Amid the ongoing culture wars over LGBTQ rights, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, is rediscovering the history of a deadly arson attack that took place 50 years ago.
The attack was largely forgotten in part because it happened at a local gay bar, but memorial events taking place in the Southern city, as well as virtual events open to the public like this one hosted between the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and the American LGBTQ+ Museum, are introducing a new generation to the tragedy and its victims.
Ricky Everett was one of the survivors of the June 24, 1973, fire.
“I’d carried a lot of pain for a very long time,” he told VOA. “I saw so many people, my friends, burn alive that night. And for decades we weren’t able to talk about it.”
Before the events of that Sunday in 1973, Everett attended services at Metropolitan Community Church, which was one of the first pro-LGBTQ Christian fellowships. He and other congregants then headed to the UpStairs Lounge on Iberville Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter for a beer.
“It was just a really nice, clean, friendly place,” he recalled. “People from all walks of life were there. Professionals like doctors and lawyers all the way down to people having a little tougher time. Black people, white people. Gay people, lesbians, and straight people and heterosexual couples, too.”
“Everyone just got along,” he added. “People came to the UpStairs Lounge to laugh together, dance together, sing together. It was special.”
That evening was a lively one at the second-floor bar thanks to a weekend beer special. At 7:56 p.m., bartender Buddy Rasmussen heard a buzzer that usually meant a taxi was waiting downstairs. Rasmussen sent a regular patron to check, and when the door opened, flames shot up the stairwell into the crowded bar.
“I was at a table with my friends when all of a sudden I saw a bright glow shoot straight across the room,” Everett told VOA. “It was chaos, but I just froze.”
Rasmussen jumped over the bar and yanked Everett by the arm. He yelled for people to follow him through a back exit to the roof where they could cross to the next building.
When Everett saw that one of his friends was not with them, however, he says he ran back in.
“There were dozens of people who didn’t come out with us, but when I entered the bar again, there was no movement. No sound,” Everett said. “Just flames swirling everywhere.”
“I should have been one of the people who died there that night,” he said. “But God saved me. Proof He loved gay people, too.”
'Bigotry, nonsense and homophobia'
Thirty-two people would perish that night in what was the largest attack on the gay community before the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“When I began researching the fire, I thought I was looking into an anti-gay hate crime,” Robert W. Fieseler, author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation,” told VOA ahead of Tuesday’s virtual panel discussion, which he is attending.
It turns out it was far more nuanced. While the case remains open, the man generally believed to be the prime suspect, Roger Nunez, was bisexual with a history of mental illness and was involved in a confrontation at the UpStairs Lounge earlier that night. Nunez committed suicide a year later.
“This wasn’t a hate crime,” Fieseler said, “but the response by the police, the media, and the city certainly was clouded by bigotry, nonsense and homophobia.”
New Orleans institutions suppressed news of the attack, particularly that its target was a gay bar. Some of the victims’ families were ashamed to claim their bodies. Local talk show hosts and police officers openly mocked the victims’ sexuality. Even the LGBTQ community was mostly quiet, not wanting to draw more negative attention.
World War II veteran Ferris LeBlanc died in the fire, and Fieseler believes what happened to his remains is just one poignant example of the authorities’ mishandling of their response to the attack.
“This man was an American hero, and he deserved to be buried with the same honors others who served had,” Fieseler said. “Instead, in its haste to brush the tragedy under the rug, the city didn’t make adequate efforts to find his family. They left his remains in a potter’s field — it looks like a cow pasture. His family is still trying to find him.”
Years later, an apology
In recent years, however, more New Orleanians have rediscovered the arson and its victims. Attitudes have also changed. The New Orleans City Council issued an apology last year for its actions at the time of the fire.
Choreographer Monica Ordonez says a friend introduced her to the UpStairs Lounge fire, “and not only had I never heard about it, but nobody else I knew had either.”
“How could so few people know about this? It’s one of the most important events for the gay community in the 20th century,” she added. “I wanted people to know — about the fire, but also about the beautiful souls we lost that day.”
Ordonez is artistic director of the Melange Dance Company. On the 50th anniversary of the fire, the dance company staged New Orleans Museum of Art performances of “The UpStairs Lounge,” depicting the events of that night.
Additionally, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana worked with several organizations this year to host a series of memorial events for the anniversary, attracting more than 1,000 attendees.
Among them was Reverend Paul Breton of California, who was first called to New Orleans in the days after the fire to help the survivors and victims’ families cope with their loss. Those efforts were in large part left unfinished then, but Breton believes the 50th anniversary events and the discussions it has raised help.
“We recalled each of the 32 victims who died,” Breton said of the memorial service. “Their names deserve to be remembered, and it brought back so many memories from 50 years ago.”
Everett, too, is finally feeling relief.
“Remembering and talking about it — that’s healing,” he said. “It’s like counseling. And I hope the other survivors are able to start finding healing through memory, as well.”