The Upstairs Lounge Gay Massacre Remembered — And Then Some

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the biggest LGBT massacre in U.S. history. The horrendous fire that tore through the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, also claimed the lives of 32 patrons, including that of Bill Larson, the pastor of the city’s first fledgling gay church.

For me, this photo started my interest in the crime.


That’s Larson. He got stuck in the safety bars on the windows and burned alive while horrified passersby looked on. It’s one of the most indelible news pictures I’ve ever seen. It made me want to learn all there is to know about the crime.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t so simple. There wasn’t nearly as much written about the fire as you might expect considering the brutality of the attack and the large number of victims. Why? In large part because it happened in 1973, when gay people were still widely considered icky at best and god-mocking evildoers at worst. It seems for all the world that the news media, by and large, thought it better to pretend that gays don’t exist; and that journalists and politicians expressed their disapproval through silence. Consider:

The few respectable news organizations that deigned to cover the tragedy made little of the fact that the majority of the victims had been gay, while talk-radio hosts tended to take a jocular or sneering tone: What do we bury them in? Fruit jars, sniggered one, on the air, only a day after the massacre.

Other, smaller disasters resulted in City Hall press conferences, or statements of condolence by the governor; but no civil authorities publicly spoke out about the fire, other than to mumble about needed improvements to the city’s fire code.

Continuing this pattern of neglect, the New Orleans police department appeared lackluster about the investigation (the officers involved denied it). The detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.” No one was ever charged with the crime

That’s from the piece I wrote about the arson for The Friendly Atheist, here.

Point of clarification: the fire may not have been a hate crime, and we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion. The most likely suspect was a frequent visitor to the Upstairs Lounge, a man with mental issues called Rodger Nunez, who may have been gay himself. There’s a persistent rumor that he was asked to leave the bar — and came back to exact a terrible revenge. We’ll never know; Nunez killed himself a year later.

Anyway, I put the topic on my calendar months ago, for publication on June 24, expecting it to draw little interest. I couldn’t see major news media covering it.

Happily, I was wrong. As of today, Google confirms, there’s easily three times the volume of coverage there was a few months ago. Time magazine, this week, has a pretty solid feature piece on the catastrophe. A new documentary film about the Upstairs Lounge, by the movie maker Royd Anderson,  just premiered. A news team at the New Orleans Times-Picayune produced both a written remembrance and a video piece. I was interviewed about my own story yesterday by a Washington DC radio host who has an audience all over the Northeastern U.S.

And … I just learned that my piece drew the highest number of page views I’ve yet garnered in my so-called blogging career — somewhere north of 250,000 (a quarter of a million) hits.

That’s wonderful. The horror of that day, and the stupid prejudice with which the gay victims were treated even in death, deserves to be remembered.