50 Years Later, the UpStairs Lounge Fire Is More Important to Remember Than Ever

50 Years Later, the UpStairs Lounge Fire Is More Important to Remember Than Ever

50 Years Later, the UpStairs Lounge Fire Is More Important to Remember Than Ever

The arson attack on a New Orleans nightclub was the largest massacre of queer people in 20th-century America—and it remains distressingly relevant to our present moment.

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Fifty years ago, on June 24, 1973, an arsonist set the UpStairs Lounge, a queer nightclub in New Orleans’ French Quarter, ablaze. When the flames cleared, 32 people were dead and another 15 were injured. The attack would stand as the largest act of mass murder against the LGBTQ+ community until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

If you didn’t know this story, you’re not alone. Despite the scale of the tragedy, the UpStairs Lounge Fire is still a relatively obscure part of American history. Part of the reason for that is because, for a very long time, New Orleans virtually refused to grapple openly with what had happened. Nobody was ever charged with the crime, even though there were some prominent suspects. In a gross mishandling of victims’ remains, four bodies were dumped into unmarked graves at the Resthaven Memorial Park cemetery. There would be no signage or plaque to mark where they were buried. To this day, the exact location of the bodies is unknown.

“A lot of older people, even if they were alive at the time, don’t recall the UpStairs Fire because the story just got swept under the rug at the time,” says Frank Perez, cofounder and executive director of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisana.

Johnny Townsend, who wrote a history of the fire titled Let the Faggots Burn (a reference to a comment that survivors of the fire reported hearing) agrees. “The way the city reacted after the fire was a hate crime in and of itself,” he says. “Victims who survived couldn’t tell anyone they were there [at the bar] or that their friends or lovers, had died, for fear of being out.”

By 1973, the French Quarter had been a center of queer life in New Orleans for decades. For queer people raised in the rural South, neighborhoods like the French Quarter gave them a unique serenity. Part of what made the fire so sinister was that, after the attack, the anti-gay climate prevented many victims from being able to fully seek justice, lest they be outed.

“The city’s reaction 50 years ago was so horrible and homophobic that it made it political. There was the initial crime of the arson and the second crime, the city’s neglect,” says Townsend.

Now, with the 50th anniversary of the fire taking place at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are under more of a sustained threat than they have been for years, the people who have worked so hard to keep the memory of the victims alive say that it’s especially important to connect today’s struggles with the past.

Because of the stigma associated with queer people at the time, the city quickly and quietly moved on from the fire.

“Louisiana has a long history of ignoring queers to death,” says Robert Fieseler, author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Inferno. “I was horrified by even my own ignorance. When a professor brought this story to my attention, I hadn’t heard of it.”

The book took Fieseler nearly five years to research, but he says that, because so much of the event’s history was buried, he is constantly learning new details. “Whenever I give a lecture about the book now, someone will inevitably approach me and tell me they knew one of the 32 victims, or survivor, or someone that was a part of gay New Orleans society in the 1970s and I will find out something new about the event,” he says.

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.

Thanks to documentary footage uncovered by filmmaker Royd Anderson for his 2013 film The UpStairs Lounge Fire, LeBlanc’s family was able to get a general idea of where he might be buried within Resthaven, but to this day his remains—and those of the other victims—have not been definitively located.

It took decades for local newspapers to begin publishing remembrances of the fire. But over the past 25 years, commemorations of the tragedy have continued to expand. In 2003, a local pastor named Dexter Brecht led a successful campaign to have a bronze plaque placed in front of where the Lounge once stood. It was unveiled on the 30th anniversary of the attack. “The plaque was a significant turning point,” says Fieseler. “That began to stoke people’s curiosity.”

Last year, the New Orleans City Council, in partnership with Perez, Fieseler, and other activists, announced new efforts to “facilitate the recovery” of the unidentified fire victims in Potter’s field. This was also the first time the city publicly apologized to the victims of the families for their gross negligence after the fire.

For the 50th anniversary of the fire, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana has teamed up with the Historic Collection of New Orleans and other city organizations to host a weekend-long series of events honoring the victims and remembering their legacy. These will include vigils, talks, and screenings of documentary footage. A new podcast called The Fire UpStairs is also being released in conjunction with the anniversary.

The anniversary has come at a particularly grim time for queer rights in the United States. Perez and Fiesler say that they want to make people see the link between a defining moment in queer history and the fights that are needed now. “There’s a reason we can fuck so freely today!” Fieseler says. “Learning about these events has a lot to do with honoring the individuals who paved the road in front of us that we now walk. And it has to do with reminding ourselves that we have to be capable to fight in the way that prior generations did.”

For Joey Gray, who coproduced and hosts the Fire UpStairs podcast, there are clear parallels between 1973 and today. “The hateful rhetoric we saw after the fire was directly linked to the anti-LGBTQ pushback we’re seeing today from the right,” he says.

The effort to keep the story of the UpStairs Fire alive over the decades has included the work of researchers, activists, filmmakers, and community members. And they are determined to keep going. “I’m sort of glad I’m living in a time where I am being called to fight,” says Fieseler. “I was never a peacetime queer.”

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