Remembering Queer History: The Upstairs Lounge Fire

(Content Note:
This post discusses the two deadliest recorded attacks against the queer community in United States history)

What follows is a raw attempt on my part, with no practice at slam poetry.

44 years

Yesterday marked 44 years since a devastating fire erupted at The Upstairs Lounge, a popular queer gathering spot in New Orleans, Louisiana. This deliberate arson attack caused the deaths of 32 people and was the deadliest attack on the queer community in the United States until the 2016 shooting massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which saw 49 murdered and more than 50 injured. Every time I think about this deeply, massively horrific act of barbarism, I am brought to tears. I am brought to tears because

32 people died.

32 people who loved, hated, and fucked

32 people with stories of heartbreak, joy, sorrow, contentment, apathy, and compassion

32 people who ate,  slept, vacationed, worked, traveled, got drunk, went to church, loved politics, hated politics, and gambled and more

32 people who were siblings and parents, extended family and friends, co-workers and acquaintances, perhaps strangers even

32 people who had hopes and dreams, skills and talents, strengths and weaknesses, character flaws and integrity

32 people were killed.

No. Actually, that’s not right.

32 people were murdered.

Murdered in one of those “god I hope I don’t die this way bc this is unbearable to even imagine” kind of ways. But I can ONLY imagine. They EXPERIENCED it. I truly hope they didn’t suffer and IF they suffered it was for a brief moment. Death by FIRE and STARVED of oxygen and poison SEEPING into your lungs? Is not…is not…is not how one should die.

And when the inferno was out?

And 32 people were dead? Hearts were open. Aid was offered. Condolences were given. Around the world people reached out and shared their candle lit grief. And their solidarity. With the 32 people whose lives were TAKEN in that fearsome. fiery. tragedy. I WISH I could say with ALL of my heart that THAT was what had occurred.

It did not.

I can not and will not. Tell such a tall tale.

There is a tale that I can tell that does not require deceit. And in this deceitless tale that I can tell,

Not 24. Not 12. Not 6. Not 3 hours went by

Before reactions were heard.  Before support was offered. Before commiserations were given. Before outrage was shared. Before the “what can I do”‘s  and “how can I help”‘s were asked.

And not just Orlando. Not just Florida. Not JUST the United States.

There were lit Candles in the Phillipines.

A rainbow bridge in Australia.

Unity placards in England.

Remembrance in Denmark.

Mourning in Switzerland.

Gathering in South Korea.

Homage in France.

Vigils in Berlin.

And on it went. And on it went.

And so it went around the world. Country to country. People to people. The solidarity and vigils and homages and remembrances and candles were a response. A very human response to a horrific tragedy. A very human response to a horrific tragedy that was vastly different than the one that happened 44 years ago yesterday when:

Silence was heard. Silence so loud and so powerful. Like a Silent Sonic Boom went off. So loud and so powerful was this Sonic Boom that the world was engulfed in silence.

Jokes were made that packed a punch. Oppressive punches so powerful they punched down and punched down and punched down until BAM! The Earth’s core. And then continued to punch down some more.

A fearsome fire overtook a bar. Survivors feared the fire and fought the fire and fled the fire and found that they were fired. From their jobs.

****

In the aftermath of the Upstairs Lounge, the reaction of New Orleans officials, church leaders, and civilians in the city was unsympathetic. Jokes were indeed made about some of the people killed. Churches refused to allow memorials. Family members of some of the deceased refused to collect the remains of people who up until they died in that fire, were probably family members they cared for. But for some people, finding out that a member of your family is gay is “::gasp:: HOLY FUCKBALLS! Red is black and blue is sky and and nothing makes sense any longer”. Unlike the response to the Pulse massacre last year–a response that included vigils, commiserations, remembrances, homages, and so much more. And from as far away as South Korea and Australia.

But that was not the case in NOLA. Here, it was as if the city and the religious leaders wanted nothing to do with the case. They wanted it swept under the rug. They cared more about the image of their town than finding the killer (and they never found the person, either). For all that the Upstairs Lounge fire was the deadliest attack on our community until last year, far too many people know nothing of it. They know nothing of this horrific attack or the apathetic-at-best response from the city. In what could symbolize the utter lack of concern about the fire, one of the victims, the Reverend Bill Larson, had attempted to escape, but got stuck in the iron bars around one of the windows. People on the street watched in horror as he burned alive. And the city left his body there for days. Heartless as fuck. The fact that no killer was found (despite one suspect, a gay man who had been kicked out of the bar earlier and apparently threatened retribution; the man took his own life the following year) also points to the lack of care on display by the city.

The Upstairs Lounge fire is part of USAmerican queer history. It was a devastating attack and its aftermath served as a reminder that we were viewed as subhuman deviants for whom care and compassion was in short supply.  In the years since the fire, care and compassion have been found in some cases, and cultivated in other, such that the Pulse attack engendered compassion in people around the globe. Please take a few minutes to read the full details of the Upstairs Lounge fire or familiarize yourself with the names of the deceased as well as the survivors.  We matter.  Contrary to what NOLA officials and church officials said at the time, their lives mattered. Just as our lives matter today. We are part of the narrative of this country. Both in life and in death. We expect society as a whole to recognize that our lives matter and that we deserve liberation and equality. If we expect that in society, should we not also expect that in ourselves?

The Deceased:

  • Joseph Henry (Joe) Adams, 51, comptroller, Sidney Espinache’s lover
  • Reginald Eugene (Reggie) Adams Jr., 24, salesman
  • Guy David Owen Anderson, 41, researcher, visitor from Illinois
  • Joseph William (Bill) Bailey, 29, waiter, Clarence McCloskey’s lover
  • Luther Thomas Boggs, 47, computer programmer, died in hospital
  • Louis Horace Broussard, 26, barber, Mitch Mitchell’s lover
  • Hurbert Dean (Hugh) Cooley, 32, lounge bartender
  • Donald Walter Dunbar, 21, carpet cleaner
  • Adam Roland Fontenot, 32, Buddy Rasmussen’s lover
  • David Stuart Gary, 22, lounge pianist
  • Horace Winslow (Skip) Getchell, 35, freight dispatcher
  • John Thomas Golding Sr., 49, various careers, father
  • Gerald Hoyt Gordon, 37, shipping clerk
  • Glenn Richard (Dick) Green, 32, shipping clerk
  • James Walls (Jim) Hambrick, 45, salesman, died in hospital
  • Kenneth Paul Harrington, 48, federal lab technician
  • Rev. William Ros (Bill) Larson, 47, MCC pastor
  • Ferris Jerome LeBlanc, 50, hair dresser
  • Robert Keith (Bobby) Lumpkin, 29, switchman
  • Leon Richard Maples, 32, auto mechanic, father
  • George Steven (Bud) Matyi, 27, musician
  • Clarence Joseph McCloskey Jr., 48, sales manager, father, Bill Bailey’s lover
  • Duane George (Mitch) Mitchell, 31, salesman, assistant MCC pastor, Horace Broussard’s lover
  • Larry Dean Stratton, 25, died in hospital
  • Eddie Hosea Warren, 24, cook, father
  • James Curtis Warren, 26, carpenter
  • Willie Inez Whatley Warren, 59, unemployed, their mother
  • Dr. Perry Lane Waters Jr., 41, Jefferson Parish dentist whose x-rays identified several victims
  • Douglas Maxwell Williams Jr., 20, truck driver

in addition to three unidentified white males.

Known survivors

  • Theo Ancelet
  • Jessie Baker, 28, beautician
  • Philip Byrd, 40s, hospitalized for injuries
  • J. C. Carrier
  • Courtney Craighead, 30s
  • Richard Robert (Mother) Cross, 29, salesman, Dean Morris’ lover
  • Frank Dean, 34
  • Jimmy Demoll Jr., hospitalized for injuries
  • Francis Dufrene, 21, hospitalized for injuries
  • Roger Dale Dunn, 26, hospitalized for injuries
  • Sidney Espinache, 50, Joe Adams’ lover, hospitalized for injuries
  • Richard Frank (Rick) Everett, 35, computer technician
  • Frank Gaalema, 29, display freelancher
  • Edward B. (Eddie) Gillis, 52, hospitalized for injuries
  • Jean Cory Gosnell, 37, realtor, mother, hospitalized for injuries
  • James Larson
  • Adolph Medina, 32, wig saloon manager, hospitalized for injuries
  • Albert Harold (Uncle Al) Monroe, 68
  • Dean Morris, 37, Rick Cross’ lover
  • Jim Peterson, 31
  • Robert Thomas Price, 19, various jobs
  • Lindy Laurell (Rusty) Quinton, 25, welder, hospitalized for injuries
  • Douglas (Buddy) Rasmussen, 32, bartender
  • Robert (Ronnie) Rosenthal
  • Michael Wayne Scarborough, 27, steel worker, Glenn Green’s lover, hospitalized for injuries
  • Fred Scharohway, 22, Earl Thomas’ lover, hospitalized for injuries
  • Don Sherry
  • Eugene Earl Thomas 42, Fred Scharohway’s lover, hospitalized for injuries
  • I. R. (Bob) Vann, hospitalized for injuries
  • Stephen Whittaker
  • Peter — , bank clerk
  • Harry —

 

 

 

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Remembering Queer History: The Upstairs Lounge Fire

2 thoughts on “Remembering Queer History: The Upstairs Lounge Fire

  1. 1

    Back in 2015, the Northwest Louisiana Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Shreveport screened the documentary “Upstairs Inferno.” This film is about the Upstairs Lounge fire. Here is the link for the trailer:

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