40 Years Ago Today: The Largest LGBT Massacre America Has Ever Witnessed
Today marks the 40-year anniversary of perhaps the largest massacre of gay individuals in America’s history. On June 24th 1973 a fire was set at The Upstairs Lounge gay bar in New Orleans. 32 died in the fire and no one was ever convicted of the crime.
In the early seventies many cities had begun to celebrate June as Pride month. It is traditionally held in June in commemoration of the Stonewall riots. However, in 1973 New Orleans, the LGBT community did not exist outside of the underground. One of the meeting spots for the New Orleans gay community was The Upstairs Lounge, which was a bar and place of worship for Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) (America’s first LGBT church, founded in Los Angles in 1968).
Though no one has been convicted of the crime it is rumored an individual who was thrown out of the bar started the fire. The fire was started in a stairwell leading up to the bar. When the door was opened to the stairwell the fire exploded into the oxygen rich bar. At the time there were 60 people inside, being as it was Sunday, many were MCC members. With no marked emergency exits and barred windows, 29 people died inside the building, and three died later of injuries.
George Mitchell, the assistant pastor of the MCC escaped the initial blaze, but died when he returned to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. The head pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, became stuck in the bars of the windows where he died and remained visible for the remainder of the following day.
Just as unsettling as the crime itself is how the city dealt with the incident. Many families refused to claim the bodies of their family members simply because they refused to accept they could be gay. Local churches refused to hold memorial services for the victims, a closeted rector ended up holding the memorial service. Local radio talk show hosts were quoted as saying “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” Police refused to admit is was arson and instead said it originated from “undetermined origins.”
This story has stuck with Wayne Self in particular. Self is a playwright who decided to write a play to let people know about the atrocities that night 40 years ago. The play is entitled Upstairs and the tagline is “32 died. No one cared. 40 years later, this is their story.” The play opened in New Orleans on June 21st.
It is events such as the Upstairs Lounge arson that remind us how far this country has come. Yes, there is still hate and bigotry out there- that may never change- but as we grow and mature as a society we can look back, and learn from horrible events like this. With the Supreme Court hopefully coming out with a decision on Prop 8 and DOMA this week, hopefully this is a time for our nation to take some big steps in the right direction.
I am originally from a small town in North Carolina and have recently moved to Richmond. Meaning I am a novice to the ways of Richmond life, but from what I have seen it is a culturally rich environment that I look forward to diving into. My daily hustle consists of playing bass, reading, and hunting for new music. This summer I will be interning with RVA Magazine and GayRVA.com. In the fall I will be transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University where I will major in journalism.
Diversity’s Iridian Gallery reimagines RVA’s historical markers with ‘Truthful History Heals’ exhibit
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