Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Commemorating the 45th Anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire

Filed under: GLBT Social Issues and Civil Rights — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:21

Before same-sex couples could marry, before the AIDS epidemic devastated the gay community, and before American society began to change its perception of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, a devastating act of violence was committed against the LGBT community in New Orleans, LA that lead to the deaths of 32 people. On Gay Pride Weekend, Sunday, June 24th, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a small gay bar in the French Quarter that served as not only a local watering hole for gay men, but a sanctuary where they could be themselves in a world that did nothing but denounce them.

The Upstairs Lounge, was, at the time, one of New Orleans’ only social outlets for its LGBT residents. And on the night of the fire, it was packed with gay men who were members of the New Orleans Chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, who were holding a “Beer Bust” event to raise money for a local children’s hospital. One patron named Roger Dale Nunez, who was known as a trouble maker, started a fight with the bar’s main bartender and manager, Buddy Rasmussen. After Buddy forcefully ejected Nunez from the bar, he threatened revenge by fire, a threat heard by several survivors of the tragedy. Around 20 minutes later, a patron was directed by Buddy to respond to an incessant ringing of the doorbell downstairs. Once the door opened, a backdraft from the engulfed staircase leading up to the lounge shot a massive flame through the bar, instantly setting it ablaze.

31 men and 1 woman (who was at the bar with her two gay sons, who also lost their lives) horrifically burned to their deaths trying to escape from the bar, which had an endless number of draperies, wooden furniture, and other materials that served as accelerants which made that attempt nearly impossible. Although questioned by police and marked as the lead suspect, due to a lack of evidence, Nunez was never formally charged with the crime and would commit suicide shortly thereafter. The local reaction from the police, fire department, and community were deemed despicable to many. “Let the faggots burn” one fireman was heard saying after realizing the fire ladders weren’t long enough to reach the windows to save victims. The local Catholic Archdiocese refused to acknowledge those who perished. Local leaders did everything they could to sweep the incident under the rug as to not harm New Orleans’ precious tourism industry. And radio personalities mocked the incident, saying the dead should be buried in “fruit jars.”

But simultaneously, a community was waking up to their oppression. The violent act triggered many gay men and lesbians to come out and no longer hide their identities, despite the financial and personal consequences such an act could provide in 1973. Out of the ashes rose the New Orleans LGBT Community’s liberation movement, which rippled across the United States and beyond.

Below are some photographs from the Up Stairs Lounge during the tragedy and today. Please take a moment today to say a prayer for the 32 lives lost that horrific night. And remember, the fight for freedom and equality is one that was paved by the souls of many LGBT persons who came before you.



The side exterior of the site of the Upstairs Lounge today. Scars from the fire remain visible under the building’s painted surface.


Compare the first photo to this horrendous photo of the aftermath, which serves only for comparison. One victim, Reverend Bill Larson of the New Orleans parish of the Metropolitan Community Church, can be seen clinging to the middle of the second window in his failed attempt to flee. Larson had just performed a service for the bar’s patrons a few hours before the fire (being gay, the men were otherwise shunned from any of New Orleans’ churches and had to hold their worship services at the Upstairs Lounge).


A shot of the front exterior of the site of the Upstairs Lounge today. Scars from the fire remain visible under the building’s painted surface


The entrance door to the Upstairs Lounge today. Patrons would ring a doorbell for access, which would be granted by the bartender upstairs. On the night of the fire, the arsonist lit the wooden stairs of the stairwell on fire with an accelerant and rang the doorbell incessantly. Thinking it was a taxi driver picking up a patron, the door was opened. The resulting oxygen drift that entered the bar caused an explosion which quickly engulfed the entire bar.


The Upstairs Lounge memorial plaque, which is set in the sidewalk directly in-front of the entrance to what once was the Upstairs Lounge. The names of the victims along with three unidentified males are etched into the plaque.

A great book about the tragedy is Let The Faggots Burn (2011) by Johnny Townsend. The title comes from a fireman who made that shocking quote (above) when a horrified onlooker realized their ladders weren’t long enough to reach the bars’ windows and that they weren’t going to be able bring any of the victims to safety.

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