Sunday, 17 November 2013

The UpStairs Lounge Fire

On Sunday 24th June 1973, 28 people died in a fire in a bar in New Orleans, with four more people dying from their burns in the following days. It was quickly established that this was a case of arson.

The Advocate has posted an article about what it calls the 'worst mass killing of LGBT people in US history':
Patrons of the UpStairs Lounge

There are a number of upsetting aspects to this story:
  • Because this happened in a 'queer bar', some of the contemporary reporting was quite hateful - and there was the 'joke' told by a local radio jockey: “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.”
  • Some of the victims had children who waited decades before learning how and why one of their parents died.
  • Four bodies were never identified, no one ever came forward to claim them. They were buried in a pauper's grave.
  • It seems highly likely that the arsonist was a hustler who had been thrown out of the bar shortly before the fire started for aggressive and drunken behaviour. He may or may not have been gay himself, but was well known to the patrons of the bar.
  • Unlike with other, similar events of the time, the local authorities made no attempt to mark the tragedy.
While this may not be very surprising, - we are, after all, talking about the early 1970s at the very beginnings of  the gay rights movement, even in the US - it has taken almost 40 years for the story to become more widely known and acknowledged.

This link is to an online exhibit which "weaves artifacts from the time into a vivid historical account of this tragedy and memorializes those who perished":

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