If you have missed the coverage of the Orlando massacre today at the Pulse Night Club, you are living under a rock. But 43 years ago, you would have had to look under a rock to find coverage of the horror that occurred at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans.
This is the only national news coverage of the deadlist fire in the history of New Orleans. This mass muder took place in a gay bar in 1973 so the media outside of New Orleans pretty much ignored the unprecedented loss of life.
No one was ever charged with the crime, but there was a prime suspect. – www.alynepustanio.com
News coverage, both print and television, made every effort to omit the fact that the fire had anything to do with homosexuals in the community, even though a gay bar and members of a gay church congregation had been involved. The stories that appeared included quotes from local citizens that can only be described as ignorant, such as a cab driver who said “I hoped the fire burned their dresses off,” and one woman who opined that “the Lord … cooked them.” Local talk radio hosts were making jokes such as, “What do they bury the ashes of queers in?” The answer: “Fruit jars.”
Statements from the local police and fire chiefs, though less caustic, were equally dismissive, with NOPD chief detective Henry Morris pointing out that identifying the victims would be especially problematic because “thieves hung out there [with these people] … and you know it was a queer bar.”
The story disappeared from television and print news within a few days.
For the victims, there seemed no rest. Churches across the city, churches of all faiths, refused to allow services to be held for the dead, and even forbade memorial prayer meetings in their honor. The rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church agreed to allow a small prayer service on the Monday evening following the event and was promptly rebuked by his bishop. Eventually, a local Unitarian church and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the French Quarter offered sanctuary for those seeking to share their grief and mourn the deaths.
City officials made gargantuan efforts to completely ignore the tragedy; no statements of any kind were ever issued from the City administration. Even more callous and stunning, some families would not even step forward to claim the bodies of their dead sons, so rabid was their fear of being vilified for acknowledging that a child of theirs might have been gay. Several anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for some burials, but the unclaimed, the unwanted, were dumped together in a mass grave in a Potter’s Field on the outskirts of New Orleans, buried alongside criminals, vagrants, and departed pets. – www.alynepustanio.com
For more of this historic incident, I highly recommend going to www.alynepustanio.com and read more about how the city of New Orleans and the public responded. Quite different than today's coverage.
One of our readers, Robert Camina, left a comment below. In case you do not read the comments…
Our documentary, UPSTAIRS INFERNO, recounts the Up Stairs Lounge fire and is told by survivors, families/friends of victims and witnesses. Nearly 43 years to the day, the New Orleans fire was the Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. history. No one ever wanted to pass that moniker on to another event and no one ever wanted to see this type of horror in our community again. Whether the weapon be bullets or arson, this is a nightmarish deja vu.
After spending years with those affected by the fire, our hearts break for the victims of the Orlando massacre and their friends and family. We stand in solidarity with the community, sending our prayers.
As the article points out, the parallels were haunting:
"It shows what can happen through hate. Someone was angry and full of hate and took it out on everybody". – Francis Dufrene, Survivor of Up Stairs Lounge Fire (Largest Gay Mass Murder, 1973-2016) UPSTAIRS INFERNO: https://vimeo.com/94900386
Article and All Photos Copyright © 2010 by Alyne A. Pustanio
Photos From Skylar Fein Exhibit "Remember the UpStairs Lounge" (2008)