June 24, 1973 – Deadliest Attack on Gays Before 2016 Orlando Massacre

On Sundays, The Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans hosted members of the LGBTQ-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. On this day in history, during a beer party, someone poured lighter fluid on the wooden staircase going up to the lounge and set it ablaze. There were at least 65 people there when the door buzzer went off. It kept ringing, even though no one had ordered a taxi. The bartender sent a regular to check it out. When he opened the door, a fireball burst through as if shot from a flamethrower.

An updraft sucked the fire in, and within seconds the walls were aflame. The fire trapped around half of the patrons, who couldn’t make it to an exit. MCC’s pastor, Reverend Bill Larson, got stuck in a window and burned to death, trapped, with people in the street watching as it happened. Duane Mitchell, the assistant MCC pastor, also died in the fire; 29 people were burned alive inside while three others died after escaping, with a total of 32 dead. Many could be identified only by dental records.

This is a view inside the UpStairs bar following the fire.  Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

This is a view inside the UpStairs bar following the fire. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

No one was ever charged with the arson, even though a man named Rodger Nunez, who had gotten in a fight at the bar earlier, told patrons, “I’m gonna burn y’all out.”

Sam Gebbia, the New Orleans Police Department’s lead investigator, told Time Magazine in 2013, “I’m sure in my heart of hearts this is the guy that set our fire.” Gebbia said he just didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him.” The coroner classified all 32 deaths as “accidental fire fatalities.” Three bodies were never identified.

Rather than a sympathetic response, crass jokes were spread about the tragedy, such as “Where do you bury the ashes?” “In the fruit jar.”

As Time Magazine reported in 2013:

The scale of the tragedy was immense: it remains the deadliest fire ever in New Orleans and is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. And yet it is little discussed, barely acknowledged by the city or seen as a milestone in the gay-rights movement.”

Just months earlier, two less deadly fires in New Orleans received far more attention and statements of condolences from city officials. Following this fire, however, Philip Hannan, the city’s powerful Catholic archbishop, was silent, while public officials limited their statements to calls for improving the city’s fire code. In 2013, however, the Catholic archdiocese apologized for its silence on the fire in a statement to Time:

In retrospect, if [sic] we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via e-mail on June 17, 2013. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”

But today, some politicians in Louisiana are still explicitly anti-gay, like state Rep. Mike Johnson, who sponsored a “Marriage and Conscience Act” in 2015, which would have allowed residents to to discriminate against LGBT people under the guise of “religious freedom.” Prior to his election to Congress, Johnson was a national media spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund, now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, which describes itself as “a non-profit legal defense and advocacy organization dedicated to religious liberty, traditional family values, and the value and sanctity of life.” As of May, 2018, Johnson was still in office.


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