|By Brandon Rolph -|
|The last Sunday of June holds more gay history in the U.S. than possibly any other day. On the fourth anniversary of Stonewall Riots 32 gay people burned to death by an act of arson at UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. Important but graphic details and images after the jump.|
This Sunday will be the anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire which massacred 32 gay people. The Lounge had just hosted its regular services for the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. In the evening about 60 patrons enjoyed David Gary’s piano playing and discussed the bar’s upcoming MCC fundraiser to help the Crippled Children’s Hospital, Queerty writes:
"At 7:56PM the bartender Buddy Rasmussen heard the downstairs buzzer and asked Luther Boggs to go check the door. Normally cabbies would ring the buzzer to tell people that they had arrived, but when Boggs went to answer the door, he found no cab driver. Instead he found the flames of a molotov cocktail engulfing the wooden staircase and climbing towards the bar.
Rasmussen led about twenty or thirty people out through an unmarked exit behind the bar where they emerged onto the roof and hopped from roof to roof until they found a way down.
But the thirty others remaining in the lounge ran confusedly to the barred windows where they tried to escape. One man managed to squeeze through the fourteen-inch gap between the bars and the sill—he jumped onto the street, his entire body in flames, and died there. The Reverend Bill Larson clung to the bars and slowly melted into the window frame where his charred body stayed visible for hours afterwards.
MCC assistant pastor George 'Mitch' Mitchell escaped but when he realized that his boyfriend Louis Broussard was still in the bar, he went back to save him—workers would later find their charred bodies holding each other among the charred wreckage.
The fire only lasted 16-minutes. It killed 29 people and three more who later died from their burns, including Boggs the man who had answered the door. New Orleans had never seen a larger death toll by fire up to that time nor had the United States seen such a large mass murder of gays and lesbians."
I had never heard this story until today. HuffPost remembered the largely forgotten tragedy in 2008 during Pride season:
"It was almost assuredly the largest mass murder of gays and lesbians to ever occur in the United States.
Yet the city tried mightily to ignore it. Public reaction was grossly out of proportion to what would have happened if the victims were straight. The fire exposed an ugly streak of homophobia and bigotry. It was the first time New Orleans had to openly confront the existence of its own gay community, and the results were not pretty.
Initial news coverage omitted mention that the fire had anything to do with gays, despite the fact that a gay church in a gay bar had been torched. What stories did appear used dehumanizing language to paint the scene, with stories in the States-Item, New Orleans' afternoon paper, describing 'bodies stacked up like pancakes,' and that 'in one corner, workers stood knee deep in bodies...the heat had been so intense, many were cooked together.' Other reports spoke of 'mass charred flesh' and victims who were 'literally cooked.'"
Furthermore, media was extremely unsympathetic and even mocked the victims, HuffPost recounts:
"The press ran quotes from one cab driver who said, 'I hope the fire burned their dress off,' and a local woman who claimed 'the Lord had something to do with this.' The fire disappeared from headlines after the second day.
A joke made the rounds and was repeated by talk radio hosts asking, 'What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.' Official statements by police were similarly offensive. Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department, dismissed the importance of the investigation in an interview with the States-Item. Asked about identifying the victims, he said, 'We don't even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.'
In the days that followed, other churches refused to allow survivors to hold a memorial service for the victims on their premises. Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists all said no.
Even more stunning, some families refused to claim the bodies of their dead sons, too ashamed to admit they might be gay. The city would not release the remains of four unidentified persons for burial by the surviving MCC congregation members. They were dumped in mass graves at Potter's Field, New Orleans' pauper cemetery. No one was ever charged with the crime, and it remains unsolved."
This is a tragic reminder that fighting for our rights is the same as fighting for our lives, and dignity thereafter.