On June 24, 1973 an arsonist started a fire that consumed the UpStairs Lounge, a second-floor gay bar in New Orleans's French Quarter. The UpStairs Lounge Fire was both the deadliest fire in the history of New Orleans and the largest mass-killing of gay people in the US.
Among the 31 men and one woman who died in the fire were members of the local Metropolitan Community Church, who frequented the Lounge after services for its Sunday "beer bust." (One particularly grisly photo was of MCC Pastor William R. Larson, who burned to death while trying to escape through a window.)
The UpStairs Lounge Fire showed New Orleans at its homophobic worst as many families refused to claim the victims' bodies and most local churches refused to conduct their funerals. MCC founder Troy Perry and other activists rushed to New Orleans to help bury the victims who, as many locals thought, "got what they deserved."
Though the UpStairs Lounge Fire was written about in several histories of the period - as well as in Rev. Perry's memoirs - the event had to wait 38 years for its first full-length study: Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire (Booklocker; $17.95). In Let the Faggots Burn author Johnny Townsend restores this tragic event to its proper place in LGBT history and reminds us that the victims of the blaze were not just "statistics," but real people with real lives, families, and friends.
"I was 11 when the fire took place, and I remember being horrified by the pictures in the paper the next morning," Townsend says. "I didn't realize at that early age that the UpStairs was a gay bar, and when I came out years later and learned that fact, I was struck all over again by the horror of it all. I wanted to read more about the fire and discovered there was nothing written, so I decided to do the research myself. A friend led me to the bar owner, Phil Esteve, who led me to the bartender on duty that night, Buddy Rasmussen, and things took off from there."
For his book, Townsend interviewed Esteve (who was not present during the fire), Rasmussen and other survivors. He also "read every article I could find on the fire, plus I read the fire investigation report and the coroner's reports. I remember when I asked for the coroner's report for Rodger Nunez, the main suspect, the librarian gave me only part of it. I asked why there was no cause of death in the report, saying that my information was that he'd committed suicide, and the librarian reluctantly went back to retrieve the rest of the report. He'd been 'editing' it." To learn more about the victims, Townsend "talked to their friends and family, and partners who survived (who may not even have been at the bar that night with them)."
Not all of the literature written about the UpStairs Lounge Fire was accurate or reliable. For example, Rev. Perry's account of the blaze in his 1990 autobiography, "Don't Be Afraid Anymore," is full of inconsistencies and made-up characters. When Townsend asked Perry about it, the preacher "told me to my face that he made most of it up." Though this revelation shocks those of us who otherwise admire Troy Perry, it is indicative of Townsend's determination to discover the truth.
Though the UpStairs Lounge Fire came at the tail end of a year of arson attacks against LGBT institutions - including Rev. Perry's own church in Los Angeles - Townsend notes that police and fire investigators did not find a connection between this fire and other infernos. On the other hand, "several people at the bar that evening told me about Rodger Nunez [a hustler who was kicked out of the bar earlier that evening] and a 'friend' of Rodger's told me he confessed to her. Of course, Rodger was long dead by the time I researched the book, and no prosecution was ever put forward, so he remains the main suspect in a case that will likely never be solved."
Though the loss of 31 gay men (and the straight mother of two of them) was felt by many Crescent City gays - who knew at least one of the victims - it had little impact on their still-closeted community. According to Townsend, the Fire "traumatized them, but it didn't galvanize them in any way that I saw. That claim is made in the bronze plaque put in the sidewalk outside of the bar a few years ago, but I think that is wishful thinking. We want the tragedy to have meant something, to have changed the world for the better in some way, but if any of that happened, it was decades after the fact."
"In the early 1990's, the Louisiana State Museum had an exhibit of 'important fires in New Orleans history,'" Townsend adds, "and this fire was not even mentioned, despite having the largest death toll of any New Orleans fire. It was even then seen as unimportant and was forgotten. I wrote to the museum and pointed out their oversight, and in 1998 they hosted a special panel discussion on the fire at the old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter. I suppose the story shows how 'unimportant' people can be ignored and forgotten, both at the time of the tragedy and for years afterward, but that a few people refusing to forget can force memory on the community."