Remembering the UpStairs Lounge arson

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Photo courtesy of Bettmann Archive
Photo courtesy of Bettmann Archive

Fifty years ago, a targeted arson attack on a Gay bar in New Orleans became the deadliest attack on the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. The Pulse Nightclub shooting surpassed it in 2016. Although the New Orleans tragedy killed 32 people and injuring at least 15 more, few today remember the UpStairs Lounge Fire.

A botched response from the city
At 7:56 pm on June 24, 1973, the UpStairs Lounge erupted in in flames. Located in the New Orleans French Quarter, the bar was seen as a haven by many members of the LGBTQ+ community, who were targeted by law enforcement and persecuted for their sexuality. Survivors of the fire recalled that first responders failed to work diligently, and their personal biases and homophobia were responsible for many of the deaths that night. One survivor reported to historian Johnny Townsend that he heard a fireman say, "Let the faggots burn."

Patrons discovered the fire after an unidentified person rang the building's buzzer. A bartender answered the door only to find that the staircase leading up to the second-floor bar had become engulfed in flames. The bartender later reported having smelled lighter fluid. The fire lasted for 16 minutes.

Photo by Ronnie LeBoeuf / AP  

The response to the fire was abysmal. Reverend Bill Larson's charred body was left in the open, seared to a windowsill, for all the public to see for four hours before responders finally covered it with a white sheet. Larson had been a pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, the first Gay-focused denomination in the US; members of its New Orleans church often socialized in the UpStairs Lounge.

The bodies of a pair of lovers, George "Mitch" Mitchell and Louis Broussard, were also discovered in the aftermath, clutching each other. Survivors recalled that Mitchell initially escaped the blaze but ran back to save his husband. Many in the community felt that the city's response was a gawking excuse to publicly out and shame survivors and the deceased.

Victims face shame, even after death
Many of the victims had been revered community members before their posthumous outings. Eleven of the men were veterans, including Ferris LeBlanc, whose body was thrown into an unmarked grave and buried in a pasture. For 50 years, LeBlanc's family has fought for his body to be exhumed and given a proper military burial.

Most victims were denied burial or ceremonies at their local churches after they perished at the Gay bar. Several of their families even refused to claim their bodies. A local reverend, William P. Richardson, held a prayer service three days after the fire to remember the victims. In return for his act of kindness, he received hundreds of hateful letters from irate homophobes.

Photo by Jack Thornell / AP  

Even though the UpStairs Lounge was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, the city refused to declare a day of mourning or lower it flags. It took two weeks before the city released an official statement. National press coverage of the event was minimal. Only two news networks featured segments on the fire — CBS gave it less than three minutes, while NBC delivered a brief, emotionless statement before launching into a lengthy report on the stock market.

To this day, many of the victims remain unidentified. The arsonist was also never identified. Police had a primary suspect in the case, Roger Dale Nunez, a regular at the bar, but they never made any arrests. In 1980 the case went cold.

Photo by Ronnie LeBoeuf / AP  

Triumph after tragedy
Despite New Orleans' atrocious response to the fire, a hero did emerge. Steward Butler survived the fire and turned his trauma into motivation. He became an activist in Louisiana and successfully passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 1991 that outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In 1998 he successfully expanded it to include discrimination against gender identity.

On June 22, 2022, the City of New Orleans issued an official apology to the victims and their families. "The City Council deems it not only necessary but past due to formally apologize to the victims, survivors, and families affected by the 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire for the way that those who perished were not adequately and publicly mourned as valuable and irreplaceable members of the community," he wrote.

Furthermore, New Orleans City Council member J.P. Morrell initiated a new search for the unmarked grave that holds LeBlanc and the three unidentified victims.

The UpStairs Lounge fire was one of the worst attacks in LGBTQ+ history and serves as a difficult reminder of just how far we've come in 50 years.