In many regions of the world, June is Pride month. During Pride, the attention of the queer and straight communities tends to turn toward celebration. Not every Pride season has been a time of celebration. In the midst of celebration, we turn our attention back 40 years and we remember the gay bar fire in New Olreans that claimed 32 lives.
June 24, 1973, an arsonist set a fire in a gay bar in New Orleans. The fire at Upstairs resulted in the deaths of 32 people, making it the most deadly single event for the gay community in American history. Wikipedia reports an act of heroism, where a man who escaped went back into the burning bar to get his boyfriend. Their bodies were found together, in a position that could be described as embracing.
Frank Perez describes the police and fire department responses as "nonchalant," noting the authorities knew who started the fire. The Wikipedia article states the suspect is reported to have admitted to setting the fire four times. Not all reports agree with contributors to Wikipedia.
Community responses seemed to vary from largely ignoring or dismissing the crime, to making stunningly cruel, insensitive and crude comments about the devastating fire. Troy Perry reports of cruel jokes about burying the victims of the fire in fruit jars. Generally speaking, churches in the New Orleans area failed to offer support to the survivors and to the queer community. Even the families of the victims were not always supportive. Not every family wanted the remains and wanted to attend a funeral service.
One of the men burned of the fire was a teacher. Troy Perry recalls meeting the man in the hospital. While the teacher was in the hospital fighting for his life, he was notified that he was fired from his job. Unfortunately, the teacher lost the battle and died of his injuries.
The queer community of New Orleans owes a debt of gratitude to St. George's Episcopal Church, St. Mark's United Methodist Church and to a Unitarian Church who opened their doors for prayer services and memorial services, at a time when other churches turned their back on the needs of aching loved ones.
Perry, Troy. Don't be Afraid Anymore
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
"After UpStairs Lounge fire, gay and straight New Orleans changed: Frank Perez." Nola
. Accessed 24 Jun 2013.
"Upstairs Lounge Arson Attack." Wikipedia
. Accessed 24 Jun 2013.
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