Monday, June 24, 2013

UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE MEMORIAL SERVICE - 40 YEARS AGO TODAY

 

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the memorial service for the people who died in the fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. The cover of the service bulletin shows the names of the people who died in the fire.  The listing of  "Unknown White Man" (three in number) is especially poignant.  Fr Bill Richardson, the then rector of St George, who presided at a memorial service for the dead a short time after the tragedy, was also remembered.

Fox8 in New Orleans covered the event. (Don't turn away at the "Fox" label; the news coverage by the local station is quite different from Fox News on the cable channel.)
June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Upstairs Lounge, a known gay bar.  "The bartender at the time got 20 victims out of the back of the bar," explained Wil Coleman of Pride New Orleans Celebration.

Flames trapped patrons on the second floor.  Others could see out the windows and reach out, but they couldn't physically get out.  "The windows were all barred and people couldn't get out." said New Orleans resident Mary Christie.  "What a horrible thing, and the fact that they had no sprinkler systems," she said.

Twenty-nine people died in the fire.  Three others died later of their injuries.  The final death toll was 32.
 
The Upstairs Lounge fire was the worst fire in New Orleans, and its impact was far-reaching not only because of the tremendous loss of life in this building, but it sparked a gay rights movement in this city.
....
[Fr Richard] Easterling and others gathered for a mass at St. George's Episcopal Church uptown Saturday to remember all 32 victims, including three people who were never identified. The day after the fire on June 25, 1973, St. George's held a memorial for the survivors and loved ones when no one else would.
I agree with the writer's conclusion that the tragic deaths in the fire lit a spark to begin the movement on the local scene toward equality and justice for LGTB persons.  Fr Bill Richardson's courage in agreeing to hold the memorial service at St George Episcopal Church 40 years ago placed the Episcopal Church squarely in its midst.  Many, even those within the movement, are not aware of this pivotal event in the history of the struggle for gay rights.

I commend the station for their coverage of the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.  The video report of the Fox8 news segment may be seen at the link above. 

Last week, I put together a group of quotes about the tragedy, which includes more information.

18 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. You're quite welcome. I take great satisfaction in putting together a post such as this.

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  2. Thanks for this sobering story, Grandmère. Here's a better link for the local television news story:

    http://www.fox8live.com/story/22663377/deadliest-fire-in-nola-remembered-40-years-later

    The one in your post goes to the Fox website, not to the specific story. No biggie, I found it.

    Puts a different spin on the obdurate refusal of some to acknowledge the existence of sexual orientation. Denial = murder.

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    1. Murdoch, you're welcome. Those were the closeted days when there were few safe places for gays to gather. Tragically, the Upstairs Lounge turned out not to be one of them.

      The link at the beginning of the post is the same as your link. If I remove the link after the video, I lose the video. Fox8 wants their link.

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  3. Perhaps the crime wasn't entirely unsolved: Gay Star News has this additional information:

    It is believed that Rodger Dale Nunez, who was suffering from a brain tumor, lit the fire. He was questioned by police but escaped after he was hospitalized for convulsions and was never recaptured before he killed himself a year later.

    Church and city officials ignored the tragedy which is the worst mass killing of LGBT people in US history.


    And the Roman archbishop in the city makes amends:

    However on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fire, Archbishop Aymond released a statement to TIME magazine apologizing for the church’s silence at the time.

    ‘In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,’ Aymond told TIME magazine.

    ‘The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.’

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    1. Well, not definitively solved, anyway.

      Fat chance the Roman Catholic Church would have issued a statement of sympathy on the deaths from the fire at the time. The apology now is better than nothing.

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    2. Hardly an apology, note the two 'if' statements. They aren't even admitting they didn't release a statement or extend care and condolences.

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    3. Right, Erp. I stand corrected. Aymond issued a non-apology apology.

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  4. URLs are tricky -- I defer to your greater experience.

    Each story I come across adds horrifying detail, also religious references. This from The Advocate:

    http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2013/06/24/when-gay-holy-place-burned-new-orleans

    No one at the time, and very few today, mentioned that in addition to being a bar, Upstairs Lounge had hosted Sunday services for the Metropolitan Community Church, the first LGBT-inclusive church in the nation.

    Two other MCC churches were torched in the weeks directly preceding the Upstairs arson. In Los Angeles, where it was founded, the church was targeted in January of 1973, five days after Roe v. Wade was decided, and again in April, which destroyed it. Another church, this time in San Francisco, was destroyed in July, after the New Orleans fire killed 32 people, including MCC pastor Bill Larson.

    . . . The police did little to followup on the incident -- chief detective Major Henry Morris shrugged to reporters, "you know this was a queer bar." -- and the public didn't seem to care. Even many of the victims' families didn't want to get involved. No arrests were made. And certainly no self-respecting church or pastor would volunteer to memorialize a bunch of queers. Except for William "Father Bill" Richardson from St. George's Episcopal Church. Closeted and sympathetic, Richardson hosted a small service of about 80 people the day after the fire. He was promptly chastised by his Episcopal superiors, but he clearly inspired some of his spiritual brethren: a Unitarian Church and a United Methodist Church held a joint memorial in the French Quarter in July. About 250 people attended, according to reports.

    This year's service, organized by NOLA Pride, is a 40th anniversary event expected to be attended by city leaders, activists, and survivors, and will function as more than just a memorial. It represents the integration of a tragedy, once ignored and mocked, into New Orleans' and the nation's official histories.


    The Upstairs Lounge must be inscribed next to the Stonewall bar in gay history.

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    1. Indeed, Murdoch. The tragedy is not that well known even among those who now work within the movement for justice and equality for LGTB persons.

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  5. As I recall, Fr. Richardson was not "closeted" at the time. The fire and his role in ministering to gays and lesbians caused him to examine himself, and he realized that he was gay. After that, he was never closeted but always open about his nature.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the added information, Ormonde. I'm learning much that I did not know previously.

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  6. Buongiorno Mimi! I just stumbled upon your blog today for the first time when googling for stories about the Upstairs Lounge Fire massacre. Thank you so much for covering that horrific tragedy and the recent memorial service. (I also noticed you have a bunch of other LGBT articles on your blog). I'm a Lesbian and came out in '75 only 2 years after that horrible fire and have been an activist since I came out. I am quite a history buff and consider myself to be extremely well read about LGBT history, but sadly had never heard of this massacre until this week, which only goes to show how much the victims had been ignored and this tragedy buried for decades due to homophobia. It was only after I read your articles on the event and watched the memorial video that I realized this blog was by someone named "Grandmere Mimi." I was really shocked (in a very pleasant way) that - sorry to be ageist - someone your age was such a wonderful ally, as so many older people are close-minded homophobes. I then noticed your Confessions Of A Recovering Homophobe series and just got done reading all 4 parts! Amazing! My kudos to you for your wonderful blog and more importantly for your "recovery" and becoming not only "tolerant" but accepting. It was fun reading about your transformation. :) Thank you! I've now added your blog to my daily "must read" list along with GayStarNews, PinkNewsUk, LGBTQNation, Gay.it, and Huffpo US and Huffpo IT. Too bad you're not on facebook, as I don't use Google+. Keep up the good work, paisan! :) ~ Ciao, Linda Giovanna Zambanini

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    1. Linda, thank you for your lovely words. I can honestly say now that some of my best friends are gay, and I don't follow the statement with "but". I was late in getting where I am now, and I am a good distance away from the person who wrote the "Confessions". In fact, I cringe when I try to read them now and can't finish. I keep the links on my blog as reminders. My husband sometimes asks, "Do you have any straight friends?" ;-)

      On this 40th anniversary of the tragic fire, I've learned so much more than I ever knew of the horrific details of what took place at the time. Let the record show...

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  7. Btw, Mimi, and everyone, there is a new documentary coming out this summer about the Upstairs Lounge fire. Here's the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L6_wejmcTE

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    1. Linda, I intend to post and link to the documentary when time permits.

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    2. Gme Mimi,
      Thank you for your incredible blogging on this ,and many other subjects!!! There is also a Full-Length Documentary in the works by award winning Director Robert Camina that will reach a national and international audience! The link is www.upstairsinferno.com People from our state know about it NOW...But it's time for the Nation to hear! Thank you and keep up the great work!!!

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    3. David, thank you. Are you referring to the same documentary as Linda in the comment above yours? I signed up for the email list at the link you provided.

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