wood exterior, and its only door was wood as well. This gave the lighter fluid poured outside plenty to burn.
The sole entrance was equipped with a buzzer and a sliding panel that functioned as a peephole in the steel door. It was through this panel that the fire entered the club, engulfing the room in flames in a matter of minutes. Approximately 30 people were able to escape to the roof, but the rest were trapped in the blaze and left to squeeze through the scant 14 inch gap between the barred windows through which few were able to fit. The fire lasted only 16 minutes but killed 29 people. Three more died later as a result of their injuries. Descriptions of the deceased are horrific – some were burned over 97% of their bodies and identifiable only through their jewelry. The bodies were described as being stack up “like pancakes” against the door. The scene has been likened to Pompeii. Accounts of the public’s reaction afterward are equally difficult to stomach.
Not a single city official spoke on the tragedy and the sole clergyperson to hold a memorial service was denounced by bishops and received over 100 letters of hate mail. News coverage downplayed the event, never actually stating that the victims were primarily members of the LGBT community. The photographs and film coverage showed the Reverend Larson’s charred body fused to the bars he attempted to escape between—not a single police officer or report thought to cover his remains at any point during the day in which his body was left up.
Shortly after the event, distasteful comments such as “I hope the fire burned their dresses off” and “the Lord…cooked them” were made. Local radio hosts even joked about the event saying, “What do they bury queers in? …fruit jars”.
This level of overt homophobia is unsurprising given the climate of the area at the time. It was the last day of Pride weekend, four years after the riots at Stonewall. Discrimination, violence and anti-gay slurs were not only common but culturally sanctioned and the concept of pride in New Orleans had not yet emerged because being gay was an acceptable reason to fire a person. The fire forced the public to confront the French Quarter’s forced to confront the existence of a thriving gay community and the response was immediately ugly.
This was all maintained by the police force in the area, who described identifying the remains as difficult because “thieves hung out there [with these people] ….and you know it was a queer bar.” All of this ended in several families declining to claim bodies and most churches refusing to bury the victims, leaving them to be interred at a potter’s field. Given the protections inherent in the layout of the building, the arsonist had to be familiar with the club. All of the evidence points to Rogder Dale Nunez, who confessed four times, but was not picked up by the police—who wouldn’t even acknowledge the fire as arson–despite being spotted often around the French Quarter after the fire.
As excitement about DOMA and Prop 8 peak in the media and in the LGBT community today, it is important that we remember The Upstairs Lounge. The current excitement about marriage has had the unfortunate effect of distracting us from more pressing issues. This is about more than marriage. This is about the ability to exist in the world without being burned alive.